a chapter from the book I’m working on

30 Aug

I can attribute a single action by my friend Phil for the end of my comedy career, my teaching career, and a marriage. It became so that when he greeted me, he’d never say “Hi”; he always just said, “I’m sorry.” Neither of us blamed him, of course. It was just our way at having a dark laugh at life. Phil is one of my comedian friends, and many years ago, when we happened to be booked together yet again, at a Marine bar in North Carolina, he encouraged me to call my ex-boyfriend, also a comedian. Within barely a year, that ex and I were married. This took me to a new teaching job at a boarding school with classes running into weekends. The marriage ended simply because it began and never should have. Comedy ended because I fell out from my best contacts because I was no longer available on weekends. And teaching ended because the principal who came onboard my second year there turned me off of the profession for good (for the record, he now has a record….) And because I left my job at a boarding school where I lived, I also lost my home. Talk about starting over!

Five years later, I’d definitely gotten my feet back under me. I had a new career as an advertising copywriter, I owned my own adorable little old house, and I’d acquired no additional ex-husbands (or husbands for that matter). That’s when I got the call from Phil. About a show.

At this point, I was pretty sure I’d fully retired from the comedy racket. I’d been on stage a mere single time in the past four years at a stripmall bar’s ill-guided attempt at a comedy night and I had no ambition to do it ever again. But besides featuring the appealing opportunity to work with a very good friend and joke about how he ruined my life, this particular gig happened to be in my local area (though Phil had no idea I’d now lived in central PA) and it was a fundraiser for dogs. I quickly thumbed through my vocabulary and found the word, “no,” to be shockingly missing.

We might say now that Phil, in making that phone call, caused my fibromyalgia.

Again, I’d been onstage once in four years, and I was about to do a show at a fancy theatre. My material was old – some of it fourteen years old. I didn’t relate to it anymore. I also found a good bit of it to be inappropriate for an opening act at a charity show. I furiously went to work writing and working out material at open mic nights. The standard for comedians is we can write and polish ten minutes of good material a year, if we really work at it. I was aiming to achieve that feat in a couple months.

Meanwhile, things were really picking up at work. I’d moved from my administrative role into some serious copywriting and I was buried in writing assignments while still doing my old position’s work, too. Oh, and that was the year a third of our company either quit or got fired. As if that wasn’t enough work stress, I picked up a second job on weekends, bartending at a golf course, to pay for my upcoming birthday adventure to Cambodia. Instead, I ended up spending that extra income on medical tests and copays.

My grand comeback to the stage was to be November 1. By October, a mysterious illness had taken over my entire body, including my mind and my emotions. There were entire days when I was too tired to get off the couch. I had a terrifying set at an open mic where my brain just stopped and I couldn’t speak. Bits I’d done hundreds of times were suddenly erased from my tongue. And I hurt, everywhere, all the time.

I was still a year away from the diagnosis, but that was it. All the stress of everything I’d taken on that fall triggered an illness I’ll have for the rest of my life. I might tell Phil it’s all his fault, that the stress of getting that show ready, and the time it took away from the recuperation I so desperately needed, caused this disease.

But here’s the rest of the story.

I made it to November 1. That night, I wasn’t feeling too awful, and I was feeling pretty well prepared. Before the show, I was backstage, alone, wearing a new outfit I bought just for that night, which included some awesome overpriced black pants. I thought, this is actually going to work. I’m going to do this. And I even said out loud … well, I’ll paraphrase … “I freakin’ belong onstage.”

I started cold and had them rolling by the end. I did it. I actually did it.

My proclamation and success helped trigger a plan. Only helped, because there was more to it. I knew something was wrong, and it was something that was taking away time. My days were shorter and my moments of mental acuity were fewer. To me, time is art. Time is when I can write books and make things. Taking away my time is devastating to my soul, and that’s just what this illness was doing. I recognized this loss and resolved to take the time I did have and make every moment count.

It’s not unlike that brilliant new culinary invention you come up with when your fridge and cabinets are nearly empty. Those restrictions force a greater level of creativity. Or when you want to take someone out on a date, but you’re broke, so you come up with something really cool and fun that you never would have thought of if you had the scratch for dinner and a movie.

The magic of thriving within restrictions, particularly those that seem unfair, was a lesson taught to me by comedy itself.

I was on road full time when I was twenty-two years old. The combination of my age and gender made me an anomaly on the road. I understood this, but never fully understood the implications until one night in Ohio when the headliner approached me after the show with an illuminating comment.

He was paying me and my show very kind compliments, but within the conversation, he said, “I usually don’t watch the other comic, but you’re a girl and you’re young and that’s so different, so I wanted to see what you could do.”

That was my “wow” moment. I wondered, how many times have I been watched extra closely, scrutinized even – by the other comedians, the bookers, the managers, the random bartenders tasked with sending a report back to the booking agency – because I look different.

It was a lot, I realized. It was as if every show were an audition and I never had the luxury of an off night or, as we say in the business, “phoning one in.” I always had to be my very best and it was always tenuous whether that was good enough. So how did I deal with this … dare I say … discrimination?

Well, if every show was an audition, then I just had to treat every show like an audition, and so I did. I made sure I wrote better material, funnier. I aimed to be more commanding and present onstage. I focused on originality and my strength with wordplay. Plus, I did anything I could offstage to ingratiate myself. I always called ahead. I showed up early. I overtipped the staff. I helped the other comedians sell their merchandise. I made pies.

And because I was forced to be better, guess what? I was. Had I not those unfair constraints placed upon me, I never would have had the career I had. As a professional comedian, I ended up doing over 700 shows in 32 states. I reached a level where I became a mentor. And that inspired me to become a teacher.

My plan, after I returned to the stage and had the new restrictions of illness shaping my resolve, was to write a corporate comedy show and get back onstage doing the four-figure gigs instead of the three-figure gigs of the club circuit. I aimed to build up a show and a calendar so I could support myself performing, quit the corporate job, and get back all that time that I was losing.

By the time winter was in full force, I realized I wasn’t feeling it. This was actually my second corporate job and anything I could come up with that was funny to me would be essentially telling my audience how much their lives sucked. Because that was my personal opinion of working corporate. I knew that wouldn’t fly.

What about colleges, then? I never liked working college audiences when I was in college, but maybe because I was like and different from my audience in the wrong ways. I’d lived some life now. And I taught high school for four years and had gained skills in relating to a younger generation.

That’s when I got in touch with a friend of mine from my very beginnings in comedy. He has a company that facilitates colleges connecting with all types of artists to fill their campus activities calendars. He said, “Christina, you’re a great comedian, but you should be a speaker.”

I said, “Really, that’s a thing? I can actually do that?”

My inner writer and those tattered remnants of my teaching life were leaping up and down in jubilation.

My first program I developed was a women’s empowerment workshop. Right before I shopped my program for the first time to colleges at a conference, I got my diagnosis of fibromyalgia with chronic fatigue syndrome. It came with confirmation that this is a forever thing. I held my focus on the dream of a life onstage getting me my time back.

Also, by now, I’d had a lot of bad days and not enough days off from the corporate gig to secretly build this side business as well as take sick days. I worked through some pretty awful flares, promising myself that some day I’d be my own boss and could take days off when I wanted to. My fibromyalgia drove me.

I developed a new program on invisible disabilities awareness. I had some personal motivation because I was frustrated with how my disability was received by some coworkers and managers. But more, it’s just so very important and isn’t addressed enough … yet.

I write this in the time I now have to write books, like this one. Because I did it. I built my business in those hours that remained after my days at the office, with phone calls in the parking lot on lunch breaks, and I quit that job and worked part time jobs that were physical work and hard on my body but my goal was in sight and now I’m here. I might have gotten here eventually anyway, but never so certainly and never so directly and quickly as I have because of the illness that motivates me.

Now I have all the time back and more. Now I have so much more to say. And now I’ve proven to myself that I have the power to make my dreams come true, no matter what.

So when Phil and I talk lately, he begins by saying, “Hi.”




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