At the time I was offered the role of Olivia on The Waltons
, a family TV drama that aired in the 1970s, I had hit rock-bottom. I was drinking too much, and I felt lost. My life was a stark contrast to the idyllic scenes portrayed by Olivia and her family. The path that had led me to this point began with a childhood that was enchanting in some ways and confusing in others.
I was the oldest of six girls in a family that moved many times during my growing-up years because my father worked for the government. During our travels, I was exposed to different cultures, languages, and beliefs.
My parents were charismatic, interesting people who were a little overwhelmed with being parents. They taught us to have good manners, but they didn't quite let us be children.
We curtsied when we met people and stood up when an adult entered or left a room. This became a rather comical routine whenever my parents had an argument. When my mother became angry and raced out of the room, my sisters and I would all stand up. Just about the time we would sit down again, my father would leave the room to find her, and we would all pop up one more time.
When I was twelve years old, we moved to Austria. We were there for only six months when my parents sent me off to a boarding school in England. After winning the drama cup my first year, I studied drama there for the next three years.
By the time I was in high school, I was in the United States and had been to so many different schools that I lost interest in studying—but not in boys. At sixteen I participated in a Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut, where I met and fell in love with Peter, another aspiring actor. Immediately my parents shipped me back to England, but when I came back to the States a year later, Peter and I married.
By the age of twenty-four, I had three sons and was trying very hard to be the perfect '50s wife and mother. Once, Peter came home early and surprised me. I was so upset with myself: I started sobbing because I hadn't had time to clean the house, take a shower, get the kids cleaned up, and have dinner ready.
Our generation didn't talk about feelings or problems. Peter and I did have problems, and eventually we divorced. By the time my kids hit their adolescent stages, I was thirty-two and didn't have a clue about who I was.
A Closer Look
I was doing theater in San Francisco, acting in a play called Private Lives
. It was a big hit and we were going to be taking it on tour, but as a single parent, I knew I wasn't making enough money. My agent had told me that the producers of The Waltons
were looking for someone to replace Patricia Neal. I didn't want to work in television, I felt I was wrong for the part, and I was terrified of the Hollywood scene. But I did have three children to support, so during a two-week hiatus from the play, I reluctantly went to L.A. to audition. I stayed in a little hotel with a bottle of bourbon for strength and a Raggedy Ann doll for comfort.
During the audition, I felt as if I were in a fog. I was in so much emotional pain. But even so, I landed the role. I believe God was watching over me and leading me.
Being cast in The Waltons
helped financially, but I was drinking too much, and I knew I had to take a good, hard look at myself. When I did, I discovered my codependent ways. I had spent my life either trying to please other people or trying to manipulate them into doing what I wanted them to do. Whatever illusions I had about myself had been shattered.
I decided to get sober, and that's when I began an incredible spiritual journey. I went to my ex-husband's isolated cabin on the California coast. There I faced the fear of being alone for the first time in my life.
During my ten-day stay there, I walked along the beach observing the pounding surf. I silently watched herds of elk and white-tailed deer. One foggy day, I was lying on the beach, more relaxed and at peace than I could ever remember being. As I ran my fingers through the sand, I was amazed at all the tiny, different colored pieces that made up the sand.
I thought about how humanity is like the sand. We as individuals are tiny cells that make up the whole. We each have a role to fill and our own spiritual journey to complete. And as we do, we contribute to the health and wholeness of humanity.
That day on the beach, I transcended fear and concern during a time of meditation. I had reached a state of peace that I had so desperately needed and tried to achieve through alcohol. I didn't know whether I had meditated for a second, a minute, or an hour, but I knew I was filled with this incredible sense of bliss.
Mine has been both a wonderful journey and a painful one. At times I felt as if I were at the bottom of a slimy well, trying to crawl out. Sometimes I would even get to the top of the well and then just slide right back down.
I married for a second time, and again there were problems. But by this time, I had learned that I couldn't help this man unless he wanted to help himself. I am a great believer in prayer, and when I prayed to God to remove the challenge from our marriage, my second marriage broke up. Although I don't advocate divorce, I don't believe I could have made it out of that well of fear and confusion while still in that marriage.
My journey has helped me grow as a human being. I was willing to go through more pain to get out of the pain. Discomfort can be a motivator for growth. I have changed, but I still try to help people who want to be helped. I just don't “over help.”
I haven't had a drink in over twenty-five years. I met a wonderful man who loves and accepts me just as I am—even with my character defects. John and I have been married for fourteen years. My three sons are grown and married, and I have five grandchildren. I am a happy, settled person now.
My life is so wonderful today that it is beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Still, I keep praying, asking God to keep me in check so that I don't take any blessing in my life for granted.
Michael Learned is the recipient of four Emmy Awards for “Best Actress” and has appeared in numerous television, feature film, and stage productions. She and her husband, John Doherty, reside in California.
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