I spent almost two decades pursuing my dream of becoming a working actress. In my bleaker moments, such as driving home from an audition in which I had to dance like a chicken in a bikini, I imagined what it would be like if I quit. In my fantasy, walking away from acting felt monstrous and fittingly movie-moment climactic: a grand proclamation (“I AM GIVING UP ON MY LIFELONG DREAM”), a grief-filled packing of my car, a defeated retreat to my parents’ basement in suburban Virginia. But like so many potential dramas, quitting acting was nothing but an almost imperceptible shift of gravity. It didn’t happen in an instant. It was gradual: missing a class, the quiet tucking away of headshots, letting my IMDBpro membership lapse.
I think a lot about my 13-year-old self, full of that uniquely 13-year-old psychotic fervor. At that age, I’d proclaim to anyone who might seem like they were listening that I would never, ever give up on my dream of being an actress, that this was my destiny, that I was that one in a million! According to 13-year-old me, I would star in The X-Files, get married to Leonardo DiCaprio, and do Maybelline commercials (“Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline… NOPE, SHE’S MARRIED TO LEONARDO DICAPRIO. SHE WAS TOTALLY BORN WITH IT.”)
Now I wish I could creep on my 13-year-old self, a la A Christmas Carol (Ghost of Christmas That’s Totally Creepin’ on You), and tell her that all those years equating her worth with her work would wear her down and strip her of everything she valued about herself. I would tell her that the time she spent worrying that she wasn’t pretty enough or thin enough or appealing enough would come at a terrible cost to her sense of self-worth. I’d explain how uncomfortable she would be promoting herself, how dirty she would feel befriending people who might be able to help her get ahead.
I’d like to note here that I don’t mean to denigrate my actor friends; it’s bold and gutsy to believe in yourself enough to survive in that industry. I’ve just never had that particular brand of moxie, and that’s totally OK too. I have other very nice qualities.
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For me, the grind of auditioning slowly suffocated my love of the art until it was gone, but I still pushed on, terrified to acknowledge the loss. My latent depression sensed the blood in the water and surfaced, feeding off every rejection, every perceived failure, turning me into someone my 13-year-old self would barely recognize, someone fearful and jealous and bitter and sad.
I still don’t regret any of those very difficult years; they shaped me into a much wiser—and gentler—person. We are so many different people in a lifetime; we change so very much, things affect our lives in ways we can’t anticipate, and it doesn’t make any sense to maintain some sort of token loyalty to a dream to which we pledged ourselves a million selves ago.
Being an actress was never my identity; being an actress isn’t an identity at all. But it was only when I stopped defining myself that way that I rediscovered all of the things that I actually am: loyal and funny and strange, and surprisingly resilient.
If I were to go back to that 13-year-old, I’d encourage her to be kind, because I wasn’t very understanding at 13, and the decision to give up acting didn’t come without a cost. I watch the people from my former life in movies and on TV, living the dream I wanted so long for myself. I wonder how long it might have taken, if I would have gotten there myself had I just pushed on for a little longer. I once heard that when a great love is over, it takes half the length of the affair to truly heal from it. But I’m not worried, because I’ve also learned to be patient.
I know I’ve been acting like I really wish I could tell my former self all of these things, but I’m pretty grateful I don’t have to because, as I said, I wasn’t super understanding back then, and I don’t know that as a teenager I would have truly understood exactly why being a grown woman dancing like a chicken in a bikini is so disheartening. I would probably just give her a big hug and tell her everything is going to be just fine, because that’s really what you need to hear when you’re 13. I know that because now that’s what I tell my dreamer students at a job that I love that pays for an apartment all my very own.
It’s been difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that I have fallen out of love with my dream, and I think that, if maybe I had read something honest and (hopefully a little) comforting, maybe it would have made it easier to face. So if you’re facing, or trying not to face, something similar, I hope you can pat yourself on the back, and give your poor little heart a huge break. I hope you can remind yourself that we should all feel incredibly grateful that we are not held accountable to every dream we had when we were kids. But some dreams, of course, are timeless (Leo, I’m looking at you.)
Mikayla Park is a teacher/nonprofit creative person residing in the slums of Beverly Hills. Find her, and her two charming rescue dogs, everywhere at @mikaylapark.