My daughter’s old school had a motto I love: Be kind, be brave, be happy.
‘Be happy’ feels a bit optimistic to me. I’m not sure serotonin manifests itself on demand. But I’d have a tenner on the fact that daily kindness and bravery will lead to a happier life.
I’d like to feel happier more of the time myself and I need to model kindness and courage for my kids.
They’re immune to my correctional monologues but they sponge up all my less savoury behaviours and spew them back at me whenever they see fit, mostly in the Co-op when we’re very very late.
I think they see a bit of kindness. I’m not so concerned about that. But bravery? Mercy me, no. I am brave enough to admit that I am woefully lacking in bottle.
I hide my wimpery well, I think. I can overcome nerves about certain things that some people tell me they hate. Wedding speeches, eulogies, going to the cinema alone. But being brave and not being that scared in the first place are two very different things.
I circumvent my own fears unnoticed, picking up props for doing what others are afraid of while throwing a cushion over my own cowardice and pointing over there.
The triggers of fight or flight for me are varied and annoying. I’m scared of phoning tradesmen. I’m scared of the phone full stop.
I’m scared of being entirely myself if it’s not what someone expects. I’m also scared, ironically, of people thinking I’m something I’m not.
Since having kids, I’ve been scared to go out if it means walking back after nightfall.
But where my fear centre really shines is in its paranoid eye for any situation where I care too much and might fail. It will not have me getting hurt.
My jumpy lizard brain trembles and sweats at the thought of me going after something I love.
It mollycoddles me into a cotton-wool suit and expedites me off in the other direction. Strictly for my own protection, you understand.
Thus have my ambitions slipped unnoticed down the toilet.
I find convincing reasons why I can’t go for the things I want, all the time knowing that fear is to blame.
It’s a big fat childhood hangover of course. The worry that I’ll make a mistake, someone will be angry and I’ll end up feeling voiceless and small.
Or I’ll let myself down by not winning because it’s all about coming first, right? That’s the whole point of taking part.
Nobody meant to plant this thinking in me. But parents are humans and their best intentions can get lost in translation or eclipsed by the stresses of day-to-day life.
I know that too well myself these days and I’ve learnt I am easily crushed.
So wrong thoughts took root and thrived. They’ve had me in a headlock for most of my life and I’m ready to dig them up, wriggle free of their growth-stunting grip.
A couple of years back I went for some counselling. I’d just lost my dad and I missed him, but that wasn’t really the thing. Like many who find themselves at that crossroads, I felt a new chapter must begin.
I was desperate to break the inertia of my adult life. I wanted a boot up the arse.
I brought up the subject of writing because I love it and want to do more. It plugs my unconscious right into the mains and ideas flash forth unaided. It feels like magic and brings me great joy. I believe it’s what they call flow.
But then I offered up my Achilles heel. The terrifying truth I was hiding. I wanted to act again. I was almost too scared to say it.
I love pretending to be someone else. In a healthy, appropriate context, of course. Not so I can swindle a granny.
Acting taps into all the stuff my brain gets up to when it’s left to its own devices.
I love dialogue and dialects. I love mimicking accents and cadence. I spend hours mulling over what makes us tick and how our competing needs collide.
I love telling personal stories. And I quite like being the centre of attention, though I like to pretend I don’t. There are almost none of my buttons that acting doesn’t press.
But I gave it up in my twenties.
I played Ophelia in a university production of Hamlet. I loved it with all my heart. I think I was good. But I strongly believed it to be the least cool thing in the universe.
My sense of self was crumbly back then. It ebbs and flows today. The men I was drawn to were aloof and dry-witted and into underground music. Half of me was just like them, but the other half identified with everyone and loved being other people on stage.
I couldn’t reconcile the two sides of me. I felt I made sense to nobody, least of all myself. The thought of my cool friends and the thespians at a party together with only me in common made me want to book a sinkhole in advance.
One of my conflicting identities had to go and it was curtains for the side that loved acting.
I turned my back on something I loved in order to be accepted. No one even asked me to. Can I take five minutes for a silent sob?
From that point on, begrudgery burned inside me when I met anyone who acted. Going to the theatre hurt. I was jealous of the cast. Didn’t they know I was just as good but circumstance forbade me from trying?
I just couldn’t see it being open to me, with my flaky identity, absent resilience and lack of bankrolling parents. I envied the actors their freedom to choose. I was fully sour grapes.
Every so often I’d pluck up the courage to take some secret action.
I tried a local theatre group to see how that might feel. But they made us roar and do dramary warm-ups. It was excruciating to me.
Some people seemed to get off on it so I decided they all felt the same. Yes, it must be pitched at the shameless show-offs I didn’t want to be aligned with.
I tried open auditions instead and a bit of extras work. But a real job and rent were calling. I had to grow up and stop dreaming.
It hurt to acknowledge what I wanted and know it would be forever out of reach. The pain was just too painful.
So I packed my passion into a box and nailed down the lid so it couldn’t get out. It breaks my heart but there it is.
Two decades passed. Not without love or joy or fun. But without this thing I adored and with a roiling episodic bitterness in its place.
But after my counselling confession, I plucked up the courage to google. Fingers and a keyboard. Not an obvious nemesis for most, I’m sure, but a big one for me nonetheless.
I learned about an acting workshop in my city that anyone could go to. They worked from decent TV scripts. I knew I had to be brave.
A few days later, I walked to a studio straight from work, my nerves tugging on my sleeve and pleading for a one-eighty and home.
My legs were jelly. My saliva went awol. My heart sub-woofed in my ears. I honestly doubt that pursuit by a tiger could have upped my heart rate any more.
Somewhere along the way, I picked up a facial twitch and shed all my social skills. Once there, I smiled inanely at everyone and sweated a lot.
When I tried to speak, a teenage-boy crackle came out. I could hear myself heavy-breathing.
That night we did scenes from Chernobyl. What an incredible start. We learnt some dos and don’ts of screen acting and talked about character and backstory.
It was so many things I loved all at once and it felt like coming home. I met people who thought like I did and got the chance to explore a passion in a way I hadn’t since my teens.
And nobody mentioned the sweat thing or asked me why I was panting. They were all really kind instead.
In the weeks that followed, we studied scenes from The Crown and The Virtues. We examined and practised accents. We filmed ourselves and learnt breathing techniques to calm the nerves I’d assumed only I would be feeling.
During Covid, it all moved online but carried on being incredible. We had sessions with well-known British actors, directors and producers, with casting agents and screenwriters. We practised self-taping and I learnt loads of lines. My heart and hope came back to life.
We’re back in the flesh now and I go most weeks but sometimes I almost duck out. I’m too flat or self-doubting to face it. But then I remember what it gives me.
The full-body panic because it matters too much is a bright flashing arrow pointing directly at the dopamine payoff that awaits if I push through the terror and try.
My pulse still races sometimes doing scenes in front of the others. I don’t want to look like a dick.
No, scrub that. I want to be the best! Look at me and tell me I’m brilliant! It’s a foolish narcissism I need to gouge out. It does nothing but stand in my way.
Being too proud and taking failure to heart are two sides of the same ugly coin after all and I need to fail more this year. I have to if I want to get better.
Being competitive is also completely delusional. Everyone at the workshop is better than me. Lots of them act for money.
I assumed I’d be bitter about their skills and status, but instead it’s exciting and inspiring to work with people who do their thing so well. It makes me want to up my game in a wholly non-combative manner.
I really wouldn’t want to be famous and I don’t see all actors as cool. But I’ve always loved acting for acting’s sake. I’d lost sight of how precious that is.
And there’s been a happy knock-on effect that I hadn’t seen coming at all. I’ve been a bit more courageous all round since I started.
I’ve felt more willing to reveal my fears instead of feigning confidence. I always thought that would make me feel weak but instead it’s making me stronger.
I’ve offered my thoughts at screenwriting workshops and sent self-tapes to casting agents. I could shudder in shame that I didn’t hear back, but instead I feel proud that I tried.
We went to Brittany the summer after I first started acting again and I spoke more French than I had for years. It just kept coming out. I chatted to a man up a ladder who was picking giant figs from his tree, I talked to a posh Parisian about pancakes and I even did a dog joke that made some francophone campers laugh.
I felt the fear each time, but the memory of the payoff was fresh in my mind so I went for it regardless.
Therapy’s helped as well. I can hold my own hand now and say, ‘Of course you’re afraid and that’s fine.’ And if things don’t turn out as I’d hoped, I no longer replay my mistakes in my head till I want to climb out of my skin.
Fear begets fear and envy and shame. They’re not lying about that shit. But luckily the reverse is true too. I think tiny acts of courage can bring exponential growth.
I want my daughters to be happy. They must do what they love as well as they can and salute themselves for trying. And I must show them how.
So I’m gonna beat this bastard. I’m ready for a bare-knuckle fight. Or maybe a pretend one for the cameras. Either way, the battle is on.
Tuesday night’s an odd time to peak but that’s when it happens for me. I glow warmly all the way home from my class. And I bounce back up the road in the dark, no longer afraid of the shadows.