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When the Music Stops: An Actor on What She Learned About Self-Worth After a Year Without Applause

7 minute read
Susanna Schrobsdorff writes the It’s Not Just You newsletter on Substack

A version of this article also appeared in the It’s Not Just You newsletter. Sign up here to receive a new edition every Sunday. This week, we have a special Mental Health Awareness Month edition of It’s Not Just You which includes this guest essay from Ciara Alyse Harris, one of the stars of the hit musical, Dear Evan Hansen. And you can read my piece on why we need a moonshot for depression treatments here. And, you can write to me at: Susanna@time.com


By Ciara Alyse Harris

For as long as I can remember, my life has been about telling stories. Starting with playing Barbie dolls at the late age of ten when I’d give them intricate plotlines that I was far too young to understand, my favorite thing in the world was to create a universe of characters.

As I grew up, this storytelling found its way into singing pop songs, then musical theatre, and right out of college I was lucky enough to be cast in the first national tour of the hit Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen, where I could finally get paid for all of that talking.

Last Spring, after more than a year of traveling and performing the show eight times a week across the country, our cast and crew came to an abrupt stop along with the rest of the world. In a matter of hours. We all packed our things and went to our respective homes, and tried to make sense of not only the world but of ourselves. If we couldn’t do the thing we were always supposed to be doing, were we still of value?

My first thought was “I have to create!” So many of us artists got on the self-improvement wheel and started posting cover songs, poems, dance videos, and artwork online to evoke almost as if to reassure ourselves and others that we were ok. We hoped that by the end of this at-home period we’d be able able to say that so much good came out of it because we were able to stay active (or working) and take the time to work on projects we always wanted to finish.

Dear Evan Hansen Ciara Alyse Harris Mental Health
Ciara Alyse Harris between performances of the hit musical, Dear Evan HansenPhotograph courtesy of Ciara Alyse Harris

And it’s not just actors. Our whole culture glamorizes the grind, the hard work so when something like a global pandemic comes along and we are left with nothing but our unemployed selves and the distorted world of social media, it is easy to feel like we are inadequate.

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In Dear Evan Hansen, my character Alana operates from a place of wanting to be seen. As a high school student in a community reeling from the suicide of one of their peers, her desire to fit in ultimately influences all of her actions. And for me, as a performer and a Black woman growing up in predominately white spaces, I always felt the urge to prove my worth. Clearly, I looked different and if I was going to stand out then I needed to stand out for all the right reasons.

Like Alana, I felt that I had to be the overachiever so that I never felt overlooked or forgotten. Hence, I didn’t see rest as a real option at the start of the pandemic. Taking care of myself stayed in the backseat while the need to be productive was driving the car.

But as the weeks of staying home wore on, the expectations I had for myself were turning me into someone who could not identify her worth without validation from others. I was completely burned out by the constant need to prove myself beyond the color of my skin. I knew I had to stop, to take some time to do some internal reflection, and figure out what it really was that I loved about myself regardless of what I felt others thought about me.

See the creators of Dear Evan Hansen discuss the youth mental health crisis at a special TIME roundtable.

Then came the on-camera murder of George Floyd and its emotionally wrenching aftermath during the summer of 2020. I could feel the weight of the world on my heart. I was inspired to see Black people across the nation fighting relentlessly to have a voice. But the way the nation was divided on what it meant to say Black Lives Matter, on top of the anxiety that the presidential election fostered in us was almost unbearable to experience while quarantined.

I wanted to find some way to help people find their own light in a dark time. So I decided to create a podcast called Queen Made of Light, to bring attention to self-love and mental health. I believe in using my social media powers for good by telling my story and letting people know they are not alone.

My hope is that by unpacking limiting beliefs about our worth we can get to the freeing conclusion that we are perfectly enough exactly as we are. No amount of success, or friendship, or money will prove your worth more than the way that you feel about yourself. And no amount of validation is an alternative to taking care of your mental health.

So even if this pandemic has pushed you further from reaching what you might think is your “happiness destination,” know that happiness can be found in today, in the place where you are living at this very moment, and in finding gratitude for everything in this existence.

You are exactly where you are supposed to be.

Harris stars as Alana in the North American tour of the hit musical, Dear Evan Hansen, which resumes performances on Broadway and on tour this December.

P.S. Here are some mental health resources Ciara has found helpful

Home | Loveland


Crisis Text Line | Text HOME To 741741 free, 24/7 Crisis Counseling


Alma — Simplifying Access to Therapy


Therapy For Black Girls

Read TIME’s review of Dear Evan Hansen here. And watch the creators of the show discuss youth mental health at a TIME roundtable.

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National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

NAMI Connection is a support group for people with mental health conditions. Groups meet weekly, every other week or monthly, depending on location. This program is also available in Spanish, NAMI Conexión.

Find the NAMI Connection support group nearest you

NAMI Family Support Group is a support group for family members, significant others and friends of people with mental health conditions. Groups meet weekly, every other week or monthly, depending on location.

Find the NAMI Family Support Group nearest you

The NAMI HelpLine can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–8 p.m., ET.

1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or info@nami.org

Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Crisis Text Line

Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor

Free 24/7 support at your fingertips

US and Canada: text 741741

UK: text 85258 | Ireland: text 50808

Talk to someone now: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

1-800-273-8255 CHAT WITH LIFELINE

Options For Deaf + Hard of Hearing

For TTY Users: Use your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 1-800-273-8255.

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