Before she announced her multiple sclerosis diagnosis on Instagram in October 2018—just two months after receiving the news herself—Selma Blair’s doctors had urged her not to go public. At the time, Blair was working on the science fiction Netflix show called Another Life and she wanted to write a post publicly acknowledging the wardrobe designers for being so accommodating of her symptoms on set. “Everyone has something,” the team supportingly reminded her anytime she fell into a fit of tears—one of the many effects of MS. But her doctors advised against opening up on social media, warning her that revealing her diagnosis could also mean that she would no longer get work. “You’re an actress. Your body, your voice—it’s all you have,” Blair remembers being told.
When the actor made the decision to go public about her condition anyway, she received a kind reception from the industry and the public, and even the paparazzi. Six months after her reveal, Blair was invited to the Vanity Fair Oscar party. She was determined to wear high heels even though her gait had become increasingly unsteady and she needed to rely on a cane for support. Her stylist found a captivating Ralph & Russo dress, complete with a cape and choker. The flowing, multi-colored chiffon dress, fortified with the accessories, made her feel both confident and cocooned. But when Blair stepped out onto the red carpet and took in all the cameras, she was overwhelmed and started to cry. But, to her surprise, instead of clamoring to capture her breakdown, the photographers set their cameras down and waited while Blair dried her face, composed herself, and regained her balance. “You look great, Selma!” a paparazzo shouted out encouragingly. “We love you!” Blair was made speechless by the gesture, this time from gratitude.
As someone who is used to being branded with labels, Blair’s new autobiography, Mean Baby: A Memoir of Growing Up, publishing May 17, is her attempt at tackling the characterizations head on. “In 2019, when I was offered the option of a stem cell transplant [Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation is a treatment for MS], I committed to living the best life I knew how. To do this, I figured that I had to go back and take on some of the labels that have been created for me and the ones I sought shelter in,” she says. The act of penning a memoir proved to be the right medium. “Writing this book has shifted my perspective and it has healed wounds—both real and imagined. There was a reckoning where all these past memories were met with and I knew I was okay.”
Early in her life, Blair learned from her magistrate mother how personal style could hold the power to shield her from the judgment of would-be critics. “Fashion was more than a wardrobe for my mother. It was a character,” she writes in the book. “From her I learned that clothes could protect you against a world that wants to tear you down, that people will treat you with more respect when you look cared for. Every day she got dressed to play a role. She was, in many ways, the first great stage actress I saw up close.”
Perhaps this idea of emotional armor is what compelled Blair to keep her true self bottled up from an early age. MS isn’t the only condition she manages: as a recovering alcoholic, Blair knew that she had to look back and engage with the memory of how her addiction started and why it quickly progressed into a crutch—starting in her early childhood in Southfield, Michigan. Her attraction to alcohol began at age seven on Passover, where in her Jewish household, she says that Manischewitz—a kosher Concord grape wine—was basically on tap during the Jewish holiday. “In truth, my first drinks were at age three,” she recounts from her home in Los Angeles. But the sneaky sips added up to getting drunk for the first time—something the rest of the household didn’t notice. For the young Blair the experience was a revelation. “I realized I could buy comfort,” she says. “Never mind that the evening also brought me my first blackout. The discovery held warmth and possibility.”
As a child who struggled with loneliness, Blair missed that warm and fuzzy feeling she met over Passover. A few months later, she got the encouragement she was looking for when she discovered a book in the basement titled Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic. Sarah T. was a sad misfit of a girl who turned to vodka-spiked watermelon drinks as a way to cope. Even though the book was intended as a cautionary tale, Blair took it literally. “I was too young to understand the whole landscape, but I related to it,” she says. “Sarah said that drinking made the pain go away, and for me it kind of did,” she says, referring to the many mystery illnesses during her youth, including urinary tract infections, random numbness and nerve pain, even depression.
The next time Blair got drunk, she was in the third grade. She remembers the episode started with stealing swallows out of a jug of Rossi wine in the refrigerator. By her tenth trip to the kitchen, Blair was under-the-table drunk. This time, her father got wind of what was going on. “He heard me vomiting in the bathroom and he held my hair back,” she writes. “I was relieved when he said he wouldn’t tell Mother.” The event was a lesson: she knew she had to make sure wasn’t caught in the act again, so she took to drinking downstairs in the basement where her parents rarely ventured. Her father kept his word about not telling her mom but he failed to keep a closer eye on his daughter. “I was the last child and they were older by this time,” she says. “As long as I presented well enough, nobody knew the extent.”
In the eighth grade came the unexplained and terrible headaches. “I wanted information on how to handle the physical pain and the inexplicable grief. Drinking made sense to me then.” By the time her teenage years were in full swing, so was her addiction. “After a few tries at parties in high school, I knew I wasn’t a party girl,” she says. “I was a give-me-a-glass-of-oblivion kind of girl. I wanted that comforting sedation and the looseness. I was a girl in terror,” she says of the overwhelming sense of panic that would take hold of her without warning. Her fear of going out was mixed with what she calls “monstrous fatigue.” Drinking was always the antidote: the alcohol assuaged the pain while the sugar content would wake her senses enough to make her feel at ease about meeting people. “As sad as it sounds, I think that maybe I wouldn’t have survived those years without alcohol. I had the hope that this too shall pass but first let me pass out because the feelings I had were untenable,” she says dryly. In retrospect, Blair suspects that the debilitating panic may have been anxiety from the MS changes going on in her body. “Now I know I had MS symptoms and that I was trying to self-medicate with booze,” she adds.
As a self-proclaimed mommy’s girl, the need for her mother’s approval was something else she felt she couldn’t live without. “My mother did not suffer fools,” Blair says. “Any missing the mark of her expectations could be traumatic and internalized, and to me, her opinion was the most important thing. It was a wonder that she thought me intelligent or of any worth, I felt then. She was usually correct in her assessment of a situation.”
Her early romantic relationships had a way of sobering her up when they ended—at least emotionally. Blair’s first-ever boyfriend, Bradley Bluestone was “the Brad Pitt of Hillel Day School” who she knew since the sixth grade. Theirs was a on-again, off-again romance that acted out the adult behaviors they saw being played out on television, she says. When Blair was a senior at Cranbrook High School and Bluestone by time in college, she received the news that he had died in his dorm room. She never found out what had happened—“his parents couldn’t bear to put a label on what had happened to their son”—other than his best friend from Hillel was the one who found him. Her mother’s pronouncement on the day of the funeral rang true: “You will never get over this,” she told Blair when she saw her sobbing on the bed the night after the funeral.
When she got to Kalamazoo College, Blair had a short-lived romance with “a catch” called Jason K. who thought a way to help was to type out a list he titled How To Fix Blair about all the things he felt she needed to work on. She soon fell for Todd, her physical education horse trainer, and the feeling was mutual. When he told her it was over, Blair waited until he was asleep and cornered herself in his closet. Upon contemplation, she decided that her life wasn’t worth living and swallowed a bottle of Tylenol chased with tequila. But just as she was about to pass out, Blair panicked. She woke Todd up and told him what happened. His mother, who lived upstairs, called poison control and drove her to the hospital.
After she relayed the story to her own mother, expecting the wise words she had grown accustomed to hearing at the conclusion of every crisis, Molly Beitner, who died in 2020, countered with the opposite. She told her daughter in no uncertain terms that she was dead to her. “It’s the worst thing she did to me,” Blair says. “I know I broke her trust.” As a child, Blair’s mother had made her promise to tell her if life got unbearable. “I had tried to kill myself—even if it was only for ten minutes. As outlandish and critical as she was, she would never get over one of us dying, especially by our own hand. I was dead to her for two years—either as punishment or perhaps she was bracing herself for the next time.”
In her twenties, as her acting career became front and center, alcohol played less of a major role, but it was always waiting in the wings. Since Blair considered the set sacred, she always made sure to stay sober while acting. “I wasn’t flaky or reckless with responsibility,” she says. But on her own time the sadness and the drink took over. “My own time was sabotaged by my choices,” she says. “As soon as I was finished with a project and was alone with my melancholy, nothing could comfort me but books, or the hope of love.”
But the love only lasted as long as the high. “I love deeply—but not myself very well,” she says. It was easy enough for Blair to fall head over heels, but when the honeymoon period faded, so did the connection. “Drinking makes true communication impossible and I had no tools for recovering from the loss of love,” she says. “I was the architect of my own misery.”
Over the past two decades, Blair has been both in and out of love—and in and out of rehab. As with relationships, her approach to drinking used to be to take it one day at a time. “But there was never any real relief. Alcohol stopped helping with anything long before I got sober from it,” she says. It was on her last binge—a destructive bender in October 2016 when she was in Cancun with her ex-partner, fashion designer Jason Bleick, and their son Arthur who was five—that she says made her break off her dependence on alcohol for good. “Thankfully the only thing Arthur remembers from that trip is seeing an iguana,” she writes in the book. That rock bottom was the breaking point when Blair says she decided to finally go all in and quit drinking. Now on the cusp of turning 50, Blair is well into her fifth year of sobriety.
But the absence of alcohol in her system didn’t alleviate everything. The unexplained symptoms that had haunted Blair since childhood didn’t disappear; if anything, they started to come out in full force. There would be periods of losing the feeling in her legs as well as bouts of shingles and nerve pain. There was also an incident where she was driving on a highway to Palm Springs with both Bleick and her son Arthur and had to pull over when her legs started shaking uncontrollably. It was actually Blair’s transparency on Instagram about the physical pain she was experiencing that accidentally alerted her to the help she desperately needed. “Monday. So, I am in pretty intense pain,” she wrote. “Whiplash a few times on my horse and sitting on planes. Hanging in though. Hoping I can rehab it and get back to riding and writing again soon. #chronicpain is a real challenge. Love to all of us.” Her friend, the actor and Saved by the Bell alum Elizabeth Berkley, saw the post and reached out. When Blair explained her symptoms, Berkley insisted Blair see her brother, a spinal neurologist in Beverly Hills. A simple brain function test as well an MRI finally materialized the truth: It was MS. “Social media saved me that day,” she writes in the book.
Blair says that since the stem cell transplant, she has had no new lesions or MS activity. “But I still have crushing fatigue. I have balance issues and speech glitches.” She also suffers from tics, overheating, and problems with proprioception—a lack of awareness of the position and movement of her body. “Emotionally there is an impulsivity of thoughts and too many tears,” she says. “I didn’t know that what I thought was part of my personality actually had a lot to do with prefrontal damage.”
When it comes to romantic love, Blair seems to be abstaining in that area too. This past March, she was granted a restraining order against her ex-partner, film producer Ronald Carlson after he allegedly attacked her in her home. “I am in significant fear for my own safety and the safety of my young son who resides with me,” she stated in court papers. Blair declined to comment on the situation to ELLE.com, and says that her commitment is to herself and her son. “Arthur knows me and he knows that I’m a devoted mother. He knows that I’m a responsible mother even though I get ridiculously distracted,” she says.
Blair’s relationship with herself is navigating new terrain. Her book as well as her revealing and critically-acclaimed documentary Introducing, Selma Blair, which follows her MS journey as she adapts to new ways of living with the disease and as she re-examines her past through the lens of MS, has made her feel much more accepting of how alcohol was able to have such a hold on her for so long. “There is peace, resolve and lightness, too,” Blair says. “I am taking care and don’t crave that feeling of oblivion anymore. Now I want to be awake for everything.”
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