© SOW March 27, 2001
All My Children's Cady McClain Finally Figures Out The Secret of Being Happy!
"When I was young," begins the wise-beyond-her-31-years Cady McClain, "I was so vulnerable, so frightened. I had to be tough because everything was so scary." Particularly for a little kid whose California childhood consisted of sporadic trips to the welfare office with her mom and sister (Dad was out of the picture) in between bread-winning roles in films like Pennies From Heaven and My Favorite Year. She joined All My Children as Dixie at 19, soon after her beloved mom was diagnosed with cancer.
"My mom was dying," she says softly. "I became an extremely intense individual – hard to be around, not a fun gal. Not exactly the laid-back girl you're gonna have a beer with after work. But I'm that girl now, that's for sure (laughs). It only took 12 years, but I finally learned to relax."
She did that by pursuing the interests she wasn't able to as a child: writing poetry and plays, painting, traveling and just generally having fun.
"I think I just attracted people in my life who knew how to do that," she muses. "They showed me, you know? I also gave up the idea of what I should be like and started accepting who I was. I stopped analyzing everything. I had done that for so long because everything was so screwed up. But after a while you just don't want to talk about the bad stuff anymore. You're done."
And now? "I want to go everywhere," she beams. "I want to see everything. I want to try every restaurant in Manhattan, see every play, go to every country. While I have this job, I want to be the best I can be, of course. I still have that part of my personality that's like, 'I don't take it for granted that they pay me to do this and people are looking to be entertained.' So, I show up and I do the best I can."
For how long, though, remains to be seen. McClain's contract expired in December and she is weighing her options, because AMC wants her to sign a longer-term deal than she feels conformable committing to right now. "I'm still in negotiations," she hedges. "We'll see." (According to ABC, McClain is not working without a contract.)
In the meantime, McClain is using her scant downtime to pursue those many outside interests, including her boyfriend of a few years. "I've been dating someone for a while," she affirms, clearly uncomfortable with discussing her personal life, "and I enjoy dating that person." When pressed, McClain confides her belief that talking about her love life in interviews has been the kiss of death for her past romances.
"In the past, I wanted that: 'Hey, this is my guy!'" she whispers. "I was so proud of him and so proud of being his girlfriend. But I think that because my real life and my daytime TV life are so different, the two shouldn't cross. It's very weird for the people in my real life. When I brought my boyfriend to the Emmys, he was like, 'This is surreal.'"
McClain has no desire to get married to have children right now, so the relationship works for her just the way it is. "I took care of my mom for years. It was like having a child and my child died," she says thoughtfully. "That is so depressing, but it's true. It doesn't make me want to have one. But I adore children. I love Jesse (McCartney), who plays my son (Adam, Jr.) on the show, and I love Zach (Kady), who plays Jamie. I love to talk to them, hang out with them. They're great kids. People say, 'Oh, you're such a natural at being a parent.' Well, in a very screwed-up way, I was one and I don't really want to do that again for a while. Maybe someday."
Not surprisingly, given everything they went through together, McClain is very close to her sister, Molly, a teacher in California. "We have a kind of silent agreement that there is no pressure on either one of us to have kids. What is most important to both of us is that we fulfill the promises to ourselves. She is a great teacher and her students love her. She's happy doing that."
And McClain is happy doing this. "I love the storyline," she enthuses, "and I love the confidence that [AMC] has shown in my ability to be a big part of the front-burner storyline. I feel very happy that they know I can do that. When I left [in 1996] and came back, it felt like they weren't sure what to do with me. You have to constantly re-prove yourself in daytime."
McClain has done precisely that with the painful story of Dixie being cheated on by Tad, and then cheating herself with dastardly David. "From what I've heard, there are Tad and Dixie fans and David and Dixie fans, and never the twain shall meet. If something good happens between Tad and Dixie, a lot of people are happy and a lot of people are angry. 'We're sick of these people together' or 'It was so much better with David.' There are a lot of confrontational conversations going on, which is great because it's not about, 'We hate this storyline'; it's more, 'I can't stop watching because it's agonizing to see what is happening to this woman.' I take a very psychological approach to it. I think there are a lot of wives and moms out there who can relate to Dixie's struggle in terms of feeling limited by the definition of who they are. Their relationship confines them: 'Oh, that's so-and-so's wife.' Whoa, I'm a person!' If they don't have a career outside of the relationship, they are still a person. It's like the world constantly tries to make them smaller because they are with a guy, and Dixie is breaking out of that, which she desperately needs to do. And here comes this other guy [David], who says, 'I just want to make your world huge.' And that's both ruining her life and helping her start a new life – and somewhere in the middle is what's right."
Finding what's right has been the key to McClain "fulfilling the promises" to herself. "Right around when I won the Emmy (1990), I had my first nervous breakdown," she shares quietly. "And right after that I went into therapy. I did a lot of work. It was more than just survival for me – it was something in me that knew what it was to be happy and I wanted to get that back. I did have a happy childhood; those first 12 years were good. It was just from 12 to 25 that was a nightmare."
McClain's breakdown was precipitated by a kidney infection. "The kidney infection combined with the pressure of being on the show, my mother dying of cancer and my difficult sort of teenagehood – where I had to make the decision to support my family or pursue my own artistic needs beyond the soap opera – drove me to a nervous exhaustion. It was just total mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. And it manifested itself in a kidney infection in a weird way. I couldn't make any decisions. They put me in the hospital for a week on IV antibiotics for the kidney infection, but I just couldn't do anything. My mom was well enough sort of at that point to take care of me. The show realized I was french-fried in my brain and gave me time to put myself back together."
And she did. "I could write a book on working through burnout," she states. "I've been burnt out beyond burnt out and showed up for work. You have to be dead not to show up for work on daytime. You can have raging pneumonia but you have to show up for work. So, I learned how to prevail in that environment. How to save your soul under enormous pressure at home and at work. There was no relief for me. But the body and the mind are very clever. Survival is extremely important, so you start getting creative: 'How am I going to keep doing this job?' The only way is to do things that are inspiring. You have to . I think a lot of people learn that in college: 'Oh my god, the test is tomorrow and I have to cram for 12 hours straight or I'm never going to pass.' It was sort of like that."
For a teen-age Cady McClain, working five days a week on AMC and nursing her dying mom during the years that most people were learning that very lesson in college, therapy was a revelation. "Therapy helped me feel what I had to feel which is the hardest part. This is the most personal interview I've ever given, but it's O.K. I think it would be helpful for other people to realize that there is help out there. There's a saying I heard when I was very young, and I took it to heart: 'The wise man embraces pain because he knows it will teach him.' So instead of spending all your time going, 'That hurt! That hurt!' you say, 'OK, why did this hurt? What's the lesson?' The more you fight the bad things, the worse it will be for you. It's like fermenting grapes. You crush them and crush them and crush them and then you let them sit."
"And that's where I'm at now," she grins – finally. "I'm wine, baby"!