themighty logo

Planning an Acting Career When I Can't Plan Tomorrow With Chronic Illnesses

It was two weeks before I was to conclude three years of drama school study. I’d pushed through and achieved a lot in those three years despite my abdominal migraines, fibromyalgia, GI issues, arthritis and everything else my body had thrown at me. I was proud, I was ready and I was managing.

We were listening to the advice of a well respected actor within the Australian industry. He was giving some great advice, but I couldn’t help but feel like a lot of it was going to be difficult or at least different for me to adhere to. Then he said something I admit I’d heard before, but it had never struck me in the way it did that day, perhaps because I was closer than ever to being an actor in my own right within the industry. He said “Think about the actor you want to be in 20 years and aim for that.”

It was sound advice, good advice. It made sense to be grounded in the reality that I’m not going to be a lead in a hit movie, or even a good actor really, for a long time. Still, there was a problem with this piece of wisdom, a problem I revealed to my tutor during my final week of study. How am I supposed to plan what kind of actor I’m going to be when I don’t know if I’m going to be able to walk in 20 years?

I let it out of my mind as I finished my three years and congratulated myself on my achievements. At a week out of school I had been cast in a play, offered a roll on a skit show and was about to audition for some ongoing voice work. The 44-year-old actor me could wait.

The next week I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t eat or drink or stand or sleep. It hurt to breathe; it hurt to do anything or nothing. I was in and out of hospital and then had to move back in with my parents. I was in the most pain I had ever felt in my life. I was in absolute agony, coupled with the frustration of not knowing what was wrong with me and doctors who had only ever read textbook versions of my condition arrogantly dismissing my pain when it didn’t fit classic symptoms. At the forefront of my mind were the comments I’d made not a week and a half earlier and how wrong my 20 year estimation had been. I cancelled my audition, turned down the role in the show and eventually pulled out of the play. Not the start to my career I had planned.

I’m back at home now with my husband and two new diagnoses; temporomandibular joint disorder (which I’ve probably had undiagnosed for some time) and atypical trigeminal neuralgia. I also have upcoming surgeries to try to determine what kept me in hospital for a week with a collection of bewildering symptoms and also to hopefully eliminate endometriosis as the cause of some severe dysmenorrhoea (period pain).

For the moment, this is my life. Trying to build up enough strength to do basic house duties (like washing my hair), stressing about our single income household and going to appointments with doctors, specialists, surgeons, psychologists, dieticians, occupational therapists and physiotherapists; some of which I’m still on a waiting list for.

Hopefully sometime this year or next I can restart my career. I know when I do, I will be doing so with a body and mind that is already ten steps behind the pace. I know that when I do, I will need to make my own work because my limitations are so severe and unpredictable that I need to carve my own place. I know when I do I’m going to have to be unapologetic, resilient and clear about the things I need and deserve to be able to work. I know this industry needs people and characters like me to represent a largely neglected portion of the population. I also know I’m guaranteed to physically deteriorate; I just don’t know yet at what rate this will happen.

So when I think about the kind of actor I want to be in 20 years, these are the things I consider. If I can get up in the morning, wash my hair, eat and drive myself to work that would be marvelous, but it’s not really up to me. No amount of planning or hard work is going to change that. So my goal is to be content with whatever I do achieve in the next 20 years, promote understanding, and not blame myself when I struggle because I’m not able-bodied. I hope 20 years from now, I can look back and know I did the best I could with what I had.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.