I Had A Dream Job Playing A Disney Princess. Offstage, I Was In Freefall.
In 2012, I booked a dream job playing Princess Jasmine in an “Aladdin” stage show at the Disneyland Resort. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it was magical. The show was a full stage production with gorgeous sets and costumes.The theater held 2,000 seats, bigger than most Broadway houses, and the audience was always packed.
When I wasn’t playing a literal princess on stage, I was soaring three stories above on a magic carpet as the Jasmine body double during “A Whole New World.” I also had decent pay, health insurance and a 401K.
But two years later, everything in my life fell apart. I went from having full-time work in a job I loved to being completely unemployed. The show didn’t close. I wasn’t let go. I quit…because I was ashamed that my mental illness was on display for my coworkers to see, and because I was afraid I would be fired. Now I know better.
I am a professional entertainer, and I also have an anxiety disorder called panic disorder. Those with panic disorder deal with frequent panic attacks during which they experience a surge of adrenaline resulting in symptoms like a racing heart, shortness of breath and intense fear. The panic attacks are so awful that you start to live in fear of the panic itself, which in turn can cause more panic attacks. It’s incredibly common ― nearly 20% of the US population lives with an anxiety disorder.
Normally, my performance work isn’t affected much by my disorder. My panic triggers are typically physical: feeling dizzy, faint, dehydrated, overheated or overtired. Being onstage in front of thousands? Not a problem. Invigorating even.
My antidepressants put a shelf under me that keeps me from falling into panic as easily, I have self-awareness and coping tools I’ve learned in therapy to make it abate when it comes on, and whenever I deal with a panic attack during work I just “do it anxious.” I refuse to let this condition keep me from pursuing my dreams.
But at the end of 2013, I had a traumatic experience outside of work, and I spiraled into a major mental health freefall. I was panicking every day, for most of the day, and after a few weeks of this I was both physically and emotionally exhausted. Depression set in. I was crying constantly. Eventually, my poor mental health started to affect my work.
As Jasmine, I was expected to do two shows a day in the lead role, and two shows in the chorus member/body double role. I shared the day with another actress. Being a chorus member is fairly low stakes; if something happens backstage and you don’t make it on for a scene, odds are the show won’t be affected. But as Jasmine, once the show starts it is partly on your shoulders for the next 45 minutes.
I was so stressed, so in fear of my own body, that stepping into that role felt like being trapped. A spike of anxiety at the five-minute call would cause me to burst into tears and declare I couldn’t do the show. My counterpart for the day would have to rush to put on the costume so the show could start on time.
I knew I was letting my co-workers down, and I felt deeply ashamed imagining what they were thinking of me. I couldn’t bear to have that feeling confirmed by being fired over poor performance, so I quit. I didn’t want to lose the job, but I knew I needed several months with no 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, transcribing behind-the-scenes interviews for Marvel movies. I bought an ACA-subsidized health insurance plan and went to therapy multiple times a week. And then I bought a microphone, started auditioning for animation and audiobooks, and began building a voiceover career.
I thought about trying to go back to “Aladdin” all the time. I was so embarrassed by the way I had exited the show, I didn’t even maintain many relationships with the cast I loved. I was afraid they thought less of me. (That was my shame talking, they didn’t).
Even though I was performing again, the thought of playing Jasmine carried so many visceral memories of that darkest period of my life. I reauditioned to join the chorus one year, but I wasn’t 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 just like someone with any other chronic illness or injury, or disability, diagnosed mental health conditions are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This means that you cannot legally be fired, demoted or given disparate treatment at work on the basis of your mental health condition. So, just like my co-worker who, when experiencing a flare-up of his back injury, was able to sub into 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 wonderful resource for anyone who is curious to learn more about their rights at work under the ADA), Reasonable Accommodations can include “job restructuring,” “part-time or modified work schedules,” or even “medical leave.”
I eventually did go back to working for the Disneyland Resort part-time in a few shows and special events, armed with my newfound knowledge. I had always found the overnight dress rehearsals triggering. A shift that went from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. was basically a guaranteed panic attack.
I requested an accommodation that would allow me to do my dress rehearsals at the beginning of the shift and permit me to leave by 1 a.m. The application process was complicated and bureaucratic ― a lot of paperwork that had to be filled out correctly by myself and a physician before it went through several departments for review. But in the end my accommodation was granted. (I never got a chance to use the accommodation. Shortly afterward, the pandemic shut down the resort for a year, and I decided to retire from my theme park career).
If you are having an issue with diagnosed depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder or any other mental health condition you may also qualify to take some time off, work from home a few days a week, be reassigned to a vacant position, or bring 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 maintained a paycheck and my health insurance while working through that challenging period in my life.
Workers, it is up to you to know and stand up for these rights. Employers probably aren’t going to offer them freely. My employer certainly wasn’t sharing these solutions when I was willing to make the “problem” caused by my chronic condition go away on my own.
Today, my mental health is in a great place. I will always be an anxious person, but I manage it well and now rarely panic. I am blessed to work full-time in voice-over and on-camera work. It’s an exciting job and much more lucrative than a stage career, though I do miss that feeling you can only get standing in a spotlight.
But here’s what I know now that I wish I had known then: My mental health condition is not a character flaw or personal failing. I deserve the same rights at work afforded to others.
Reba Buhr, author of Get Thee to a Therapist is an actress, host and voiceover artist based in Los Angeles, California. Reba is also an outspoken mental health advocate.