Patricia Heaton
Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
After years of struggling in show business, the star of ABC's The Middle was nearly convinced she was a failure. Who knew a trip to Mexico would make all the difference?
When I was 31, I was living in the back room of a family friend's house because the $200 rent was all I could afford. I had spent nine years auditioning, taking acting lessons, and searching for an agent, but I was getting nowhere. I'd been acting for as long as I could remember. As a child, I would put on shows in my neighborhood with friends and perform Barbra Streisand songs for my classmates. Acting had always been my identity, so when my career wasn't panning out, I felt worthless. I couldn't figure out my place in the world and was terrified to admit to my family—and myself—that I might fail.

I have always believed that when you're feeling sorry for yourself, the best thing to do is help someone else. So when I saw a flier at my church for a four-day volunteer project at an orphanage in a Mexican border town, I signed up.

As soon as I arrived in Tecate, I felt cut off from the rest of the world: There were no phones or televisions—none of the little luxuries I was used to. A dozen volunteers were there to lay sod on the orphanage grounds and repair a broken sewage pipe. We tilled the sunbaked soil in blazing heat. My hands became blistered from the hoe's wood handle. I'd never worked so hard in my life. At night I slept in a child-size bunk bed inside a one-room shack.

The kids at the orphanage didn't speak English, and I didn't speak any Spanish, but we still managed to connect. We'd play hide-and-seek or just giggle. We broke a piñata together. I remember one girl who was probably 6—her hair was messy and full of dust. She loved kicking a soccer ball. She would follow me around, and I was drawn to her, too, because she had this wild, magnetic energy.

When I returned home, I felt relaxed and whole, like my spirit had gotten a massage. I realized that a life spent serving others would be just as fulfilling as acting. I knelt down in my bedroom and prayed, "God, if you want me to go in a different direction, just show me. I will follow."

My belief that I couldn't hold my head up if I wasn't a famous actor had been paralyzing me. Every audition had felt so weighted. Before each one I would think, "I'm too fat. I'm wearing the wrong thing. What will I do if I don't get this part?" But after my time in Mexico, all of that negativity and second-guessing disappeared. I went to auditions confident, and I performed with joy. Soon enough, my career started picking up. Two months after my trip, I landed my first big role, in the TV series Thirtysomething. After nine years of struggle, success finally came to me once I stopped worrying so much about finding it.

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