Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Show Everyone What a Good Actress You Are"

Up until my late teens I thought I wanted to be an actress.  I was in school plays and church musicals and even the occasional summer Shakespeare program, but after enough of them, I realized I didn't like performing or even rehearsing.  I liked attention and I liked pretending to be something I was not.  If I could have skipped the plays and gone straight to being hugged and told I'd done a good job, that would have been my ideal situation, but I didn't realize that at the time.

When I was in high school and depressed and had to speak publicly or mingle with strangers or do something social I desperately didn't want to do, my mother would urge me, "Show everyone what a good actress you are."  It worked.  I didn't want to fake happiness for the sake of making my mother happy.  My mother vastly preferred complaining to strangers over feigning happiness, and it irritated me that she wanted me to be a shiny happy person while she said whatever she wanted about me right in front of me (sometimes comically flattering, sometimes cruel or mocking) and continued her reign of martyrdom.  But I didn't want to be like her either, and I'd already learned that being cheerful made me dramatically more popular, so I "showed everyone what I good actress I was." 

I felt painfully shy growing up, but behaving as though I were shy tended to get me yelled at and publicly humiliated, so I'd learned to shut down my shyness along with my depression.  They were still there, but I locked them in a room of my brain where they temporarily couldn't get out or show themselves. I knew they were there, but I temporarily couldn't feel them.  I wouldn't have been able to function the way I was expected to if I could have felt them. 

It was a sort of pleasant dissociation in which the feeling part of me went on lock-down and I wore a smiling mask set to a socially acceptable autopilot program.  I don't think I said anything particularly charming or clever on autopilot, but I knew how to smile and respond politely and ask simple questions.  Based on people's reactions, I seem to have done fine.  I don't even think my mother had a socially acceptable autopilot program.  She simply smiled and laughed a little too loudly while she complained and overshared ("How are you today, Annie?"  "Oh, fairly partly cloudy.  My hips hurts, my son's unemployed, and my daughter is a moody teenager who can't wait to spend all my money a thousand miles away at college.  Kids and dogs and husbands!  Ha ha ha ha!")

I remember once in high school I won a small scholarship award and my mother told me I'd have to give an acceptance speech at the scholarship luncheon like it was the Oscars or something.  I'd learned to perform songs and plays from memory without panicking years ago, regardless of the audience size, but I was horrified at the idea of having to come up with my own words.  Writing always made me freeze up, even though I always eventually got through it.  I can't remember if she told me in advance or sprang it on me in the car on the way to the function, but I panicked until I had formulated a plan for something vague and sweet and humble to say.  When we arrived I, of course, learned my mother had been lying.  None of the other scholarship winners gave speeches or even said a word beyond, "Thank you."

I asked when I got to the podium if I should give a speech and the person in charge said, "If you like," in a surprised tone of voice.  Whatever, I thought.  I've panicked and written, and I might as well say what I wrote.  I also knew I'd probably be in trouble with my mother on the car ride home if I didn't give an acceptance speech after she'd expressly told me to.  So I gave my acceptance speech.  I pretended what I was doing wasn't absurd -- that I'd been so moved by their generosity I simply had to speak -- and I beamed and thanked everyone present and pandered to the organization so effectively that they gave me the scholarship again the next year when I didn't even apply for it.  I'm proud of that.  I was an average actress in theater, but I'm pretty good in real life.  I know how to behave anyway.  My mother should have thought about that before she started slandering me to her few friends and family in the years that followed.  She doesn't know how to behave.  It was yet another valuable lesson she taught me despite never learning it herself. 

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