I am fortunate enough to live in the city that is home to both amazing deep dish pizza and the world’s most renowned training program for comics, Second City. I have whole-heartedly taken full advantage of both. And they have both brought me heartburn.
I may have learned more about life by taking Improv Comedy classes than all of my classes in high school combined. Second City is recess for adults, absolute child’s play, and yet it is here that one is thrown into the ring with some of life’s greatest challenges. You will be judged. You will look stupid. You will fail to say the right thing at the right time. You will offend. You will take risks. You will be the center of attention. You will be criticized.
But it’s through facing these fears and weathering these storms that you learn. Grow. Change. And while creating characters up on the stage, you begin to understand others more than you ever have; after all, you have to become them. Understand their motivations. Receive the reactions to them. You literally are in someone else’s shoes.
I approached this like I did everything else in life: trying desperately to fit in with the group and striving to be the funniest, the most clever and to not make mistakes. Because when you’re funny and clever and perfect others will gravitate towards you, right?
I’ve spent my whole life struggling to fit in. My family moved five times before I was even in high school and, made an introvert by a knit-picking mother, making new friends was always a struggle. From second to fifth grade we lived in a house in a terrible school-district, so my parents sent me to a school across town. Mom constantly reminded me that I was from “across the tracks” and, wanting desperately for me to fit in and with the best of intentions, focused incessantly on dressing me in all the brand name clothes, perming my “too-fine hair” into a look she thought suited me, restructuring my whole face with painful orthodontics and delivering me from one activity to another. As much as I absolutely benefitted from aspects of this, the darker side of it all tore me apart.
To say “things were rough at home” would be an understatement. Money was always tight to the point of an eventual bankruptcy. My father worked insane hours and was rarely home; when he was home we spent time counting down when he’d hit the road again because, simply, my parents were Fire and Ice. When I was 23 years of age, I saw a picture of them looking absolutely delighted to be in each other’s arms at their wedding and felt almost sick with confusion. I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t yelling… a whole lot of really ugly yelling and even uglier antics.
Fortunately, I was blessed with a mind built for learning and so, while most children struggled with schoolwork and grades, this was the one stress I wasn’t burdened with. However, even this began to chip away at my “oneness” with those around me, as I was quite literally removed from them, taken into a separate space for “the gifted program”. While most of the others were at recess, I was at the “Junior Great Books” club. And I.was.mocked, picked on terribly for so many things that I was, all of which were out of my control.
By Junior High I’d come up with a way to sabotage the focus on my school performance. I began purposefully answering test questions wrong, openly making mistakes when called on in class and skipping my extra activities. This lasted all of a week: my truly wonderful, spunky and absolutely invested teacher at the time called me on it almost immediately. She also called my dad…
Unbeknownst to me, the two decided that I should see the school counselor. How desperately I’d always wanted her to randomly show up for me like she did certain other kids. She looked so kind; I knew what she did, and I wanted to tell her so badly about what was happening to me – not out of some belief that she could change it; simply for the comfort of confiding in someone. But I was embarrassed. And I was terrified that I would get into trouble at home for talking about… home.
But, suddenly, there she was. At the door. Calling… my name?
The struggle I had with myself whether to share or not was quickly lost as tears and sobs exploded from their deep dark hiding place, relieved and so excited that someone wanted to hear from them for the very first time. She handed me a box of Kleenex and moved closer, planting her hands on mine and asking me to tell her what was wrong.
I can only assume she expected me to tell her about the bullying at school. Because when I told her about the bullying I was enduring at home, her whole helpful mood changed. She had me wipe up my face. Then she returned me to my classroom, where I entered to staring faces and questions about why I was heavily tear-stained. “What’s wrong?” a certain bully mocked, “Did you tattle?”.
I was never invited to the school counselor’s office again. She, apparently, didn’t want to involve herself with anything that could get ugly between my parents and the school – that’s my best guess looking back. I learned from her that certain things were not to be talked about. I learned that I was completely on my own. I didn’t seek help again until I was in my 20’s, studying to be a counselor myself, in Grad School. Seeing a counselor and participating in group therapy with classmates was a first-year requirement.
I began to learn about myself and to see what life had created me to be. By my first year of high school I’d grown so insecure that I can admit to time spent staring in the mirror, wondering if I was actually handicapped or severely odd-looking, desperately seeking answers as to why I could never be friends with those I so adamantly tried to impress. I grew quieter and quieter, kept my head down more and more. I basked in the much-needed outlet of my best-friend who spent hours with me making terrible jokes about all of “them”, becoming snide and sarcastic and laughing our asses off at life.
Even more notably, I became a perfectionist. I obsessed over interactions, hoping I’d said just the right things to people. Despite all my work trying to figure it out, I still didn’t know what was wrong with me, but gosh darn it I’d work desperately to hide it, anyways. I dated only perfect looking guys, no matter how imperfect they treated me, because it was all about appearances. I became extremely competitive and strived to beat everyone around me at everything, because I saw people cheer for and look-up-to winners. And I wanted to be picked first for the team. I wanted to be a winner.
It wasn’t until I took Improv Comedy classes years later, that I began to understand the real reason I didn’t fit in. The real reason life was such a struggle. After all the energy I’d exerted trying to be flawless, a simple statement changed my life:
“Always create a flaw within your character. The audience won’t be interested in, empathize with, or relate to a character at all who is not flawed in some way.”
I’d become obnoxious. I certainly hadn’t achieved flawlessness — in fact, the actions I achieve flawlessness were flaws, themselves. The irony. In my struggle to fix others and perfect myself and handle things on my own so as not to burden anyone I’d alienated myself from most others: those who didn’t want to be fixed, couldn’t stand the “perfection” and wanted to help — wanted to carry my burden and feel useful.
Comedy class served as my first contained example: a small nook in the world where this played out before me. Each member of that group was willing to put themselves in front of the others to bleed insecurities, mistakes and humanity. And, as a result, we got to know one another like we’d never known anyone. With members of our group ranging from suits to tattoos, we hit about all “walks of life”. Yet we were all friends, genuinely appreciating each other, because we were able to see each other.
So, world. Here starts my revelation of… me. I am actually flawed. (I know. It’s hard to believe.) And in many of the ways I always was.
So like me. Judge me. Relate to me. Mock me. But remember, with whatever you decide to do as a reader… I am as fragile as you are. And I’m doing the best I can.