This past February, I decided to join the app Cameo and record messages for fans to raise money for the Actors Fund. For $100 a pop, I would talk directly to you with a tone of familiarity, perhaps mentioning your school or your favorite Broadway show. I was expecting requests to send birthday wishes or make Valentine’s Day videos. There were a lot of those, plus one man who asked me to promote his homemade erectile dysfunction medication. (To that I said, “No, thank you, sir.”)
But there was another huge chunk of requests that I was not expecting. Daily, I heard from young people, often in high school, sometimes older, many identifying as queer, others not specifying, all seeking messages of encouragement: statements from me saying, “You are OK,” “You are enough,” “You are going to be all right.”
I was surprised by this. I was saddened by this. I was also encouraged by this. I never would have had the courage to reach out to someone like that. To ask a stranger for a personal show of empathy. For guidance.
The more I told people that they were OK, that they were enough, that they would be all right, the more I realized how much I needed to say those words. I was in need of connection and comfort, too. These interactions were more complex than I’d imagined.
For one thing, it was hard to feel sure I was hearing about real problems from real people. Sure, someone might claim to be a teenage girl in Minnesota, but in actuality the person could be a 50-year-old man in Florida. And then some requests were wildly specific in their asking for certain phrases to be used. What if it was a dog whistle for some group I didn’t agree with? Some were from men asking me to help them get back together with their ex-girlfriends. I don’t know you, bro! She might be better off without you!
But there was something larger that made me nervous. Oftentimes when I was reading these requests, alone in my Manhattan apartment, trying to imagine what these people might be going through, what might be helpful to say, I was also managing my own significant mood swings. The past year had been a pick and mix of emotion for the entire world, and I was definitely grabbing with everyone else. There were good days and not-so-good days and really awful days that blurred and stretched into a year of often feeling very out of control. I had weeks when I was not OK.
To be clear, I was lucky to have my health and some writing projects when acting was on hold, and I had enough purpose early in the pandemic to wake up, shower and get dressed, sometimes in an overly formal outfit, considering I was never seeing anyone in person. But then the deadlines would be reached, and I would find myself with nothing to do. Zoom calls weren’t as fulfilling as they once were. Online shopping that once brought me such joy was leaving me numb. Socializing in person wasn’t an option. So my home cocktail hour started earlier — 5 p.m. became 3 p.m., which became 1 p.m.
Soon I was drinking alone and watching way too much TV and spiraling into panic and despair. I started forgetting things, missing business phone calls because I didn’t write them down correctly. Or worse, I started taking those calls with a cocktail in my hand. At first I thought no one would suspect it. Who would be drinking at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday? I could handle it. I didn’t sound drunk. I was fine. But I wasn’t. I was getting progressively messier and more reckless.
I told myself that I was doing this because I was bored, because I lacked activity. Really it was more than that. I was lonely. I felt isolated. And the activity I was choosing to distract myself — drinking — was making these feelings stronger and more present rather than making them fade away.
I play pretend for a living. That’s my job. And even when not asked to use a script, on a talk show or a podcast, for example, I would develop my own. Yes, I am myself in those moments, but only the best possible version of myself. Cameo seemed like an extension of that skill. I would be me, but just the best me. This is what I was being hired to do. This is what people were expecting from this experience.
Who was I to be depressed? I was healthy. My family was healthy. I have a successful career. I didn’t have nearly the scale of problems other people did, so what right did I have to complain or ask for help?
But I did need help. I, too, needed someone to tell me it was going to be OK. That I was OK. I rarely reached out for that. Now here I was, sitting at my desk, being asked to encourage strangers to keep going, to have hope, to trust that things will be OK. But did I believe that myself? Could I say these things and make them sound true? Was that public best version of myself enough to actually help these people? If I didn’t believe him myself, would they believe him?
I once heard the actor and singer Christine Ebersole say in one of her cabaret acts, “What words can I give you that will comfort me at this time?” I think that’s exactly what I came to feel while making those videos. It was self-serving to allow these people asking for help to distract me from my own woes, but that’s exactly what it did. And I began to think that maybe I should be brave enough to ask for my own help, to reach out to people close to me and allow myself to be vulnerable and honest about what I was feeling.
Realizing that there is a problem is a step in the right direction, but how do you change your course? I didn’t have a clear answer for myself, so I decided to throw out a wide net hoping to catch something helpful. I went back to regular therapy. I found some new productive activities, a couple of meditation apps, a few self-help books. I returned to a regular workout routine. I reached out to loved ones with more frequency and tried to be honest about where I was. None of this was an instant fix. Sharing my feelings didn’t mean they went away. There’s no guarantee of instant acceptance or a release from anxiety or sadness. But I was moving toward feeling less isolated and alone. All of these little changes in my mind-set and routine started to make a difference. I started to feel like a better me.
On days when I am not feeling so hot, I make it a point to not shy away from that feeling. I don’t try to chase it away or distract myself; I acknowledge it. There is something freeing about saying, “Well, today sucks!” and then continuing with your day.
If I could remake those Cameo videos, I think this is what I would have said right off the bat:
I hear you.
I’m not a mental health professional. I tell stories and sometimes sing for a living. And while a high, belty tenor is sometimes fun to listen to, it probably won’t pull you out of this funk entirely. But I do hear you, and I feel you, and I am sharing my own struggles with you. I think I get it. At least a part of it.
These past months have been really hard. I have felt sad in ways that I have never felt before. Then I feel guilty for feeling sad, which always leads me to feeling depressed. And that leads to acting out in all sorts of ways that usually are not healthy or helpful. But you know what? Most people are feeling the same way right now, and while that’s not necessarily comforting, what it does mean is that if we are brave enough to say how we are feeling out loud, hopefully those people will also feel brave enough to share their feelings with us.
We can be lonely and sad together, which might make us less lonely and probably will make us less sad. At least it’s worth a shot, right? Thank you for reaching out, and thank you for letting me reach out to you.
They are still just nice words without many facts to back them up, but sometimes nice words — given and received — are exactly what we need.
Andrew Rannells has starred in several Broadway productions, including “The Book of Mormon” and “Falsettos,” earning Tony Award nominations for both. He is now in “Black Monday” on Showtime and is the author of “Too Much Is Not Enough,” a memoir. He is on Instagram.
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