I Dreamed A Dream…And Then Moved On

When I was a kid I fantasized about being Annie Banks from Father of the Bride. I would go to college, find a tall, handsome stud to fall in love with while studying abroad in Italy, marry him by the time I’m 22 (wow, so old), and pop out my first kid shortly after turning 25. Simple as pie. By age 8, I wanted to be a secret agent just like Lucy Liu in Charlie’s Angels (which also made a kick-ass Halloween costume, if I do say so myself), and in middle school boy-oh-boy was I pissed I hadn’t been around when pirates ruled and women in corsets kicked ass – lookin’ at you Elizabeth Swann. By high school, I looked back on my (oh so long) life and saw that every profession I had dreamt about pursuing was rooted in film… and my unconditional love of attention. I heard the limelight calling my name, and dammit I was going to answer! Yes, ladies and gents, I wanted to be… an actress.

Okay, confession: I’m a total ham. Always have been. Since I was old enough to make a fart noise I’ve been addicted to making people laugh (totally haven’t kicked that habit, btw) and I’ve thrived on performing. I even recreated Britney Spears’ Lucky video with two of my friends in 3rd grade and made them all call me by my “stage name,” Chrissy – a fact that still makes my skin crawl. How my mom kept a straight face while filming that, I’ll never know. I started doing drama in middle school, convinced my fame was imminent, and was irrationally pissed when my parents refused to uproot our lives, move to LA, and embrace my inevitable stardom. Throughout middle and high school my teachers encouraged my gift, and sent me on my merry way to pursue a BFA in Acting.

I set out on a path that felt relatively clear: Finish high school, go to college, blur of gray area where I coast through key transformative stages of my life, and *boom* I’m a successful actress well on her way to booking her next hit sitcom. Life totally together! Right?! Lolzzzzzzz. Right. That “blur of gray,” that tiny, unclear patch in the middle of my would-be-totally-rad-life did not sort itself out as I supposed it would. In fact, reality sucker punched me straight to Sunday after college. I made it through middle school, high school, college – and a barrage of life events in between – guided by my dream-like optimism and stubborn pride. I was hell-bent on turning my fantasy into reality, 110% sure that I was going to be the one that made it. After all, teachers, roommates, and adoring fans along the way told me so. I was special! I had to be… so, a year after graduating, when I found myself depressed, lonely, and insecure about myself/future, I was heartbroken. My foolproof life plan betrayed me. I was lost, confused and miserable.
Here’s where I should mention that I have this adorably unrelenting drive to be perfect. I had a straight-A streak that started in third grade and followed me to college, but not simply because I was just that smart; I made those grades because I was compulsively convinced that what I brought home on my report card needed to be perfect, religiously abiding by the warped opinion that report cards directly correlated to self-worth. This method of self-evaluation allowed me an inflated sense of having my shit together. Excuse me, while I brush my shoulders off and assume the position amongst my friends, as “the one who was going places.” Hell, I even left the state for college! (Go Coogs.) That was not a common occurrence in Tallahassee, FL. I was not only talented and smart, but as I embarked on the 12 hour journey to school in Texas I smugly donned the badge of Adventurer. By the time I got to college I was a living dichotomy: a headstrong perfectionist pretending to be effortlessly confident, while secretly battling a borderline eating disorder and extraordinarily low self-esteem (see Eat the Damn Doughnut).

My living nightmare in college was when I heard tales of actors turned stage managers. Nightmare may be an exaggeration, but I definitely cringed at the countless conversations that subscribed to the following pattern: “I used to be an actor, but now I’m doing _______.” I was terrified of that reality for myself. I never paused to consider that, in each of these instances, I found someone doing something that was a better fit for them. In most cases, they were doing something they were passionate about, and none had succumbed to death-by-giving-up-acting. Instead, I projected my own fear of failure onto their lives. I couldn’t get past seeing them as someone who tried, but ultimately failed. Typing it out now, it sounds so harsh and detached from reality. But at the time I knew I had what it took. I knew I had to be different from these people who “gave up”.

A year after graduation, I found myself living in Chicago pursuing my dream of being an actress. *Side note: did you guys know the Midwest is cold?* I had landed myself some great little projects and received good feedback in my rehearsals and performances, but something felt incomplete. I found myself waist-deep in the muck of that “gray area” where I knew I was supposed to become an adult. I fluctuated between two extremes: feeling like a major failure because I didn’t have my life together already and feeling like I was on the path to greatness. I was running myself ragged – working a full-time job by day, rehearsing by night, auditioning and performing on weekends, and maintaining some semblance of a social life. I was miserable, but I was too proud to examine or admit that this misery was anything more than a temporary artist’s struggle.

When I couldn’t use a report card to evaluate myself, I stopped evaluating myself for even the most basic of necessities, like happiness and motivation. Over a series of months, I was so disenchanted that I no longer enjoyed rehearsal. In fact, I dreaded it. Auditions became an exhausting medium for me to compare myself to 50 other women around me, usually ending with rejection. The only pick-me-up would be landing a new gig, but the high of having someone’s approval quickly dwindled when I realized I had to actually commit my time and energy to a project. To be an actor, I had to act, but I suddenly hated acting.

This was a completely new and terrifying feeling. I had never dreaded rehearsal. Rehearsal had been my safe space for many years. Parading around a smile to ensure my Facebook friends that I still had it all together, my internal systems were begging the question, “What in the ever-loving hell is going on?!” I sat on the feelings for a while, convinced I would snap out of it.

As the gray Chicago winter (very) slowly faded into spring, my feelings of anxiety and frustration were overwhelming. I had just returned from an extended stay at home in Florida to get my tonsils out. I was returning to a loving boyfriend, wonderful friends, and a brand new theatre gig. I should have been thrilled to be back in the windy city, but I found myself sobbing uncontrollably and struggling to get out of bed. The floodgates inside of me had sprung a big-fat-unstoppable leak and there was no denying my unhappiness. My unhappiness in Chicago was compounded by the distance from my family, who I prioritized above all things. After losing my dad in high school, I’m abundantly aware that time and people are fleeting. I could justify being away from my family when I believed that I was doing what I destined to do, but now I was faced with the horrifying idea that my life wasn’t going to be what I thought it was. Scarier still was the idea that I didn’t want my life to be what I thought I wanted it to be. I spent so long dreaming of being an actress. How in the fuck could it be possible that that’s not what I wanted any more? Yet, there it was, staring me in the face with an unbreakable glare more intense than a Biggie and Tupac showdown. I wanted to have a life where my work wasn’t dictating my every waking second; where seeing my family wasn’t a 3 times a year occasion; where I wasn’t riddled with crippling anxiety day after day.

I decided that I needed help wading through all of the emotions I was drowning in. It was May, my lease in Chicago wasn’t up until October, so I sought out therapy because what else could I do? My therapist and I kept coming back around to my compulsive desire to be “perfect,” to be the one who successfully had it all together. I was so hung up on what people might think of me if I decided to move home. I would be one of those “well I was an actor, but’s.” I would be a failure. Except… that’s completely and utterly untrue. My therapist, what a blessed saint, got me practicing mindfulness to change the way I talked to and about myself. For starters, I was completely and utterly hung up on the “shoulds” of life. “I should try harder.” “I should love going to rehearsal.” “I should be happy.” “I should be skinnier.” Ugh, it exhausts me now just to even think about it! It’s poisonous to put expectations on what something “should” look like. If you haven’t already, get rid of “should”. “Should” sucks. All of this work and reflection led me to the most liberating thought: No one thinks about me that much. Holy. Shit. What a fucking relief. No one is on the sidelines waiting for me to fail. People have LIVES. The epiphanies just kept on rolling after that: being an actor isn’t what makes me who I am; being “perfect” is just an unachievable standard to hold myself to. No matter how successful I appeared on Facebook, that success was a total sham if I wasn’t happy in real life. Okay look, I know all of that may sound like “duh”, but it took lots of time (and money) to really have and accept these ideas. *Also, yes, I will be accepting donations towards my therapy bills, blank checks are preferred.*

Once I made my peace with letting go of others’ perceptions of me, my choice felt pretty clear: It was time to go home and regroup. I didn’t know what home held for me, but I knew that, as much as it hurt my heart to admit it, Chicago wasn’t the answer. It was bitterly painful leaving my friends. I couldn’t help but feel like I was giving up on my dream too. But I think what I’ve come to realize is that I didn’t give up on my dream; I found a new dream that I began fiercely chasing. The dream of being happy. The dream of having a work/life balance that makes sense for me. The dream of loving who I am and all of my imperfections. Now by no means do I have all my shit together. I still work waaaay too much, until recently my dating life has been a who’s who of human garbage, and I am perpetually hyped up on caffeine. But I am so happy. I get to come home to my mom and sister every day. I get to teach my niece and nephew to make fart noises and have screaming contests until we collapse on the floor laughing. I’ve met some really amazing people who have completely changed my world and given me hope that I can have a great future in my small hometown. I am about to graduate from cosmetology school and start a brand new career that I am in LOVE with. I’m a work in progress, and I hope I always will be. I don’t think there’s some point in life where you think “Yep, I’ve made it. Done growing forever and I can just coast here till the end.” At least, I sure hope not. I find peace in the fact that life has peaks and valleys, and I plan to embrace the weird, wild ride. I love my life. It’s no where near perfect, but I have taken stock and responsibility in my own happiness and that feels pretty damn cool.

 

Article by Christine Arnold

Artwork by Michaela Heidemann

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