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Rosie Perez on PTSD and Her Road to Recovery

March 4, 2014

Rosie Perez has been many things in her career —dancer, choreographer, Oscar-nominated actress, and AIDS activist—and now she adds survivor to the list. The Do the Right Thing actress recently spoke candidly with TIME magazine about her difficult childhood and what it felt like to be diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In her words, “It sucked,” but only at first. Perez gradually accepted her diagnosis and eventually felt relief, a weight lifted off from the years of fighting back.

In her new memoir, Handbook for an Unpredictable Life, Perez dives into her past and writes about growing up in the rough streets of Brooklyn. Her mother, who struggled with mental illness, first left her with a loving aunt and then abruptly placed Perez (only 2 years old) in a Catholic home for children. There, she was surrounded by vicious fights between girls and abusive counselors. Visits with her mother were not any easier, as she writes, “I was always walking on eggshells, waiting for the insanity to hit. And when it hit, it hit hard and fast—leaving deep emotional and physical scars.”

For Perez, accepting PTSD was a struggle because she wanted to believe she was over her childhood trauma. But it was “a big part of my life,” she writes. “And I’ve hated that fact. I’m a forward-moving and positive-thinking person, and it was hard to have that albatross hanging around my neck.”

Perez’s desire to move forward led her to finally seek professional help, something she admits she resisted for years. Dr. Jamie Howard, an expert on PTSD at the Child Mind Institute, says this is common. “A lot of people who experience PTSD are uncomfortable with it because it seems like a weakness,” she says. “But you can still be tough and have PTSD—you can be tough by putting one foot in front of the other and living your life with PTSD.”

It is clear writing this memoir has been a huge step in Perez’s recovery. “Part of the treatment for PTSD is to face traumatic memories, not to avoid or numb them,” explains Dr. Howard. “A lot of people do. When you’ve had this kind of longterm childhood trauma, the narrative is long.”

Though it wasn’t easy to write the book, Perez says she felt it was a responsibility. “The point is to get it out, to validate my feelings, to communicate how good it feels to no longer live in fear of what others may think, and to share my journey and move on,” she writes.

Dr. Howard is glad to see Perez so open about her experiences and believes her story could help change the perception of PTSD. “I think she’s really brave and it could really help people,” she says, “especially those who grew up in her community, and communities like hers, where it’s really valued to be tough.”

Many of us will always see Rosie Perez as that hard-as-nails woman in the opening credits of Do the Right Thing, but now she offers a new view of herself—vulnerable yet fighting back for happiness. Here’s how she ends her preface:

After a couple of years of therapy, and I don’t know exactly when or how it happened, I noticed my depression wasn’t there and the PTSD subsided considerably. I felt joyful, secure, and empowered. My inner strength and sense of self had never been stronger. I guess I allowed time to play its role, and I did my part by working hard on myself to grow past the pain. Gosh I sound so full of shit there. Let me be more honest: I grew past most of the pain and continue to do the work. Every day it gets better. xo.

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