Playing a Better Melody
Melody Anderson was one of the hardest working actresses in Hollywood in the '80s. Now she’s one of the top addiction therapists.
Los Angeles is riddled with former actresses. While most keep up the on-camera work until the last possible second, Melody Anderson—star of the 1980 sci-fi flick Flash Gordon, who also made numerous appearances on Battlestar Galactica, Dallas, T.J. Hooker and The A-Team, among other hit TV shows—did a career 180 when she reached middle age and began taking classes at NYU to become a therapist. She graduated in 1997 and has since become an expert in family and addiction therapies, a Level II EMDR specialist and an international lecturer on substance abuse and addictions and the family. In this exclusive interview with The Fix, Anderson talks about transitioning from acting to therapy, the importance of family in the recovery process and how parents can be most effective in helping children who suffer from addiction.
How did you first become an actress?
I had graduated with a journalism degree from Carleton University in Ottawa and briefly worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which is the national public radio and television broadcaster there. But CBC didn’t want to send me to the cities I wanted to go to, so I traveled around Southeast Asia and Australia for a year on my own as a journalist. I became the first non-Australian woman to read the news in Australia but was becoming disenchanted with reporting there because it was during the Rupert Murdoch days. When I was in a hostel in Hong Kong, they had Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on the radio and thought it was so moving. All I ever wanted to be was a communicator.
So I moved to Hollywood and studied with Michael Gazzo, who produced A Hat Full of Rain (a Broadway play from 1955-1956 about the effects of drug addiction, adapted into a film in 1957), and then got my SAG card when I appeared on a program with Ed McMahon. I just started being sent on interviews and got Flash Gordon, then ended up having a 15-year career with some really nice stuff in there.
Don’t threaten to kick someone out of the house if you know you won’t be able to.
You’ve said in previous interviews that there’s a shortage of roles for middle-aged women in Hollywood. Was that why you decided to go back to school?
In the mid-‘90s, I knew that I wanted to leave the business because some older girlfriends were struggling to get work and I didn’t want to wear short shorts in my 40s. I’ve always said that I’m a realist with an imaginative mind. And when I moved to New York City shortly after, I joined Al-Anon because my father had difficulties with alcohol and I just really enjoyed the environment. I started leading Al-Anon meetings in the city and a woman there asked me if I had ever considered becoming a therapist. I took some non-matriculation courses at NYU and it was obvious from the start that this was what I needed to be doing.
My clients are mainly people in the entertainment world because I understand that the industry is very trying and I also work with writers to help them overcome writers block. But my main specialties are family and addiction therapy and they often go hand in hand. There’s a genetic propensity for addiction among people born into families with the gene. It’s a genetic illness that gets passed on through generations and the body has a different way than most of processing alcohol and the sugars from it.
How important is having family involved in the recovery process?
In the ‘50s, there was a test done on a schizophrenic client who got better but whose condition always seemed to regress every time he went home. Overcoming an addiction is often a family process because families learn how to deal with a person in that state. And in this particular case, the family benefitted from the person being sick because they were able to place the blame on him. Therapy can be really important in learning to understand how to handle that recovery state.
That said, family involvement isn’t essential because of all the different support groups out there. You can really recreate a family in those places.
Are there misconceptions about the proper way for parents to be involved in the recovery of their children or behaviors they might engage in which should be avoided?
It’s hard for parents because they carry so much shame and think it’s their fault. It might be their fault genetically or the child may be experiencing a really tough home life in some cases but most parents are pretty decent. The one thing I always tell parents is that this is the one illness you don’t throw money at. You cannot be an enabler. Some parents don’t say no to their kids because they don’t want their kids to get upset or because they fear they’ll lose them. But unfortunately, the only way to change these behaviors is through pain. People need to experience the consequences themselves. Doing something like bailing a child out of jail or buying him a new car when he wrecked the other one only prevents the kid from doing that.
Are there things in the therapy world that you still hope to accomplish?
I had a therapy talk radio show before I moved from New York to LA in 2002, so I’m trying to recreate that here in Los Angeles. And for the last decade, I’ve been working on a book for parents on kids who use drugs. Much of the inspiration from that came largely from my time at Hazelden. I was a clinical social worker there from 1995 through 2002 and created the Intensive Out-Patient Program and Family and Friends Program there.
What advice would you give to family members who want to help a loved one overcome their addiction?
My best advice is for family members to get to Al-Anon or a similar support group. It’s free and you won’t feel ashamed because everyone in there has already experienced what you have. The other big thing is to set boundaries and create consequences. There have to be consequences for the negative actions of other people. It often helps to make a contract with a child and place it somewhere—like on the fridge. But don’t threaten to kick someone out of the house if you know you won’t be able to. Parents lose their strategic edge by creating consequences they can’t follow through on.
McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among many other topics, for The Fix.