A few weeks ago I was surfing the web in search of post ideas, when I ran across a brief description of a woman that greatly interested me. Her name was Meera Popkin – a Broadway star, diagnosed with schizophrenia at a time in her life that should have been a dream come true – a nightmare began. I contacted Popkin and naively asked for an interview, she said yes. The story she told was one of greatness filled with childlike ambition, but also tragic, scared, and heartbreaking – a story of a woman who stumbled upon fame and survived having her character and intentions questioned by the ones she loved the most, and locked away, behind padded walls.
A Star Is Born
Born and raised in Bloomington, Indiana, Popkin didn’t dream of being another light on Broadway – she wanted a family, she wanted to be a good mother, a loving wife, and much like the rest of us, she wanted to be happy. Her career on the stage came by way of luck and talent. While visiting family in New York, Popkin decided to audition for a show and was immediately cast. She was the alternate for seven different roles in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Starlight Express until she was asked to do Miss Saigon on the London stage, where she was a true triumph. She was then cast in Cats for a short time but went back to Starlight Express in Las Vegas as one of the lead roles, Ashley.
At this point, the tone in Popkin’s voice changed; there was a slight sigh as she said, “then I got this bad review”, as if this was the day, the moment, that her entire world was about to change. In the summer of 1997, Popkin was diagnosed with a mild case of schizophrenia. She was living with her boyfriend at the time, Michael Urban, who insisted they begin seeing a couples counselor after Popkin called the cops on him for smoking a cigar in the backyard after she told him not to. With the diagnosis, the bad review, and the events that had taken place between her and Urban, Popkin’s career, relationship, and reputation began falling apart.
Popkin began to feel that she was losing everything, she was put on Zyprexa for her schizophrenia, and after the death of her grandmother, she moved back to Indiana. She began working at a Wendy’s and was surprised at everyone’s reaction to the girl who went from Broadway to fast food, “I didn’t think anything of it, it was a job and I was happy to have it,” said Popkin.
Crazy Little Thing Called Schizophrenia
Her parents did not know how to deal with their daughter’s diagnosis and began to fear what she may be capable of. They had Popkin hospitalized after they said she was trespassing on their property and believed she was not taking her medication. Popkin was handcuffed and locked in a room with a camera, as if she was being studied. She was being treated as though her mental illness was a crime, and she was a criminal by association. “My perseverance was gone,” said Popkin, “you have no choices, if you don’t comply, they lock you up”.
What began as an unreasonable argument with a boyfriend had turned into a whirlwind of mental illness, accusations based on fear or lack of knowledge, and ultimately an unintentional attempt to break a young girl’s spirit. Popkin was lost, even now, at the age of 44, I could hear the questioning in her voice, the wondering, how and why did this happen to me? How does one seek redemption for something they never had control over?
It was not mental illness that plagued the actress’s life, it was a simple word: schizophrenia – and a lack of understanding. Popkin is not a paranoid schizophrenic; she is what is known as a disorganized subtype of schizophrenia, also known as a hebephrenic. This is a thought disorder and it is most recognized in the way a person speaks, they do not completely finish thoughts before going into explaining another, and they tend to be more emotional and may take things more to heart and openly express their pain without rationalizing it first. Popkin did not have hallucinations or hear voices, and she never posed a threat to her life or anyone else’s life.
A New Journey Begins
At the age of 35, when Popkin knew it could not get any worse, and only she knew she was not “crazy”, she went, alone, to Griffy Lake, sat in a tree and prayed. She had lost everything and had nothing to look forward to. She decided that all she could do was decide to move forward. She was accepted into American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) in New York, moved back and began to pursue the theatre again. Unfortunately, the events that had taken place in the previous years bore a huge lack of self-esteem for Popkin. “I was always able to be vulnerable on stage, but that was before I had felt so beaten up, I couldn’t perform, I failed miserably,” said Popkin.
At the age of 38, Popkin began a new journey when she met her husband at a NAMI workshop. They were married a few months later and moved to West End New York where they had their first daughter. Popkin became a stay-at-home mom and eventually went off of her medication after being told by her doctor that he saw no traces of the illness that had once consumed her life. She was able to feel the first few waves of freedom until her second birth, a home birth, the baby was coming so quickly that Popkin couldn’t make it to the hospital in time. When the hospital found out they believed with the actress’s previous medical history that she was a danger to her children and they took Popkin to court, where she was ordered to move back to Indiana and begin taking her medication again.
Popkin now lives in Bloomington, IN with her husband and two daughters. Her parents are close, and she feels now that she has a wonderful support system, and though her alleged illness still haunts her she has learned to live with it and continues to move forward. She was recently contacted by a company in England and they are currently writing a West London Musical about the star’s life. Popkin is a co-writer and will star in the production. The actress has done side management for local theatres and has been trying to help others with their mental illness, and now it is time to tell her story through the outlet she knows best. “I just hope I can really do it,” says Popkin “and you never know, maybe I’ll find the performer I used to be.”