High school senior and acting ace Jacob Sundlie didn’t let adversity break him. Instead, he learned to play the role of the survivor.
Smoke, blood, tears, and a broken bird cage …
After my father died my freshman year, my mom remarried a man who was emotionally wounded, disturbed, and abusive. A man who had a good side … and a dark side. A man who went from Jekyll to Hyde … in seconds.
Actually, my father didn’t die. But the man I had known as dad for fourteen years died when my father was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Finally, his behavior had a name, but the man whose last name I bear with pride became, in a way, dead to me.
Growing up, I felt I had a fairly normal childhood. My family seemed to me like most others. We were solidly middle class, living in an historic Boston suburb. I didn’t think much about the fact that in addition to my dad, my mom, and my two sisters, my grandma and my cousin (four years my senior) lived with us in the other half of a two-family home. My cousin was like a big brother, and we felt like one big family. Sure, my cousin had a rough time growing up being raised by his grandmother, who did her best. It was hard for him to see my siblings and me grow up with two parents. Sure, there was a complicated rift between my mother and her parents. And sure, there was an often tense relationship between my father and my mother, as she taught us how to act around him to prevent him from becoming angry. But I didn’t think much about these things. I didn’t think my childhood was much different from anyone else’s. Looking back, I realize now how much my mother sheltered me and my sisters from her struggles and sacrifices to keep my father—the man she loved—stable and functioning and to give us what appeared to be a normal family life.
After my father’s breakdown and subsequent diagnosis, all hell broke loose in our home. Fighting. Broken glass. Police visits. Suicide threats and psych ward stays. Financial instability. Through it all, I fought to keep my family together. I grieved the loss of my father, the kinder, gentler man I knew, and I gave everything I had to try to bring him back. I used money earned from my summer carpentry job to pay for my family to stay in hotels so we could be safe from my father’s rages. I tried to buffer my mother and father from each other, standing in the middle without taking sides. I protected my mother emotionally and at times physically. I became a man at 14. And through it all, I did my best to keep my own life together as a kid and a high school student, and to keep up my passions of acting and singing. Filled with fear and shame, I told no one what I was going through. I knew sharing my story with friends would amount to social suicide.
The one bright spot of freshman year was finally meeting my mother’s father, who opened his door to us as he was dying from cancer. When we learned he was sick I reached out to him, at my mother’s urging, via email, and it turned out we had a lot in common. Later, he allowed us to visit his home, and he and I bonded in person, through our shared love of baseball and music, and our passionate interest in World War II and the Holocaust. But my grandfather died too soon, in the winter of 2012, after we’d barely gotten to know each other. Losing him only months after finding him, combined with the loss of my father, was a devastating double-blow. I reached a low point I’d never known before.
When I was a freshman, my friends had all been seniors, partly because of my acting work and partly because I look much older than my age. While this gave me a huge social boost at the start of high school, it turned my sophomore year into a disaster. Suddenly, I was bitterly alone. All my classmates who had felt slighted by my hanging out with seniors or thought I thought I was better then they were took pleasure in rejecting me and making me an outcast. As is typical with the school social scene, I was not given a chance to explain myself or tell my story. Even if I had been, I would have been too afraid, fearing I would embarrass myself and my family. My academic life suffered, too, and my grades plummeted in chemistry and math, and I received my lowest GPA for a quarter in all four years. I gained weight. I became depressed. I knew I was in trouble, but I had too much pride to ask for help.
My refuge from the turmoil around me was acting. As a sophomore, I played the young, naive, and energetic Anthony Hope in Sweeney Todd. Anthony was like me—a hopeless romantic, caring and selfless. I also made some young, naive decisions in my own romantic relationships, to soothe the hurt I was feeling from my troubles at home. As a result, students who had previously liked me now despised me and thought of me as an egotist, a womanizer, and an unfaithful friend. They didn’t know the challenges I was going through, or why I made the decisions I did, and they were quick to judge me. Yet, these are the same young men and women I now lead as President of Marblehead High School’s Drama Club and Internal Affairs Manager of our all-male a cappella group. So how did I transform myself from a pariah into a respected leader and valued friend?
It wasn’t until my junior year that I started opening up. I spent part of the previous summer at Sarah Lawrence College’s three-week intensive musical theatre camp, where I learned coping strategies and the power of my own resilience. Within a few days I had new friends who understood and respected me, and whom I cared about deeply. I met a girl who had a lot in common with me and fell, briefly, in love. The program was a life-changing experience, and on my return to Marblehead, I moved up to more challenging history classes and continued to excel in English where I had managed, despite my crisis, to receive the “Outstanding Achievement in Critical Thinking” award as a sophomore, beating out over 100 other students. I began to triumph over the trauma and depression and to surround myself with people and choose activities that gave me support and a distraction from the intense pain at home. I dropped 10 pounds. I directed an original musical written by a friend at the prestigious Marblehead Community Theatre that featured actors headed to Syracuse and NYU, and I directed and performed in a Holocaust play that toured various venues on Boston’s North Shore. Suddenly I found myself doing three shows at once while planning a fourth and auditioning for another. I received multiple scholarships for my work volunteering and performing in the community. I put that money toward honing my craft and preparing for college auditions, because that is where I am most at home … on the stage.
Thinking back to performing in Sweeney Todd my sophomore year, with the blood of the barber’s murderous ways and the fog from the fog machine obscuring the stage, I realize I was not Jacob Sundlie thinking of family strife, psych wards, or social troubles in school. I was instead living fully inside my character and giving back to the audience that came to absorb themselves in the show that day. That transformation embodies what I want to do with my life. I want to move people, to help people, to bring them out of themselves by bringing them into another world that I help to create, so they can process their own struggles. Nothing has and nothing ever will stop me from doing this.
In one of the songs I performed, my director told me to break a bird cage in half, as this was written into the scene. I was told to “break that bird cage at all costs,” because the trick cage had broken a few nights before the show and I would have to break a real cage each night. On the second night, after my first attempt, the bird cage would not split in two. I lifted it over my head and smashed it down hard on the stage. It shattered in every direction. I broke that cage. I broke through.
Editor’s note: Jacob Sundlie submitted a shortened version of this article as his college application essay.
Photo courtesy of author.