08 May She Was a Successful Child Actor With Painful Demons; How She Slayed Them and Redefined Success
Several years ago when I was at a particularly low point in my life; I was a failing actress in an emotionally abusive relationship, one woman’s story changed the way I defined success.
For seven years I was an active participant in the Al-Anon 12-step program which I credit for helping me completely turn my life around, and it was in one of these meetings that I heard Julia’s (a pseudonym) story.
Julia was a fair-skinned, strawberry blonde with hidden eyes and bitten down nails.
She always sat in the back of this thirty to fifty person meeting. I rarely noticed her because her withdrawn, tomb-silent energy made her invisible; almost a cypher in a room of messy, emotional, larger-than-life people fighting to recover from volatile, dramatic pasts.
Months went by and Julia simply listened, then darted away ten minutes before the meeting ended in order to avoid post-meeting socializing.
Then one June morning I entered the meeting to find Julia sitting in the front row, dead center.
She was veritably shaking with nerves and near hyperventilation when the meeting began. Once the preliminary portion of the meeting was over the Al-Anon speaker for the day opened the meeting up for sharing.
To my utter surprise Julia’s hand shot in the air as if it had a will of its own. Julia was selected to share her story. Already tears were coursing down her face.
She told us she never thought she would ever share her story, but her body psychotherapist said she needed to as part of her recovery from a traumatic childhood.
(Here is a concise definition of body psychotherapy based on the work of Freud contemporary William Reich.)
Julia began by telling us that her parents started taking her to professional acting auditions when she was just a toddler, and that well into her early teens Julia booked job after job; in commercials, television shows and even on Broadway.
Then somewhere in her mid-teens Julia had a complete nervous breakdown and was incapable of auditioning or performing any longer.
By the time she was in her early twenties she’d begun having periods of dissociation which included vast memory loss of the far distant and immediate past, the frequent sense that she was outside of her body looking down at it and thoughts about suicide.
She also found it impossible to talk to or see her parents any longer.
It was in a particularly intense talk-therapy session that Julia recalled being sexually molested by both of her parents.
Over the course of several years of talk and body therapy more and more memories surfaced about early childhood molestation and Julia did everything in her power to address these memories and work through them.
On that particular night, as Julia told her story to a roomful of damaged, sympathetic listeners, she said something that forever changed me and healed a part of what was broken inside of me.
Julia described working with her body psychotherapist to release the muscles that had hardened like fists around her early emotional trauma, trapping it inside her body and explained that she’d participated in deep, cellular bodywork that week which had unleashed a particularly intense flood of traumatic memories that left her utterly exhausted.
“I feel like I’ve never worked harder in my life than the work I’m doing right now to heal the damage my parents did to me,” said Julia, “But when I see old friends or people from my successful acting years all they see is a loser. They see an out-of-work actress who has to waitress to get by. And I just want to scream at them. I want to tell them that …
“I no longer define success around what I do, I define success around who I am and how I’m fighting to reclaim myself!
“But I still care what they think of me. I wish our society could embrace and support people who are working so hard on the inside, rather than validating them for what the outside of their life looks like.”
By the end of her story I realized I’d been unconsciously judging myself for needing to come to a 12-step program in order to heal. I’d been disappointed in my lack of career success as an actress and embarrassed by how that must look to the people I wanted to impress.
Julia’s story bypassed my ambition and ego to touch something soul-deep within me. And I felt this great swell of compassion for each and every one of us, myself included, who were struggling unglamorously to become internally whole.
I wanted to embrace the core value that there is no success greater than healing what is broken inside and helping fellow travelers to do the same.
Thank you Julia.