September 3, 2013

Learning to Be Still: Lessons from a Former Child Actor. ~ Lisa Jakub

“It’s funny,” my therapist said, “most people get panic attacks about things that will never happen. You get panic attacks about something that happens pretty often.”

I didn’t think it was that funny.

I started working at as an actor at age four and was in several popular films throughout my 18-year career. I was recognized frequently, but the problem was that getting recognized gave me panic attacks. Starting at age 14, there had been mobbing and grabbing and cameras shoved in my face. Maybe that kind of thing looks glamorous from the outside, but to me, it felt like a nightmare. It left me gasping for air, feeling like I was having a heart attack.

So, I would panic whenever I had to leave my house, because I feared being recognized. I was terrified of the attention.

As you can imagine, this is a really poor affliction to have as an actor.

By the time I was in my mid-20s, I realized I had no passion for my job, so I retired from my acting career and left Los Angeles. I had seen too many of my peers spiral into very dark places and I didn’t want to become the stereotypical child actor train wreck.

To my dismay, the panic attacks followed me all the way to my new home in Virginia. Now, they had another layer of anxiety to them: I had no clue what I was doing with my life.

I had spent my entire conscious existence working and never considered a path other than being an actor. The mere thought of my future made me burst into tears. I didn’t know if I could survive in the real world when all I had known was the film industry — I hadn’t even had time to get a high school diploma. Who the hell was I without movies?

So, I went to therapy, like all former child actors should. My therapist suggested I try meditation and sent me home with stacks of books and the instructions to just sit there and breathe. I wasn’t sure how doing nothing would help with the fact that I had no goals, plans or skills. It seemed like nothing was exactly the problem in the first place.

I sucked at meditation.

My entire career was based on the fact that I could let my mind run away with me. In one TV movie in particular, it was my job to make the audience believe that my computerized house was trying to kill me, so I needed to dive into that absurd thought and simply let my body and mind react accordingly. But sitting here, on this meditation cushion, I finally realized that if I could see my thoughts, bouncing off the walls and making a mess of things, that I, the real I, must be something other than that.

So, who is it that is looking at my thoughts? Could that consciousness be in charge, instead of giving all the control to a mind that tended to run in terrified circles like a deranged rabbit?

Sadly, that realization didn’t immediately change my brain into a peaceful and loving entity. It just meant that every awful thing possible came up. Every terrible emotion that I wished would stay lurking under the bed showed up and got in my face, telling me that I was a failure and that I would never do anything worthwhile again. It pitied me and pointed out all the other people in the world who understood how to do this “life” thing.

I’d stop and take a deep breath. It’s okay, I’d tell the scared girl curled up on the floor. Just breathe. Everything is as it should be.

The nature of the search for a deeper understanding of oneself is both inherently natural and completely self-involved. It’s exhausting. This self-reflection can leave you sweating and swearing and chewing your toenails if you are not prepared for it. It’s easy to call this navel-gazing and self-obsession, but it seems more selfish to just wander through life and not take some time to think about what you want your contribution to be.

I wanted to live life with intention and passion, not just momentum.

Eventually, I detoxed Hollywood out of my system. I learned how joyful life could be when I was not desperately striving for the next big thing. I sat with the cruel thoughts that tormented me and the uncomfortable unknown. I acknowledged all that had come before and surrendered to all that lay ahead. Everyday, I sat in stillness and simply accepted everything that was.

Meditation, and later yoga, cleared a space for me where I could try to really see my life. When I quit acting, I could finally stop pretending. I practiced presence and gratitude and somehow the panic attacks melted away. I didn’t worry so much about other people recognizing me, I just needed to make sure I could recognize my true self.

The whole world cracked open. In some inexplicable way, sitting in stillness connected me to everyone else.

In practicing radical acceptance and surrender, I joined the rest of the world and I began to wake up. When I looked ahead, life still seemed uncertain and kind of empty. But the emptiness had an increasingly appealing, simple feel to it, like a lovely empty bowl.

In all that nothingness I saw possibility. And that was the most beautiful thing I could imagine.

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Assist. Ed: Jade Belzberg/Ed: Sara Crolick

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