El Jenko 3.0 or How a Pirate, a Tango, an Exploding Apartment, and a Stolen Car Helped Me Find Happiness
Rebuilding your life is hard. I've been really honest and open about my struggles over the last few years with anxiety and depression. I didn't ask for this to be in my life, but it is. I wish this wasn't a thing that I still have to face and deal with. Anxiety and depression have caused me to miss out on a lot of experiences over the past few years because I wasn't strong enough to fight it, much less overcome it. So I gave in. I talked myself out of opportunities that normal people do regularly. Parties, concerts, dates, weddings, lake trips with friends, leaving the house. That kind of thing. The last year or so I've become a lot stronger and more mentally well. Recovery takes time.
When I was in my dark times, I was just surviving and not living. I hurt people and made mistakes. I've apologized to people that I felt I needed to and that's been a part of my healing. I still get sad, depressed and anxious but not as bad as before. A lot of times over the last year I wasn't ready to fully be me mentally and emotionally. I could not to mine own self be true. That truth was still being raised out of the ashes. I had a few more demons to deal with this year. I've fought with them and come out on top. Some days I felt as strong as a lion. Other days I could barely get out of bed and just laid there and cried and let self-loathing kick my teeth in. But I kept going. I'm a fighter. I get back up. I brushed myself off and faced the day.
As many of you know I've been fortunate enough to begin performing again. A couple of years ago, I told myself I wouldn't perform again. I was done. But I just needed more time to heal and learn who I became after walking through the fire. I was Smee in Peter Pan, and I auditioned for that on a whim. I was just walking by Springfield Little Theatre, decided to audition and I got cast. I needed that silly little character to remind me how fun the stage was and to wash away the doubt I had still. It wasn't easy. It was hard at times. So hard to even do shows some nights. This was about the time that my panic attacks became the most consistent. I remember being on stage during the scene where Hook, Smee and the pirates discovered Peter’s lair and we kidnapped the Lost Boys. The show itself that night was going great but I'm standing on stage on the set and I feel this massive panic attack coming on. In 30 years of performing, this has never happened. Hundreds of plays, thousands of improv shows and I'm having a full on panic attack on stage. I don't know why. I'm not sure what started it. But it came in like a wrecking ball (side note: I feel Miley Cyrus's song "Wrecking Ball” is the perfect song about relationships) and I froze. My mind is racing down that rabbit hole of fear, doubt, hate and all the poison to cloud my happiness. No one knew. I did what I could and finished the scene and then found a place by myself off stage and just started bawling and fighting this thing. The show must go on. I remember I have half a Xanax in my dressing room and take that and finish the show. That may have been the time that the lit bomb Hook used got hit into the orchestra netting over the orchestra pit and I threw myself on the bomb and grabbed the lit thing and threw it offstage. Show’s done. Curtain call, audience was kind and they clapped for me. And as soon as I could came home, I took another Xanax and calmed down. The next night before the show I'm having dinner by myself (that happens a lot) and I have another panic attack. Huge. The biggest one I've had. I'm sitting there crying and honestly concerned I can't do the show. I can barely move. I text our stage manager, Julia and tell her what's going on. I don't have my pills with me for some reason and I'm freaking out. This is like 7:00 or 7:15. The show starts at 7:30 but I don’t go on until after 8:00. I had time but I couldn't move. I force myself to go to the sound booth, where Julia and Pam talked me down and helped me out. I did the show, but I felt the slippery slope. I knew I could slip back way easy so I rushed downstairs and got ready and made sure I was always around people. Because if I was alone my thoughts would win. I talked to anyone who would listen just to keep my mind off me. I'm glad that happened. I learned my triggers and now I can somewhat anticipate and fend them off. Not always, but more now than ever.
Those panic attacks at that time cost me a lot. They put me back several steps and pushed some people out of my life. There was a really sweet girl I liked and I just became too much. So she made the right decision and broke it off. Months go by and I start blogging. That helps. More months go by and I feel myself getting stronger. Then The Addams Family comes in and I get the huge honor of being Gomez Addams. I never worked so hard on a role before. I wanted to prove to myself and others that I could perform at a high level and the show was great. I made some great friends and I was proud of myself and no panic attacks onstage! Not really off stage as much either. Now it's more insomnia. I felt the old Jeff from years ago returning. I felt stronger. I was happy. For the first time in years, I was happy and I had to get used to it. I told my friends "Being happy is weird" but I was. Happy, that is. And then, in typical Jeff Jenkins fashion, the universe decided I needed a few curveballs.
1) I had to move within a week from the apartment I had lived in for only six weeks because one out of the fourapartments in my building exploded and the building was condemned. Exploded. Most normal people in terms of apartment problems are like... pests or something breaks but mine was an exploding apartment. Luckily I had renters insurance that saved me.
2) Five days later I got laid off from my sales job because there wasn’t enough business coming into to justify the position that was created for me when I moved back from Chicago. So now I'm jobless and had to move. But I didn't get all sadand depressed. I was like “Okay. This is bad but it's not my worst day. Haha.” And this is like two weeks before The Addams Family opens. The next week I'm doing my mediations and figuring life out, again, and I know what I'm supposed to do with my life. But I'm scared to death so I ask for some signs. Boom. Sign one was three days after being let go from my job. It came in the form of my sister from another mister, Beth Domann, Springfield Little Theater Executive Director and a longtime friend. She pulls me aside and basically goes "What are you doing? Get off your a** and go create. It's what you're supposed to do and what you can do" -she's right-
The next morning I got the second sign. I have a dance rehearsal with Loriann Dunn and Shannon Hobbs, who played Morticia. We're finally learning the big tango number for the end of the show. I'm not a dancer but I tried hard in this show and I had insomnia really bad the night before and barely slept because I'm up all night thinking about my new chapter in life. We work on it and then we all start having a super open and honest conversation about our fears and life and boom sign the second. That whole day was nothing but the universe telling me what I needed to hear. The next meeting right after my dance rehearsal was with an amazing person who wanted to help me rebrand my life and business. The next meeting after that was with a friend who encouraged me to start pushing myself again in terms of creating and producing comedy. The next meeting after that was with a friend to write a show that night for a new concept I had called "The Squirrel Chasers"- an improvised county and western bar band that does covers of covers of others peoples covers of covers. We make up songs and play classic country. We have the show that night and it killed. Was it perfect? No. But it told me I had a show to build on.
My drive is back fully because it's the first time in forever I created something new and I loved it. It was like this light just came on and my creativity came full back. Now ideas are coming like crazy. So I formulated a new strategy and laid out a new plan for my life. I'm happy. And then this past Saturday night, while I was helping host a fundraiser, my crappy car got stolen. Haha. So I have no car and no job, but I have a plan and a drive. I may still be broken but even broken crayons can still color. I'm creating again. I was telling a friend the other day that I feel all this creativity building up inside me and I can't wait to unleash it. I have my drive again. I need to create and now I feel strong enough to build something new. So that's what I'm gonna do. Build something new that makes me happy. You'll just have to wait another day or so for me to tell you all about it. So, as I lay here in my non-exploded apartment, I have food to eat, smiling at the memories I've made over the last year, just listening to music, writing this... and being happy. Just being happy. I can not wait to share what I have up my sleeve. It all scares the heck out of me but I can't let fear tell me what to do. This broken crayon can still color.
jeff Jenkins is an award winning comedian, actor, writer, producer and director and writes about how improv comedy helps him in his ongoing battle with depression and living his best improvised life.