Elissa Rosenthal, Writer & Coach | Los Angeles & New York City
Elissa Rosenthal in conversation with Natasha Samtani in West Hollywood, CA | April 2018
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How have you come to this point with this amazing list of occupations?
I'm from Long Island, New York. I grew up there, and when I was 17 I moved to Los Angeles. I had big dreams of becoming a singer, and I did have some success before that as a singer, getting into some Broadway and off-Broadway shows. Then I came out here, and I got shelved in the record company that I was signed to. Then I got into comedy and became a comedian. And then I got sober, I went to nutrition school, and had a fitness business called Spirit Bounce. Later, I went to school and became a counselor. Then I got back to the truth of who I am, and I wrote a musical called “Breaking Silence” and moved back to New York 13 years later.
When I moved to California, I was 17 years old. Now, when I look at 17 year olds, I'm like, how did I move from New York to Los Angeles by myself without knowing a single soul? I was always a really ambitious person, but I grew up in a broken home with dysfunctional family life. This dream of coming to California was the string of hope that I always held onto, and I thought California was going to be the thing that saves me.
"I think for me the challenge was that I had to realize that no location is going to save me - I have to take action and really grow up."
When you got to California, what were some of the issues that you faced because you were so young?
I got an apartment by Runyon Canyon. All my friends were still in high school, and I was sitting on a blowup mattress eating Baskin Robbins crying, looking at the walls, wondering, what have I done? I just felt so empty and broken, but I still had this dream of the entertainment industry. I knew that my life could get better.
I came here right after I had a drug overdose at 16 years old. In that moment, I decided I have to get out of New York. I wasn't talking to my mom at this point, and I was just talking to my dad. I convinced him that I had to leave, which is kind of insane. I said, I'm not going to go to rehab, but I'm going to go to California. I think for me the challenge was that I had to realize that no location is going to save me - I have to take action and really grow up.
I had this idea that drugs were the problem, and I decided not to do drugs anymore. I didn't have any friends, so I started an acting class, but I was afraid to even show up. I quit that, and I fell right back into a crowd of partying. Then I tried to get back into music, and I was always waiting for something to save me - waiting for something to be happy about. I was very insecure, and I thought the only way that I'll be happy is if I had the power, property, prestige - and then maybe people will love me, and maybe then I'll be understood.
And then this girl who I became friends with told me, you're the funniest person I've ever met. Why don't you just do comedy? I joined Second City, an improv class, and I showed up and people were being silly. I finally felt a part of something, because I was always doing impressions. I was always desperate for attention. I remember I broke my arm in fourth grade, pretending to be drunk and impersonating Jim Carrey, just so people could laugh. That improv class filled the hole that I thought I had within me, and I just went with it. Then I realized, who cares about singing? I'm going straight to improv and comedy. So I did that for a while. I stopped doing drugs for the most part. And the problem was, I felt okay if I had a good show. But if I had a bad show, I was inconsolable. My self-critique was so vicious that I wasn't mentally stable enough to handle any sort of rejection, or criticism, or judgment. I would sit at home and think about how much I hate myself, and how I'm never going to make it. It was a very dark time and I didn't really have anyone to talk to about this.
That's a very honest and raw depiction of the story of someone who moves to a town like LA when they're so young. But there are people that believe, "if I go to LA, all my dreams will come true."
What would you say to that person?
I really think that anything is possible, and it's really personal and individualized. But, the fantasy or delusion that success is going to be the answer to all your problems is just that: a fantasy and delusion. I would say that until you love yourself and you can be your authentic, true self, you don't need x, y, and z to have success. If you're always chasing that high, just know that you're okay right now. Your worth and value is inherent. It's not up for debate. So there is no amount of money or role on TV that's going to fill that hole, because there's always going to be another thing that your brain tricks you into thinking that you need.
You identify as a "spiritual being." What led you to your spiritual journey?
I think that recovery is an invitation to a higher level of consciousness. And that was just my path. I tried a 12 Step program and it really worked for me; I had a spiritual malady and a psychic change by doing the work. The Dalai Lama said that the 12 Steps would help anyone in the world. I went from being a resentful person and a victim, to living in gratitude and shifting my perception. And that's the gift and miracle of recovery. But with trauma we have symptoms, not memory. So I really want to be different, but my body has this habitual response that reacts in a way that I don't want it to. In recovery, you learn about tools and skills to be better. I made a lot of progress.
Then I went to this place called The Hoffman Process, which is where I really leveled up and I forgave my parents for everything. I forgave people that hurt me. I had compassion for myself. I did a lot of work to kill my inner critic because the person that was the worst to myself was myself. That was where I met myself as a spiritual being, and that was with a lot of trauma work and meditation. In truth, I was higher there than I was on any drug I've ever done, and I realized, I actually can't die. I'm a spiritual being and I'm on earth to learn and grow my level of consciousness, and be of service to another human being.
"I really think that anything is possible, and it's really personal and individualized. But, the fantasy or delusion that success is going to be the answer to all your problems is just that: a fantasy and delusion."
Along your journey, you became a counselor. Talk to me about that.
When I got sober, I had to quit the entertainment industry and comedy for my mental health, because I was so mean and vicious to myself. In recovery, I saw that by being my authentic, true self, I was able to be of service and I got the same high. I thought I needed all this attention on stage, and I thought that being funny was a part of my identity. In recovery, I found out that me being myself was enough. I turned all my suffering into gold, and now every pain I've ever felt can now be of use to help another human being. I understood what everybody was going through and I wanted to help them. So I went to school and I became a counselor.
You’ve also written a musical. What was that experience like?
When I was at the Hoffman Process, I made a commitment that I cannot kill the creativity inside of me. It's the truth of who I am. If I'm going to be in recovery, I'm going to recover the truth of who I am. I had the idea that I was going to move to New York, and I was going to write a musical. I signed a lease on March 28th, 2017 in Brooklyn, and a year to the day I gave my musical to a big agency.
Now, I'm in the midst of trying to get this musical made, and it's my passion. I'm willing to suffer for it.
If you want to sprout a seed, it has to completely deconstruct before it grows into a tree or a flower - the only way to grow is to completely break down. And this musical is something that I'm super proud of. It's called "Breaking Silence." If I wasn't in pain this whole entire year, I wouldn't have been able to create the art that I did. If pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth, I had to get to a place of ultimate surrender to create this musical, because it's about a girl that ends up getting sober. And how can I write something that I wasn't really experiencing at the time? Another big thing about this musical is that the antagonist is actually her inner child, her younger self - because isn't that the truth? We're all our own worst enemy. What I've learned in the past couple of years is that I can walk through anything. When I get to the other side, anything that I've ever been through is just an experience that I can use to help another person who’s going through it. It's probably the most beautiful miracle of life.
What does it mean to be powerful?
Being powerful means I love myself. It means that I understand the truth of who I am. I could sit here in my authentic truth, and not be lost in the mind chatter of compare and despair. When I'm in my truth, I am powerful because I am love and I am light.
Can you recall a time that you felt powerful?
I feel powerful when I help someone, or I'm creative. When I make a commitment and start and finish it, I feel powerful because I'm building my own self esteem. But I don't know if there's anything more powerful than actually helping another person, and then seeing a change within yourself. I have a weird relationship with my mom, and now it's getting better and better each day when I don't react how I used to react, and I make a conscious choice to treat her with kindness and respect. I feel powerful because I realize that I don't have to be a prisoner of my past - I'm a pioneer of my future. I could be who I want to be if I just take action and seek a higher level of consciousness.
"Just try to be in the moment and love yourself because you're the only person that you're going to really be with until the end. You're your own best friend."
If you could talk to your younger self today, what would you tell her?
The truth of the matter is, anything is possible. We create our own reality. If you're sitting there thinking that it's never going to get better, or I can't imagine a life without drugs or alcohol, or I don't deserve love because I'm not a Victoria's Secret model - that is just a thought created in your mind and it's completely a lie. Unfortunately, there's a voice inside of us that keeps life interesting, that wants to take us down, that wants to isolate us, and wants us to think that people don't like us, or our dreams aren't going to come true. That voice is a delusion of the mind and it's a lie. The only thing that matters is right now in this moment. Our life is precious. Just try to be in the moment and love yourself because you're the only person that you're going to really be with until the end. You're your own best friend.
UPDATE: In 2019, Elissa's musical, "Breaking Silence," was chosen to be a part of a Broadway accelerator program. For the past year, she has been a mental health coach to high profile clientele.