Rise: Surviving the Fight of My Life

by Paige VanZant

Clock Icon 17 minute read

TRIGGER WARNING

This book contains sensitive material that could be disturbing or triggering for anyone who has previously been the victim of sexual assault, sexual violence, rape, or sexual abuse.

If you are feeling triggered, the resources referred to on this page are generally held to be reputable and helpful:

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)
rainn.org

RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline
1-800-656-HOPE

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-TALK

 


INTRODUCTION

I could rattle off a list of injuries that I have endured—every rip, gash, cut, slit, stitch, crack, sprain, pull, twist, and tear that’s somehow or another wreaked havoc on my body. That said, I’m not scared of getting hurt. I see injuries as occupational hazards, expected and unavoidable. Consequences that simply come with the territory.

But there’s one piece of hurt that I have always kept buried.

A pain that I keep locked deep inside, and that for all these years has been consciously untold, even to my family; a pain that undeniably affected my physical body, but did its real damage to my soul. This one was more than an injury—it was a spiritual wound. The scarring kind.

The special blend of darkness that I experienced turned into some kind of wildfire, snapping and ferocious, a wicked force that took on a life of itself. And once it took, it ravaged. It developed. It evolved with me as I grew up. It clung to me and became an undercurrent throughout the course of my life, a shadow that always slithered beside me, maniacally laughing while it tried to pave my path with darkness.

But I didn’t write this book to talk about how life knocked me out. I wrote it to tell the story of how I chose to rise.

I wrote it to purge the murky junk and shadows from my past, so that I can keep propelling forward, toward the light.

I wrote it as a testament to the fact that your deepest pain can become your highest purpose.

I wrote it for all the women who got knocked down and came up swinging.

But mostly I wrote it for the girls who are still lying on the ground right now wondering how they’re going to make it.

This is the story of how I chose to rise.

 


I’m not AFRAID.
I was born
TO DO THIS.

—Joan of Arc

 

TOMBOY IN A TUTU

It’s raining, which makes me want to be outside even more. Because rain means mud. And mud means fun. I love it when my sneakers get all caked up with soil, layers of dry, dinosaur-like mud from hours and days and weeks and years of riding my bike through that spongy, gravelly mess, under low-hanging gray Oregon skies that keep the earth beneath my wheels perfectly, consistently moist. Every day, I cruise through the streets on my BMX, up hills and across the farmlands with my hair whipping at my neck, into the joyful surrender of that innocent, happy, earthy filth. I race against the boys, and very often win. They both love and hate me for it. But mostly they respect me for it.

Mom will be bummed if I’m not home by sundown, but I just want to keep riding my bike like a comet through the night. I want to ride until I can see all the stars winking at me, until I can’t breathe, until my knees stop working. I want to ride faster than anyone else. I want to be outside, to feel the air on my skin and move my body. But I holler to the guys that I gotta jet, pull a sharp right and head home because I really love my mom. Also, I know what she’s got in the oven, and I’m not about to miss out on that. They all look at me funny as I ride off, not because I’m the only girl in the pack—they’re used to that—but more so because I’m wearing a pink taffeta tutu, its layers flapping in the breeze like giant butterfly wings.

When I get home, the house is steamed cozy with the smell of my mother’s signature tater tot casserole. Chester, my dog, who is basically my mom’s third kid, greets me with a tackle and a face-lick. My dad won’t be home until everyone else is in bed, since he works nights. But Mom always makes enough for him to eat later, which I know he does with great pleasure, because I can usually hear the scraping on the casserole dish from my bedroom on nights when I’m up struggling to fall asleep. Our folks were kids themselves when they had my brother Stevie and me. They met at a hardware store in 1988 and proceeded to become quintessential high school sweethearts. Mom says I came into the world ten days early, mad as hell, ravenous and screaming my head off at every doctor and nurse around me. When her milk didn’t come down fast enough, I’d get impatient and lash out, flailing my tiny arms and scratching up my whole face. I’m told that I was a scrapper since the beginning, a strong and determined newborn, keen on holding my head up right from day one.

Mom and Dad are great parents because they expose us to everything and they let us try everything. They don’t tell us what to like; instead, they show us all the delights of the world as if they were on a menu at a restaurant. They let us pick what sounds good to us. From the grimy to the glamorous, be it indoor or outdoor, they love to see us dive into things, to get excited about our activities, to milk every hour of sunshine there is. They show up, facilitate, support, and encourage, often at the expense of their own plans and budget. They live for us. They encourage our curiosities. Instead of boundaries, they give us turbo boosts. We don’t have a lot of money, but there’s always good music playing and tasty food cooking in our house. Quality-versus-quantity type of people.

Dad is a control room operator at a paper mill in town. When he gets home after a long shift, he brings with him the musk of hard labor and pressed ink. He’s a no-nonsense man, both direct with us and there for us. He’s the kind of guy who works five to six hundred hours of overtime each year and never flinches, tough skinned and strict, a tinge of ferocity always set into his smile-less gaze. Machinelike in his ethic, Dad just powers through things. No matter what it is, he stares it down and quietly pounces. He doesn’t mince words and has a low threshold for bullshit and weakness. My mom says my father has a condition called intermittent explosive disorder, which is essentially what it sounds like. The man has a short fuse. But I take his tough-love style with a grain of salt. People tend to tiptoe around him, but I prefer to rise to his challenges, to show him what I’m made of at every opportunity.

“I’m just gonna go ahead and assume you aced the hell out of it,” he proclaims on days when he knows I’ve had a test, his way of instilling confidence. It’s safe to say, he’s my first-ever coach.

Mom is a dancer. She has that quintessential dancer carriage, all posture and lines. For a while she owned a dance studio called the Chehalem Valley Dance Academy, but she sold it when I was four years old to become a full-time stay-at-home mom. Thanks to her, dance has been in our life since the beginning, like a whole other language in which we were always fluent. In our household, dance isn’t an extracurricular activity, it’s an extension of being alive. It doesn’t matter that we live in rural farmlands—or maybe because we live in rural farmlands—dance imbues our days with poetry and elegance. Ballet, jazz, tap, modern, hip-hop: whatever it is, being involved with it transports us elsewhere, shows us something else. I love to dance; it’s been true since I was a toddler. I love the excitement that builds in the space of those two or three beats just before the song drops in. I love the freedom that comes with music, and the expression that comes with movement. I love how each song has its own path and how the body responds to certain sounds. I love pointing my toes so hard that my quads bulge up and cramp. I love knowing my steps so well that they’re not even stored in my memory, but in my body. I love being so consumed by a dance that I forget where I am. I love the feeling of nailing it. I love how my muscles feel when they stretch and flex, every part of me coursing with the fire of being all in, the sound of the music egging me on.

My dad says I’ve also been wrestling since the age of two, which shouldn’t come as such a surprise to him, because he was a die-hard wrestler himself in high school and college. My dad doesn’t treat me like a precious little princess—he levels with me, he encourages scrappiness, and he measures his respect for me at any given moment based on my grit quotient. He’s unkind, tough, and doesn’t believe in positive affirmations. And yet I love the guy and implicitly trust him. Maybe he avoids the accolades as a way to push me to do even better. His way of making sure I don’t go soft.

He likes hearing my accounts of the neighborhood boxing matches, in which I sometimes participate, casual backyard sparring with the local boys. We try to knock each other out, and the whole point is to see how many hits you can take and still stay on your feet. He doesn’t worry about me being the only girl out there. On the contrary, he likes to hear the details of which gloves I wore, and if I made eye contact and whom I knocked out and how. One afternoon I come home with bloody knuckles and a victorious grin. Most dads would probably freak out at the sight of their daughter’s injuries. Not my pop, though. He’s got the heart of a Spartan.

“Let me see! Atta girl, way to rough ’em up,” he says.

“You should see the other guy!” I say, forever eager to make him proud.

He loves everything about fighting: watching it, doing it, talking about it. It’s in his hands and it’s in his heart. When he watches fights at home, I can hear the crowd chanting in the background, sonic waves of human energy swirling around the performance and momentum of two fighters. My dad locks into the intensity of these fighters, his eyes keen on every move, every intention. It’s like he’s on the couch, but he’s really on the mat. He should have been a fighter. That would have been his dream—and he would have been good. But like many of the fathers in Newberg, he had us young, and since his life quickly became about our needs, he had to sacrifice his own aspirations with hard labor to make sure we’d never have to walk away from an opportunity.

Our town is shaped like a bowl. The rich people live up top. We live at the bottom with all the farmers, where the mingled smells of cattle and fruit trees always hang in the air. Newberg is in western Oregon, near the Willamette River, less than an hour away from Portland. Even that close to a city, it remains a mostly rural town, settled in the nineteenth century by a fur trader and a bunch of Quakers, and surrounded by the quiet farmlands of Yamhill County.

We live on two acres of land by a river and a creek, near endless acres of rolling farmland and two national parks. We have a pond, too, which I like to think of as my own personal mud bath. I love slinging mud at my buddies and getting so soiled up with earth that the whites of my teeth pop when I smile. I love the carefree abandon of being dirty and not caring and drying up in the sun and falling asleep at night so fast and deep because I am so physically exhausted from running around outside all day. When I’m not on my bike or skateboard or boxing in someone’s backyard, you might also find me up in one of the elaborate forts I build with some of the other kids in the woods. My muddy, messy, DIY, perfect dominion.

We’re not farmers per se, but there have always been animals in our world. I definitely remember bottle-feeding a pair of baby goats that used to live with us when I was little. Hershey and Coco. I can still remember the expressions in their eyes, the velveteen softness of their coats, and the sweet looks they gave me as they chugged down their milk. We got Chester when I was six, and though I have never been one to play with dolls, I go out of my way to get Chester in outfits, especially hip-hop gear.

But favorite pets, livestock, fields, and pastures aside, when it comes down to it, there’s nothing really here, in Newberg—rich or poor, up or bottom. I mean, it’s calm and lush and green, and the sheets of trees and rolling hills are cool, but ultimately there’s nothing really here. Which I guess is a good thing because it’s always made me feel kind of antsy and active, hungry for something, like an adrenaline rush or some kind of action or adventure—or all of the above. Maybe the quiet vastness of the farmland makes me somehow want to compensate and fill myself up with life. That’s how I feel, anyway. Full of life. High octane. Hungry. In refusal of boredom. Sometimes it feels like I came into this world packed with an extra battery.

I have so much built-in moxie that I really thrive in Mountain View Middle School. Science is my favorite subject, and Mr. Kaltwasser is an amazing teacher. I love how dynamic his class is. We do lab work, but we also garden and build rockets, which we get to explode. I’m intent on straight A’s. If I don’t get them, I sometimes cry. I also get mad if I’m not on time for school every day. It’s because I’m a die-hard perfectionist. I love the thrill of competing, and I consider my classes just another arena for mastery.

But by the time I’m ten, I start to feel an itch. Maybe I’m starting to outgrow our town’s humdrum, predictable rhythms, or maybe I’m just tired of the same old, same old. Either way, I start to crave a sense of more. I don’t want to stay locked into a life of boundaries, I want to push my edges, I want to raise my bar. One particularly rainy afternoon, I’m in the car with Mom coming home from a dance practice, and a commercial comes on the radio.

“Do you think you have what it takes to be a Disney star?” the announcer asks, which to me sounds less like a question than an affirmation of some deeply known truth. “Have you always dreamt of being onstage or -screen?” the voice asks, this time one octave higher. The answer is a resounding yes, and it comes from the part of me that feels like I’ve been sitting in the waiting room of life. The ad is for John Robert Powers, a well-known modeling and talent agency that trains kids for Disney’s pilot season in Los Angeles, a period of auditions during which the network casts all its shows. That night, I watch Miley Cyrus in one of her many colorful iterations on TV, and get hit with a mammoth revelation:

I don’t want to watch what other people do—I want to be what other people watch.

“Honey, you’ve got enough talent in your left pinky alone to end up on any one of those shows,” my mom says.

“You think so?” I ask, but the real question burning inside me is How the hell can I accomplish that while I’m stuck here? I need to be somewhere where lives don’t just unfold haphazardly—I want to be where lives are built!

With Mom’s help, I start taking regular classes at John Robert Powers, and immediately I feel right at home. The dance element is old hat to me, and the newer worlds of acting and modeling are fun to learn. I love playing improv games and being handed a set of circumstances that I suddenly have to bring to life. Now lines in scripts start to come alive for me as more than just words; I’m being compelled to weave them into realistic emotions, into actual scenes. Songs are deconstructed into pieces of music that I learn how to navigate with every part of my voice. I learn how to carry myself, how to breathe from my solar plexus, how to command attention, how to strike a pose. I learn how to smile with my eyes, I learn what “stage left” and “stage right” mean, and, most crucial of all, I learn how to really stand in the light.

I begin to wake up to the fact that there’s a world beyond Newberg. I can taste it. It simmers beyond the blurry farmland horizons, flickering into the edges of my bright-light fantasies. A world where people are driven by a desire to excel. To perform at their peak. To crush it. A glamorous world in which women dance in high heels, talent and hard work pay off, and waking up for hair and makeup before sunrise is just part of the routine. The world I’m talking about is Hollywood. A bright, sunny world where peak performance is the name of the game. And that’s the world I want.

The phone rings.

“Hello? Is Paige Sletten available, please?”

“Who’s calling?” Mom asks.

“We’re calling to let you know that Paige has been officially invited to participate in the Disney pilot season in Los Angeles. Will she be able to come?”

And don’t ask me how, but I manage to convince my folks to let me have a shot at this. They agree to let me spend a span of four or five months in Los Angeles, where casting agencies and production houses will hold all kinds of auditions to cast up for all the new shows in the works. Mom, my brother and I pack our bags and move to a whole other state, where she will homeschool us. My dad stays back in Oregon; he’s working, as always.

I am too young to realize how incredibly cool all this is of my parents. To give me a chance to follow a dream. To go after it. To let me have this moment. But that’s just how my parents are: Tactically supportive. Facilitators. Ground-layers of opportunities. And unconditional in that quality.

Like me, my mom and dad grasp the fact that despite my having to drop out of school for several months, this endeavor could quickly become an opportunity. And like me, they understand something key: we won’t know unless we try.

We base ourselves out of a Holiday Inn located in Burbank, a tiny room with twin beds, where the clutter of outfit changes, hair accessories, and textbooks quickly pile up. It’s not the glitz and glamour of my fantasies, but right away, the giant sunny skies and cheerful pastels of Los Angeles make me feel happy. Its tall, skinny palm trees stand perfectly crooked in the sunsets, and there’s a dry desert warmth crisp in the air. The whole experience is a nice respite from the drizzly, leaky skies of Oregon. Hoodies to flip-flops feels good, for a change.

Disney pilot season is like boot camp. Our mornings start at six o’clock sharp. Mom gets me fed and does my hair, and we go over the list of rounds for the day. We have a manager, Joan, who is basically my agent and drills us on all the open casting calls happening. Joan talks fast and moves even faster, as if each second of her day is part of some master plan. My mother drives me to each call, drops me off to do my thing, and drives around until I finish. I love the independence. On the way to my auditions, Mom loves to remind me about how when she first dropped me off at preschool, I asked her to leave me at the entrance because I wanted to walk in all by myself.

I wait in long lines alongside armies of other girls, coffee cups and makeup bags in hand, each one a soldier for the cause of her own glossy success. We are all simultaneously in it together and one another’s opponents. There is as much tension as there is perfume in the air, but I douse myself in confidence and walk right in to everything. Right from the start, I’m amped. I feel like I’m home. I love the electricity of the planning and the silent intensity of the drive to each audition. Of course, I feel the pressure. But the nerves fuel me and transform into a fire in my belly that refuses to let up. I drink up the process like honey. I was made to do this.

Every casting person is different. Some greet me with warmth and impart a vote of confidence from the start. Others don’t even really look at me. I’m just a name to tick on their long, lined yellow notepad. I walk into one audition, and the casting director herself is fifteen minutes late, and when she finally does walk into the room, a deafening silence comes in with her. Everyone seems terrified of this person, who moves her glasses to the very tip of her nose as she watches me deliver my lines. When I accidentally read the word “thorough” instead of “through,” she stops me with a single loud clap and instructs me to take the whole thing from the top. I’m somewhat mortified, but I respect the perfectionism!

I make it a point to arrive at each audition with courage leading my way and fifteen minutes early. I make sure to smile with my eyes. I project my voice when speaking, and make each dance step as precise as a punctuation mark. I keep telling myself to honor the details. I walk away from each audition with my heart racing in my throat, with a certain emptiness that comes with not knowing when or if these people will ever think of me again. The whole experience is at once empowering and humbling.

After a few months of this, of lingering in greenrooms, memorizing lines, learning lyrics, waiting for phone calls that don’t necessarily come, and praying for just one lucky break, the season is over, and it’s time to go home. Some callbacks trickle in. I manage to get one national commercial for a mop, and I pull off a few runway shows and ad campaigns for Nike and Columbia Sportswear. But what really matters is that I get a taste of the hustle.

Back home in Oregon, the dancer in me is lit more than ever. The Disney scene and LA in general ignited even more motivation within me. I spend more time in my mom’s old studio. I take all the classes: ballet, hip-hop, lyrical, jazz. But my favorite is jazz, because it has a real structure with exciting turns and unexpected jumps. I dance so much that I start competing, even choreographing some of my own pieces. To take it up a notch, I switch gears from my mom’s studio and join other ones, such as MVP Dance Elite and Dance Vision. I become a Junior Blazer Dancer, too, which means I get to perform at Trail Blazer basketball games in Portland during halftime in front of thousands of people. There is really nothing quite like the energy of a massive crowd, their roar, their excitement, their singular focus on whatever is happening on the court, be it basketball or dance. Right from the start, I feel connected to the idea of performance, the grind of rehearsals, the sweat life, the mental part of having to memorize routines. Dance becomes the thing around which everything else happens.

When I perform at the Hollywood Connection, a dance convention and competition, I earn a gold medal for my solo. I win platinum, the highest award, at Star Power, which is another national dance competition, and take first place for my division. My folks, who don’t have any extra funds to spare, especially now that my mom doesn’t own the dance studio, somehow manage to scrounge up whatever money they can so that I can keep competing. In two months, I think they spent two grand on competition-related expenses, which was pretty much Dad’s whole Christmas bonus. Mom even starts teaching private dance classes on the side to be able to afford a lot of these extra expenses. She takes it all very seriously. Luckily, I get to go to the Tremaine Dance Convention on a scholarship. Every win stokes the fire in me, pushes my personal bar even higher. Every leap forward makes me hungrier for even more.

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