Last September is hard to explain. I'd start at the beginning, but that's probably somewhere in the 80s, and thanks to college the "childhood memory details" section of my brain is a dead mouse in a mug. I'd show you the video of — let's call it "Septembergate" — but I already get asked to sign blurry screenshots of my areolas. I don't need to throw footage of the most physically disturbing moment of my life into the mix. So apologies, but sit back, we're starting with a metaphor.
My brain is a room full of women who take turns at the wheel. It's the only way I can make sense of what it feels like to be alive. These brainwomen stand in a conference room behind my eyes, looking out at my day and taking the controls when summoned. Some of them have been dormant for years, napping on crumpled blazers by the Keurig, waiting to be needed. But my key players are as follows:
Joni McLamb coos at babies and weeps when she sees an old lost man on the C train. Crags Garafalo handles Time Warner Cable and street harassment. Blanche VonFuckery calmly gathers her blood-colored ballgown and crosses to the controls when my husband says things like "I mean, my passion is cooking, and yours is vacuuming, right?" Veronica Curvingham sees a sleepy-fireman-looking-coed in a Borders and attempts to ruin his life. Ariel Gutknife journaled the shit out of 2003 and takes your brain on a dreamthink during financial discussions. Ingrid St. Rash tries to convince you every zit is proof you're a lesion to society and puts incoming compliments directly in the Betty Company shredder. Later, Shirley Tinsel tapes them together, smiling through her braces at the words she can make out.
Here's my terrifying secret: I don't have the crucial one. I don't have a Sheryl Manila. I see her in the eyes of every one of my best friends — one hand on the hip of her perfectly tailored pantsuit, the other shading her chic smoky eye, searching in vain for the corresponding Sheryl in my brain. She's not there. But I love to watch her work for my friends. Sheryl boldly asks after the milkshakes we ordered fifteen minutes ago, and while she understands that this baby shower is not a contest, she WILL make the best flower crown possible so that you will win the … you know … contest. She demands that your insurance company explain why a mole removal cost more than your refrigerator.
Most important, Sheryl stays up nights and transcribes your other brainwomen's poems and prayers into concrete plans. She waves away Ingrid's insistence you don't deserve it and Joni's fear you will alienate people along the way. Sheryl is going to take you by the wrist and march you to your destiny, whether it's for your rightful place in the Starbucks line or your rightful salary.
With no Sheryl of my own to do this, I carefully crafted my identity to never need her. I'm an actor, so I've been able to cheat the system. I've tried to make a living out of letting the fearful, darker-souled brainwomen sing what they see. I didn't want a Sheryl there to tell them to be reasonable or to take care of themselves. I was afraid they'd stop showing me their view of the world. In return, I promised them a life that wouldn't be too loud or extraordinary — I knew that with no Sheryl, we couldn't handle that. I worked, and socialized, but with long months of shades-drawn couch-hiding in between to assure myself the beta life was the best fit for me. When an opportunity came along that was too big, I would somehow sabotage the audition. Or convince myself I had.
Then, last year, I started to lead the wrong life. After ten years of an acting job or two a year, I was suddenly working without a break. I was playing my standard Voldemort-drag-Barbie on Masters of Sex for the summer in Los Angeles, then flying back to New York every weekend to plan my very DIY wedding. (Me, the woman who once invited people for dinner and when they arrived realized I didn't have napkins or chairs.) The week before my wedding, my Sheryl-toting friends ran around me with clipboards and tablecloths while I lay facedown on the kitchen floor. Then the morning after my Saturday wedding, I said goodbye to my husband and flew back to LA. I was miming a cable-sanctioned blow job by 6 a.m. Monday. It felt like the wedding had been a dream.
That week, I booked Glow, a show about female wrestling, and definitely the biggest part I'd ever had on-screen. I immediately began wrestling training between filming Masters. I'd get up at 3:30 a.m., workout, scream-drive through traffic to Masters, try not to be a terrible actor until rush hour, scream-drive through traffic to wrestling training, snort coffee before four hours of body slams, scream-drive home, and wake up to do it again. And again and again. I tried to Frankenstein a Sheryl out of my brainwomen, but they were in hysterics, sobbing into their bathrobes, trying to teach themselves Excel and linear thinking. It's fine, I thought. Once I get through this insane month, I will be fine. This is what all my successful actor friends have done for years while Crags and Ingrid had me YouTubing game-show winners. I could fake a Sheryl. I had to.
Terrified of getting injured while flipping and throwing humans on no sleep, I began daily "physical therapy" with my favorite LA fixture: an opinionated ex-actor New Age kook from Yelp. Every day, she ground her acrylic-nailed fingertips into my muscles until I screamed. Wearing bedazzled aqua sweatpants, she used some Star Wars–looking machine to pump electricity through my upper body. My brainwomen whispered in concern — Joni passed out.
Six days before Glow started filming, I was lying on the therapy table of my crystal-toting, reality-show-pitching, possibly insane physical therapist. I'd had two hours of sleep, filmed all day, trained for four hours, and bought a bridesmaid dress for the East Coast wedding I had that weekend, and I was doing the mental math of taking a redeye to be back in time for the first day of Glow.
Then, slowly, it began. It was so tiny at first that I thought I was imagining it. My left shoulder started to jump. It was minuscule, like I was doing the smallest mouse dance possible to a continuous beat. I laughed a little at it. Then, the shrugging began. My shoulder leaped up to my ear, stayed there locked for a few seconds, then rolled back intensely, the muscles in my upper back seizing and flexing. Ingrid reminded me that the first priority was not to appear high-maintenance, so I waved it off and naturally … got in my car. To get on the highway.
There, in standstill traffic on the 405, my entire upper body began to dance. A continuous violent spasm shot from my left hand up my arm, across my shoulders, down the right arm, and back again. It sent me jerking forward and body rolling backward, like Elaine Benes on a dance floor in Hades. I could not stop what was happening. It was terrifying. I was saying "You're OK, it's OK, shh shh shh la la la" like a self-demon-doula, then Crags laughed for a while, and then it was very quiet. I tilted the mirror on myself. The spasms yanked me against the seatbelt so hard that it left a deep red line across my neck.
I somehow made it back to where I was staying alone without shake-driving into the ocean. I sat sobbing in the kitchen in the dark while my body shook and writhed. My arms shot all the way up to the sky, then they suddenly plummeted to the ground. Both shoulders tensed in a rock-hard shrug, frozen there for minutes at a time. I tried to breathe and assure the brainwomen that whatever this was would pass. But I couldn't hear them.
It lasted six days.
I went to the doctor the next morning, terrifying the waiting room by sitting there sobbing while angrily noodle-dancing in my pajamas. I've been to enough Phish shows to know how insane I looked. The doctor looked like he was going to faint when he saw me. I was given some Mr. Ed dose of a Real Housewives pill — after the doctor took a video to "show his students." Then I casually Ubered to the set of Masters of Sex to, um, film a scene. The Uber driver surely thought I was on some form of meth, as my arms made a fence post and claw hands and shook while I tried a calming "HUUUUUUUUUUUU" for the ride's duration.
At Masters, I sat in the hair and makeup trailer and showed off some new fun spasms, like a violent flamenco shimmy that lasted twenty minutes. Tears poured down my face, and no one spoke. The only sound in the room was the awkward clinking of curling irons for two hours. We then had to film the scene with me sitting behind a table crossing my legs over my arm to keep it from shooting up into the air. But it did, many times. When I'd feel it about to happen, I whispered, "Sorry, it's happening" to my scene partner, and my body would go into Jazzercise for a few minutes while the entire crew quietly coughed and shifted.
I spent the weekend going to twelve doctors. No one knew what was happening; no one had seen it before. One ventured that my nervous system was having a panic attack, but had no idea what to do. "You just have to calm down and take a break." I was supposed to start my dream job in two days. One of the first scenes was a day-long wrestling match.
Like any sensible Los Angeles person with a disease that feels made up, I found a fucking witch. Under the guise/lie of "massage," this woman was straight-up Mad Madam Mim as a 35-year-old with a dirty apartment. I walked in with my new physical norm, which was essentially doing the "Thriller" choreography on a galloping horse. She smiled and waved me in casually. "My cat is here, but he never comes in the work room, don't worry. He hates people." The second I lay down on her table, I heard paw pattering and then felt a doughy thud on my chest. I opened my eyes to Pringles the cat looking at me with what I can only describe as Morgan Freeman realness. "Oh my God," the witch said under her breath. (If this is a gag she does with every client, I don't care. It was effective.) "OK. Let's get started."
She gently shifted and touched me for a while, speaking softly while Pringles kneaded my sternum. For the first time in six days, I started to calm down.
"Can we do something weird?"
Mentally scrolling through my theater-school images of birthing a ball of light while my classmates held my hands, I assured her that for this here gremlin-person, weird was impossible.
"Can you talk to her?"
"Whoever is scared."
Oy. But I already wrote the check and Pringles was waiting, so here we go.
"Tell her you're OK."
"… You're OK."
I sighed and dug deep into the former-stoner recesses of my abstract-dream-bullshit capacity. I tried to walk around and look at Joni and Ariel and Ingrid and all of them. For the first time in months, I tried to listen to them. Who was screaming?
"How old is she?" the witch asked.
Hoo boy. Crags Garafalo was walking toward the brain mic, ready to shut down the operation, when this flew out of my mouth:
My arms shot into the air like a zombie playing the harp.
"What is nine for you?"
(Maybe one hundred thousand silent seconds go by.)
"… I guess … shame."
Spasms like a hypothermia victim balancing on an old-timey caboose.
"… You're OK."
"What's she afraid of?"
Under my closed lids, I rolled my eyes and stifled a laugh. And then gnocchi-size tears made a river to Pringles.
"That I'll forget her. That I'll leave her behind."
"Tell her you won't."
I lay there holding her hand for an hour, and without realizing when it happened, I was finally still.
I called my new bosses and told them we had to change the schedule, because I, um, had a weeklong full-body muscle spasm that, like, stemmed from childhood stuff, and untended self-worth issues? I spent the days leading up to filming having conversations that would have sent pre-body-apocalypse Betty to the fear hospital. But my once-crowded brain now had a morning-after-Pompeii placidity, where apologizing for being alive felt sort of … dumb. I took care of myself. I breathed in and out.
Slowly the brainwomen reappeared, ready. Now with a new one — a nine-year-old whom we'll call Scraps. She has chocolate on her face and tangles that border on dreads. And one more brainwoman appeared:
Betty Gilpin is an actor and lives in New York City.