Why Abandoning My Acting Dreams Nearly Killed Me (Sort Of)

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Every year for the last ten years, I’ve watched the Oscars with a pit in my stomach.

No, it’s not because I’m emotionally invested in who wins or loses (half the time I haven’t even seen most of the movies), nor is it because I’ve eaten too many chips or chocolate covered almonds (though that probably contributes at least a little bit).

I’ve had a pit in my stomach every February for the last ten years because in 2005 I walked away from my acting dream. I did half of my BFA in acting at the University of British Columbia, switched to an English degree (to do something more “practical”), got myself an agent, and went on the audition circuit only to book…nothing. Two years later, after a lot of unpaid theatre gigs and even more waitressing hours, I quit acting in order to move to Ottawa and pursue my Master’s degree in International Affairs (again, to be more practical). I didn’t quit because I fell out of love with acting, or because I felt I wasn’t good enough.

I quit because I was scared.

I was scared that I had a chosen a totally irresponsible profession, that I would be waiting tables for the rest of my life, and that I would never “make it”. I was scared because I was clinging to a childhood dream and who was I kidding, really, to believe that I could be at the Oscars one day, reciting the speech that I had written every year since 1985?

So I moved on, leaving behind the silly childhood dream I’d had since I was five. Those were kid dreams, after all, and I was twenty-five, which was clearly the age to grow up already. I moved to Ottawa with my husband, completed my MA, did some really amazing (and at times intensely terrifying) research in Colombia, had a baby, and then moved on to my PhD, did some research in Ecuador (while pregnant) and then had another baby.

But for all of those years, most of the time, I was deeply conflicted. I agonized over whether I had made the right choice. I cried at the end of every term because I so deeply missed being creative. I watched friends take leaps and bounds in their theatre and film careers. I watched old classmates sail from obscurity into envious fame. Every time someone I knew succeeded, I felt sick, which made me feel like a bad person because what kind of person feels sick about her friends’ success?

It wasn’t that I didn’t want success for them, I really did. I just wanted it for myself too. And I had let myself down by quitting. But I was too far into academia now, too successful in my new chosen vocation, too tied down with family. Too invested. Too old. Too far from Toronto or Vancouver. I had a hundred reasons to not return to acting.

Then a nuclear bomb went off in my life.

At age thirty-two, halfway through my PhD, with a three-year-old son and a nine-month-old daughter, I was suddenly diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), given weeks to live without treatment, and assaulted with the most aggressive cancer treatment available.

Needless to say, it was looking pretty bleak for me. I had one of the worst strains of AML (10% survival rate) and ended up needing a bone marrow transplant to survive. I wondered if my kids would remember me. I wondered who would raise them with my husband. Who would replace me? I wondered what I had done to deserve this. I wondered if the stress of academia had caused it. And I was filled with an intense, all-consuming regret that I had spent the previous five years in an academic career that I was really good at but didn’t really love. I had never given acting a real shot, and now I never would. 

Rachel Schmidt

Take it from someone who knows: you do not want to be on your deathbed regretting that you smothered your dreams for ten years only to find out that now you’re out of time.

Fast-forward several years. I recovered from cancer (it wasn’t pretty), grew my hair back, regained all the lost muscle, wrote a novel, turned myself into a triathlete, and, finally, got myself an agent.

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Then something crazy happened. I went out for my first audition (a commercial) and booked it. I went out for my second audition (a small role in a TV show) and booked that too. I was utterly stunned. In two weeks I had booked more work than I had booked in a year of auditioning in my early twenties.

Because sometimes, it’s just not your time. Yet.

I have no idea what’s going to happen. I have no idea how much more work I will book, or how I will juggle it with my yoga and writing work, driving five hours each way to Toronto, not to mention my family. But somehow, I will make it work.

I’ve made it this far and I’ve been through much scarier things. I survived cancer and radiation and chemo. I survived having someone else’s immune system put into my body.

So this year, I watched the Oscars without a pit in my stomach. I watched it with joy and hope and the comfort of knowing that at the very least, I was trying. I wrote a new speech this year, not because I am delusional, but because I haven’t given up on myself.

To think I used to find failure scary is laughable now. Dying is scary. Failure comes nowhere close.

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Rachel Schmidt

About Rachel Schmidt

Rachel Schmidt is a writer, actor, editor, and therapeutic yoga instructor based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. She is a “recovering” Type A personality with a Master’s degree in International Affairs and half a PhD, which she abandoned after being diagnosed with leukemia and deciding to overhaul her life. She blogs (not nearly often enough) about her post-cancer, chimeric, triathlete life at www.rachelschmidt.ca and you can follow her on Twitter @rachelschmidt.

  • Ryan Callaway

    Thanks for sharing this, Rachel. I work with a lot of talented up and coming actors who identify with the struggle and I was on the verge of giving up on directing/writing myself not long ago. I had figured if I hadn’t “made it” after six years I was never going to. Then my wife knocked some sense into my head and pointed out all the successful people who went many more years than me before they hit their stride. And this year things are looking really fantastic so it’s fortunate she was as supportive as she was. Anyway, you’re right if you could conquer what you did – a career in the biz and the Oscars ain’t nothin’! Congrats!

  • William Lee

    That is awesome. Went through a similar issue in 1997, when I was diagnosed with Lupus which almost took me out. A year of on and off chemo, then got back to life but thought my career was over. Luckily, in 2001, got back in and never looked back. Kudos!

  • Bismarck26

    I feel her pain and joy at the same time.