But as it turned out, the icon who had come from nothing and became everything wasn’t as prepared as she thought she was to struggle. Instead, the possibility of failure weighed heavily on her, and—predictable as it was—she could sense a certain smugness between the lines from certain observers who thought she’d aimed too high this time.
In 2012, with OWN’s future not guaranteed while she was off shooting The Butler, her first live-action movie role since Beloved in 1998, the stress proved too much and in hindsight Winfrey realized that she was having a breakdown.
“In the beginning, it was just sort of speeding and a kind of numbness and going from one thing to the next thing to the next thing,” she recalled to Access Hollywood in 2013 (the year OWN started turning a profit). “I will tell you when I realized that I thought, ‘All right, if I don’t calm down I’m gonna be in serious trouble.’ I was in the middle of doing voiceovers, you know? And I remember closing my eyes in between each page because looking at the page and the words at the same time was too much stimulation for my brain.”
“I mean, I wasn’t ready to go run naked in the streets,” she added. “Let’s make that very clear. But I had reached a point where I just couldn’t take in any more stimulation. OK? That’s what I meant by that.”
She acknowledged on Watch What Happens Live in 2013, talking about OWN’s initial low ratings, “Nobody was more surprised than I was about that.” But, she continued, “You have to hunker down. There’s no such thing as failure: it’s God telling you to move in another direction… All these years I’ve been telling people to hang in there, to hold on to their dreams, be steadfast in their vision… and I went, ‘Oh, now I get to walk that walk, and not just talk it.'”
Winfrey also said to People of the experience, “Failure is a great teacher. I knew this intellectually. But it’s another thing if you’re living it.” Graham, who had written down the name “Oprah Winfrey Network” all the way back in 1992, was supportive in all the right ways, telling her, “‘You can’t even think about quitting… You have been in cruise control. It’s gonna turn around, but you’ve gotta do the work.'”