‘Working Hard on Myself to Grow Past the Pain’

Photo by Eric JohnsonRosie Perez is best known for her acting chops, cutting-edge choreography and dogged activism. But until now, few people knew that the Oscar-nominated talent spent much of her childhood as a ward of the state of New York. Her mother, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, seized her at age 3 from the aunt who had cared for her since birth and put her in St. Joseph’s Catholic Home for Children in Peekskill, NY.

Rosie recently penned her memoir, Handbook for An Unpredictable Life: How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother, And Still Came Out Smiling (With Great Hair). In it, she relates in sharp detail her experiences at the Home and two St. Joseph’s-run group homes, before being reunited with her beloved aunt as a teen.

In the book’s preface, Rosie, a recipient of the Children’s Rights Champion Award, describes coming to terms with her tumultuous past. We are grateful that we have the opportunity to excerpt the following for Fostering the Future.

The abuse and neglect from my mother and the time I was forced to spend in Saint Joseph’s Catholic Home for Children, aka “the Home,” have affected a big part of my life. And I’ve hated that fact. I’m a forward-moving and positive-thinking person, and it was hard to have that albatross hanging around my neck. I’ve hated my past so much that I’ve spent countless hours downplaying or even hiding bits of the truth of my childhood in an attempt to make it seem less severe, less hurtful, less shameful than it felt.

I hated the fact that my mother was crazy. I wanted her to be normal. Even when she acted normal — something that many mentally ill people can do, despite what you see in the movies — I was always walking on eggshells, waiting for the insanity to hit. And when it hit, it hit hard and fast — leaving deep emotional and physical scars.

People who are “normal” as a result of good parenting — even just decent parenting — are very lucky. Yeah, I know, everyone’s hell is relative, and blah, blah, blah, but those people are very fortunate. Am I bitter? No, not at all. Every child should have a loving and stable upbringing. There would be less violence and hate, for sure. But most of us didn’t, and regardless of what the experts say, trying to get past your past sucks. Most of us would rather just ignore it or numb it with any or all types of drugs, legal or illegal. Those of us who are a bit stronger — and I say that without judgment — try to avoid those options and deal with our past legitimately: through psychoanalysis, psychiatry, medications, spirituality, whatever. Truth be told, even when you work every day to do so, it’s hard to not lose it, or give up, or worse, fall into a depression.

That’s the worst — depression. I’m a relatively happy person who also happened to be clinically depressed for years (sorry, that just cracks me up). I know that it’s probably hard for most people, especially those who know and love me, to fathom that, because I’m a person who’s usually in a good mood, cracking jokes or telling funny stories. And the good moods are absolutely, 100 percent authentic. It’s just that there was this underlying feeling of blah, or sadness, or even fright, which at times I was aware of and at other times I was not. I refused to let this hold me down. I wanted to move on. I wanted to fully enjoy the wonderful life I’ve worked so hard to obtain.

I finally resorted to seeking professional help, the one thing I had resisted for years. When my shrink diagnosed me with dysthymia — a sneaky, chronic kind of depression — I was actually relieved. God bless America two times for that, as my Tia Ana would say. It’s most common with people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yeah, I had that one too. Still do. But now at least I had a starting place and could take some kind of ownership of the healing process.

After a couple of years of therapy, and I don’t know exactly when or how it happened, I noticed that my depression wasn’t there and the PTSD subsided considerably. I felt joyful, secure, and empowered. My inner strength and sense of self had never been stronger. I guess I allowed time to play its role, and I did my part by working hard on myself to grow past the pain. Gosh, I sound so full of shit there. Let me be more honest: I grew past most of the pain and continue to do the work. Every day gets better.

Excerpted from Handbook for an Unpredictable Life by Rosie Perez. Copyright © 2014 by Rosie Perez. Excerpted by permission of Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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