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Christy Carlson Romano may be known for her role as Ren Stevens on the Disney Channel’s Even Stevens, but she threw “a wrench at that image” in an essay she penned for Teen Vogue.
“While many witnessed my costar Shia LaBeouf struggle publicly, I have largely suffered in silence. I am not a victim, but I have never been perfect or pulled together as my reputation or the successes of my young adulthood might suggest,” she wrote in the essay, which was published on Tuesday. “During a period of time in my life, I grappled with depression, drinking and more, desperate to find fixes for how I felt.”
Romano explained that she began acting when she was six and moved to Los Angeles when she booked her role on Even Stevens at the age of 14.
“I became that precocious theater kid, a confusing mix of sheltered and overexposed to the public. It came with the territory of being a young performer,” she wrote. “While I was adept at change and very driven in my art form, I was delayed in some developmental milestones that one often has in their preteen years that adequately inform their early adulthood and help them make the right decisions during hard times.”
“I only learned to ride a bike at 12 years old because I had a callback for a cereal commercial. I had very few friends my own age and lacked the ability to communicate my emotions effectively due to my insecurities with being different. Needing to be liked was my full-time job and constant concern of mine,” she continued.
The actress, who also lent her voice to Disney Channel’s Kim Possible animated series, added that she wasn’t prepared for fame and the responsibility that came with it. “The idea of one day having a college life became my greatest fantasy. I would watch teen movies and become intensely jealous of ‘normal’ kids, feeling, at my moodiest, like a misfit,” she said.
“A tape inside my head softly began to play, telling me I wasn’t good enough in either the normal or entertainment world. Despite all my public successes, inside I was insecure. I had a swinging confidence in my abilities which pushed me to get on camera, perform, and make money,” she wrote. “My personal value was irrelevant until validated by my most recent accomplishment.”
Romano added that she was warned that leaving Hollywood after Even Stevens concluded would ruin her career, though she chose to leave the industry to chase “a glamorized fantasy of adolescence.”
Her college experience was nothing like she had seen in the movies. “My heart broke when I realized that I was never going to experience the teen-movie happy ending with a group of friends in a Jeep on their way to the beach,” she wrote. “I felt like I failed myself, and the tape that had started playing years before now started to play louder, faster and angrier.”
Romano soon left college to return to the theater community she had grown up with in New York.
“What I didn’t realize was that starring in a Broadway show was very hard work for a 19-year-old. I was highly criticized for my youth, which fueled my desire to prove everybody wrong. I became a bit harder-edged, binge-drank more at loud nightclubs and started to accept the transient natures of love, sex and friendship,” she wrote. “Growing up, I entertained thousands of families only to feel completely lonely. People were as replaceable as they had deemed me to be. Impostor syndrome had stiff competition against my self-hatred at that point.”
Romano soon found herself experimenting with forms of self-harm. “I tried to scratch my skin with my fingernail because I was too scared to use a knife. I chickened out and honestly felt like I had failed some important race to win the trophy for ‘most tragic beautiful girl,”‘ she wrote.
After she was approached by a psychic outside of her Broadway show, Romano eventually paid the woman thousands of dollars for a “life-changing” crystal. While she was initially attracted to the idea of someone giving her insight into her future, she soon realized that she had been conned.
“I confessed to the purchase, having kept this relationship a secret. I was told to just move on unless I wanted this to go public,” she wrote. “I felt marked, used and violated, so I started to blame myself for everything instead of learning from my past mistakes and growing as a person.”
“It’s hard for people to understand that oftentimes child actors appear to have an inflated ego to make up for the fact that they have no idea who they really are underneath it all, a defense mechanism that many young people are familiar with,” she continued in the essay. “I have two friends from my earlier Disney Channel days who died by suicide. You can search their names, I am sure, to try and find some sense in their deaths, but you can never understand what was going on behind closed doors. And though I might not know their exact struggles, I do believe I have an idea of how being in the spotlight can warp your sense of reality.”
Romano continued to struggle with her “relationships, alcohol abuse and career path” for the next 10 years. She eventually went back to school and met her husband Brendan Rooney in a screenwriting class. The actress wrote that she “found in him a companionship that would take a mallet to the tape that had been screaming in my head all those years.”
The couple married in 2013 and now have two daughters. “I haven’t had a drink since before my first pregnancy and am going to continue to abstain from alcohol so that I can continue to make clear-headed decisions that keep me on the right path,” she wrote. “All that matters now is my amazing family. When I look back I can see that it’s all I ever wanted.”
“I’m also in control of my career. The beauty of the entertainment industry today is that you can create what you want to, a privilege that we didn’t have when I was coming up,” she wrote, citing social media platforms for giving people the freedom to express themselves on their own terms.
The essay concluded with advice. “Anyone reading this, or anyone who decides to go into the entertainment business (including my daughters, should that time come), know this: having a clear understanding of your personal value helps to positively shape everything you do. If you don’t, if you aren’t careful, you just might end up getting what everyone else wishes for but wondering what you want yourself.”
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