Author:Paul Gilmartin

Self-Pity is a Drug

I don’t know which is more dangerous; heroin or self-pity.

That probably sounds a little dramatic, but so many people are addicted to one of these; at least heroin addicts know they’re heading in the wrong direction.  People trapped in self-pity sometimes live their whole lives never realizing they were addicted to feeling sorry for themselves.

When Dinner and a Movie (the show I co-hosted from 1995-2011) was in its heyday in the late 90’s, I started to get more offers to do stand-up.   I was excited.   Its what all stand-up comedians dream of; the clubs calling you, instead of you calling the clubs.  Suddenly you have leverage.   You make more money, your accommodations are better, and you can even choose who performs on the show with you.

My co-host at the time, Annabelle Gurwitch, was getting even more attention.   Ford had given her money to not only appear in a campaign for their new car, the Focus, but they were letting her be a part of the creative process and use her friends in the ads.     I was SO jealous.

Suddenly my new club dates weren’t enough.  Why wasn’t I getting MY own series of commercials?   Why HER?  What’s the matter with ME?   Am I not good enough?  All these thoughts cycled around and around my head.  Never did it occur to me to be happy for her.

I took consolation in the fact that I had a new gig coming up in Augusta Georgia.  Dinner and a Movie was big in the South, and I knew the outpouring of support from those club shows would make me feel better; and I was booked to make more money than I ever had, with a chance for a huge bonus for sellouts.

The night of my first show, I was getting ready in my hotel room, half-watching the MTV Video Awards, which at the time was the epitome of pop-culture cool.   The Internet was just taking off, so cable was still “it” and MTV was the “it” of cable.

I was trying to be upbeat about the fact that the hotel was not what the club had described (a common occurrence).  It was a little seedy, but I had stayed in much worse.

The very first commercial break of the Video Awards was the debut of Annabelle’s Ford Focus ads.    They were cool.   And it was during the coolest show on television.  Suddenly, I was a piece of shit.   I was nobody.   I was a sucker in a shit hotel who would never rise above mediocrity.

I took a deep breath and steeled myself, knowing I would feel better after my show that night.  I was being billed as a Special Event.  I had never been billed as a Special Event.   I was excited and ready to put on a good show to boost my self-esteem.

I probably was good that night, but it’s hard to tell when there are only three people are in the audience.  And twice during your show a punchline is ruined by rats running across the stage; and after the show the owner says he is regretting booking you and you are going to cost him money.

I wanted to step out in front of traffic; I probably would have been hit by a Ford Focus.

I was so full of self-pity.   I hadn’t yet figured out anyone to lay the blame on, so I laid it all on myself and I got that feeling when you’re about to O.D. on self-pity.  I wanted to die.  Heroin addicts vomit.  Self-pity addicts want to die.

In reality there was no one to blame.  Not me, not my agent, not the club, not the town.  It was what it was.  I’m sure the club owner feels differently.

The rest of the shows were just as…how should I put it…selectively attended?  And what did I do to get myself out of it?   I just thought more and more about myself.  I went over my past and over my future looking for an answer.   And I drank.   And obsessed.   And drank.

Trying to get out of a funk by obsessing about the past and the future is like trying to defeat an enemy by getting advice from the enemy.   You are going to get the absolute shittiest advice imaginable.  It’s a Catch 22.

The other challenge is to not reach for the second-worst choice, which is to get out of self-pity by replacing blaming yourself with blaming someone else; The mother-of-all drugs – self-righteousness.

If you don’t think self-righteousness is killing our society as much as meth, listen to talk-radio.   There is so much hate and demonizing by both the left AND the right.   And I’m as guilty as anyone on any given day.   It’s just so tempting because it feels so GOOD TO BE RIGHT.    With a single sentence I can demote someone else and promote myself.  And for a second it feels good.   But it’s an empty high and it always leaves me wanting a bigger hit.  If self-righteousness works, why are most radio talk-show hosts so miserable and angry?   Why do so many self-destruct?

Because the ego can never get enough.

A general rule of thumb for me:  If I’m feeling like I want to die, I’m in self-pity.  If I’m feeling like I want to kill, I’m in self-righteousness.

The challenge I have when things don’t go my way is to have empathy towards myself and others.

But empathy is a tough one because it requires emotional moderation.   If you’re an addictive personality like me, you don’t do moderation naturally.

If I were to do that night all over again, I wouldn’t try to block the feeling of being not good enough or blaming the promoters.  I just wouldn’t wallow in it.   I would try to be aware of what I was feeling and remind myself that my emotions are not reality.   I would probably call someone and talk about what I was feeling, so I could get a perspective on it.   I might try helping someone with their problems to help break my cycle of self-obsession.  I might call Annabelle and congratulate her on her great new ads.

I think emotions are reality filtered through the prism of our flaws (fearfulness, impatience, grandiosity, competitiveness, selfishness, self-pity, vindictiveness, neediness etc.)

If I had been aware of that, I would maybe have made a gratitude list of all the things in my life I had to be grateful for.

Here’s what a partial list might have looked like:

  • I have a wife who loves me
  • I have a job that pays me well for doing something I love
  • I have a house with electricity and running water
  • No photo exists of me with a perm
  • I am food secure
  • I have friends who love me
  • I have family members who love me
  • I am physically healthy
  • I get to play sports that I love
  • No recording exists of me singing to my dogs
  • I am not alone in what I’m feeling
  • I’m not a limelight-seeking rat living in a shit club that doesn’t know how to book people.

But I was still far away from seeing the truth of the situation.   So I wallowed for years in self-pity and self-righteousness, never realizing I was hooked.

I haven’t completely kicked my habit, but I’m not a junkie anymore.   And I feel pretty free.   It’s hard to not be a junkie when the pharmacy is open 24 hours.  And it’s in your head.


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