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Acting, Hollywood, and a Panic Disorder.
It has been too long since I was diagnosed with a panic disorder. As it happens with many people, I had no idea what it was, and I had never heard of the term before. I thought I had heart failure or I was about to have a stroke.
It all started several years ago while I was in the middle of an acting scene. The scene took place at a funeral, and even though I was not supposed to, I used my own experience to live the moment and make a “great move” on stage. The thing is that a year or so earlier, my best friend died while he was swimming near his beach house in northern Mexico. I remember everything like it was yesterday, so I used those memories to go ahead with my acting scene.
To my surprise, and not a good one, I went on stage, and I started to feel like I was about to faint; I started sweating like a fountain, my heartbeat went to the roof, and I felt like I was about to throw up on my scene pal’s face.
I left the stage in panic-yes, ironic- and went straight into the men’s room and started to throw water all over my face and chest while begging to be okay. I remember my teacher sent a college student to check on me, and he found me sitting on the floor trying to put myself together. The thing is that I managed to go back to my classroom, and my teacher told me that “I finally broke from my own self and became the character I was meant to be.” Not genuinely convinced of what she told me, I decided to take that as the cause of my breakdown. I was even congratulated by several of my colleagues, so I was even proud of it.
I was at the movies with a friend two or three weeks later after that incident and nearly the end of the movie… boom! It started to happen again. I pretended to be cool-I don’t do that anymore-and after we got into his car, I told him what was happening and asked him to drive towards my apartment at the moment, which happened to be very close to the theater. I remember sitting on the floor while sniffing from a rubbing alcohol bottle to cease nausea, and my friend was sitting on the couch in front of me, just talking. His reaction was priceless; I have to say because I felt no judgment, no pity, nothing but empathy. He continued talking to me as usual while telling me to take my time.
This all took place in Los Angeles, where I moved to pursue a career; what else? Acting, of course. I dreamed about it for so long it was a delight to be there. Besides the fact that I was living in the city of my dreams-former ones-and attending the acting school, I chose thanks to Marlon Brandon’s autobiography, the feeling of being all by myself for the very first time in my life and starting a new stage with new friends from all over the world was intoxicating, to say the least. I realized many things about myself that I had no idea of. Then I understood that it was because by being by myself in the world, I wasn’t anybody’s son, anybody’s sibling, anybody’s classmate… I was just myself.
I have thought throughout the years if that superb feeling of freedom and reinvention could’ve triggered the panic attacks, because yes, more often than not, we are afraid of our greatness, not only of failure. Yes, I was there; it was my time to prove to myself and whoever knew what I was doing, what I was made of.
It’s funny when I think about it all now. I was obsessed with doing it, I idealized films and actors so much back then, and I was certain I was meant to become one. I watched all movie classics at a very rapid speed, and it was like a drug. And I was finally there, and this started to happen…
Something changed after my best friend died. I was craving that kind of friendship, I really missed it, and I have to say that I found great friends on that stage in Los Angeles. The thing is that I had no idea that for many young people, Los Angeles is a “passing through” city, and most will leave sooner than expected after getting desperate about their careers and probably their family’s pressure. The bonding with my friends was movie-like, and then the inevitable started to happen: one by one, they started to go back home, and the feeling of the loneliness felt as dramatic as an Alanis Morrisette’s video. I remember walking up and down through Hollywood boulevard with a cup of hot chocolate and a cigarette on my other hand… yes, I know what you’re thinking, and it felt exactly like that.
A friend of mine lost his roommate and was looking for a new place, so he moved in with me. He stayed there for about two weeks and then he broke the news to me: he was going to meet his girlfriend in Mexico City. Instead of sticking to my plans, he convinced me to come with him and give Mexico City a chance. Television was booming there, and even though cinema was not so much at the time, it was okay. So I said yes, and it all started to happen. I drove around Los Angeles to convince myself of what I was doing, and the day arrived. There we were, boarding a plane to Mexico City, and when we were landing, boom… it happened again, the strongest one of all.
This panic attack while on the plane would change my life forever. I had no idea at the time, but it did. The panic attacks began to be non-stopping. They would happen quite often. I did go to several auditions, and I got callbacks, but by the time I did get them, I was struggling with a panic disorder, which means that I was not capable of living a ‘normal life’ anymore. I even started to suffer from agoraphobia, and it became a real nightmare just to leave the house.
I remember one day having an appointment with one of the most influential women on television. So I took a taxi and went there. The cab left me across the TV station headquarters, with a freeway in between, and all I had to do was cross a bridge above the freeway. Well, sounds easy. It took me about an hour to do so; every time I tried to cross the bridge, I felt like I was about to collapse, so after an hour or so, I just ran, feeling like a gladiator against my enemy, I think I even screamed… needless to say, I was late to my appointment, and even though I was introduced to her, my interview was with somebody else without her influence, so nothing happened. And it was the same way with other casting callbacks, and for the most part, I couldn’t even go, so it was over.
After the scrutiny of my own family, I decided to go back to my mom’s house in northern Mexico to reset myself and meet with a Cardiologist. I knew him well, and I liked him very much, and when I told him what I was feeling, he told me, right away, that I had panic attacks. Totally unfamiliar with the term, I went to see a Psychiatrist that he recommended. He gave me some brochures and told me all about my new condition: I was diagnosed with a panic disorder, and I was prescribed anti-depressants and benzodiazepines. I have to admit that knowing what it gave me a sense of relief, but I didn’t know that the hardest part was yet to come: the scrutiny from family and friends.
Trying to understand what was going on was tough enough, but trying to make people around me aware of it was exhausting and excruciating. I was judged, even blamed for it, and all I wanted was to feel ‘normal’ again. I have to say that for many moments I didn’t think that it would be possible, but after a year, I felt ready to go back to Los Angeles and to continue where I left. I enrolled at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, and even though I was happy to be back, there was an emptiness; something wasn’t or didn’t feel right this time. For starters, all my former friends were gone so I had to make new friends, but something was off about acting as well, something was missing… so one night I was having dinner with one of my new friends, and she was telling me all about her new headshots, her auditions, and somebody else’s headshots and auditions, and all of a sudden my mind was somewhere else, just looking at her lips moving… something was happening. So that night, I went to my apartment and started to think about what was going on… did I want to be an actor? Isn’t being an actor-a nonfamous one like having a panic attack? Isn’t being an actor not having control over your life or yourself like a panic attack? And so it happened.
After three or four days without going out nor seeing anybody, I decided to quit acting. Yes, the most important thing in my life, my only clear goal, and obsession didn’t seem appealing anymore. What was I meant to do now? After that decision, my Grandmother, my biggest ally, was diagnosed with cancer and died a few months later. After that happened, I decided to go with the flow and not worry about anything, because after all, I could die any time. So I began a stage of self-exploring, and I must say it felt great. I didn’t quit acting lessons, though, but I went to a private workshop this time. I felt great, I felt confident, I felt strong, I was being born again, searching for answers, and it felt wonderful, it really did, until it didn’t.
So it clicked a few years later. Did I decide to quit my only dream, my only passion, and obsession? What was I thinking? Due to my panic attack disorder, I decided to become a more practical person. Still, the truth is that even though we can reinvent ourselves, we can’t escape from who we really are, but it was too late at the time because I didn’t want to be an actor, I wanted a specific kind of career, and it was too late to start again. I’m not a crier, and I was often crying, I felt lost and frustrated, I felt regret, I blamed myself for making such a stupid decision, and the panic attacks came back, very strong, I was depressed most of the time, I didn’t know what to do anymore.
The relationship with family and friends was very damaged because of that; I even blamed them for not understanding, for being so judgmental about my condition… well, that was then. Today I am flying solo, I lost my family a few years back, and after being in a dark hole for about two years, I am back at my game, but this time, I had no option but to reinvent myself for real. I don’t want to sound pretentious or ‘poetic,’ but it’s more like I was born again. I am a very different person now, back at war, looking for a new meaning, looking for a cause, and I am pretty sure I am near to finding it.