a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
As the theater lights fade, the audience quiets and cast members begin walking across the stage. They hurry in random directions, sporadically entering and exiting the stage. The music grows louder, and projections of social media apps flash across the set. But the silence, which comes suddenly, shocks the audience even more. Evan Hansen snaps open his laptop, and its screen illuminates his face so the audience can see his hesitation as he leans forward to type. “Dear Evan Hansen: today is going to be an amazing day and here’s why. Because all you have to do is just be yourself,” he writes. There’s a pause, and the theater sits still for a moment. Resuming abruptly, Evan says, “But also confident. That’s important. And interesting. Easy to talk to. Approachable. But mostly yourself. That’s the big, the number one.”
The audience always laughs after that pause, at that moment where Evan falls into self-criticism. The contrast between “being yourself” and being who you aspire to seem incompatible. This line might have been written to be comedic, but I found it to be applicable to my life. It took several years before I noticed the distinction between how I viewed myself and how others view me, and I haven’t been able to ignore it since. I vividly remember that summer day I was walking up Carroll street with my mom, my hand in hers, talking about what to make for dinner. I was around five, so I had to lift by head quite a bit to study my mother’s face. I had seen her brown hair, cut beneath her chin, and wide smile almost every day of my life, but then it suddenly all seemed so unfamiliar. I would never truly know her, to know what it’s like to live in her body, to be Kristin. That thought sat uncomfortably with me for years, slowly developing into the realization that I will never know how those around me see me.
I now describe myself as someone that is naturally shy, but if you asked me when I was three, I probably wouldn’t have said the same. I was diagnosed with selective mutism when I was two, and rarely spoke to teachers and classmates. But even when I was staring up at my Pre-K teacher, who tried desperately to make small talk with me, I didn’t mark that as an awkward conversation. Words simply didn’t come to mind, and I was okay with that. Even when I was brought to a therapist, I thought I was there just to play board games. My favorite game was Trouble, where we would sit on the floor together, taking turns to move our pegs across the board. I loved the plastic bubble in the middle of the board, which I would press down to toss the die. The die would jump around, hitting the plastic, making satisfying sounds. The questions my therapist asked me while we played seemed insignificant, not warranting more than a nod or a shake of my head. But years went by, and each year my teacher would encourage me to speak more. It became clearer and clearer that my natural way of being was a problem, and that I needed to change. Adjectives such as “shy” and “quiet” were prescribed to me by others, and I accepted those categorizations.
But I liked living in my own head; by keeping to myself I could focus on learning, growing close to a select group of friends, and follow my passions. I wasn’t preoccupied with creating an image for myself that others would be drawn to and love. The participation marks on my report cards bothered me, but I was content with everything else so I didn’t mull over them for long. Back then, I was whoever I dreamed myself to be. In elementary school, I pictured myself to be one of the ballerinas I saw in magazines. In middle school, I was bound to be a doctor. On some level I knew I was painting unrealistic images of myself, but I believed I could grow into whomever I aspired to be.
When I began high school, however, I couldn’t ignore my second self. I dragged the person everyone saw me as along with me wherever I went, unable to let it go. I would find myself paralyzed at Harkness tables, not wanting to speak in case my words would build a bad reputation for me. I dreamed of the day these discussions would seem harmonious, where conversation would bounce seamlessly from person to person. My two selves were contradictory, and I tried desperately to get them to mesh. I always had a concrete understanding of myself, but as I became less and less sure of how others thought of me, my self assurance dwindled. When a class’s fifty minutes were almost up, I attempted to cram one point into the discussion. I would learn forward, my hands fidgeting with a pencil, count down from three in my head, and then blurt out whatever I had been trying to say for the entire class. I usually stutter and fumble my words, which makes my cheeks hot. I glance around the table for reactions, trying to interpret subtle movements. I have to put my pencil down at that point; I don’t want anybody to notice I’m shaking. I replay my comment over and over again, picking apart my words and my awkward phrasing. Was that a smart thing to say? Did my point make sense?
I analyzed each miniscule part of my day, trying to grasp what was going on in the minds of everyone around me. When someone debated my point in class, I felt stupid. That ate away at my preconceived notion of myself. I doubted my skills, my friendships, my value. With a diminishing sense of self and an inability to understand myself through others, I was left with just fear. In an attempt to find my way out of this spiral, I stayed after class to talk to my history teacher. I had rehearsed the words several times already, but I still took a moment to gather the confidence to ask her how I could improve.
“Well, you could speak more,” she started. I had expected that, so I nodded my head and waited for more. But then: she said the quality of my points were fine. Good, in fact. I didn’t know what to do with that, and my face showed it. I did my best to wipe away the tears as quickly as they fell, but it didn’t help much. I spent days ruminating over the comments I made in class, they even kept me up at night. But if I were doing fine, then I was completely incapable of grasping reality. I could no longer answer questions such as “What do you like about yourself?” or “How would your friends describe you?” I ran through a list of positive descriptive words: hard-working, loyal, passionate, kind. Was I any of those things? Would anyone else use those words to characterize me? I didn’t know. I was paralyzed, unable to differentiate fact from fiction.
I believe Evan Hansen felt this way, too. Except he found a way to momentarily take advantage of this. After a series of miscommunications, he has the opportunity to reinvent himself. When he builds up the courage to approach Connor, the notoriously anti-social kid in school, he asks him to sign his cast. Connor initially dismisses Evan, but he is eventually persuaded by his kind-hearted younger sister to apologize. In big, black letters, he writes CONNOR across the cast, which was previously blank. When Connor commits suicide a couple days later, Evan’s misleading cast makes him appear to have been Connor’s best friend. This gives him popularity and friendship from Connor’s family, which was the support and love he had been craving. He plays the role everyone around him created for him, but he lives with the knowledge of who he truly is. Evan’s cast remains on his arm throughout the play, serving as an unavoidable marker of both reality and the fake life Evan is living. Although I don’t live a double life, I can relate to the feeling of having two conflicting worlds. One is always more appealing to live in, but the other can’t be ignored.
At the end of the musical, Evan sings, “This was just a sad invention/ It wasn’t real, I know/ But we were happy/ I guess I couldn’t let that go.../ ’Cause if I just believe/ Then I don’t have to see what’s really there/ No, I’d rather/ Pretend I’m something better than these broken parts.../I never let them see the worst of me.” (1) This shows Evan going through the same struggle of living with two selves, but his are more distinct. Throughout the show, Connor comes back to talk to Evan, showing how Connor’s presence is always with him. Connor is even the one to get Evan to admit how he actually broke his arm. Evan always claimed he fell from an apple tree, but Connor asks, “Did you fall? Or did you let go?” (2) Even in his subconscious, Evan is pulled back to face reality. There’s a silence, giving the audience time to let this sink it, before Connor says, “You can get rid of me whenever you want... But then all that you’re going to be left with is... you.” (3) Evan finds stability in letting those around him create a fake persona for him, since he feels both hatred and fear towards who he really is. I, on the other hand, find others’ perceptions of me terrifying and unreliable. But in both scenarios, there is a struggle between who you are and who you want to be. By the finale, Evan has been stripped down to his “true” self. He has a clear line between the real and the fake, a line I am trying to draw.
1 Levenson, Steven, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul. "Dear Evan Hansen Transcript." Editorial. http://online.fliphtml5.com/mrak/vvlb/#p=6.
* = Editors' Choice work
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