When You Feel It's Too Dark to See: Lessons Learned from Three Years of Writing a New Musical About Anxiety and Depression

The first email popped into our inbox late one night. If we are being honest, we didn't expect to receive any responses at all to our blog post calling for stories. After all, we were asking strangers to share intimate details of their struggles with mental illness—specifically anxiety and depression—in a world that still holds a firm grip on stigma towards those who suffer. We had no idea, really, what we were going to do with these stories. We are not doctors. We are not psychiatrists. We are musical theatre writers. The trajectory of this journey had not yet revealed itself: this was the very definition of a shot in the proverbial dark. But the light of "New Message" in our inbox that night blasted open the door of what would become our musical THE ANXIETY PROJECT.

That first email was intimate, personal, didactic, heartbreaking, thorough, and deeply revealing. We felt a bit guilty that we knew that much about a stranger, as though we'd peered in on someone's private life uninvited. But we had been invited, right? The story, together with many that followed, included tales of depression, abuse, self-harm, suicide, addiction, familial breakdown, marriage and divorce, sickness and health, rock bottoms and mountaintop climbs. They ran the gamut of emotional spectrums, but they were all linked by the indelible truth that strangers had shared their stories for one reason only: because they were asked. We said "tell us your story," and the dam had broken. The dam that held back a deluge of weight that desperately needed relief. That revelation—that people need to share their stories—marked the beginning of our first musical together. It should've been obvious, yes? After all, musical theatre is nothing if not a storytelling craft, and the brave yet private nature of these stories compelled us to action. We were no longer solicitors of stories, but harbingers. And as such, we immediately were indebted to these strangers. We owed them a voice. THE ANXIETY PROJECT became that vehicle.

Struggles with anxiety and depression are all too real and all too common. At their worst, they can be life-threatening. The process of writing the piece became a kind of therapy for us—a way for us to learn lessons from those who had been to hell and back. Among many things, here is what we have learned:

  1. Anxiety and depression ARE illnesses. And as such, they need to be addressed, treated, and communicated.
  2. The very symptoms of the disorder (particularly hopelessness) are why most who suffer never seek help. Why seek help for something that seems hopeless, right? This is why it can be so dangerous.
  3. The most important thing people can do for those in their life who are suffering is ask, "Are you okay?" And then ask again, "Are you really okay?" The second time is key. Being seen and heard is the goal, not being fixed.
  4. The darkness of anxiety and depression is the terror. Lonely, abandoned terror. Fear is the enemy of our brains under normal circumstances. Under the shadow of these disorders, that enemy multiplies, complicates, and spirals. 
  5. The stigma surrounding mental health in general is reductive and ignorant at best and dangerously epidemic at worst.
  6. Art heals. Art activates. Art incites. Art asks. Art demands. Our hope is that our musical lives up to these high standards to which we hold our very precious art form.
  7. These are not issues reserved only for doctors and clinicians. We all have a responsibility to reach out and speak for those who feel voiceless.

We hope the musical theatre community (including the online one) is a place where you can feel seen and heard and know that you are far from alone. We hope, too, that as a community, we can be the changemakers and trendsetters that bring an end to the stigma of mental illness in the world at large and that we are propelling forward to the day when everyone feels seen and heard and no one feels alone. 


Depression and anxiety are not illnesses to ignore. If you or someone you love is struggling with either or both, please contact your local healthcare resources. There is never any shame in getting the help you need. For immediate assistance call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK or visit their website at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org.


About the authors:
Rachel Dean (music) and David Brush (book/lyrics) are creators of new musicals including THE ANXIETY PROJECT and AMELIA. THE ANXIETY PROJECT has been or is being developed through Queen City Queer Theatre Collective, New York Film Academy, Phoenix Theatre, Rubber City Theatre, Gotta2 Productions (Tokyo), and Arizona State University. More information can be found at www.deanandbrush.com and their songs are available at www.newmusicaltheatre.com.