Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Drama Queen

Since I can remember, I have had this weird, probably wildly unhealthy obsession with having some sort of major problem just to ensure that I will get attention from at least one person. At first, the issues were simple (#firstworldtoddlerproblems, if you will): the toe lines of my socks or tights weren't lined up perfectly with my anatomy; my bun for ballet class wasn't exactly tight enough to tug at the outer skin of my prematurely neurotic face; my parents had to leave behind an accessory item of clothing when they dropped me off at said ballet class because they were definitely sending me there to abandon me, but if they returned for their accidentally-on-purpose forgotten scarf, then they would also have to take me home with them. (At the tender age of five, I was already prepared for the worst case scenario at all times, even if it took all of my tiny, youthful energy to imagine up the worst case scenario.) I didn't realize yet that I didn't need to waste energy on finding reasons to be a drama queen, that my own innate awkwardness and ability to attract tragic comic situations would do the job for me. My brother hadn't yet poured orange juice over my head at breakfast, apropros of nothing, turning me off orange juice for years. I hadn't yet broken my arm running down a park hill holding hands with my first best friend Charlie Bernstein; I hadn't experienced the ensuing paralyzing fear that gripped every fiber of my being whenever someone asked to sign my cast, which resulted in me being the only six-year-old in the history of broken arms not to have a single signature or heart or doodle of any kind on her plastered broken wing.

I suppose growing up as the oldest child in a family of five kids could explain my need to get attention in the most dramatic ways possible, but if I'm being totally honest with myself, it's far more likely that I was just a born drama queen. I could turn anything into an event. I'd take a frozen bagel and put it into the microwave to defrost, absentmindedly adding a zero to the intended time, and three minutes later would have started a small appliance fire. My mother's request for me to load and unload the dishwasher could easily morph into a task on par with scaling Mt. Everest. I'd breathe heavily and whine about rinsing off the plates the remains of my siblings' downright savage attempts at eating, convinced that my idol Audrey Hepburn would never have deigned to do such disgusting, menial labor. (This was before I read her biography and discovered how great of a human she actually was, during the time when I believed she really was a princess/high class call girl/Eliza Doolittle-post-transformation. Also, I'm fairly certain karma has exacted her bitchy revenge all these years later, considering that since I've moved away from home, none of my apartments has ever had a dishwasher.) Sharing a room with my younger sister, any of her basic bodily functions--breathing, twitching in the early stages of REM, coughing--could simply ruin my evening; I was an aspiring ballerina, I needed sleep and proper rest, didn't anyone understand that I was destined for absolute artistic greatness?! No. Apparently, my sister wasn't doing anything wrong in falling asleep before I did.

As I grew up, I became slightly less of a neurotic freak; or rather, I learned to hide my crazy a little better. I was, however, that annoying, hand-raising, straight-A student who did the extra credit anyway--you know, just because. In 7th grade, I got a 98 on an English exam and disagreed with the two points that had been deducted. I went home for proof, and the next day brought in a copy of Strunk & White to my disbelieving teacher to prove that my score should have actually been a perfect 100. That same year, I had a science teacher who employed a grading system by which everyone could take exams using one page of their own notes, to be written on one's own time. I had perfected the art of miniscule, computer-perfect handwriting, and would spend hours writing down as much information as I could fit on both sides of a large index card. In his class, we all began each test with 100 points: incorrect answers would get partial or full deductions, and exceedingly informative answers or correctly answered bonus questions would get you added points. This is how I was embarrassed in front of my entire 7th grade class when Mr Snowden--a white haired, puffy, red faced man who bore a striking resemblance to an actual snowman--gave back our midterms and I had gotten an unheard of 127%. Even writing about it now, I feel ridiculous. That's not a real grade, I remember thinking. Yet another problem; I turned doing extra-well into a preteen anecdote of extreme embarrassment.

I idolized typically tragic figures in history. There were decades' worth of ballerinas I worshiped, and Audrey Hepburn, of course. Amy Winehouse, already then a flailing mess of a human but embodied with the voice of a soulful fallen angel. Kate Moss, thin and beautiful and perfect, but oh all those wrong men...and remember the cocaine? Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol, those brilliant flashes of a fantasy artsy party era gone by: it was these sorts of celebrities my early teenage self felt I deeply identified with. Me, the privileged hopeful ballerina from the Irish Catholic Republican family, really felt like she identified with Sylvia Plath and Fiona Apple. I remember a particularly pathetic moment in the waiting area of Penn Station with my father, going home to Long Island after he'd been at work all day and I at my after-school ballet classes on the Upper West Side. The subject of eating came up after I walked out of McDonald's holding a large milkshake and several oversized cookies, still clinging onto the last days of prepuberty when I could literally eat like a horse and still look like a young thoroughbred. My father expressed concern not for my weight (I was a leggy, flat-chested 13-year-old after all), but more for my health: he hadn't seen me eat fruit "in a while," and just wanted to remind me that I had been born with high cholesterol and maybe should just think about being a bit healthier for my heart's sake. I took this to mean he was calling me fat, and became extremely indignant in the middle of the rush hour commuter crowd. To the dulcet background tones of a funk street band performing outside Track 21, I clearly recall waving around my large beverage, pretending my plain old winter jacket was an oversized fur, and saying, "Do you want me to end up like Kate Moss? I do BALLET. I know people who can get me COCAINE. IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT?" Obviously, this is not what my father wanted. And I didn't actually know anything about procuring cocaine; I had never even seen the stuff in real life at that point. I was more pissed that my father was right about the fruit thing. Distraction, that was key to dramatic living.

Eventually I toned down my melodramatic outbursts and channeled them into an actual problem--when I was 16, I became the cliche ballet dancer with anorexia. This problem was so real and so loud, I didn't have to throw any tantrums or expend any energy being dramatic. You just had to take one look at my protruding collarbones and sunken face, and you got the whole damn story. My years of the explosive Oscar-worthy outbursts were over; I had now moved into the method acting phase of my drama queen life. This one lasted a while--I didn't fully recover until about five years later--and was the closest I actually came to a major, concern-worthy problem. After those years of my siblings calling me Drama Queen, teasing me for being a "princess," mocking how easy it was for me to start crying, I'd found a way for me to just turn it all off. Anorexia was my safe haven: it gave me a superlative, finally ("thinnest"); sapped me of any extra energy for life, at last turning me into the emotionally impenetrable ice queen I'd always found so elusive and admirable in others; and it was mine, and mine alone. Like some sort of fucked up emotionally abusive relationship, I hung onto this channel of my theatrical self for a long time. I'd turned from the public tantrum to the private abyss of an eating disorder; this was far more authentic.

After five years of being hungry, repelling every heterosexual male I encountered with my skeletal frame and lack of lust for anything, and generally depriving myself of some really excellent meals, I moved to Denmark. I got the help I needed in that strange, tiny slice of the planet with the funny drunken language. I started to become a person again. Physically, because I started eating food (and, let's be honest, drinking some damn fine Danish beer); and emotionally, because I had energy to, I don't know, live. I put on weight, and with it, something resembling a personality. I started going out again. I had a couple of boyfriends. I quickly regained use of my hair-trigger tear ducts; four years later, I've become known as "an emotional one" due to the fact that my feelings seem to come pouring out of my eyes. (Recently, I've gotten much better about it, but I'm still famous for crying.) I had a couple of incidents where my inner toddler drama queen resurfaced--most memorably, one of my first drunken nights out with my new friends where I screamed at one of them for breaking a beer bottle on the street; there was also an incident during a lost weekend in Hamburg involving a pub crawl with a group of British servicemen in animal costumes, and me slapping the penguin in the face on a dare--but those sorts of performances have been channelled into other avenues. In fact, I find that after all those years I spent craving some sort of special attention, trying to make any kind of scene just to get noticed, what I want most now is a bit of stability. There are weeks where I crave invisibility, a trait my younger self would have thought horrific. But perhaps it's for the best, really--in true minimalist Scandinavian fashion, I seem to have come to the realization that all I really need (besides, you know, the basic life essentials) are my family; a couple of great close friends; just a hint of this inner peace people seem to talk about; good cheese and beer; maybe a nice man at some point; and a fresh pack of tissues, for those moments when all that inner drama queen now comes flowing out of my eyes.