Standing in LAX, I weep and wait for my luggage to make its way around the carousel. I try to remind myself why I’m here pursuing the life of an actress slash writer and not back in my hometown — Poplar Grove, Illinois — surrounded by family as I was just hours before.
This might have lifted my spirits if jumping right back into my daily routine the next morning meant auditions and production meetings. However, the thought of my three hour round-trip bus commute from my east side studio apartment to Beverly Hills for a retail job that barely allows me to make payments on my theatre degree, much less use it, was not exactly comforting.
Every time I leave Illinois, I flash on a memory from years ago. I was home from college at a family gathering, talking about rehearsals for a play I’d been cast in. My youngest nephew, Luke, probably eight or nine at the time, interrupted my story.
“When are you going to stop trying to be famous and come home to the people who love you?”
It was voiced with such genuine love, curiosity and honesty that it knocked the wind out of me. Even with my genetic propensity for guilt I could never have guessed how that question would gain momentum in my mind over the years.
The truth is, when I left to pursue a life bigger than the cornfields and convenience stores my hometown could offer, I really felt I was seeking something better for us all. To believe otherwise would’ve meant abandoning a family I’ve always counted among my best blessings. If you’d have told me then that within six years I’d have lost two very close family members to suicide, I’d never have left.
When I first came to L.A. six years ago, my life felt like the pilot episode of a television series. I was so excited to be in the place where my favorite movies were made. I would walk down Hollywood Boulevard, like countless hopefuls before me, to the place where Marilyn, Natalie and Rita embedded their tiny feet, unable to believe I was standing where they stood. Anything seemed reachable in those early days, just because I’d made it here. Leaving my family, the hardest part, was over. The rest would be an adventure, and it was for a while. I had come here with a boyfriend and a car. I was healthy, hopeful and happy. My impending breakthrough, just around the corner, outshined any mundane responsibilities.
The last few years of my life here have been much harder.
In January 2011, three years after I’d moved to Los Angeles, my 22-year-old nephew Jake took his own life. Less than two years later, his younger brother Luke, 19, did the same. Losing two of my favorite people on the planet in such a short time in this way made me question everything about my life in L.A. I’ve learned firsthand that suicide has its own special brand of guilt. For months and into years, my life has felt like the last scene of The Sixth Sense. I replayed every interaction, filtering it through a knowledge I couldn’t possibly have had at the time, wondering if choosing a different word, tone or action could’ve made the difference and kept them here. My sister calls it the tyranny of hindsight.
The reality is the acting and writing credits I’ve managed to get under my belt in L.A., while still paying rent, have not been as plentiful as I’d hoped when I headed west. I’ve been cast in a web series that never was and tackled improv. I’ve done a ton of workshops and perfected my bite and smile in an on-camera class taught by a popular commercial casting director, who called me in for some auditions. I’ve taken an amazing scene study class with a television veteran, which led to a short film project. Still, like many of us, the life I expected in L.A. and the life I’m living are worlds apart. Sacrificing time with family to create work you believe in and can share with them is one thing. Missing Christmas to sell herbal laxatives to strangers is quite another.
After Jake died, I spent months berating myself for leaving my family to pursue a dream that had amounted to so little. A dear friend, holding me as I wept these haunting regrets, put the first stitch in that wound. She told me Jake was so proud of me, that he knew I was trying to make my own way. He understood that and he loved me. Most importantly, she assured me he knew how much I loved him, something you can’t help question with suicide. As we began to pick up the pieces and move forward, it seemed we would be a stronger wiser tribe for our loss. Jake was such a brave adventurer. I wanted to honor him with my achievements. I stayed in L.A. because I knew I still had something to say — for both of us. I had started a blog, just weeks before his death, and poured everything into it in the year that followed.
When we lost Luke 18 months later, the sense of purpose I’d had with Jake disappeared. Even writing provided no relief. It was such a blind side that there was a sense of having looked away for just a second and missed something, some silent switch being flipped. Maybe if I’d been there, I could’ve been the one to see it.
All the lessons I thought I’d learned with Jake’s loss, all the words I’d written, seemed pointless. They just led back to the same place, no wiser and no stronger. The things I was trying to accomplish out here had proved fruitless and in trying I had missed the last years of both my beautiful nephews’ lives. For the first time, I regretted a decision with such force it turned my stomach to think about it. I could see no reason for my choice, could find no comfort or purpose in the life I’d created here. I wanted to rewind. I would gladly spend the rest of my life assembling car parts in a factory, as I’d done before I left, if it meant having them back. I didn’t think about the practicality of that life. I just wanted a do-over, to trade all my attempts at success for just one more day lit by their smiles — even if it meant a life that would never quite fit me. The only thing that kept me from packing up and moving home was the voice in my head that kept saying, “If you go home now, it really was all for nothing.”
In the year since we lost Luke, I’ve thought a lot about what he said when he was little. I took a long, hard look at my life and asked what comes next. I knew that I was stacking the deck against L.A. by comparing it with my romanticized version of home. Yes, home will always be a place of comfort, family and grounding — it’s where my heart will always live. My brother, ever the realist, had a good point: “Even if you move home, you can’t be with us 24-7.” When I wasn’t with my family, where would I find my inspiration and excitement or fulfill my lifelong need to tell stories and make my voice heard? I began to realize it might be less a question of where I am than who I am.
Understandably, the last few years have been tangled with the guilt of loss and exhaustion of struggling on my own. Yet the beautiful thing about this fickle city, the thing that brings and keeps so many of us here, is that all it takes is one good break to change everything. Maybe it will be in my career (God willing) or maybe something as simple as a day job closer to home that allows me to focus more on what I came here to accomplish. The possibilities are endless here and they always have been. I’ve just been too busy trudging through life on survival mode to look up and see them.
I’m finally facing forward, armed with all the things I’ve learned as an actress slash writer and a human being who is trying to balance the weight of regret with the hope for progress. I’m hunting for a job, preferably somewhere outside the soul numbing world of retail. I’m co-writing and acting in a comedic web series — scheduled to start filming in October — about family, loss and acceptance. I’m ready to get back on track with the daunting task of self-publishing The Hollywood Push, my blog from the year Jake died. I’ve also started making it into a script. It’s not about fame anymore. It’s about telling our story.
This journey wasn’t for nothing. It’s made me into someone who has more to say than ever before. Are you listening L.A.?