‘Far From Normal’ takes on mental illness

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Mental illness is often misunderstood, misrepresented and feared which makes it all the more crucial to be educated on the reality of these illnesses. The student-written and directed play, “Far from Normal,” aims to educate its audience on the separation of mental illness from the people that it affects.

Jesús Martínez, a junior at North Central double majoring in psychology and theater with a minor in wellness, debuted, “Far from Normal,” on Jan. 26. The play is focused on a character named Jesus, which was played by sophomore, Alexander Poe. Jesus suffers from depression, self-harm and an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). “Far From Normal” shows his journey through the non-linear road to recovery.

The story follows Jesus as he battles with these disorders both literally and metaphorically. Rather than just verbalizing the effects of mental illness in the story, Martínez chose to show the disorders in a physical way. Jesus’ EDNOS was personified as a baseball cap-clad manipulative character named Ed, who was played by junior Reagan Tierney, and his emotions were physicalized by actors dressed in all black.

This not only showed the audience how Jesus was feeling throughout the story, but it reinforced the fact that mental illness is not who a person is: it is something they are dealing with. The idea that a person is separate from their illness is not always met with understanding, however.

Mental illness is stigmatized to the point where people struggle to accept or even acknowledge it as a genuine problem. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health show that the majority of the public doesn’t understand mental illness.
Patrick W. Corrigan and Deepa Rao’s “On the Self-Stigma of Mental Illness: Stages, Disclosure, and Strategies for Change” found that people view the mentally ill as “dangerous, unpredictable, flawed, or possessing a weakness of character.”

This stigma results in people who suffer from mental illness to view themselves the same way—self-stigma — which leads to a “diminished self-concept.”

Works of art like “Far from Normal” succeed in humanizing mental illness and erasing the stigma surrounding them because, as we sometimes forget, mental illness is much more common than people realize.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health “Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. — 43.8 million, or 18.5 percent — experiences mental illness in a given year.” Nearly 20 percent of adults in the U.S. deal with mental illness, yet most people do not have a comprehensive understanding of how mentally ill people cope.

As with most things people do not understand, the worst is to be assumed — especially when the only time the media talks about mental illness is when it’s related to crime.

Martínez did not only set out to tell a story about the struggles of having a mental illness and how difficult recovery can be, he ensured that the audience was being educated as well.

At the beginning of the play, a survey was given out to the audience. The questions varied in nature, asking if you knew anyone who dealt with mental illness, to more thought-provoking questions about self-harm, will power and whether or not you would be friends with or date someone who had a mental illness.

By doing this, Martínez created an interactive program that captures the essence of mental illness while challenging the way people view these disorders. With heavy topics like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, body image, language barriers, recovery, relapses and so on, the story covers issues that affect more people than we realize.

Being educated on mental illness is the first step in understanding how people live and cope with these disorders, and “Far from Normal” shows that people living with mental illness are just like everyone else.

INTERVIEW WITH THE DIRECTOR

The following was taken from an interview with Jesús Martínez (‘18), a psychology and theater
double major, with a wellness minor, from Aurora, Ill.

How long have you been involved in theater?
I’ve been involved since I was in fourth grade. From elementary to high school, I had always been involved as an actor, both in musicals and in plays. When I came to North Central College in 2014, I decided to change my focus from acting to directing, dramaturgy and playwrighting.

What was it like writing and directing your own play?
It’s been a great learning experience. I had been writing “Far from Normal” since my junior year of high school (late 2012). Originally, I had no intention of staging it. It was meant to be a private side-project that I would work on when I wanted to take a break from homework. Being given the opportunity to present this show as part of NCC’s Student-Directed Series alongside my peers has helped me grow as a theatrical artist.

Who or what inspired you to tell this story?
In high school, I watched my friends be harassed and stigmatized against while they battled their mental illnesses. Classmates, strangers and even some of the school faculty would make stigmatizing comments towards them, calling them “freaks,” “attention seekers,” as well as expecting them to just “get over” their issues and continue with school. I wrote this story in honor of those friends that I’ve met over the years, as well as those who have or are still battling mental illness. My hope for the show is that it will help those with no background in the reality of these disorders gain a better sense of understanding and empathy that people like my friends have faced or continue to face daily.

How did it feel to see your creation brought to life on the stage?
It was such a surreal experience. To see these character’s and this story that has been in the making for nearly five years now come to life, on stage, has been an enjoyable experience. My cast, crew and production team have all been amazing and I’m so proud of each and every one of them for bringing “Far from Normal” to life the way that they have.

Do you have any plans to write and/or direct another play?
I’ve got ideas for four different stories that I’m working out. I’m very much interested in focusing each of my works on the human experience and social change. As far as directing goes, I have no set plans to direct anything as of now, but it is a position that I am very much interested in pursuing again. For now, I’m focusing on my writing.

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