Late-evening light slanted through my therapist’s office. I glanced at the tiny clock to my left, and tucked my hair behind my ear as I read out loud from my new bible, Aimee Liu’s Gaining. “This is what I mean, Beth,” I said. “She writes, ‘I consciously chose normalcy and retrained myself by watching what people I admired ate, how they talked and behaved – and sometimes misbehaved.” I looked up from the book and out the window. Five years together in therapy allowed me the occasional space-out. “This is what I mean – I feel like-“
She cut me off. Her eyes turned quizzical. “Do you really want normalcy, Amanda?”
I hesitated. “Sorry?”
“I mean it. I think it’s been a struggle for you. You swing between wanting this normal, happy existence, and wanting to stand out, be glamorous to the point of doing anything for it. So I wonder what it is you really want out of life.”
Confrontation in therapy is powerful, but can hurt – whether you’re the therapist or client.
It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite movie, and I should have connected the dots earlier as to why. The main character yearns to lead an exciting existence. He wants to travel to exotic places; more importantly, he wants to flaunt it to his friends and write home to Mom about it. But life gets in the way; he becomes “trapped” at home by his father’s death, by his brother’s job offer, the family business’s possible closing.
Let’s flash back to 1994. There I was, overweight and in high school. I was brushed off several times by guidance counselors who I confessed several kinds of harassment to, so I resorted to a silent, starving, stoic battle to make me noticeable. In The Spiral Staircase Karen Armstrong elaborates:
“What was the point of feeding my body when my heart and mind had been irreparably broken? And yet, in a way, I also felt that by starving myself I was reaching out to the world. I was asking for help. People kept telling me that I was fine and congratulating me on how well I was doing. But I was not fine and I wanted people to know this…Look I was saying, this is what I really feel like. Please notice.”
And people finally did. The school nurse and several teachers made calls home to inquire about my sudden 50 pound loss, and I was cautioned not to lose any more weight. But I couldn’t be happier. I was finally noticed by boys. My new waif figure made me perfect for ingénue roles in musicals, and teachers and friends alike encouraged my dream of moving to Los Angeles to be an actress. My class will read, “I, Amanda Bruce, leave for Broadway.” I had finally beaten those assholes that had beaten my self-esteem and my heart into the ground.
I decided to attend The Hartt School for musical theater. I was quickly thrown into a judgmental world of tap shoes, scales and air kisses, and I couldn’t stand it. At the time, I accredited it to not being ready for college (I was on the young side – 17 when I first arrived), but now I know it was because I wasn’t the thinnest or the most talented. I blended in – in fact, I was the scapegoat yet again because I didn’t fit the typical musical theater actor “mold” (in case you were wondering: showy, melodramatic and attention-seeking). I ended up dropping out. One dreary November night, my mother and I packed up my things into her tiny car and drove home.
And the pattern continued. I resented my coffee-shop-girl existence for the next two years; before I found UMass, I was the opposite of special. Interestingly enough, however, most of the years I spent at UMass were some of the healthiest of my life. I rarely worried about food; I ate peppermint patties by the dozen in my friend’s dorm room and got second helpings at the Franklin Dining Commons without blinking an eye. It wasn’t until I moved back to the city – and got involved in a relationship which I guilted myself from the beginning for – that the attention-seeking started again. For the most part, I believe five years of therapy has muted these tendencies, and pushed me towards a more normative way of being. However, it still emerges in spurts, as it did this spring.
Although it may not surface in others the way it did in me, I think my story is pretty commonplace among most young urban dwellers. I think about most of my acquaintances; young, pretty, educated individuals who strive to make their mark on this world. Talented young adults who might even be described as “the cream of the crop”. They are quirky in an effortlessly cool way, and sip martinis while telling their similarly cool friends that they are single simply because others are intimidated by them.
Or is it because they don’t have the courage to let themselves gain five pounds, sustain a relationship through its difficult, real ups and downs, and be “normal”?
Maybe there’s an in-between. I sure as hell hope so.
I spent the other night discussing my goals with someone who shares similar wishes as I do: a partner who’s a best friend, having children, a family who believes in the betterment of society, dependability. This is prison to some of my city-dwelling friends, but heaven now to me. And the funny thing is that I’m finding it takes more courage to be normal and boring than to be fascinating and the center of attention. Because there is power and control in being beautiful and being alone. There certainly is. But we all know control is a silly illusion.
Today, after mulling over my thoughts, I looked Beth straight in the eye. “I’ve always wanted a family. But I’ve always wanted normalcy in an abnormal way. I want a partner and a family who doesn’t necessarily play by the rules. The difference between now and four years ago is that now I’m ready to commit to it.”
And I am. I’m ready. And know what I’m asking of my clients when I ask them to commit to the same thing.