When I first began studying acting at The Imagined Life studio three years ago, I regretted that I hadn’t found Diana Castle earlier. With her vast wealth of wisdom and uncanny intuition, I could tell she held the keys to the Creative Kingdom I’d been trying to break into for over a decade. Listening to her lectures, I couldn’t help but think of all the time I’d wasted in my early 20s. If only I’d known about her when I moved to LA, if only I’d had that sort of guidance, if only…
The irony is, of course, that I left the studio after two years. Though I never stopped believing in what Diana was teaching, I couldn’t seem to apply it to my own work. Frustrated, lost, angry, I bowed out, deciding I wasn’t really an actor. That I’d been a fraud, that I didn’t have what it takes, that it was too late. Anyway, I was starting to gain some traction with my writing. Maybe that had been the whole raison d’etre I’d been drawn to The Imagined Life, so it could point me True North towards my real calling as a writer.
It made sense to me at the time.
* * * * *
This Sunday I’m turning 30. I’ve been telling myself for months now that I’m not going to make a big deal of it, that it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just a number – who cares? But over the past week or so I’ve realized that that attitude was cheating me of doing some honest self-reflection. Of taking stock of my life thus far, the ups, the downs, the beautiful, the ugly, the choices I’ve made for better or worse. These things do mean something. These things do matter.
As I began to reflect in my morning pages on how I’d spent my 30 years on this planet, two emotions jumped out at me: shame and fear. Sure, there are things that I am proud of – graduating from UCLA, writing a book, surviving on my own – but a huge part of me felt like I’d wasted more than a decade living mindlessly. I’d been given these incredible gifts, this blessed life, and what had I done? Spent absurd amounts of time obsessing about my appearance, chasing after boys blatantly and foolishly, drinking myself to oblivion on way too many occasions, drifting through my days, never truly smelling any flowers. How had I let this happen?
In August on my flight home from Hungary I sat next to a boy named Anthony. At 12 years old, he spoke more eloquently than most of my peers in their 20s and 30s, and possessed an authenticity and clarity I’d only recently discovered in my own life. My cheeks hurt after two hours of nonstop grinning while conversing with him. But when we parted ways, I felt gripped by an intense desire to protect him. Fear washed over me as I imagined him entering high school and losing all of his vitality and presence and eagerness for learning in the face of popularity and sex and parties. After all, he did resemble Justin Bieber, his looks alone could lead him down that path.
Back in Brooklyn, I realized that fear was a response based entirely on my own experience. Young Amy had been very similar to Young Anthony – reading everything in sight, creating ideas and art projects left and right, absorbing the world like a sponge. I’d tested in the 99th percentile, I’d memorized chapters of books just because I could, I’d instilled excitement in the hearts of teachers and adults. But then the tornado of puberty hit, and my teenage years sucked me into a storm of insecurity, attention-seeking, and desperate need for validation. I’ve been battling to get back to the ground ever since.
At certain times, I’ve succeeded. I’ve found myself in the eye, calm, lucid, able to see my own truth. Like junior year of high school, when I recognized how much my life mirrored Ivan Ilych’s. Or during my many opportunities to travel abroad, when the world expanded so far beyond my own self-absorbed universe I couldn’t not pay attention. Or moments in great films, or great books, or great classes like Diana’s or Teshome Gabriel’s or Paul Von Blum’s, which momentarily quelled the tempest.
But inevitably I’d get sucked back in. I’d glimpse the truth, but it was too much to handle, so I’d run right back to where I felt comfortable. Measuring success by dollar signs, Instagram likes, the power of my lovers, the brand of the champagne. A boozy, self-serving haze, interrupted by a creative manic streak from time to time.
In August, though, things began to shift. Dramatically. After meeting Anthony, I could no longer hide the regrets I held over the choices I’d made in my life. I couldn’t keep running from the truth, ignoring my shame and fear. I had to start caring for myself the way I longed to care for this boy. For months, years even, I’d been desperately wanting to change my life, but it was Anthony who gave me that boost I needed to finally do it.
It started with quitting alcohol and sugar. Since the age of 18, these two substances have ruled so much of my life. Way more than I’ve ever been willing to admit. From counting calories to staring at my stomach in the mirror for hours to sticking fingers down my throat. From throwing back shots of tequila to numb the pain, or make the guy I was with tolerable, or to try and forget the bag of M&Ms I’d eaten. From intense blood sugar spikes and crashes to intolerable hangovers and memory lapses to depression and self-hatred. To outsiders, even my family and closest friends, I’ve always looked functioning, but my interior world tells a different story.
That first week was hell. I could barely get out of bed. My body felt like I was moving through quicksand. You know those dreams where you’re trying to run from a bad guy but the sandman has poured glue between your legs and you can’t even walk? That’s how dependent my body was on sugar. I suffered daily migraines, made all the worse knowing I could cure it with just a bar of chocolate or bowl of pasta.
After the physical struggle subsided, the real challenges set in. I had to learn how to deal with my insecurities and anxieties without reaching towards the cupboard or ordering a glass of wine or four. In confronting these feelings, I was forced to look at other tendencies that had kept me in the storm, especially my dependency on my emotions. One night in particular stands out: I was having a panic attack over an argument I was having with my boyfriend, and I couldn’t get a hold of any of my friends. I called one of them three times and texted her to call me immediately. She responded that her sister was in intensive care. My panic attack instantly stopped. There were more important things in the world than this moment in my relationship.
As I began to equalize after subtracting these toxins from my life, I added in some new habits: meditation, daily affirmations, structure, regular sleep cycles (work permitting). Through the help of the Artist’s Way, I set goals for myself, some large, some small, but all achieved through the same process: one step at a time. For example, French. After years of studying the language of love, I’m still not fluent, but reading Harry Potter à l’école des sorciers half an hour a day has shown me that it’s not impossible. I understand a little more each week. It’s still very much a work in progress, but so am I.
Which leads me back to turning 30. In the same way I wished I’d found Diana when I first moved to LA, I wish I’d found this new, sober, more focused and contemplative lifestyle in my early 20s. Why did it take so long for me to find authenticity and presence and mission? Why did I waste all of that precious time not living every day fully and creatively? For the same reason I dropped out of studio a year ago: I wasn’t ready.
And you know what? That’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. Because even though I can sit and lament and feel shame over all of those hours I spent stumbling through nightclubs and sleeping with the wrong guys and shoving brownies guiltily into my mouth, I can also learn from them. I can use those experiences to tell stories and to maybe help a Young Anthony make different choices than mine. And even if Young Anthony does make some unskillful decisions (to borrow the Buddhist choice of words over “bad”), that’s still okay, because it’s his journey, and he’ll learn it at his own pace.
The point is, I’m here now, about to turn 30, and happier and more attentive and more open to the world than I’ve ever been. I’m not perfect, I never will be, I’ll continue to stumble and fall, but I know I’m headed in the right direction, following my True North.
I start class again on November 30th.
(BTW, if you were hoping to buy me a drink for my 30th, here’s an even better option — for the same price as a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, you can pre-order my book on Amazon! Win win!! ❤ DO IT HERE!!!)