I began rehearsal for a play about a month ago. My boyfriend asked me to do it--he wrote and is directing it--then he broke up with me. We still live together. I tried to quit after a few rehearsals, but my ex convinced me not to. The process has not been very enjoyable for multiple reasons, in part because of my now-ex-boyfriend but also for emotional reasons. I'm dealing with feelings of suicidal depression. Every time I think about the play I get sick to my stomach--literally. I really want to quit, but I don't want to let the other actors down. Would it be horrible and selfish and unprofessional for me to quit now?
Maria, via the Internet
While I usually subscribe to "the show must go on" mentality, your case is different. If doing the play increases your anxiety and pain, even makes you physically sick, you are not doing anyone any good by continuing to plug along. While professionals should be expected to put up with discomfort to meet their obligations, you should not be asked to sell your health short. If you wrote in for my permission to drop out, you've got it. Quit the play today.
You said you have "suicidal depression." I hope you take those feelings seriously and reach out for help. I contacted several psychologists about your letter in hopes of helping you make a positive change.
Licensed marriage and family therapist Tess Hightower (www.drtesshightower.com) has not only worked with numerous actors in her years as a therapist but is also married to one. She has this to say about your predicament: "Why would you do something that feels uncomfortable for you? What feels dangerous about saying no to him? Is it that your almost-ex will be angry with you or that there will be no chance of reviving the relationship? If you are special to a jerk, how special is that?
"If you feel thrown away by him, then it is not such a stretch to throw yourself away," she continues. "Often suicidal ideation reflects our feelings that we are not lovable. We use the loss of a love object to confirm those feelings, and our rage about never having these longings met can turn inward and become depression. Sometimes suicide feels like the only way we can take control of a life that feels out of control and helpless. Stepping back and asking the objective question 'What would be in my best interest?' will enable you to begin to build self-esteem. Defining your needs and putting those first is not selfish--as perhaps you were taught by a parent--it is esteeming."
Hightower's comments are thematically similar to those made by Frann Altman, also a licensed marriage and family therapist and a longtime SAG member, who practices addiction medicine for Kaiser Permanente and offers private treatment. "If you have feelings of suicidal depression, I'd take that seriously and want you to consider some level of intervention that could help address those feelings," suggests Altman. "If serious and immediately threatening, a suicide hotline [or a hospital ER] might be able to get you help quickly.
"It sounds like...you are living in circumstances that are constantly debilitating to you," she continues. "Still living with the ex-boyfriend who broke up with you? Move or stay with friends. Get away from him. Wounds can't heal when the scabs are constantly being perturbed, and seeing him daily would do just that. As for the play, it sounds like you need permission to do what may be best for you, and that is to quit the play and take care of yourself. You need to attend to rebuilding your self-esteem, your new life, and learn that there are times when [saying] no to another person is really [saying] yes to ourselves. Just bow out. No elaborate explanation to this man, even if he's Neil Simon, is necessary."
Finally, RenĂŠ Hollander, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice and on the teaching staff at Ryokan College, offers another perspective. She suggests that sticking it out is one way to stay true to yourself. "[This] option is perhaps the most difficult one: keeping your word because it means something to you," she notes. "It is because of you that you are willing to persevere and accomplish the best that you can present. This has...to do with your relationship with yourself. Your suicidal thoughts are about you abandoning you. If you abandon you, nobody will have the opportunity to join you now or in the future."
No matter what you decide to do about the play, get help for your depression. If private therapy seems financially out of reach, there are low-cost options available. In Los Angeles you can contact the L.A. County Department of Mental Health at (800) 854-7771 or go to www.dmh.ca.gov for more information and links to statewide 24-hour mental-health help lines. In New York, LifeNet, a service of the mental health association of NYC (www.mhaofnyc.org), provides information and referrals tailored to a caller's needs and can get you help in a crisis; the phone number is (800) 543-3638. Actors throughout the country can contact The Actors' Fund for assistance (actorsfund.org). The Actors' Fund Mental Health Service connects actors with social workers who, according to the organization, "provide evaluation and referrals, intensive case management, and short-term treatment to deal with a wide array of significant issues ranging from depression to eating disorders to performance anxiety. Referrals are made to a wide network of providers who are familiar with industry issues and offer high-quality, low-cost services. If necessary, the Fund provides short-term grants to cover these expenses." In NYC call (212) 221-7300, ext. 113; in L.A., (323) 933-9244; and in Chicago, (312) 372-0989.
The life of an actor is not easy. Even without breakups, our daily lives are often rife with rejection and professional turmoil. We use our psyches in our art, opening ourselves up to what can sometimes be overwhelming emotion. It's more than okay to ask for help. It's a necessity.