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“Next to Normal” tackles bipolar disorder unconventionally, through the power of a rock musical.
One of the audience members, Karl Shallowhorn, said the performance captured the realities of living with the disorder while also connecting with the crowd.
“It really makes it accessible – I think that’s one word I would use,” said Shallowhorn, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1981. “And it brings it to life, because of course you can tell a sumptuous story through music that you can’t do otherwise.”
After the Irish Classical Theatre Co. finished its last performance of “Next to Normal” on Sunday afternoon and the house lights came up, Shallowhorn spoke to audience members about a disorder that affects an estimated 5.7 million American adults.
Shallowhorn said he identified emotionally with the musical, an unflinching look at a suburban mother’s painful experience with bipolar disorder and the anguish she and her family members endure. It won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama and played 733 regular performances on Broadway.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines bipolar disorder as a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.
Shallowhorn shared with the audience his own journey, marked by suicidal thoughts while at college, to overcoming drug addiction and achieving stability in his life. He now works as a senior counselor for Horizon Health Services and wrote a book on mental health.
“When I say I live with bipolar disorder, I don’t say, ‘I struggle with it,’ I don’t say, ‘I am bipolar’ – I say, ‘I live with bipolar,’ ” he said. “What I mean by that is, I live with the symptoms, I learned to manage my illness, and I learned what works for me.”
He credits finding the right mix of medicine, a regular sleep pattern, exercise to lift his mood and strong family support.
And Shallowhorn named one method that has helped him stay on a steady path away from drug addiction: faithfully attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which he said he has been going to for nearly 25 years.
“I have not strayed since,” he said to applause from the audience.
Fortunato Pezzimenti, the director of “Next to Normal,” said the musical frequently touched audience members during its run in Buffalo, which began last month.
“I’ve had people come up to me after the show in tears, and just opened up their hearts to tell a story,” Pezzimenti said.
The production “caught fire” with ticket buyers as the show’s run continued, he said.
“This last week, we were packing them in, because, I think, of the word of mouth. It really traveled quickly.”
Shallowhorn offered a message of hope based on his experiences as a counselor.
“Recovery is possible for every individual,” he said. “Maybe only in small degrees, maybe only in small amounts. But I’ve always realized that every person has the potential to go forward in their recovery.”
And he is hopeful a production like “Next to Normal” can challenge any stigma associated with mental illness and let people know that “there is no such thing as normal. Normal is a setting on our dryer. We all know people who are living with mental illness.”

email: mglynn@buffnews.com