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"I Miss the Mountains" as a song of grief
As I become more grounded in the socially marginal aspects of my being, I find myself grieving “normal,” a normal that never fully was. How startling it was to me that when I finally won over my anxious mind that doubted and denied my non-binary identity, I began to wish, painfully, that the truth weren’t so. And how soul-shaking it is to me that the diagnosis that I had — I thought rashly — suspected two years ago, had in a strange way almost hoped was true until I believed it was false, would now be an unmistakable bodymind presence that I sob over, wishing I were not imbued with such fervent warm-cold spirit-winds.
It’s not so much that I want to be normal, as I have always been a quirky neurodivergent person and have never wanted to be normal. I pain at my normal having changed, and I pain at knowing that my road upcoming will be rockier than before. I want my old life back, even just the optimistic last-semester college student of last spring who felt they were soon to soar.
I know that the past is past and I need to face the future, but the only way that I can face my new normal is to grieve the old. One way I have been processing the reality of my mental health condition and the thorns of my grief is through music. In particular, through singing “I Miss the Mountains” from the Broadway musical Next to Normal.
Next to Normal is about a suburban family that tries to live a normal life but can’t no matter how they try. The mother, Diana, has bipolar disorder with psychosis and is experiencing a worsening of her condition. Her husband and sixteen-year-old daughter are frazzled and fatigued by her bizarre behavior and substantial need for care, while her eighteen-year-old son is fiercely loyal to her as her clearly favorited child. There is more to this story though, as her son is not what he seems, and a specter of grief looms ignored in the background of family life. Everyone’s got troubles to process, and the hopeful ending marks the beginning of healing for each person.
Diana sings the song “I Miss the Mountains” after a series of medication experiments concludes with a regimen that leaves her feeling emotionally numb. The doctor has declared her stable, but she is deeply dissatisfied. She envies her daughter, wishing that she could again be “the wild girl run free.” The “mountains” of bipolar mania feel irresistible compared to the “blank and tranquil” days of life medicated and muted. Frustrated, Diana throws away her meds, a decision that soon sends her into mania and crisis.
I fell in love with this song immediately, having discovered it just a week before my own crisis last month would lead me to be hospitalized. When I first sang the song, I still carefully worded my self-disclosures as “I have been diagnosed with bipolar” rather than as I now semi-proudly say, “I am bipolar.” It is so hard to believe that moments of joy, spiritual connection, and bliss could be moments of unwellness. I don’t want to see bipolar as merely illness; I don’t even think it’s possible for me to draw a firm line demarcating well states from unwell states. And as is explored in the musical, psychiatry frequently prescribes its own standards for what is normal or pathological, often without input from the experiencer. Sometimes experiences can just be experiences, uncommon or even singular among people as a whole, but very real and meaningful to the person who lives them. But extreme states do have consequences, often ones that I do not want.
The song, influenced by country music, is full of nostalgia, for carefree youth and exhilarating peaks. The latter may be retrieved through skipping meds and diving into the resulting mania, but the former cannot. It is unclear whether Diana speaks of a youth before or after she became bipolar. I think the ambiguity here is significant. Really, what she is craving is the capacity to climb her mountains and soak in the wind and rain without consequences. And that she no longer has. She is in denial of the consequences; she will not grieve the freedoms her Mad and medicated bodymind has lost.
When I decided to create a video of me singing “I Miss the Mountains,” I wanted to transform the song into a vehicle for processing grief. Instead of throwing away my meds, I am mired in conflict about them, but ultimately I embrace them, painfully and reluctantly, yet knowing that they tend to my survival. The result is a narrative that is more healthy and realistic than Diana’s and feels more true to my own experience.
I sorely wish that I could live the emotional expanses of my being without the danger of collapse. I wish that I didn’t have to worry, whenever I’m in a particularly intense state of connectedness or creative flow, that I might be getting (hypo)manic and out of control. But this is the reality I live with now. And slowly, I’m learning to navigate my new normal.
There was a time when I flew higher,
Was a time the wild girl run free would be me.
Now I see her feel the fire,
Now I know she needs me there to share…
All these blank and tranquil years,
Seems they've dried up all my tears.
And while she runs free and fast,
Seems my wild days are past.
But I miss the mountains,
I miss the dizzy heights,
All the manic magic days
And the dark depressing nights.
I miss the mountains,
I miss the highs and lows,
All the climbing, all the falling,
All the while the wild wind blows,
Stinging you with snow
And soaking you with rain.
I miss the mountains,
I miss the pain.
Mountains make you crazy,
Here it's safe and sound.
My mind is somewhere hazy,
My feet are on the ground.
Everything is balanced here
And on an even keel,
Everything is perfect,
And I miss the mountains,
I, I miss the lonely climb,
Wandering through the wilderness
And spending all my time
Where the air is clear
And cuts you like a knife.
I miss the mountains,
I, I miss the mountains,
I miss my life,
I miss my life.