In 2012, I landed a dream job playing Princess Jasmine in aAladdin” show at the Disneyland Resort. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it was magical. The show was a full stage production with beautiful sets and costumes. The theater had 2,000 seats, larger than most Broadway houses, and the audience was always packed.
When I wasn’t playing a literal princess on stage, I was floating three stories above on a magic carpet as Jasmine’s body doubled during “A whole new world.” I also had a decent wage, health insurance, and a 401k.
But two years later, everything in my life fell apart. I went from a full-time job in a job I loved to completely unemployed. The show didn’t close. I was not released. I quit…More Now I know better.
I am a professional entertainer and I also have an anxiety disorder called panic disorder. Those with panic disorder often experience panic attacks where they experience a rush of adrenaline, resulting in symptoms such as palpitations, shortness of breath, and intense fear. The panic attacks are so bad that you start living in fear of the panic itself, which can cause more panic attacks. It’s incredibly common – nearly 20% of the US population lives with an anxiety disorder.
Normally my performance is not much affected by my disorder. My panic triggers are typically physical: feeling dizzy, weak, dehydrated, overheated, or overtired. Being on stage in front of thousands? No problem. Invigorating even.
My antidepressants put a shelf under me that doesn’t make me panic as easily, I have self awareness and coping tools I learned in therapy to lessen it when it comes on, and when I have a panic attack on the job I just do it anxious. I refuse to let this condition stop me from chasing my dreams.
But in late 2013, I had a traumatic experience outside of work and ended up in a major mental health freefall. I panicked every day, most of the day, and after a few weeks of this I was both physically and emotionally exhausted. Depression started. I cried constantly. Eventually, my poor mental health began to affect my work.
As Jasmine, I was expected to do two shows a day in the lead role, and two shows in the dual chorus/body role. I shared the day with another actress. Being a choir member is a fairly low stake; if something happens backstage and you fail a scene, chances are the show won’t be affected. But as Jasmine, once the show starts, it’s partly on your shoulders for the next 45 minutes.
I was so stressed, so afraid of my own body, that it felt like I was trapped when I stepped into that role. A spike of anxiety at the five-minute conversation would make me burst into tears and declare I couldn’t do the show. My counterpart of the day would have to rush to put on the costume so the show could start on time.
I knew I was letting my colleagues down, and I was deeply ashamed as I imagined what they thought of me. I couldn’t bear to have that feeling confirmed by being fired for poor performance, so I quit. I didn’t want to lose the job, but I knew it would take several months without stress to get back on my feet. Later that year I lost my health insurance with the company.
I spent the next year quietly healing. I found a part-time job as a typist and transcribed behind-the-scenes interviews for Marvel movies. I bought ACA-subsidized health insurance and went to therapy several times a week. And then I bought a microphone, started auditioning for animation and audiobooks, and started building a voiceover career.
I thought about going back to “Aladdin” always. I was so ashamed of the way I had left the show that I didn’t even maintain many relationships with the cast I loved. I was afraid they thought less of me. (That was my shame for talking, they didn’t).
Even though I was performing again, the thought of playing Jasmine brought back so many deep-seated memories of that darkest period of my life. I auditioned again a year to join the choir, but I was not accepted.
Years later, while researching a book I was writing for young adults with panic disorder, I learned something amazing. It would have been illegal for me to be fired from that job because like someone with any other chronic illness or injury or disability, diagnosed mental illnesses are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This means that you cannot legally be fired, demoted, or given dissimilar treatment at work because of your mental health condition. So, like my colleague who, when he had a back injury flare-up, was able to take on a role that didn’t require him to do his usual backflip; I was eligible for reasonable accommodations during the flare-up of my chronic condition.
According to the Job Accommodation Network (a great resource for anyone curious to learn more about their rights at work under the ADA), Reasonable accommodations may include “job restructuring,” “part-time or modified work schedules,” or even “medical leave.”
I eventually returned to work part-time for the Disneyland Resort in a few shows and special events, armed with my newfound knowledge. I had always found the nightly dress rehearsals exciting. A shift that went from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. was basically a guaranteed panic attack.
I asked for accommodation that would allow me to do my dress rehearsals at the start of the shift and allow me to leave at 1am. doctor before going through different departments for review. But eventually my accommodation was awarded. (I never got a chance to use the property. Soon after, the pandemic closed the resort for a year and I decided to retire from my theme park career).
If you have a problem with diagnosed depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, or another mental illness, you may also qualify for some time off, working from home a few days a week, getting a new job, or taking a service animal to the office. In my “Aladdin” days reassignment to a temporary role in the chorus would have been a perfect solution. I could have kept a salary and my health insurance during that challenging time in my life.
Employees, it is up to you to know and defend these rights. Employers are unlikely to offer them for free. My employer certainly didn’t share these solutions when I was willing to make the “problem” caused by my chronic condition go away on its own.
Today my mental health is in a great place. I will always be an anxious person, but I manage well and rarely panic now. I am blessed to work full time in voice over and on camera. It is an exciting job and much more lucrative than a stage career, although I do miss the feeling that you can only be in the spotlight.
But here’s what I know now that I wish I’d known then: My mental health condition is not a character flaw or personal failure. I earn the same rights at work as others.
Reba Buhr, author of Take you to a therapist is an actress, presenter and voiceover artist based in Los Angeles, California. Reba is also an outspoken advocate for mental health.
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