Casting calls me at three in the afternoon.
“Just a heads up! Be prepared for an early morning call time tomorrow!”
It's standard practice in this industry and I am crossing my fingers, hoping for a four or five AM start. By 7PM that evening, I get my details and am asked to report to an obscure location in Brooklyn at 1:00AM with five sexy wardrobe options. Heels required. Early morning? I do the math and realize I need to pack my suitcase, skip dinner, pop half an Ambien and darken the apartment immediately. This routine is too familiar and made easier by the fact I now share a one-bedroom apartment with my significant other and not the 225-square-foot studio that that made this regimen nearly impossible a year prior. The boyfriend is equally relieved that our new apartment means he can breathe, get a glass of water, and walk the dog without me launching into a sedative-frenzied tirade.
My doctor is affiliated with an actor's clinic and is hesitant to prescribe Ambien until I promise I will only use it for last-minute bookings when I need to radically change my sleep schedule for a shoot. He gives me a script for twenty pills and sympathizes. He wouldn't want my career to be hindered by lack of sleep and wishes me much success. I'm not sure he realizes success in this business will equal even less sleep.
It's 6AM and I'm on another commercial shoot, standing in for an international fashion model while she is getting prettied up. This job entails the less glamorous (if there even is any glamour at all) aspect of standing in heels for hours while the crew works on lighting setups, finishing touches on the set, and camera moves. My job also requires me to be the guinea pig for any preliminary shot that could be dangerous or “artistic” and commonly has included a speeding camera on a crane that spins towards me from a hundred feet away, traveling from the soundstage ceiling diagonally towards my closed eyelids within inches of my face. But on this specific morning, I'm standing on a slick black skinny plexiglass stage that is mounted six feet in the air as a camera zooms around. My lack-of-sleep-induced nausea and imbalance is not mixing well with the trifecta of a hot studio, blinding lights, and my incredible fear of heights. I bite my lip to the point of nearly drawing blood, willing away the feeling that I am about to faint, and do what I am told for the next hour. My work has spared the hero (the name given to the “star” of a commercial) any of this experience as the ad agency decides to scrap the entire setup because it's not right for the campaign. But with adrenaline coursing through my veins, I no longer need to worry about ingesting caffeine this morning. I'm fully awake.
The director of production on this shoot will run into me on a night shoot in a few years and tease me in front of the entire crew, claiming "Hey! You're that girl that fainted on the cosmetic shoot!" I am humiliated that he keeps saying this because I am not that girl but at the same time I am relieved that my honed skills of fighting off unconsciousness worked and feel a kinship suddenly with all the other women in my shoes who struggled with these demands. I thought I was the only one.
A few weeks later it's my first twenty-one hour nonstop day for a shoot on a high-profile film with an Academy Award-winning director and we are finally wrapped. The night before (day before?) I heard one of the stars (you'd recognize him) ask if we will have an early wrap since there is no dialogue on the page and most of the scenes are going to be a montage. This would typically mean that all shots could be captured in a few hours- tops. But this blockbuster-making director smirks and with dramatic effect sings out, “We're gonna go aaaaaaalhlllll night!” Easy for him to say, since every few hours the director retreats to his trailer for a nap while the crew and actors continue to work. A makeup artist reveals to me how she misses the 80's, when they would all do lines of coke off the Panavision to keep fresh. On the way home from this marathon of a shoot, the same casting office who got me this gig attempts to pressure me into another shoot that will begin in two hours. I'm warned about being blacklisted for refusing. I can't keep up with this life and actually welcome being shunned.
At this point in my life, anxiety has become like my own shadow, we are so tight. My circadian rhythm is out of sorts and I turn to yoga and meditation. I attend the Ignite Conference in New York, organized by Hayhouse and the late Wayne Dyer, and I suddenly sense a big shift must come. And this shift is going to require some sleep. My dreams of success over the years have led me to a remarkably dissatisfying and unhealthy life. Every free chance I get, I spread across the hardwood floor of my apartment and listen to guided meditations on YouTube for manifesting, speaking with my spiritual guide, insomnia, anxiety, stress-- you name it. My boyfriend teases me after a three hour session one night, absolutely shocked that anyone can meditate for that long! But I think back to the breathing exercises. The waking meditations while standing still for hours on a set being scrutinized by the eyes of fifty strangers. I recall the techniques I have used to stay calm in the most perilous of situations where even greater than the peril is this self-sabotaging idea that I have no voice.
This re-connection with my inner self takes me back to the creative artist within. To that little spark of talent and the inherent love for storytelling and music that propelled me from being a poor kid in upstate New York to a teen who moved to Manhattan and put herself through college to graduate at the age of nineteen. I feel empowered and suddenly find myself saying “no” a lot. I put my health and happiness first and commit to volunteering and helping others. I need money, as I always do, but I find I need sanity a lot more. And suddenly things start to come easier to me- financially, personally, and professionally. The terror of turning down work and of changing my path dissipates the moment I change my intentions to living a healthy, fulfilling life. If I make it sound easy, it isn't. I grapple with my love of creation and ideas of success juxtaposed to the entertainment business and the toxicity that comes with it.
Last year, I fully launched my own YouTube meditation and hypnosis channel, www.michellessanctuary.com, creating recordings with messages I needed to hear throughout the sleepless years of a struggling artist. At first, nurturing it in secret and not even telling my closest family and friends, I sought to just connect with the viewers who happened to find me. After years of self-promotion and the exhaustive judgment from decision makers, I wanted a safe place where I could use my voice. A sanctuary. A place where sleep is celebrated and I can offer a drug-free alternative to people, who like me, may have a hard time quelling their racing minds and unplugging after a long day. It's amazing how much better we can be as contributors to our loved ones, our jobs, and society when we put sleep, self-care, and mental health as a priority. Perspective becomes clearer and new doors begin to open when given a sanctuary and the time to retreat there and just listen.
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