I Don’t Want to Be An Actress Anymore

I wanted to be an actress when I was little. It was my childhood dream. I wanted to be on Broadway. Never mind that I have no dancing or singing talent. I wanted to go to the School of the Arts in New York City. I wanted to wait tables and go on auditions. It all sounded so cool and glamorous in a starving artist kind of way. I memorized every line in “A Chorus Line” and watched “Fame” over and over. I spent hours daydreaming about it, immeasurable amounts of time practicing different emotions in the bathroom mirror. I completely pictured myself with a future of leg warmers and stage makeup and dog-eared scripts.

I remember when I got my first taste of acting. It wasn’t a role I chose. I was young, way too young. And it was a role born of cruelty and perversion. A role taken on for survival.

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I was three years old when she and my mom became friends. She had two older boys, trouble makers. One had dropped out of high school, the other surely not far behind him. They were the only kids I knew who smoked openly in front of the adults. I remember hearing conversations between my mom and her friend. Sitting over cold coffee and cigarettes, whispering between long inhales of their Virginia Slims. Hushed talking about the police knocking on the door. Condolences by way of empty excuses. I remember being intrigued but thinking they were nice to us so they must not be all that bad.

I remember mom dropping us off so her friend could babysit. But she didn’t babysit. She left to go somewhere. And she left us alone with her sons.This is where the memories become hazy. When I think back, it’s like watching an old black and white film on a reel. The images flickering, transitioning clumsily from one frame to another. Then moments of nothing before another grainy image appears. I remember being alone with him. He was trying to tell me to do something. Something I didn’t understand. He was nice at first but eventually his patience wore thin. He forced himself inside my mouth. My eyes watered and I gagged. I didn’t know why and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to run but there was nowhere to go. I know I tried to cry, I tried to scream. My efforts fruitless in producing any sound. My brain, my three-year-old brain didn’t know how to begin processing what was happening.

That’s not all I remember. But the other memories are just flickers. Hints at other things. Vague pictures in my mind. Things I only get glimpses of in strange and harrowing dreams that plague me to this day. Dreams that have never made sense but feel real. Dreams that have me waking out of a fitful sleep in real physical pain. Dreams I never really understood until recently.

My mom never knew. I was an excellent actress. I acted as if my life depended on it. And it likely did. As did hers. I wore a smile, I played the role of the happy child I had always been. And eventually it wasn’t so hard to keep up the performance. My mom’s relationship with her friend naturally drifted and we no longer saw them. And eventually I didn’t have to act quite so much. In many ways I was happy.

But I was different. I can admit that now. My whole life I refused to admit that it changed me. I minimized it in my own mind. I refused to let it take over and define me. I refused to believe that it was actually all that bad. I was still acting. Only now I was my own audience. I didn’t allow myself to dwell on it or think about it too much. I became very adept at pushing thoughts away, at burying them deep. I buried them so deep I sometimes wondered if it even really happened or if I dreamt it all. But I was different.

There was an underlying feeling of shame. Very subtle, just rolling under the surface. The sterling memory of my silence. My silence indicating complicity. There was the feeling of not being able to wash off the dirtiness. I accepted that this is how I would feel from now on. Unclean. Guilty. Responsible. Still, I went on with my life. I had a new normal and it wasn’t all that bad.

Years passed and the memories only popped up on occasion. I would push them away in frustration, angry with myself for allowing them to surface. I didn’t want to be a victim. And thinking about it would only bring me down. And I liked being happy.

I was still acting. Always making sure that no one could see what was really beneath. I was so damn good at the show that my friends, even my closest friends, thought I’d lived a charmed life. To this day I have friends who still see me that way. Even though they know I lost my brother and all the heartache that came with that loss. Even though they know what I went through with back surgery when I was younger. Even with all of the things that life deals any of us, they still see me as the lucky one with the perfect life. Because that’s how good I’ve gotten at this role. I’ve been playing it for 38 years.

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Then, two years ago, something changed. My youngest daughter was jumping on my bed while I put on makeup, getting ready for the day. My little girl who is full of spunk and humor and goofiness. She’s uninhibited. My little free spirit. My mom’s always telling me that she’s so much like me. Was like me. I watched her, laughing at her funny comments, reveling in her crazy monologue she kept up breathlessly while she jumped. I walked over to her and she paused in her jumping. Her eyes got big and she looked at me and she said “Mom, you wanna jump with me?” In that moment something in me opened up. With her innocent little question she unhinged the lid on the deepest box buried under a mountain that I had erected. I saw her. I saw me. She was the age I was when it happened. It was the first time I fully realized that I was young. So young. A baby. Not responsible. Not dirty. I looked into my daughter’s eyes full of life and I started crying. I cried for the little girl that I was before. I cried for the little girl who had to emerge in the aftermath. I, in that moment, grieved for myself. After all of those years I forgave myself  — no —  I realized I had nothing to forgive myself for. I finally freed myself from the idea that it was my fault.

That moment with my daughter gave me strength and soon after I shared it with my sister. It was the first time in my life I spoke to my sister about what happened. My sister, who is my best friend and closest confidant… she and I had never talked about it before. She was able to answer some questions for me. Fill in some blanks. Left some blanks empty because I wasn’t sure I could handle knowing the whole truth of it. She told me about the time that the boys’ mom returned early from wherever it was she went when she was supposed to be babysitting. She saw. She saw what they were doing. Her older son flew into a rage and beat her to a bloody pulp in front of us. I have no recollection at all of that happening. The fear I was surely feeling must have shut my mind down. But in hindsight I’m certain that this is why I never told my mom. I never feared her judgement. I knew she would believe me. But I must have known that she would do something, say something, and that it could have been her. She could have been the one on the receiving end of the beating. Or worse.

Now I’m working on being me. The real me. On acting less. I don’t want to be an actress anymore. I’m exhausted by the performance I’ve played all of my life. I recently talked to my mom and told her. I shared it with some of my closest, oldest, dearest friends. I’m working on being real. I’m working on allowing emotions other than happiness in. It’s messy and there are times when it sucks. There are times when I wonder why I’m doing it. I had it all figured out before. I knew how to walk through life with a smile and a laugh. I knew how to push away the yucky stuff. I knew how to stuff things down, put up a wall, block them out. I knew how to act. And now I’m having to learn to shed the role and feel all of the things. The ugly ones and the scary ones.

It’s hard. I still smile when I talk about it. I physically have a hard time not smiling and acting blasé whenever I have to speak of what happened. I’ve had a few melt-down moments. I cried to my husband, If I’m not strong, I don’t know who I am. But that’s a false statement. I had convinced myself that what I was doing was an act of strength. But it wasn’t. Pretending, denying and minimizing isn’t strong. It was a survival instinct. And it served me well when I needed it. But now it’s a crutch. And with each day and each step I take it’s a crutch that is less necessary. Lately I’ve been feeling like the crutch is the burden. I’m carrying around this thing I don’t need any more. That’s why I’m writing this. This is me taking my final step with that crutch in my hand. This is me laying myself bare. This is me learning how to not act. This is me learning to walk without the crutch. This is me learning how to feel. How to be real. How to be. This is me.

Photo credit: Courtney Celley (http://thisiscourtney.com/photos/old-crutches/)

Photo credit: Courtney Celley (http://thisiscourtney.com/photos/old-crutches/)

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