I first met actress and singer Sandra Turley of Gaithersburg, Maryland, at a Time Out for Women event in Phoenix. While she wowed the audience with a voice from some neighborhood in heaven, I told them embarrassing stories and launched lame jokes about gummy bears.
By the time Turley, the other performers, speakers and I flew our separate ways, I was a fan. But little did I know that four years later, what I’d most admire isn’t her singing talent, but another voice completely.
Blessed with a rare gift, Turley has been performing since childhood by starring in everything from family home evening productions in her living room to owning the Broadway stage. Following two years in Brigham Young University’s acclaimed Music Dance Theatre program, she was cast as the lead in Disney World’s “The Little Mermaid.”
After returning to campus, Turley took what she calls the ultimate longshot by attending an open audition in Salt Lake City for “Les Misérables.” She earned a callback and would have been content with that feather in her creative cap. Then a month later, she got the news.
“They asked if I could be in New York in two weeks,” Turley told me recently. “And just like that, my husband and I were moving into an apartment and I had the role of Cosette.”
After a short time as the understudy, Turley was handed the lead of a lifetime. At eight shows a week over three and a half years, Turley brought audiences to tears in the one of history’s most iconic Broadway productions.
When the show closed in 2013, Turley was ready for more. But while others would have parlayed their success on Broadway into another role and another contract, Turley was ready for another kind of stage.
“I said from the very beginning that I didn’t want to be in theater forever,” she said. “I wanted to be a mother. That was always going to be the next role I’d play.”
Unfortunately, the Turleys struggled to conceive and they chose the adoption route. “It was what we were supposed to do,” she said.
But after an excruciatingly painful, failed adoption, Turley and her husband were miraculously blessed with an unexpected pregnancy, then another, and another and another.
Shortly after the birth of their third of four children, Turley began suffering something the confident performer never imagined: anxiety and depression.
“I just remember bawling my eyes out. And I’m a naturally happy person, but I was in a state of unhappiness,” she said. “I needed to be a better mom because I was alternately angry, sad and frustrated. I couldn’t give them what I wanted to. I knew I had capacity to be loving and kind, but I was struggling.”
It wasn’t just classic depression, however. Turley describes a more recent experience while performing overseas with Time Out for Women. With an audience looking on, Turley found herself suffering from an episode of hypothyroidism which escalated into a full panic attack — she soon found herself on her back, looking at faces of family, friends and complete strangers.
“Even though I knew it was an anxiety attack, I thought I was going to die. My brain was spiraling to a dark, scary place,” she said. “I thought, ‘Will I ever see my kids again?’”
Turley has visited doctors through the years. The first time she received a prescription for an anti-depressant she never filled it. She recalls the memory now with a trace of laughter. “I said, ‘World, I’m not taking this! I am a strong woman! I can overcome this on my own!’”
Turley admits now that she simply couldn’t face taking medication. “I just thought, I guess I’m sad. That’s all right. I’ll be OK.”
Six months later, humbled and tired, she returned to the doctor and asked to try again.
“It took me a while, but I realized I needed it,” she said. “I finally accepted that medication would help me return to my full capacity. And the effects were almost immediate. I wanted to scream from the rooftops!”
Turley understood it was time to start calling depression and anxiety exactly what it was.
“Mental hurt is not a weakness,” she said. “We’ve got to stop thinking of it that way and to really talk about it. Covering it up, or calling it something else is not helping. There’s a perception out there that getting help somehow masks the problems or makes us numb. Not so. Correct medication does not cover up sorrows, it allows is to find our thoughts again. It helps us be us again.”
She also admits that she’s tried to go off medication at times, but soon finds herself feeling heavy and irrationally cranky again.
“I think it’s finally hit me that if I had a bad heart, I’d take a heart pill to make it work right. If I had bad kidneys, I’d do the same. So if I want my brain to work, I need to just accept the help like any other illness,” she said.
When quizzed on all she’s learned since stepping out of Broadway’s bright lights, she points first to spiritual truths.
“I’ve learned that my faith is separate from my mental state and that my faith is stronger than any weakness in my body,” Turley said. “My faith keeps working, even in times of weakness.”
For those suffering from depression, anxiety or both, Turley has strong advice.
“Turn to God first. We need clarity from the heavens,” she said. “Just ask. Ask for love, ask for peace. Talk to those you trust most. Parents, spouse, kids, there is a reason you love and trust them. Then get to the doctor and lift your head above the water.”
Turley is also a passionate advocate for a balanced, nutritious diet. She especially cautions against consuming too much sugar.
“Just be careful and educate yourself. Trust me on this one. No matter your struggle, refined sugar isn’t helping,” she said.
During this holiday season, Turley is using her voice to express thanks for the journey she’s survived and for the courage to talk about it.
“If I had to think of one word to describe it all, everything I’m thankful for, it’s peace,” she said. “I’m grateful for peace of body and mind, peace at home, peace with my husband, peace in my little community. It should be natural, shouldn’t it? But I know how fragile it can be. We have to work for it and every moment of peace is a gift.”
And to those hearing both her voice of song and awareness, so is she.
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