Editor’s note: our continuation of our series The All American Actor (autobiographical musings of Commarrah Jewelia Bashar) contains the following content warnings - suicidal Ideation.
The last call I got from my former manager was the call I’d been waiting for for the majority of my life. “[Career making show shot in New York] is looking for a black, Muslim, girl for a recurring role, but they don’t want out of town talent. Can you come back?” Even in the depths of major depressive disorder, I was devastated. I had just moved to Minnesota for treatment I hadn’t even started yet. I knew that if I went back, I wouldn’t have the chance to see a doctor before auditioning. If I got the role, I probably would never see one. If I didn’t get the role, I had what ER intake staff call a plan for myself. I had a plan most days back then.
Though it broke what little heart I had left, I said no. I’d been acting since I was twelve and I had a suspicion it took having a few more months of huge breakdowns before and after auditions in the Twin Cities to confirm. Acting, which I then attributed to saving my life so far, was tied intimately with my trauma and agitating how much I wanted to end it. After thirteen years of devotion and sacrifice, I was faced with the need to stop, maybe for the rest of my life.
So I stopped. For about two years, I gave all the energy I’d given to my acting career to healing, primarily using the tools of carefully monitored medications and skills based, intensive, therapy.
And that was the single best career choice I have ever made. Here’s what I discovered.
Talent & Experience Remain
My worst fear was that all the training and experience that I’d paid dearly for would dissolve into the ether. That while taking a break, I’d somehow revert back to my podunk, high school drama club state. That didn’t happen. I was a little rusty coming back. I needed to be reminded by my director of some basic things like make sure you’re breathing and go slower than you think is necessary.
But I’ve always been talented and if you’re at the mercy of this fear, trust me when I say that you have always been talented and you always will be. When you’re going to therapy and working on what you’ve learned IRL, you’re changing your cognition and strengthening your abilities, acting included. You will only lose what is ineffective.
Mental Illness is Not What Makes You Art
Intellectually, I have always thought this line of thinking was stupid and harmful. But as I learned watching a video in Daybridge “[Humans] are not thinking machines that feel. We are feeling machines that think.”
Throughout the healing process, I still was afraid that mental illnesses were secretly helping me be a better actor. I thought I could push myself much harder than my soft, mentally well, peers. What I was actually doing was confusing symptoms for who I was and letting them indicate my worth. I would push myself to breaking each project while the damage stacked. My peers weren’t soft, they were taking care of themselves or “their instrument.” Plus, how good was I performing really? I couldn’t manage the emotional landscape of my life. Talent notwithstanding, there’s no way that level of dysfunction doesn’t touch the emotional landscape of your characters. Which lead to the next and best discovery--
When you let something have a space in one corner of your life, it will expand outward and touch all parts of you. Because of my upbringing and the abusive pedagogy at New York University, large swaths of my process were self-harm based. I was worried when I returned, I’d have to rebuild my process from scratch. I was stunned to find that everything I’d learned and applied to my life was just as present and alive in my process. I was also overjoyed to discover that since I’d spent two years reframing my own complex life experience, the characters I am now able to produce are far more nuanced. It’s the difference between a constellation and a galaxy. Whole worlds walk across stage and screen within me. That’s the difference between a good actor and a great one.
I now live and work totally symptom free of mental illness.
My depression is in remission and though I’ll always be neurodivergent, the three other disorders I experienced have little to no chance of returning. But I won’t pretend like this is possible for everyone. We live at the intersection of ability, access and plain luck. That’s true no matter where you live and we live in America--one of the most racist, denialist, ableist, and ineffectively violent cultures. Some folks can’t even get doctors to get their gender or lack there of acknowledged.
However, I will say that illnesses all act the same and in predictable patterns. That’s why we can treat them. So if treatment is an option for you and the only thing standing in your way is the real fear of what may happen to your career, go get treatment and damn your career. Let that be the first broken barrier on the path to you valuing your own life more than what you produce.