The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are. —Joseph Campbell
Just be yourself. —Mom
Advice like this always baffled me. Who was I being if not myself? After all, what choice did I have? All the good personalities – Joan of Arc, Jane Austen, Wonder Woman – were already gone. I was stuck being me, like it or not.
Hindsight, however, is a bitch. Turns out, I wasn’t being me. I was far too busy morphing into whatever I thought others wanted me to be to stop long enough to learn who “me” was.
Ask me to name my favorite book and I would respond with my English teacher’s hands-down fave. My favorite band was, coincidentally, also my older brother’s. My choice in clothes was based on what the cool people wore, though my version was inevitably a cheap copy, cobbled together from babysitting money and Seventeen magazine.
I didn’t choose friends, I let them choose me, or at the least the me that best served their needs. I was happy to help…or at least pretended to be. Frankly, I didn’t know if I was happy or not. I needed someone else to tell me if they were happy with me. If they were, well then, so was I.
I kept up this dissociative dance for more than 40 years. If you wanted funny, I was your girl. If you needed friendship, look no further. You asked, I delivered.
Until the day I couldn’t anymore.
On July 12, 2007, my mom died. She was my best friend and, as my marriage unravelled, my confidante. And, of course, she was my mom – dispenser of wisdom I didn’t know I needed.
The day she died, my book The Virtuous Consumer, the one I’d poured my time, energy, ideas and soul into, was released. That day, six hours after I touched my mom for the last time, the media interviews started.
I was numb. I contacted my publicist to tell her my mother had died, but, since I’m so good at not disappointing people, I said I’d carry on with the media plan. My mother had always been a force. Nothing could stop her once her mind was made up and I could imagine her chiding me for not picking myself up and carrying on.
So I did. But instead of my usual jazz hands, my lightning-quick assessment of what I thought others wanted me to be followed by my metamorphosis into exactly that, all I could do was show up. I felt raw. Stripped bare. I’d never felt less prepared to be in the public eye.
And that’s when it happened. Stripped of any ability to please, I could only say what I believed. Radio interviews felt deep. Television appearances led to offers of regular gigs. I received wonderful notes of appreciation. For my candor. For my accessibility. One interviewer told me I was refreshingly “real.” I felt a bit like the Velveteen Rabbit who was loved into real-ness.
It took me a while (the important lessons always take me a while), but I finally got it. My mom was right. All I had to do – all I’d ever had to do – was be myself. Somehow she knew from the start that it would be enough.