Does Anybody Have a Map? An Open Conversation About Anxiety
This past summer, after I had completed my 200,000th listen to Hamilton, I felt it was the right time to dive into Dear Evan Hansen, which stars the amazing Ben Platt. I knew and loved Platt from his work as the awkward magician roommate in Pitch Perfect. Dear Evan Hansen begins with a light, uneventful guitar riff and a conversation between a mother and her anxiety-riddled high school senior. She asks him if he’s been following the sage advice of, I would presume, a therapist which encourages writing letters to yourself at the beginning of each day: “Dear Evan Hansen, this is going to be a good day, and here’s why…” As the song continues, the plot unfolds as two mothers try desperately to connect with their anxious, rebellious kids while singing in beautiful, overlapping overtures: does anybody have a map?
This isn't a musical review, but the story of Dear Evan Hansen is fantastic and deeply emotional. Evan, Platt’s character, is riddled with social anxiety, so desperate for companionship that he is willing to lie about being friends with a student who has committed suicide. All of this emotion and vulnerability comes through clearly even in the score.
Despite how clearly incredible the soundtrack was, I found it really difficult to listen to it for the first couple of weeks and even had to stop on occasion because it hit a little too close to home.
This summer, while living in St. Louis and working for Boeing, I experienced my first real dealings with anxiety. You wouldn’t have known it from looking at my Instagram or Twitter feed, and you wouldn’t have noticed if we spent some time together on a weekend. But it was there. The symptoms were various, but mainly included panic attacks, which is when your heart begins to race and you feel like you’re having a heart attack and you’re going to die. These would prevent me from sleep and create even more anxiety around going to sleep at night. My left arm would go numb in the middle of the night. My mind would race, so many questions plaguing me, seemingly all at once. Before I knew what it all was, I spent so much time wondering what was wrong with me, if I couldn’t handle my new job, if I had made poor life decisions. I wondered why I had never dealt with these things before, which of course made it worse. Does anybody have a map?
Looking back on that difficult season, I’ve learned a lot about myself and have really come a long way. I’ll say up front that my anxiety isn’t completely gone; it’s not something I consider as a past experience, something I don’t deal with at all today. However, it’s something that has gotten a lot better over the past few months. Having my wife Kendahl there with me every day, supporting, encouraging, and praying for me, is something that cuts across each category in this list and transcends description. There are three things, in addition to that, that helped me uncover a map and provided a lot of help as well.
There was something about naming it that provided a spark for me. A Saturday morning conversation with my parents, where I finally let tears flow and opened up about what was happening, revealed that anxiety runs in my family and gave a name to what was happening in my head. Even if you can’t fix or solve something, knowing what it is provides a peace and the beginning of a healing process, the importance of which can’t be put into words.
Another core element of healing for me during this time was mindfulness. Mindfulness is a form of meditation focused on being fully present in the moment, attending to what is happening around you, being physically aware of your body and what is happening in your head. The concept, so painfully simple, has shown to be groundbreaking in terms of managing things like anxiety and stress. Research on the subject continues to grow, and has already shown that mindfulness can be as powerful as medication in decreasing stress, depression, and anxiety. A colleague of mine at Boeing, who has been working for years to get mindfulness implemented in Boeing’s leadership development programs, made huge strides this summer and I was fortunate enough to hear her tell her own story and introduce the concept to busy, high-powered executives who ate it up like it was a meal from expensive restaurants they probably go to. I downloaded an app on my phone called Headspace, which provides 10-minute mindfulness sessions on a variety of subjects including anxiety, depression, and sleep. You can get the basic version for free, but I paid $100 for an annual membership. It was the best money I spent this year.
Throughout the summer I had conversations with my friend Mike, a classmate of mine at Michigan State. Mike and I are similar in that we often find ourselves in the middle of big groups, our extraversion and love of the spotlight providing energy for us. We both were really involved in our undergrad years and both took on leadership positions in our Master’s program. We’re both positive and unapologetically optimistic. Mike and I both had really tough summers adjusting to the corporate world, new cities, and ambiguous job responsibilities and were open with each other about it. These conversations have continued into this fall, our last year of school, as Mike himself has dealt with his own anxiety issues and has had the courage to name them to me. Just this past week, Mike and I sat down for a drink and had a long talk about holistic healing, about how we’re coping, leaning into faith, taking steps back, learning to say no, and how thankful we are that this is preparing us for our future lives, how it’s giving us empathy for the people we will support and serve in our careers. Mike mentioned other friends who had confided in him about their own struggles, a comment that immediately made me want to write this piece. For me, knowing that I’m not alone in this has provided some real healing. If this is something that you deal with, you need to know that you’re not alone either.
In Dear Evan Hansen, the closing song to the first act is called You Will Be Found. The song is amazing, if a bit cheesy, because of the unabashed hope it declares. Towards the end of the song, after the chorus has come in, all the voices cut out and a couple voices can be heard softly singing those four scandalous, transcendent words: You are not alone.
You are not alone. It’s a daring truth to latch onto, especially during times of deep pain, disappointment, and anxiety. But when it’s understood, it becomes a beautiful and life-altering truth.
When the show was running initial performances in Washington D.C., young audience members would come up to Platt after the show, thanking him for telling their story, for putting a name to something they’d experienced, to see that Evan was a character who was “a human person who’s not perfect and not flawless but that everyone can love and understand and see themselves in.”
May you find your map and know that you, too, are not alone.