One of the most important aspects of this year for me has been learning to look back as a way to understand myself better, and to look forwards and outwards to understand and help others better.
Right now I'm looking at a design I created and re-created in different ways over the past 3 years.
This 'Step Into The Sun' open window was first drawn in the summer of 2017 when I lived alone in New York City. At the time, Dear Evan Hansen had just won the Tony award for best musical, and as I walked the long stretch of Broadway every day, the show's notes and lyrics seemed very present.
In the fall of 2016, I had made a rather monumental decision – though it maybe wasn't even so much of a decision, as the recognition of a desperate need -- but, whatever the cause, I was finally compelled to push myself to share with others and be more open. After those few months of consistently working to let out the truth, I felt I was pretty familiar with the process. I also felt very familiar with not feeling heard. In Dear Evan Hansen, the character Evan goes through a similar process. In the song ''Waving Through a Window'', he feels isolated and trapped-in. He struggles to find the words and the friends that he needs, and he wants to ''step out of the sun'', give up, and run. I've written quite a lot about times I've felt similarly. Times when words were an overwhelming challenge for me.
Reaching out had already changed my entire life, and I highly valued what I’d come to learn – that when we open the window, we can wave with people instead of at them. This was what filled my mind as I created the original “Step Into The Sun” design on a screenprint– a process where exposure to intense light and heart creates a permanent impression. Walking through the city with this imprint helped keep me in the right direction, and feeling a little less lost.
The sharing process had saved my life, though it was also a frequent source of frustration. Talk surrounding mental illness can seem like a whole new form of communication, and as I struggled to feel heard, listening to ''You Will Be Found'' brought up conflicting feelings. This is an uplifting song in which Evan breaks free from his insecurity to voice the importance of reaching out. The instant he does, everyone listens... and 'everyone' in a very viral sense. He's heard. When I heard this song, I couldn’t help but think of how, in my process of breaking through personal barriers, I still felt that not many people were interested in listening. I know now that this is a common source of struggle. After asking for help, many people feel even more invisible if friends don’t know how to help and instead distance themselves. This is a reason I care so much about the work done by the Be There initiative and Jack.org. Since all of us need mental health support sometimes, we also will all have the opportunity to be there as a support for our friends. Doing that is an incredibly hard job, and it’s wonderful to know these organisations are working to make resources available to help us help each other.
Back in 2017, I understood that before Evan’s words go viral, he also feels ignored. Earlier in the show, in ''Waving Through the Window'', Evan feels he has already been ''tapping on the glass'', trying to be heard. But at that time, I couldn't quite decipher what it was that had changed his early, unsuccessful efforts to the ones later on that received an outpouring of support and recognition. The recognition took me a long time.
The following summer, in 2018, I had settled myself into a community where I felt safe and accepted. I recreated the original screenprint as a small embroidered logo. By that point, my need to feel confident in reaching out was sewn stubbornly into my heart. A lot of my ability to find hope relied on being able to tell myself to share openly whenever I needed to. For me, the experience of still not feeling heard, despite sharing and asking for help, became a part of gaining confidence. I had to use the lack of response from others as part of the lesson that I needed to trust myself. I had to learn to keep strong and fuel my own confidence by reassuring myself it's okay to ''lead with the 'worst' of me'' and ''Step Into The Sun''. The need to stitch in this design was driven by a bursting force -- I had to remind myself daily that being free and open in my own identity was a worthy pursuit. By this time, the songs and messages of Dear Evan Hansen felt friendly and familiar, and not so much of a challenge, but not yet something I felt I'd mastered myself. It was as if the message to reach out was a friend I was proud of and was happy to support, but whose talents and success were distant to me.
This year, as I continue this ongoing and consistent commitment to sharing and reaching out, I've learnt a lot about reaching in. There are still many moments when I don't feel heard, but when the window feels closed, I've learnt that, instead of feeling fearful and claustrophobic from being locked in, I can learn an awful lot from the one thing between me and the freedom on the other side of the pane of glass. As I looked more at my own history, as I listened more to what I need, and as I had the chance to ''feel my heart saying hi'' when I had the chance to play ‘Small Alison’ in Fun Home, I realized I was waving instead to my own reflection, and acknowledging the image that the barrier of the window provided.
In 2017, I was desperate to be heard and understood from the outside, in. It took what I learned in these last two years for me see that waving recognition can begin from the inside, out. Now, I feel a bit better equipped to understand why, early in the show, in ''Waving Through the Window'', Evan's first attempts to feel heard and seen are met with a response he finds inadequate. He first has to listen to and care about himself. He doesn't do this by himself, he finds a version of family to learn from. Alongside my growing understand of looking in, I am developing a better understanding of what reaching out really is. In the same way that ''You Will Be Found'' used to make me feel frustrated, I also felt betrayed by the attention ''self-care'' was getting. As someone who still feels frightened by the idea of loneliness, the advice to go and practice 'self care' didn't seem very helpful. This seems contradictory, seeing that I found value in reflection and looking in, but the answers came when I could understand the necessary counterpart to self-care, which is ''community-care''. This concept is growing around us, and is now even prescribed by doctors as a source of healing. This idea makes a lot more sense to me, as it includes the fact that, to care about ourselves, we also have to feel cared for by friends and family. To understand how to be seen and heard, we also have to see and hear others.
Now, in 2019, I feel a bit better prepared to see the difference in the ways Evan is reaching out. He feels free when he realises that the understanding he has gained about his own emotions and experiences can allow him to help others. To ''Step into the Sun'' takes a commitment to valuing ourselves in a way that fully includes our past -- good and bad. When we look in, to reach out, the reflection we see allows us to genuinely share in a way that helps others with mutual openness that everyone needs. As I look at the newest version of my design, now available at Mirvish’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, and online at The Broadway Merchandise Shop, there’s no denying that this crisper version of my design, supported by the production team, feels seen. I now have help in getting my design out there, and also, I get to help through the money raised by its distribution. The sales of the tote contribute to Be There, jack.org, and Kids Help Phone -- incredibly worthy organisations working to help us all better understand how to help ourselves and help each other.