How I Survived Tragedy- Twice
At 25, Carmen Electra lost her mother AND sister within two horrific weeks. Here's how grief forced her to grow up.
I've always been incredibly close to my family-my mom was my rock. My older sister, Debbie, got pregnant when she was 14, and until she moved to Illinois, she was like a second mother to me. After that, my life revolved around my mom. She was my best friend, in my life 24/7
whether I wanted her there or not. She always wanted me to make it in show business, and when I was 24, I got my job with Singled Out on MTV. I remember thinking, I've made it! I flew my mom out from Ohio so she could see me on the set, but the whole time she was complaining of headaches. I wasn't too concerned because she'd always had migraines. Even as a little girl, I remember her pulling the car to the side of the road because of the blinding pain.
A week later, I was having dinner with some producers from MTV when I got a call on my cell phone from my boyfriend's mother, all three of us were living together at the time. She told me that my mom had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and was in the hospital. I was freaking out- I flew home to see her right away. When I walked into the hospital, my mom was sitting up in bed, but she was acting very strange. She would just wave and say, "Hi...hi...hi...." I could tell she was just pretending to know me.
After surgery, my mom started to recover. And over the course of a year, I started to feel better because she was feeling better. Most of the time, I was just focusing on work and trying hard not to feel anything, then my dad called me. He said, "You'd better get here--now."
When I walked into my mom's bedroom, it was so heartbreaking. She'd had a seizure and couldn't talk. She'd hung my posters all over her walls, and when she saw
me, she started laughing
and smiling and crying. I talked to her and lay in bed with her, and we watched TV together. At one point, I was sitting alone in the living room and heard a noise. I ran to see what it was and
found her trying to slide down the stairs to the basement to do laundry.
I tried to help her, but when we got to the bottom, she really wasn't feeling well. We were alone in the house, and I couldn't get her back up the steps. She was getting really frustrated, struggling and crying. This was a woman with a third-degree black belt in karate, I'd seen her break
boards with her bare hands. To see her in such a vulnerable position was one of the hardest things I've ever faced.
In my mind, things couldn't possibly get worse. But they did. A few days later, I was standing in the kitchen with my father and my brother when the phone rang. It was my sister Debbie's husband. He told me Debbie was dead. She'd had a heart attack in her sleep, and no one
knew why. I was in shock- total shock. I'd accepted by that point that my mom was going to go. I was prepared for it. But Debbie was 40 years old and in perfect health. Everything got so still. We all just stared at each other. One by one, we started
to break down. My father went outside to the backyard. My brother headed straight for the local bar. I just sat in the kitchen and cried. I . made everyone promise not to tell my mom. I didn't know if she could understand or not, but I didn't want her to cry, or be sad, or feel any worse than she already did.
A lot of people came to the house to help out with my mom. And they all started telling me, "Your mom is so sick she can't even swallow her pills." I was so numb from my sister's sudden death that I hadn't even noticed. Then I walked into my mother's room and found her eating a cheeseburger. I said to my relatives, "What do you mean,
she can't swallow?" Then I got it. She
was spitting up the pills because she didn't want to live anymore. I went to her and said, ''Mom, I know why you're not taking your pills. It's OK, I get it. I understand." I told her I loved her. I told her not to worry about me. I told her that I still had a family and that it was OK to go. And I knew she
understood me by the look in her eyes. She started to cry, and when I said goodbye, I knew it was for the last time. The producers on the movie I was working on had been wonderful about letting me go, but I'd been home for two weeks and they needed me back. I knew my mother would want me to work. And I know now that part of me was just running away. I thought if I allowed myself to feel, I might die from the pain.
On my way to the airport I stopped off in Indiana at my sister's house. When I
pulled up, everyone was sitting on the porch and the steps of the house: my sister's husband, my two nieces, my nephew and all of their friends. Everyone had totally blank expressions, and everything looked different. The trees, the house...everything that was beautiful was dead. I remember thinking, please let me wake up from this nightmare. I drove to the airport, and from then on I tried to block it all out. What really helped me do that was the fact that I didn't live there anymore. Everyone else had to deal with it; I just got on a plane and told myself, it's OK, nothing happened.
Over the next few days, I prayed to God to go ahead and take my mom. The doctors had already said that they couldn't do any more surgery and that two more tumors had grown in. So when I got the call that she was
gone, I cried out of sadness but also out of
relief that she wasn't in pain anymore. I drove home from work on the freeway, and "Wind Beneath My Wings" came on the radio. I remember just bawling my eyes out, thinking about how my mom was my hero, how she'd gone through so much and always taken care of me. I thought about all the things I'd wanted to do for her but didn't get a chance to do, like buy her a new car or take her shopping on Rodeo Drive. Later that night I sat down and wrote a bunch of poems about her. But in some ways, I was just going through the motions. I was completely numb. At the time, I was dating Dennis Rodman. He was such a fun person to be around, and we went out every
night. I remember thinking, this is my out. I'm just going to have fun, and I'm not going to worry about anything. Right after my mom and sister died, I flew to Las Vegas and Dennis and I got married. I guess I was trying to cling to whatever I had. I'd lost my mom and my sister; I didn't want to lose anyone else. We were married for about five months. When I started going through some really hard times with Dennis, I became addicted to feeling that pain instead of dealing with my feelings about my mom and sister. But at some point, I realized I had to stop blaming him. So I got out of my marriage and started reading a lot of self-help books and watching Oprah. And one day Oprah said, "In order to heal, you have to feel." At that moment I realized I wasn't letting myself feel what I needed to.
I turned off the TV, walked into the bedroom and took out a photo of me and
my mom. Normally I would look away
or turn it over, but I forced myself to sit on the bed and really look at it. I looked at the color of her hair and remembered how she was always dyeing it platinum blond. I pictured her sewing my costumes. I pictured her lighting the candles on my birthday
cake. I remembered playing board games with her and watching scary movies together. And Christmas! She always pulled through on that holiday, even though we didn't have any money. I thought about how my mom pushed me when I didn't want to go to dance class and spent her last dime to bring me opportunities that would further my career. I thought about how she wanted
me to get out of Ohio and be somebody. How she made me who I am today. And for the first time, I really let myself cry.
It's amazing how once you let yourself feel the pain starts to go away. It didn't happen overnight. It was a process. But you can choose which path you're going to take. You can deny your pain and destroy yourself, or you can go to therapy, read books and do whatever it takes to get yourself together. After that, I cut everyone out of my life who distracted me from getting better. I made a really firm decision not to date. I went to the gym, took long baths with candles and started therapy. I focused on myself.
When I met Dave [Navarro, guitarist for Jane's Addiction], I'd been single for about a year. It's funny- both of us worried we wouldn't be exciting enough for the other. He thought I would want this wild and crazy rock-and-roll guy, and I thought he would want this sexy party chick. We both thought, oh God, I'm not that person anymore. But as
it turned out, we were in the same place. He'd lost his mom when he was 14, and his escape was through drugs. When I met him he was clean and working a 12-step program, and that was interesting to me. It was hard not to have my mom and sister at the wedding because I know they would've loved him. I recovered because I figured out that it's OK to be vulnerable. It's beautiful to be vulnerable. I know for sure I wouldn't be married to an amazing person and have the beautiful home and happy career and friendships I have now if I hadn't made myself feel what I needed to feel. I would've blown it. Now, I feel so grounded and so secure. Of course I
still think about my sister and my mom,
but now I deal with my grief in different ways. Sometimes I use my sense of humor.
Sometimes I call out to my mom. Sometimes I cry; sometimes memories of her make me feel happy. And sometimes I feel resentful for certain things she did. I think that's normal. If I had one more hour to spend with my mom, I would spend it alone with her, face to face. I would hug her and tell her how much I loved her. I would tell her I was going to be OK. And I am.
-AS TOLD TO LAURIE SANDELL