It is my sincere if not desperate wish that the next time someone says they saw me on Grey’s Anatomy, I won’t slip into my often-visited bubble of shame. I never feel good when people bring it up, and that’s quite the bummer since I thought being an actress would inherently make me feel good about myself. Unfortunately, the times I’m reminded I had one line in a Mark Wahlberg film, or that I was seen out at dinner with some pseudo-celebrity, I shrink an inch. Perhaps I’d view these stints from my past as an objectively cool career change I made in my early twenties if my motivations to do them had not been so objectively uncool.
In 2008, I was a pretty standard teenager—scoliosis afflicted, Buffy The Vampire Slayer-obsessed, Pokémon binge-watching people-pleaser—nothing out of the ordinary. While my imagined life—in which I bashed vampires with a peppy Pikachu by my side—was thrilling, my actual life was less exciting. I was lonely. I felt like an outcast in my highly conservative southern Utah community: I couldn’t cuss (in public), no one understood my Happy Gilmore references (because no one was allowed to watch Happy Gilmore), and Lady Gaga was public enemy #1 (my queen). Like many kids, I didn’t feel like I belonged. Which is why, when a popular football player resembling David Boreanaz took a genuine interest in me my junior year, I latched onto him like a baby to a teat. Quips aside, I fell in love with him.
Over the course of junior year, my overactive imagination mapped out my future with dramatic flare: I would blossom into a Blake Lively lookalike, sprouting five inches in both height and hair length. I would get acceptance letters from Ivy League universities I didn’t even apply to. I would be miraculously cured of scoliosis, and finally be approached by actor Anthony Stewart Head, who would tell me I was “the chosen one,” a vampire slayer, and that I alone “would stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness.” My boyfriend would then propose to me, and we’d spend a trendy lifetime together as I fought vampires, earned my doctorate, and had weekly coffee with my friends, Michelle Obama and Selma Blair. Bliss. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, none of that happened.
Fast forward to 2010, Primm, Nevada. I was in my car in the parking lot of Buffalo Bill’s Resort and Casino, sitting, covered in Cheeto crumbs, thinking about my life. A lot had changed. My parents and I no longer had a roof over our heads—a gift from the recent housing crisis. I had dropped out of high school. I had little money. And that guy, that love-of-my-life-Angel-to-my-Buffy guy, had jilted me. I had found out (not from him, but from one of his friends) that he was in a relationship with another girl—someone I knew. He never felt the need to break things off with me. He just stopped speaking to me… just swung to another branch. This all took place around the time I turned 18. No house. No college. No boyfriend. No Michelle or Selma. It was a hard pill to swallow. At some point in that parking lot, after ruminating on my losses for what felt like hours, something shifted in me. A realization: “I’m just gonna to have to become a famous actress.”
As insane as it sounds now, it made perfect sense to me at the time. There was no more logical plan than to reclaim my life by becoming a movie star. I had always liked acting, always been told I should be an actress, and I now had nothing to lose. In my over-imaginative, inferiority-complex-riddled psyche, becoming an actress was my only way out of this mess. The fact that I probably needed professional help only presented itself as an added bonus to pursuing a career in Hollywood. “Oh, I have serious unresolved issues? Perfect! I’ll fit right in!”
I wasn’t able to move to L.A. immediately, but after a few years of surviving and scraping by, I finally made it to the City of Angels. While I obviously did not become a famous actress, I landed enough tiny “under five” roles and red carpet appearances to get people back home talking about me. I thought it would take much more, but apparently a little appearance in Grey’s Anatomy was enough to gain my ex’s attention and eventually lead us to reconnect. Our reunion was heavy, but ultimately healthy for the both of us. A lot was resolved, and while (of course) we didn’t ultimately work out, we both walked away from each other with a newfound love and respect for one another. While I had accomplished my misguided and childish goal, I chose to continue pursuing an acting career. I believed it was still something I should do. I didn’t feel I had any other option, really. While I had always wanted to go to college, I felt I had missed my shot: The nature of the film industry made me feel old, and dropping out of high school was a point of shame for me. Still, my secret desire to go to school carried into my mid-twenties, and I hoped that maybe, if I booked a big enough role in a big enough project, it would be enough to make me an attractive applicant for schools. I had that little confidence in myself. I was so ashamed of dropping out, being terrible at math, and never taking the SATs, I thought I needed some kind of edge to allow myself permission to pursue higher education. I had seen James Franco and the Olsen twins get into NYU. I saw Emma Watson get into Brown. Maybe if I just stayed in L.A. a little longer, worked a little harder, I could turn my life around. At no point did I think I could pursue a degree through pure meritocracy. Until now.
This is why I am embarrassed. I don’t like admitting I spent the better part of a decade pursuing affirmation from arbitrary sources.
I don’t like that I worked so hard to reinvent myself and pull a Jay Gatsby to win back an old flame who would ultimately never make me happy. I feel like a dumbass. But I know I’m not alone. While my example is a bit extreme, it isn’t so different from what many of us do on Instagram every weekend. We try to cast “FOMO” spells on our peers, prospective flings, and past lovers who cause us to question our self-worth. We reinvent ourselves and chirp “Thank u, next” in retaliation of receiving a “no” from someone. I don’t blame anyone for doing so. How can we not? Rejection is painful, sometimes unbearably so. But as painful as 2010 was for me, nothing has come close to the hollow ache that came with the realization that I had completely shortchanged myself. By believing that a commercial stamp of approval would allow me privilege, love, or an education, I was unwittingly, and incorrectly, convincing myself that I wasn’t always immensely privileged, worthy of love, and capable of pursuing an education. Instead of taking ownership of my situation, I chose to pretend there was a way to deny it all, and by doing so I lost my way. I think a lot of us can lose our way when the big moments come. As Buffy Summer’s guidance counselor wisely said in season three, “Look, lots of people lose themselves in love. It’s no shame. They write songs about it. The hitch is, you can’t stay lost. Sooner or later, you have to get back to yourself.”
I’m now working to rectify some of my missteps. After taking community college classes, I’m in the process of applying to transfer to a four-year university. I’m studying for the SATs, and I’m giving myself permission to pursue what I really want to do without some strange ulterior-motive-goblin steering the wheel. I can’t promise myself that the next time I face heartache I won’t fantasize about leveling-up. I will probably splurge on some new makeup, or maybe buy myself an overly expensive dinner. But I will never again allow myself to believe that I need to be an actor to deserve happiness.