This revised post from the early days of Storied Mind seems especially relevant to the work I’m doing with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Sometimes I’ve interpreted certain life and career choices of the past as avoiding depression. At other times, I’ve seen them as accepting the need to deal with it rather than play a new career role to cover it up. The different ways I look at the past in these two posts makes me realize that interpreting earlier life is far less important than staying alert to every present moment. You can learn many lessons from the past, but the only choices you have control over are the ones you’re making right now.
I was reading Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, Blonde, about the life of Marilyn Monroe, and was stopped by a line spoken by the character known as the “The Survivor.” He said that Norma Jean was a natural actor because she didn’t know who she was and so was driven to become her character completely. Acting meant reaching into the fictional being to become that person totally. She had to fill an emptiness where most people had a strong sense of self.
This idea suddenly helped me understand my own experience with acting as a depressed twenty-something. Then I started thinking about the many other types of work I’ve done and the role that each job required me to play.
I had turned to acting in the first place out of a core belief that I was wrong the way I was. I needed a self I would be proud to show the world. Stepping into a scripted role and winning the applause of a live audience made me feel that I had a reason to be alive. What drove me away from acting was an inner refusal to construct myself out of assumed identities and to depend on the highs offered by approving audiences – highs that could turn quickly to lows of rejection. Of course, I can see that in hindsight, but at the time I took the applause at face value, yearned to have it and fled in terror if I lost it. The approval meant I was worth something. The rejection meant I was nothing.
Audiences want a lot from an actor. They want to hear you speak the script as if the words were naturally yours and forced out of your own feelings and life. They want to see you walk that character’s walk with perfect balance. Each person in the darkened theater wants you to help them forget the clumsy machinery of a stage, painted sets, creaky seats, coughing neighbors, rattling thoughts.
Pull us out of ourselves, shut up our chatter, knock out our critical minds so we can be feeling what you’re going through in the workings of the play. Make us laugh, cry, forget ourselves for a time, and we’ll love you. But stumble around, speak a false or stilted word, hide that character from us, and you might as well turn on the lights because we’re leaving and won’t forget or forgive your failure to carry us away.
And there I was trying to do the same thing – lose who I was and live in a role for a few hours, to be rewarded, as I so deeply hoped, by the enthusiasm of an applauding crowd. I won some and I lost some, but I was desperately searching to be “real” in every role on every stage.
Eventually I gave up acting altogether, and for a long time I thought I had made the choice out of fear. I believed I had run from the need to get to the bottom of who I was. I saw myself in defeat, flight, cowardice. But that was the way my depressed mind characterized everything I did. It took years to see the more positive side of what I was doing.
For it was, in some ways, the choice of a stronger self than I imagined I was. That self was saying No to the desperate need to disappear into someone else, saying No to the yearning, literally, for the applause of a vast audience, saying No to the need to be known as that gifted actor who walked about most of the time inconspicuously, who didn’t need to live a full life off the stage because his true existence and value emerged only in the darkened space of a theater.
It was saying No to the strange idea of the life I imagined then, as something that could be lived silently – standing like the figure of the bartender in the great Manet painting of the Folies Bergeres – the woman who stares, whom you can’t take your eyes from, but who is herself only a created image – a great one, to be sure – not a person at all.
I could see the end of playing roles as a choice that said “Yes” to trying to put together a life of my creating, of my battling, of my acceptance of myself. It said “No” to the constant retreat into fictional characters so that I could feel the high of those sparking moments when the audience was mine.
It was an attempt to stop being driven by fear and the inner conviction of worthlessness, and to take on the struggle of living in spite of the fear. That sounds too heroic, but I emphasize that I’m looking far into the past to reinterpret the way I see my life with depression. At the time, I felt the fear and shame more than anything. Only now can I give myself credit for a resilience I took for granted all those years ago.
Since then I’ve done many types of work, and each one demanded that I play a role before an audience of some kind. A teacher facing students, a manager reporting to a board of directors, a consultant providing services to clients, an entrepreneur persuading investors, a mediator working with an angry group, a writer listening to readers.
I’ve pushed myself into some of those roles for the same reason I tried acting, to find a way to fill the emptiness inside, to make up for a core of human worth my depressed mind imagined was missing. That never worked. Others fit me well because I knew first who I was and used those roles to express something I had to offer – though it has never been easy to be comfortable in my own skin.
I am always having to fight the temptation to take the approval or rejection of the audience I’m facing as a sign of what I am worth as a human being.
What is the balance you find in the midst of depression between the role you play and your sense of who you are? Can you stand on your own apart from that work role, or do you need to be immersed in the work to feel like a valuable human being? That’s still a hard one for me.