October 28, 1999
Phobia: 1. A compulsive or persistent fear of any specified type of object, stimulus or situation. 2. An exaggerated or persistent dread of or aversion to.
Sitting in the front row of the McCadden Theater in Hollywood was my personal pit of snakes. I would rather be buried alive, in the dark, on top of a skyscraper covered with mice than be reviewed. But there he was, a theater critic from Backstage West trade paper, perched right in the front row to review my one-woman show.
Listen, I know that one person's pit of snakes is another person's bouquet of roses. I don't know why this is my greatest fear, but I know that I have pretty much lived my life to avoid it. When I started doing my show in San Francisco, I moved before it would have to be reviewed. The thought of someone coming to see my show, a piece made up of my most personal insights and stories, and judging it, is the worst thing I can imagine.
Now there's nothing to do but wait for the review to come out on Thursday. Wait and do what I always do at times like this. Keep a journal.
After the show on Saturday, when I verified that the odd man sitting in the front row was indeed a critic, I sat in my boyfriend's pick-up truck in the theater parking lot and began to have a meltdown, the likes of which I have scarcely experienced.
"I feel like I'm dying," I said, staring out the window.
I have got to figure this out. This feeling of dread isn't about a review for my stupid little show that's only open for one more week. This is about something much deeper, my fear of being unloved, laughed at, thought a loser. My fear that I am nothing unless someone else says so. This seems like a stupid way to live and I've got less than a week to figure out how to change. I'm on a spiritual deadline.
"You've got to have your own barometer," said my director, Joe, when I ran back into the theater hoping for some reassurance. "You will get bad reviews and great reviews and it doesn't matter. Only you can know if your work is good."
"But I have no barometer. I can only rely on what other people say. That's just the way I am," I explained.
"Well, it's going to be a long week for you," Joe said. But he wasn't talking to me. He was talking to my boyfriend, who was leaning politely against the door.
On another quest for comfort, I tell the story to my friend Anne, sobbing over the phone. "I wish I could take a pill that would make me not care what anyone thought of me," I say. "I wish there was a pill like that."
"There is," she hesitates. "It's called God."
I don't believe in God but this sure would be a handy time to find the Lord. Still, I'm starting to wonder. How could the universe possibly hand me my worst fear, complete with evil, grimacing reviewer, and have there be no reason for it?
Whatever happens to me in the next week will change me. It may be for the better, or I may just have to leave town for awhile with a case of Southern Comfort and a carton of Merits.
I arrive at the office of my therapist and shove aside some stuffed animals to make myself real comfortable on the couch. My head was about to be shrunken to the size of a pea.
According to my therapist, when I saw the critic and kept going, I had what they call "a breakthrough." She also says that this overwhelming need for approval comes from growing up with a depressed mother who wasn't so into hugs and hand-holding. According to my trusty mental health care professional, all of this was set in motion when I was an infant. Babies who aren't cuddled and held, gazed at by their mothers, fear that they may literally die. Well, I can pretty much feed myself now, but that desperate need for a loving gaze continues.
I went to the dentist for a long overdue teeth cleaning. I joined a gym. I stopped by Jiffy Lube for an oil change. A feeling of calm began to creep into me.
This doesn't matter, I thought. Some people will like what I do, others won't. That has always been the case. "Everybody Loves Raymond," but everybody does not love Teresa. And that's going to have to do.
Did I have an epiphany? Or did I just have no choice?
When I have a battle with my personal demons, it's very much like a World Wrestling Federation match. We both know what's going to happen. They come in, all glitz and flashy costumes, but all the moves have been choreographed and we both know exactly how it's going to go. Usually nobody gets hurt.
Today, though, I'm not so sure. All that therapy is beginning to seem like a bunch of crap. I pick a fight with my boyfriend in an Italian deli.
"Why are you yelling at me?" he asks.
I have no idea. I go to the computer store and finally put a down payment on that laptop I've been wanting. I can't stop thinking about tomorrow, when the review will hit the stands.
You know how everyone says you should be in the moment? A really good way to practice this is to have something in your immediate future that you dread beyond belief. All day, I force myself to remember that it's only now. I constantly shove myself back into the present.
I'm pretty sure that nothing this critic says will be worse than the anxiety of waiting.
My boyfriend calls and offers to pick up the review and read it to me over the phone. I figure it will be easiest coming from him. But I can't wait. I go to the newsstand, my head a fog and my stomach burning. Backstage West won't be there until 4 p.m. I literally can't stop my face from smiling. I feel like I've gotten a stay of execution. I go get my nails done. I sit in a coffee shop and drink chamomile tea. I fill my car with gas, in case I need to make a hasty getaway. About 50 times during the day, I can't believe how silly this all is. When I finally get the call, it's the weirdest of all possible outcomes. The review is really just a capsule description of my show. It doesn't say much, except that "what pain there is in young, single life, Strasser mines it well." Not exactly a rave but it doesn't matter. It's over.
It's the final night of my show and I'm as confident as Michael Jordan playing one-on-one with Ed Koch. It's the best performance I've ever had. I've been judged and I've survived.
Relief: 1. The removal or lightening of something oppressive, painful or distressing.
Teresa Strasser writes her column on singles life every other week.