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Bonnieby Bonnie Katz, MA

Breakdown or Breakthrough

The most incredible stories of transformation come from people who have visited rock bottom at some point in their lives. I mention, “visited” because it isn’t their final destination, it’s just a detour. Transformation comes with a price and usually that price is – struggle. When someone is going through tough times, they can’t imagine it could possibly transport them to a better place. But it is usually the difficult times that not only propel people to higher ground, but help develop more courage, strength and heart than they ever imagined possible.

Elgin James, a former gang member was born into rock bottom. In an article from the Los Angeles Times (Sunday, September 9, 2012), Elgin describes, a powerful story that is rooted in a childhood nightmare that transforms into a Hollywood dream. – ”I’d grown up terrified of the world. Nights spent curled in a ball trying to disappear in the crack between my bed and the wall while my mother screamed for my father to stop. The worst thing about a 7-year-old being punched by a grown man is that you become emotionally frozen at that age. Whatever suffering you go on to inflict as an adult feels justified because of what you endured. What I couldn’t get at home, I would try to find on the streets with my friends. I wound up homeless as a teenager with a bunch of other throw-away kids. We were boys without fathers, trying to figure out how to be men. We were young and angry and ripe for the picking by the gangs that surrounded us.” Elgin continues, “I woke up almost a decade and a half later a gang member in my 30s. I had tried to escape the violence and misery of my home, only to be swallowed up by it tenfold. My wake-up call was my mother getting sick. I stayed by her side in the hospice apologizing for having done nothing with my life except break her heart. She told me it wasn’t too late for a second chance. She knew what she was talking about: At age 60 she had finally left my father and started over. And though cancer cut it short, she spent the last years of her life free, vibrant and at peace.” 

It was at this point that Elgin and his girlfriend packed up everything and drove from Boston to Los Angeles with a dream of making movies. – “When I was a scared kid growing up the only time I wasn’t plagued by nervous tics was when I was lost inside a book or watching my favorite films like, Billy Jack or Planet of the Apes. When I was on the streets of Boston, I’d sneak off from my friends to go to art-house theaters like the Coolidge and the Brattle. I’d stay through the final credit, dreading the moment the lights came up and I was forced back out onto the street.”

Elgin felt driven to tell his story to make sense of his life. His plan was to make a movie, even though he had absolutely no experience. Although he was offered an option for his story, when he saw the producers interpretation, he came home and felt sick to his stomach, – “We had no money, and nothing on the horizon, but my girlfriend, who had believed in me enough to follow me to L.A. on a pipe dream, and then believed in me enough to become my wife, gave me the strength to walk away and try it on my own.”

He went on to write the screenplay, “Little Birds” which was about two runaway girls. – “Jamie Patricof, who’d produced one of my favorite films, “Half Nelson,” had originally wanted to meet about my life story project, but I sent him the script for “Little Birds” instead. When he read it and asked to meet it was the first time anyone had ever spoken to me as if I was an artist. I felt like any minute he was going to realize he’d made a terrible mistake and had actually thought I was someone else. He introduced me to Michelle Satter of the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program. She changed my life.”

The Sundance Institute took Elgin under their wings and with the guidance of accomplished artists, they helped him to find his creative voice. If you’ve ever questioned the power of art to heal, ponder these powerful words by Elgin, -“ I was given a language other than violence to express the wreckage inside me.” He went on to realize that for the first time in his life, he had strong male role models who were instrumental in helping him to realize that violence comes out of fear and weakness. Two of those male role models were Robert Redford and Ed Harris. “By giving me the tools of filmmaking, they helped me learn to channel my energy and let the fear go. And by their example, they taught me that strength comes from being honest about who you truly are. That day at Sundance I swore to never raise my fist to another human being again. “

If you think this is the end of his journey, fasten your seat belts; it seems adversity was not through with Elgin yet. When he got back to Los Angeles, he was according to the article, “Arrested for having four years earlier forced a person with past ties to a white power group to pay money to charity to stop getting physically attacked. “ (Sounds like a modern day Robin Hood.) But before Elgin went into prison to serve his time, the Sundance community reassured him that they would support him in any way needed to get his film made first. And that’s exactly what they did. The day of his sentencing was bittersweet. He was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison, but the morning of his sentencing he signed his first screenwriting contract, enabling his wife to have money while he was gone.

Elgin was released from prison in March, while his film, “Little Birds” was released in September. He has two projects he is currently working on at Imagine. Elgin’s tragic home life could’ve easily left him broken, alone and never having reached his full potential. But, his mother’s belief in him planted the seeds of Elgin’s belief in himself. It was this belief that kept him going through his myriad of challenges to finally break through to the man he was meant to be. Elgin describes his breakthrough, “I was able to do my prison time with a sense of peace, and, ironically, freedom. Because after all these years, I knew I’d finally found the family I’d been looking for. And in the last place most people would think to look – Hollywood.”

We all have our challenges that life tosses on our path. Everyone knows difficulty and struggle. We are all in it together. Elgin broke through his limited view of a world divided into us and them. By cracking open his heart, he found the beautiful reality of we. It was through the support of strangers that he discovered he was not alone. The idea that you are not alone can hold you up when you feel defeated and keep you going until you find your belief in yourself.

Here are some seeds to help plant your own transformation:

  1. Don’t take a microscopic view of what you are going through. Force yourself to widen the lens and see the big picture.
  2. When you hit a bump in the road, tell yourself that this too shall pass.
  3. Life is about change, remember no feeling is final.
  4. Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Remember, you need encouragement more than criticism.
  5. Work on self-compassion on a daily basis. The Loving Kindness meditation, works. Research has proven that 20 minutes of loving kindness meditation on a daily basis can have a positive effect in three weeks. Get a free guide here.
  6. Push yourself out of your comfort zone, that’s where your growth is.
    Volunteer to help others, it will help put your situation in perspective.
  7. Stop blaming others for your situation. Take responsibility and say, “What can I do right now to take care of myself?”
  8. Be honest with yourself and strive to see the truth at all times no matter how painful.
  9. Enjoy the mystery of life. Make friends with uncertainty, it’s a natural part of of living.
  10. Find mentors who will guide you when you are lost in the woods.
  11. And above all, never, never, never give up on yourself.

Bonnie Katz is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. One of her specialties is working with artists in the Entertainment Industry. Her skills and training as a psychotherapist and mindful meditator enable her to work with clients in an atmosphere of warmth and understanding. For more information on Bonnie’s psychotherapy practice,visit her website.Follow her on Twitter and Facebook

Conscious Actor articles are not a substitution for professional psychotherapy.