I’m a 31-year-old Screenwriter Who Had To Move Back in With His Parents. And That’s Okay.

David Mandell
14 min readMay 16, 2024
Image courtesy of Jack Tynan @jackctynan

I tried to write a piece like this about identity before. It was supposed to dissect ideas regarding what makes us who we truly are. It was infused with big existential questions, citing philosophers and psychologists, and I thought it made me sound smart. But everyone who read it said the same thing: “You talk about the importance of vulnerability without getting vulnerable. It feels sterile.” So, here I go again. Trying to articulate what I wanted to say, but this time, with vulnerability. Right now, I am writing this from my childhood bedroom. Because at 31 years old, I had to move back in with my parents.

I never imagined that at 31 I’d have to move home. I have been grappling with the acceptance that this is, in fact, my life right now. It got me thinking a lot about the question: Who am I? Am I a failure? Am I a go-getter just having a hard time? Or am I just a pretentious writer complaining about one hardship in life?

Image courtesy of Blake Eiermann @blakeephoto

Growing up, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I was older, I would have said I wanted to work at a mini golf course. I would be able to play for free as often as I’d like. The dreams we have as kids are funny like that; we dream of working at a mini golf course, of the joy that would bring. But the American dream is rarely so simple as seeking out joy or happiness. The dream prods us instead to find opportunity, status, social mobility, or a combination of those things. We squash our innocent dreams as the capitalist demand to be productive and thus valuable is shoved down our throats. As I got older, I went through a slew of potential dream careers, desires, and wants that all more superficially signaled success. My ‘more evolved’ job plan went from attorney, to President, to famous actor, to famous actor playing the President. I finally settled back on becoming an actor, partly because I was a gay man wanting to escape myself, but still hold onto my self-aggrandizing tendencies. In my pursuit of an acting career, I happened to fall in love with the craft of writing — because in the world of entertainment, writing is the only thing you don’t need permission to do.

In my mind, developing a successful writing career meant tunnel-vision, so I put my social life on the back-burner while juggling multiple jobs and writing in whatever free time I had left. I worked at Starbucks, at a gym where I woke up at 4am every day for the opening shift, at Disneyland, as an Uber driver, the list goes on. I was even a TMZ bus tour guide at one point, which is everyone’s favorite.

Finally after years of unrelenting pursuit, I sold my first show. I had made it. I had proven to everyone that I wasn’t delusional in trying to make it in a near-impossible industry.

Article from “Variety,” December 07, 2020

So what do you do after your first big sale? Invest? Celebrate with a bottle of champagne? Save up for a rainy day and don’t change your lifestyle? No.

You blow it all on a fancy apartment so you can show everyone that Mr. TMZ Bus Tour Guide has left the chat and Mr. Hollywood Screenwriter has (quite literally) entered the building.

You hire an interior designer to decorate the shit out of said grandiose apartment so that you can also impress boys and get laid. Which I did. A lot (sorry mom). I hosted parties, I planned event after event, I courted suitors with the idea that I was, indeed, successful. And it worked. For a while. But if the last four years taught us anything (Covid, etc.) it’s that nothing is certain. Nothing is guaranteed.

Image courtesy of David Mandell

After the double strike that obliterated the entertainment industry, uncertainty escalated for all of Hollywood into a year without work and no guarantee for the next job. I tried desperately to hold onto the Mr. Screenwriter version of myself. To the apartment. To the success. That was me. No one was gonna just take it away. It was why people liked me. It was what gave me my value (which is, of course, preposterous and untrue, but that’s how it felt). In a city like Los Angeles where social currency reigns, I was clinging to that upper rung of the ladder that I climbed even though it was splintering. Keeping up a manufactured version of myself in order to maintain “status” became all-consuming. I started to lose sight of who I really was. I was lonely in rooms surrounded by people. I was a version of myself that I constructed in an effort to be desirable.

(Me striking when the gatekeepers were being dicks) Image courtesy of David Mandell

Without work or income, and a high overhead, my money was nearly gone. It seemed, at the time, that my future was going with it. The moment I ran out of funds was soul crushing, to the point where I considered ending my life. I know it sounds stupid. But the feelings were real. And scary.

David Foster Wallace has an apt metaphor to help explain suicide: someone is caught in a burning high rise, and they decide to jump. It’s not because they want to jump, or that they desire the fall. No. They fear it like everyone else. It’s because the jump seems just slightly less terrible than being engulfed in flames.

And as my own fire encroached to consume me, the window looked more and more desirable.

So, I had my spiral. I put on Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” on repeat (if you ever need a good catharsis, listen to this on loop), and I cried. A lot. Then I cried some more. I was mourning myself. At least, I was mourning a version of myself.

As I wallowed in shame, I decided that I had to keep the reality of my situation a secret. I thought that if I told on myself, people would view me differently. My value would vanish. I even thought about lying about why I had to go home. My mother is dying of cancer and I have to take care of her. This fantasy unraveled quickly as I realized that asking my mom to shave off all her hair for a selfie seemed almost as unattainable as sustained success in show business. Plus, lying about someone I love dying would make me more unhinged than I usually am. But I was desperate to conceal my reality: to disguise the loser I believed I had become.

Image courtesy of David Mandell

I pride myself on giving people safe spaces to feel truly seen. It’s become something of a party trick of mine, getting people to go from “so what do you do?” to opening up to me about their core-trauma with tears in their eyes. I realized the hypocrisy of my plan to remain aloof: how could I take pride in letting people feel vulnerable with me when I continued to keep people at a distance, only letting them know the curated, palatable version of me? I had been doing that all along, keeping others at arm’s length, and not even understanding that I was doing it.

Once, in therapy (yes, I’ve been in therapy), I was called out by my therapist — let’s call her Dr. G. I was so good at constructing who I thought I needed to be that even she momentarily fell for it. For context, this is when, for a brief period, the phrase “honestly, same” was a popular “ism.” I had adopted not only the saying but the true essence of it. An agreement. An understanding. The willingness to connect.

“I’m having a hard day.”

“Honestly, same.”

“I’m feeling lost right now.”

“Honestly, same.”

“I fucking love your outfit today.”

“Girl, same.”

You get the picture.

In that therapy session (patient confidentiality only counts when you’re the therapist, right?), Dr. G had lost her train of thought, back peddled and froze. Then, she apologized, embarrassed. I offered, “Honestly, same. I literally do that all the time.” She laughed. Then I laughed. We shared a real moment of connection. She felt seen and understood and less alone that I, too, fumble my words. Me. A writer. Someone, like me, who selects words so intentionally in order to tap into the immortal power of story.

And then Dr. G said, “stop doing that.” I thought she just meant to stop saying “honestly same,” because it’s annoying. But she was actually calling me out on my bullshit. What she meant was that I needed to stop artificially lowering my walls when I wasn’t actually reciprocating vulnerability. In doing so, other people may feel a connection when I have no real intention of letting them in. It creates an imbalanced relationship in which I leave unchanged while the other person may leave holding onto what they believe to be a special bond.

Dr. G also showed me that I had the tendency to present a version of who I thought I should be to the world in order to protect myself from humiliating rejections. Because if others reject the curated me, the fabricated, albeit similar, version of myself, they wouldn’t be rejecting the real me. They’d never know him. I had been sacrificing my authentic self in a misguided attempt to remain unscathed, and to simply be liked.

Image courtesy of Jack Tynan

After my bank account ran dry, I did some reflecting and realized I had to rethink my plan to not tell anyone why I was really leaving LA. I had to ask of myself what I ask from everyone else: to be real. I was telling myself and everyone around me that I was fine, or good, or okay, but I felt like I was dying inside.

I was so exhausted being the life of the party when there was no life left in me.

At one of my LA apartment gatherings after I had moved into my bigger, better space, there was a guy sitting at my kitchen table, and I sat with him. I asked him how he was, and he said, “I’m fine. Thanks. You?” I looked at him confused and I said, “How are you, really?” He laughed and thanked me for trying to push harder to get to know the real him but he assured me that he was, in fact, fine. I sensed that he was not, so I said, “You don’t have to tell me what’s going on, but I’m an energy person and I can feel that you’re struggling. You need to know that you don’t have to bullshit me.” And then he started crying. We talked about how much of a hard time he was having. And even though I had yet to integrate my therapist's suggestion to be vulnerable in return, I really did want to know. I wanted to make sure he knew someone actually cared about what he was going through; he didn’t have to put a mask on just because we were at a party and were supposed to be having fun. You can’t selectively decide to turn off your pain.

I think I challenge people’s dishonesty when asked “how are you,” because I know just how lonely it is to feel like you can’t tell the whole truth. When someone accepts the generic, “I’m fine,” it can be disheartening. Because sometimes you’re screaming into the void saying “I’m not fine, call me out on my bullshit if you can handle it.” What we really want is for someone to acknowledge that our pain is real and okay. And if we do share, we don’t want someone to respond with “it gets better” or “look on the bright side”.

Most of us are desperate to actually be seen. To know that what we experience has weight and that we are not crazy to feel the way we are feeling. But when no one really cares how you are, you become numb to it, and perhaps you even start to believe that you are fine, because maybe it doesn’t get any better.

Since I know the feeling of isolation all too well, when I hear someone screaming through their answer of “fine,” I push. Sometimes harder than I should. Especially at parties. I’ve had some friends request that I stay away if they see them at a party because they’re just trying to have a good time. Which is fair. But I would much rather spend time with a depressed person being honest than the life of the party who is secretly dying inside. Which led me to consider my own duplicity.

Image courtesy of Blake Eiermann @blakeephoto

I soon understood that I had become the kind of person I resent: someone who had to prove themselves. I had collected as many acquaintances as possible under the pretense of my untouchable persona as if the sheer quantity of people in my life meant I was winning. If I was surrounded by loads of friends, how could anyone possibly see my profound loneliness? They wouldn’t, because they would be distracted by what I made sure I represented: money, success, the possibility of fame. That facade, plus my vulnerability-inducing party trick, made me feel unstoppable. Until it didn’t. Until the life I had built was taken away.

So, I tried to peel back some of the layers. I started slowly and told the truth to my closest friends. Then I started telling a few more people beyond that, expecting some snide remark or flippant, “that sucks.” And yet, when I shared my humiliating story outside of my close friends circle, I found that other people didn’t react with disgust, or disappointment that I wouldn’t be hosting any more parties. They instead responded with warmth and understanding, wrapping me in empathy. They often felt grateful that I was finally letting people in.

Being vulnerable is terrifying because we all try to hide our shame. And shame, at its core, is the fear of disconnection. But only when you let down your walls and let people see you for who you are, can you foster true connection. And isn’t that what we all want? To lay down our defenses for once, so we can actually share in the burden of existence?

I remember reading something pretty profound after hearing about Matthew Perry’s death. I read that he didn’t want to be remembered for being the guy from Friends, he wanted to be remembered for being the person you could come to if you needed help with addiction. I liked that. That what he gave to the world on a personal level was more important than his successful acting career. He saw people struggling and he helped them. And in turn, he would be affecting people’s lives on a level far beyond the capability of any television show.

Photo by Renden Yoder on Unsplash

Before I left the city for home, I decided to lead a spiritual journey in the desert. Okay. You caught me. I occasionally lead psychedelic trips in Joshua Tree to help people heal trauma. My friend who I was with looked at me at the end of our experience and said, “I now get why you’re a filmmaker.” I was confused, since we had just danced in our underwear under the stars to Tori Kelly’s cover of Colors of the Wind. She said, “This is a life changing experience for me. That’s what you do. You cultivate experiences for people.” And I knew right then and there that I wanted to be remembered for the experiences I have cultivated for people that deeply affect them more than any amount of success I may achieve. But I can’t deeply affect people if I’m not my authentic self — so I finally committed to being that.

And apparently, being authentic is sexy. The week of my move, I posted something on Instagram about new chapters, and a guy who I have previously engaged in…biblical relations with….reached out. I told him the truth, and that I needed to take a step back and detach from the constructed version of myself I built to impress people. I thought he’d be disappointed that I’d given up my apartment, or maybe question if a friendship with me would ever result in any professional development, and then he’d slowly drift away. But instead, he responded, “I think that’s the hottest thing you’ve ever said.” It made me realize that the masks we present to the world aren’t actually the most attractive version of ourselves. To the right people, our authentic self is. Because what we crave more than anything in this world is real connection. It’s what we need.

To feel seen, loved, and understood for who we are, not who we posture to be.

And who I am is not defined by my professional accomplishments, just like I am not defined by my failures. A 31-year-old needing to move back in with his parents is considered a failure. Maybe not in all cultures, but from an outside perspective in ours, it is a failing of some kind. But a good friend once told me that our careers are just one ride in a theme park of life. He said to stop riding the same roller coaster over and over again, neglecting every other ride and experience at the park. Because there are times the roller coaster will break down. And it will take time to repair it. So instead of waiting on the sidelines watching this roller coaster be fixed, go ride the merry-go-round. Get lost with friends in the arcade. Ride as many other rides as possible. Just don’t throw up the funnel cake you just ate.

Image courtesy of Jack Tynan

I have not become a failure because I had to move home at 31. I have been a failure for trying to be someone I’m not. That’s my real failing: losing who I am to gain the adoration of people who don’t really know me. It has been long overdue for me to relinquish my mask.

We live in a world that encourages us to define our own happiness based on what we think other people would want, rather than cultivating joy from our place of truth. When we can finally accept that we have no control over how anyone perceives us, we can be free. Because no matter what you do, who you are, or how you act, people will construct the version of you they need for their own story. Or, they will see you, if you’re brave enough to let them. And they will embrace you more than you might expect.

With that said, fuck it. I am not defined by who I thought I should be.

So, who am I? I’m still figuring it out. Like all of us, doing the best we can with what we have. I don’t know if I’ll ever have an answer to that question. But I can safely say that this version, the one writing this piece in my childhood bedroom, redefining success and failure, feels a whole lot better, because it’s me. The real me.

I don’t know if this has been a great chapter for me or a bad one, but what I do know is that it has been the most transformative period of my life. And I can safely say I am learning to accept the uncertainty of the chapters to come. Because I know there will be more bad times ahead. And plenty of good. And I want to experience the truth of all of it.

Image courtesy of David Mandell



David Mandell

A writer on the road to self discovery and reinvention, constantly grappling with the debate from Bridesmaids: Are we always changing? Or do we stay the same?