You Never Really Start Over

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“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. The old skin has to be shed before the new one can come.” – Joseph Campbell

When I was 26 years old, I attended Jennifer Aniston’s 30th birthday party thrown by her then husband Brad Pitt. This was a much sought-after invitation and my talent manager/boss invited me to go along. It was going to be me, Jen, Brad and 1200 of our closest friends.

Just knowing that I was going to this “exclusive” party made me feel like a real Hollywood Insider.

At any other birthday party, you would go right up to the birthday girl and wish her a happy birthday. Hollywood parties are different. You may never meet the host or hostess and most of the time people just walk around looking to see who else is there. If you do end up engaging in a conversation with someone, they spend the majority of the time looking over your shoulder to see if there is someone “better” to talk to.

It would make for a great Hollywood story if I had realized right then and there that this was not the place for me. I would have an amazing “aha” moment, the skies would open up, I would walk out the door and drive off into the sunset for bigger and better things.

My story was much messier.

As long as I could remember I wanted to work in the entertainment business. The summer before my senior year of college, I should have been off getting tan like my friends. Instead I was working 40+ hours a week interning (for free) in the publicity department at Columbia Pictures. I wanted to be a success and knew that I needed this “in” on my resume to propel me forward.

And it did—after much sweat, blood, tears, and traversing the country. After multiple jobs in Boston and San Francisco, I finally got “the” job as an assistant at a mid-level talent agency in LA.

Working in the entertainment business is no joke. In SF, I was kinda someone. In LA, I was no one.

As an assistant, you are paid very little and worked to death. I worked most days until 7 or 8, but usually later. Trying to have a social life is a joke because you never knew what time you were going to be able to leave work. If your boss was working, you were working. When I talk now about this time in my life, I always compare it to being in a war.

Close to a year of working these long, crazy hours, I had the opportunity to work for a talent manager. The talent manager I worked for was an anomaly. She was warm, supportive and treated me like family. The hours and pay were better and she truly wanted to help me with my career. She believed in me and was willing to promote me.

I was a junior manager for a top talent manager in LA. We represented big name actors and actresses. I “hob-nobbed” with Jennifer and Brad. I finally made it – right?

I kept thinking that once I got promoted, I would be happy. Once I started making X amount of money, I would be happy. The problem was, I wasn’t happy. I started to sink into pockets of depression. It would hit me like a wave and no matter what I did, I could not shake out of it.

Anything would set me off; a casting director yelling at me, having to work later than I thought, someone canceling plans on me. I found myself more and more in the bathroom stall crying for no reason at all. I moved apartments thinking that would make it better. I started making lots of plans, meeting people for drinking, coffee, dinner,—anything to feel like I was having the fabulous life Hollywood promised me.

By the summer of 2000, I made the decision that I didn’t want to be a talent manager any longer. My plan was to stay in LA and take a couple of months off to “find myself.” Maybe I would work on a set or for a big studio. Maybe I would do something I had never tried before. I had not had any time off in years. I thought this was the answer. Once I was no longer working so hard and was removed from the business for a while, my “aha” moment would appear.

My last day at work was a Friday. I spent the weekend relaxing and thinking about all the things I was going to do now that I was “free.” Then I got a call from a former college roommate. Amy sounded different. She said she had some terrible news… Our friend Heather had died. She was at a concert… she took something… it made her sick… she was found lying on the ground. My mind was swirling.

Heather was the person I had always wanted to be. She was fun, relaxed and carefree. She made me laugh and let go.

After I got back from New York for her funeral, I returned to LA in a daze. What now? I was out of a job and quickly running out of money. Part of me felt that I needed to stay in LA because I had put all this time and energy into my career, and the idea of giving up everything I had worked for seemed overwhelming. I didn’t want to start over again.

To make sense of it all, I kept asking myself: “What would Heather do?” In my heart I knew what she would do: she would leave and find something that makes her happy. Which is exactly what I did.

But there was no Hollywood movie moment to be had in this transition. Returning back home to live with my mother was not easy. I had no job and no money.  I hadn’t thought about any other career path. My resume was full of entertainment jobs, and there weren’t many of those in San Francisco.

I was physically and mentally exhausted. I was in my late twenties but felt like I was 50.

I eventually found that I switched thinking from what should I do to what could I do? I started by asking myself what I did like about my job, as hard as that seemed at the time.  The one thing that kept coming back to me was that I really liked talking to the clients. I liked helping them with their problems. I liked listening to them and feeling like what I said meant something to them. I wondered, could I be a therapist?

The one and only psychology course I took in college was freshmen year Psychology Statistics, which I only took so I could get one of my math requirements out of the way. Nevertheless, I decided to take an Intro to Psychology course at the local community college, and I was hooked.

This felt right. I could do this.

Even with that awareness (I had a path!) I was pretty jaded those first few years back in SF. My ego was bruised, and I felt like a fool coming back home with my tail between my legs. While it had been my choice to leave Hollywood, I still felt like a loser because I was not strong enough to “hack it” in the biz.

Then gradually something shifted. I discovered that I wasn’t  starting over. I wasn't that naïve, unsure 22 year old. I knew what hard work was. I knew what it was like to lose someone. I knew the value of friends.

I started a new career, but I didn’t start over.

There is an expression I use with my clients now when they feel fearful of making a big career move: “You never go back to square one.” I like to think of a career trajectory like a board game. As you learn and grow at work, you are moving one square closer to the “finish” line. There are times when you need to take a detour or you get stuck on a square for a while. There will also be times when you draw a bad card and you are sent all the way back to the beginning.

We all have regrets in life, but for me, leaving Hollywood and the “business” isn’t one of them.  My previous work experience helped me tremendously during my first internship, and my Masters in Counseling, and my first experiences with therapy clients, and every day since. It took me a good 10 years to get “really good” at being a therapist—but I didn’t start from square one.

Tess Brigham