It’s so funny that something so momentous in my life at one time, is now a memory gradually growing fuzzier around the edges and something I haven’t thought about in a very long time.
I was an avid watcher of the Oprah Winfrey show back in the day. Her first show was broadcast when my son was about 3 years of age and I was a stay-at-home mom. Come to think of it, I gave new meaning to that term. I tuned in every afternoon at 4 o’clock before I cleaned up the kitchen from the chaos of the day and started to think about dinner. We had a small tv in the kitchen on top of the refrigerator in our huge and uninsulated apartment in an old Victorian mansion.
At one point several years into her show, Oprah was doing a big weight loss campaign and viewers were sending in their stories about their efforts to diet and exercise. She was asking viewers to write a letter with their successes and tactics and she was going to share some of them on the air.
For some reason I decided I would write to her. I used my most treasured stationery that reminded me of my brother who had died of AIDS and who I had loved with all my heart. The paper and matching envelope showed a lone swimmer poised in the air diving into water. It was in muted pastels and so gorgeous. The image expressed something very deep to me. Also I figured it would stand out amongst the pain white envelopes and the occasional pink or green one.
Coming home from work a couple of weeks later, I listened to phone messages and almost fell over when a voice said, “Hi Susan, it’s Candy from the Oprah Winfrey Show. We got your letter and we’d like to fly you to Chicago to tape an episode on the show. Give me a call and we can set up a date”. I saved that message tape and still have it somewhere but of course no way to play it, technology moving right along away from the Dark Ages of message machines with their little silly tapes.
I called Candy back and told her I would love to be on the show but that flying to Chicago was so far out of my possibilities that I would have to decline. I wondered if she personally had read my letter where I talked about using my daily walk for exercise to also expand my boundaries on how far away from home I could be without tipping into a panic attack. I had talked about how each day I went a little further, today to the neighbor’s mail box, tomorrow to the driveway past that, before turning back to the safety of home. But I didn’t want to sound rude so I didn’t mention any of that. Candy said they would send a film crew to me. A date was set, and that was that.
Well that was all fine and dandy but until then I hadn’t told anyone outside of my immediate family about my anxiety and how limiting it was to my life. I couldn’t have friends learn about it on tv so I had to make some very difficult phone calls in advance. Until that time I had just made up excuses, also known as lies, as to why I couldn’t go to that restaurant or even to their house and I would only meet them at a nearby coffee shop or at my house. It was my grand coming out, with all the nerves and terror you might imagine. I had so much shame about being so limited that I could barely summon the breath to make the grand announcement. It was really hard to do. My heart goes out to every LGBTQ person having to make that phone call or gather the family after dinner. My friends were wonderful and supportive and asked lots of questions and were really there for me. I wish that same response to everyone having to make a difficult exposing declaration to the people that they want to still love them.
The day came and a producer and camera person arrived at my home and it was decided that I would walk around the block while they filmed it. Walking around the block had been impossible before then, I would get half way around and have to turn back towards home. But that’s what they wanted and I was determined to do it. First they set up screens to direct the sunlight and I was miked and interviewed on camera. Then they took shots of me behind my screen door looking wistfully out at the world. And then began the walk itself.
I live in a very mixed neighborhood. There are old Victorian mansions, some of which in the ’60s had been cut up into small apartments but since had converted back to single family dwellings. And modest homes were sprinkled in amongst them, mine included. There are lots of old trees and some lovely flower gardens in the front yards. The cameraman knew he could get some great shots.
I was very anxious as you might imagine. I worried that I would have a panic attack on camera. I went to do a nervous pee and when I came out of my bathroom the producer told me the mike had picked up the sound of my tinkle and if I needed to use the bathroom again I could ask them to take it off. Well that little tidbit of information made me focus on something even more embarrassing than panicking so off we went, me sighing horrified sighs into my mike.
My husband owned a purple convertible at the time and he drove it around the block with the top down while I was walking and being filmed. A friend lived around the block and she came to her window to cheer me on when we passed her house. It was a parade! I lived through it and they took off my mike, packed up their reflector screens, and left. I was told approximately when the segment would air.
We had a viewing party the day it came on and also set the VCR to tape it. It was so weird to see myself on tv. I didn’t sound like me and it’s true that the camera makes you look fatter than you are, at least I hope I don’t look like that in person. It was a very emotional few minutes, to see myself talking about something so personal and shame ridden, and knowing that millions of people might be watching at that moment. It was very freeing to go through that whole experience. It didn’t bring with it a cure and I wasn’t magically transformed into a globe trotting confident marathon runner. But it did change me.
Somewhere that tape leans dusty into the tapes of our now almost 34 year old son when he was a little boy. We don’t have any way to play it anymore. I think my husband may have had a DVD made of it for some long ago Christmas present but I can’t imagine where that might be.
A few weeks after it aired, I got a package in the mail with an autographed picture of Oprah. I framed it and for a long time it was on our bedroom wall. I just went to look for it in the closet and couldn’t find it. But it has to be somewhere in the house, I wouldn’t get rid of it.
I walk every morning now, well at least 5 days a week. I still struggle with my panic disorder and my shame. It’s still hard to tell new friends but I do. Most of the time I can walk around the block but there still are mornings when it’s beyond me.
That image of me looking out my screen door at the world going by…………. will always haunt me.