One thing that doesn’t get enough attention is how it feels when you lose your career. Losing a job is hard, but I’m not talking about job loss here, I’m referring to outright loss of career, and the requirement to start again in another direction. Just like the death of a close loved one, your career is precious to you, and it comes with all kinds of gratifying benefits. Your career makes you feel purposeful, gives you professional and personal esteem, provides you with a circle of friends, and it’s what keeps you swimming in the stream of meaning, relevance, and value. When a person loses their career, often it’s because of reasons outside of their control, like a sudden accident or prolonged illness, either their own or a family member, which means they are forced out of the market for a period of time. Being away from your career for any length of time can mean falling behind or outright forgotten, with the only options being trying to climb back to where you ‘were’, or starting something else altogether. Either way, the loss of a career is the loss of identity, value and purpose. It’s a grieving process that must be acknowledged and addressed, the same way mourning the loss of a loved one must be processed. There are stages to career loss, too.
I was thinking a lot about this over the weekend after reading the story of Leslie Ash, who lost her acting career because of a superbug. Her long stay in the hospital took a huge toll on her health and her career. Having gone from ‘well known and on her way up’, Leslie Ash disappeared into obscurity. And once she was well again, she had trouble finding work, from the same community of producers and directors who once lauded her.
“I really feel like I’ve lost 10 years out of my life,” she tells the Guardian.
Her recovery following her illness saw her in physiotherapy, doing Pilates, and stopping alcohol, even while her doctors “kept upping the doses of painkillers until I actually felt like a bit of a zombie…. I thought: ‘God, this is terrible! What can I do?’ When you’re on those pills, they are antidepressants, you don’t feel any emotion at all.”
After years of recovery, learning to get her body back to its normal function, she found herself ignored by the industry that was the source of her career. She couldn’t find work, though she needed it badly, and despite her long illness, she was still a skilled actor with a following of fans. It was disorienting, she says, and demoralizing, and made her recovery harder. Why make a life comeback when there won’t be any career comeback?
Ash said to The Guardian: “In those days…if someone broke a leg during filming, the director would say: ‘Let’s shoot around it!’ But in fact, I was quite amazed at how I got dropped. Completely. It was just … it was quite suffocating…It’s like the rug being brought up from beneath your feet. No one wants to know you … I thought, I have to start again.”
She’s asked by interviewer Paula Cocozza, did your industry friends check on you, to see how you were? “Erm. No. Not really. I can count on one hand how many people checked in. No. I was quite remote. I think a lot of people thought: ‘Give her space to sort herself out’. And then years turned into a decade. You go through a grieving process when you’ve lost your career. You know. And it can catch you at moments where you just feel like shit.”
“You know what,” Ash continues, “no one likes to speak to people when they’re not doing well. When you’re not in the limelight anymore, it’s true. People don’t particularly care.”
After all she’s been through, Ash believes she is a better actor now. All she needs is a chance. “I am going to do it again,” she says. “Even if I have to make the shows myself.”
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