This post was originally written for Project Heal's blog.
2-3 minutes is about the length of an average scene in longform improvisational comedy. When I was at the height of my eating disorder, that would have been enough time to have 20-30 different thoughts about how disgusting I was, but not do anything else. I am an eating disorder survivor and an improv comedian, two aspects of my life that while separate, sometimes seem to have everything to do with each other.
Improv means making it up on the spot. It’s not really important where you are. You can be on a theater stage in front of hundreds of people, or in the back of a bar basement in front of only your mom, who is probably too distracted looking for Lysol wipes for her seat (It was nice of her to come, though.). You get up there and you work with partners and teammates to connect with and understand each other, with the goal of creating characters and worlds that the audience will relate to. That relating part of it is key, because that’s what makes people laugh, and if you do your job well enough, even your mom will put away her lysol wipes and laugh, too.
Recovery from anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder has meant different things to me over time. It’s meant putting my life on hold to simply restore my body and think straight again. For a while it was having to remind myself every couple of hours that negative thoughts I hold about me and my body don’t necessitate negative eating behaviors. It always means accepting that recovery doesn’t happen in a straight line. But right now, recovery means being able to view the world from a different lens–the lens of a full person and not the lens of a “girl with an eating disorder.”
Entering an improv scene invites the performer into a unique opportunity: the opportunity to see the world from the perspective of a character outside themselves. When the improviser makes a strong decision about what their character does, thinks and feels, everything changes: the things they say and the ways they say them, the feelings they have and the things they believe, and even the way they hold their body. All of a sudden, the improviser begins to discover new things that wouldn’t have been possible without this shift in perspective. I’ve seen a young male teenager transform into a completely believable nervous mom teaching her son how to drive, and a mother of three jump into the chair next to him to play that son who is more passionate about legalizing marijuana than driving. This happens in a matter of mere moments. The improvisers don’t have trouble figuring out what to say, because their minds are open to other perspectives.
Humans are stubborn. Rarely do we allow ourselves the time and energy to think in the way I’ve just described, which is why improv is really hard. But so is recovery. And I want to do both well. By shifting the lens in improv scenes, I am able to create a new world for the character I’ve invented. By shifting the lens in recovery, I am able to create a new and better life for myself.
In my eating disorder and depression, everything I did was filtered through a lens that was inherently ill:
I am out of control if I eat that.
My phone’s ringing. I don’t have the energy to pick it up, so I won’t.
I should walk instead of take the elevator.
I’ll just lie and say I already ate lunch.
It’s not worth getting out of bed today because I’m not worth the effort.
That fight was my fault.
Everything is too hard.
Today, my lens sounds a little different.
Ice cream? Oh hell yeah.
I already ignored this person’s phone calls three times. I guess I can show up for people and actually pick up the phone.
Elevators are a great invention because I can safely text and fix my makeup while traveling.
I’m never again going to miss out an opportunity to be with people I love just so I don’t have to eat lunch.
I’ll give myself a little bit more time in bed. I’m not a piece of shit. I’m tired and maybe sad and that’s fine.
That’s what a healthy fight looks like? Oh, cool.
Things are hard but not out of my control.
I’ve had to shift my perspective entirely in recovery, but in this case I’m not adopting that of a character outside of me, but rather returning to my authentic self.
A bold move in an improv scene is a risk. It takes vulnerability and you don’t always know how it’s going to go. You say something crazy or decide that your character is going to do something unexpected, like start crying or dancing. In the split second before, you’re pretty much like, “this could end up being awful.” And then you make the move anyways and you wait for another split second of awful silence that feels like an eternity. If it’s a good move, the silence erupts into insane laughter, and it’s the best feeling in the world. Recovery’s pretty much the same I guess, except that split second of awkward, unbearable silence can end up being something like twenty years of awkward, unbearable insecurity. But just like that laugh, the result is oh so sweet, baby.
I am an eating disorder survivor and an improv comedian, two aspects of my life that while separate, sometimes seem to have everything to do with each other. I think it is important to note that my recovery is not in and of itself due to improv. Not at all. Recovery has taken me years of therapy and hard work in every moment, and there is no replacement for that. But improv is my passion, and I am lucky that it happens to constantly reaffirm to me the idea that shifting my perspective towards recovery is both a bold and a good move.
This fall marked two years in full and active recovery from my eating disorder, two years living a pretty great life. As a celebration, I am hosting an event on November 13th at the Magnet Theater in New York City that combines two of my favorite things: ice cream and comedy. Half of the proceeds benefit Project Heal- New York City Chapter, and you’re all invited. Visit the link below for more information on location, time and ticket reservations, and I hope if you’re able, you’ll come celebrate the hell out of life with me.