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I participated in a sacred, heart-opening Cacao ceremony earlier this week in Bali. One may Google the details of what goes into a Cacao ceremony; this is a story about what I learned. It’s a story about feeling like a victim.

The ceremony began with that stereotypically ‘calm’ voiced Shaman inducing us to open ourselves to the divine Goddess, etc.…my New York cynicism was in full throttle. When I teach, my every aim is to not sound like I’m trying to fog up a window.

Incense burning in the low light, we were asked to set an intention. I wasn’t sure where to begin until an image of my mother floated into my head. I decided to go with that — I would intend to come to terms with her. She was my destination.

She is also dead.

My mother and I had a lot of baggage before she passed away unexpectedly on my 29th birthday. When I was a child, I was tied at her hip. I was bullied from a young age (yes, you got it, for being different), and I would run to her every time afterwards. She would console me by saying I was perfect in every way and others couldn’t understand me because of how special I was. I got hooked on her doting. I would fake being sick from school just to skip over to her workplace and spend the day with her, and she allowed this to happen without consequence. Her adulation extended to any mistake I made or any time my efforts did not pay off — I was always reassured that nothing was my fault, and it was the world that was wrong.

My mother was the only person I’ve ever met who liked Return of the Jedi more than The Empire Strikes Back. Because the latter was too complicated and the former had a happy ending (and the Ewoks were cute).

My dad (along with the rest of our family) sat on the sidelines, grimacing over how spoiled I was becoming. According to legend, when I was four years old, my grandpa asked me to help him toss the salad for dinner. I looked this man, who had survived World War II, dead in the eye and said, “No, I won’t. Because I’m special.”

On a side note, I still don’t enjoy tossing salads.

My dad wanted to praise my efforts but not every outcome. He knew the word “perfect” was a recipe for disappointment — no one can bat 100. I remember, sophomore year of college, fishing for compliments from him on my performance as Tony Cavendish in the play The Royal Family, and he wasn’t afraid to gently tell me he thought I was overacting. I appreciated his honesty so much that I attacked the character completely fresh the next day…to the point where I jumped off a balcony mid-swordfight so emphatically, that I tripped on the railing, fell horizontally ten feet onto the concrete floor, landed on my arm and broke it (yes, I finished the scene). But everyone agreed my performance was much better.

My dad, however, didn’t find a way to parent me thus as a kid, or maybe I ignored him because my mother’s pull was stronger and easier. So, I habituated plying my mother with stories about how unfair things were, and she would co-oberate the injustice every time.

Drinking in the warm cacao (which had been blessed maybe six times at this point), I realized how I still exaggerate stories, painting situations to favor me and earn sympathy for my plight. I have become sly at it — admitting just enough personal responsibility to sound credible, contrite and culpable in the situation…buuuuttt (always sliding in that ‘but’) driving home how despite my faults, the overall situation was truly an unconscionable wrong against me.

Yet, when I am objectively being treated like shit, I almost always roll over to take it, no boundaries whatsoever. I will let my integrity slide in order to maintain favor and avoid any face-face-drama. I am terrified of direct confrontation! My family’s Thanksgiving dinner went off the rails in 2004 — the year I came out of the closet and the tsunami hit Indonesia in March, killing 230,000 people. My very religious mother suggested at the dining room table (after consuming many drinks) that perhaps the tsunami happened because Indonesians didn’t believe in Christ. My sister erupted in outrage at her justification. My Republican cousin responded with a rampage on how liberals can’t respect religious convictions. Voices raised, tension escalated, and then my someone shouted, “We all know what this is about; it’s because Philip’s now gay and no one’s talking about it!” Half the room swiveled toward me, the rest already gathering up their half-eaten plates and bussing their dishes, and I stood up, walked to the piano in the living room, and did the only thing I can think of: I started playing Claire De Lune. It was my mother’s favorite song. I’m ashamed to this day that I did not defend myself or fight the hate being hurled in that room. Instead, I appeased. I didn’t want to ‘ruin’ Thanksgiving dinner, even long after people had stormed away from the table. I wanted to calm and sooth the room and perhaps even make a joke out of it.

And then my friends get drenched afterwards in the torrent of my never-ending blame and shame and ‘how dare they’s’ and every vitriolic accusation I can lob to justify my sadness. I stay up at night fantasizing scenes of me throwing down the gauntlet to those who antagonize me, only to rarely stick to my script to anyone’s face, but belabor every point to my allies until they run out of patience consoling me. I lambast the world — viciously at times — behind its back. When I exhaust martyrdom, I play melancholy.

On the flip side of all this, I can operate with a fierce sense of justice for others. If anyone is being misunderstood or mistreated, I will jump to his or her defense. I know what it feels like to be misunderstood, used, rejected. I will stick my neck out for those I feel aren’t getting a fair treatment, and even take a whipping for someone at personal cost (which will of course later filter into my story of martyrdom). I will listen to anyone’s problems, often pinpointing the fears behind the story he or she is telling and successfully getting to the root of the problem and helping to solve it. It just seems no one needs to talk about their shit as much as I do, and again and again I feel short-changed over how if I can listen to people’s problems as long as they need, why won’t everyone do the same for me?

I have realized that I can make anyone sympathize with my stories at this point. Paint a series of events with enough self-effacing slant, and there is not a single person I think I could not convince that I am the victim.

It occurs to me that some of my biggest conflicts have been with people who resisted my version of events, who I then doubled down on pressuring into my reasoning. Sometimes, in working with others, this was because I truly felt my course of thinking was the stronger solution, and I would fight for circumstances to end up the way I saw them because I felt I was right. And in intimate relationships, I would play every card in my hand to protect my self-image until I inevitably stopped being seen as Philip Sparkle, which usually precipitated me cutting off the relationship. No surprise: my longest relationship is around four months. I agonize over how to realize ideal outcomes, even when I have no control over the situation, and only relax the battle when I had closure (and when things did not turn out my way, I would rage for days until the fire had burned out, and I was stressed over a new slate of vindictive events).

For lack of a better phrase, I have always approached conflict through the backdoor than risk direct confrontation by knocking on the front. Gay joke.

So meditating with chocolate on my lips, I realized just how much I had villainized my mother. How years of therapy now had painted her the culprit for my lack of self-esteem, lack of self-integrity in the face of opposition, lack of self-love without others fawning over me endlessly. I could see how she made a mistake, one that was made from a place of love, and that it had cost her and me both very much. But she never stopped loving me. Even after she rejected my sexuality because it didn’t fit the perfect storyline for her son (and on that one, I unequivocally do blame the Catholic Church). If anything, perhaps she mourned the diminishing of our relationship — I do — which makes me love the memory of our intimacy even more, no matter how unsustainable it was.

Is this all sounding like I have Jesus syndrome? Well, there was a week or two in fifth grade where it occurred to me that I very well could be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. I didn’t laugh at any offensive jokes the entire time I was Jesus because it wasn’t something Jesus would do — until someone cracked a Jew joke and I lost it and knew — well ok, I’m not Jesus…but I’m probably like at least a Saint.

By the end of the ceremony, I felt that being cynical upfront (even when things are undeniably hokey) only brings me and the room down; it dampens what can be created; it is not saying ‘yes, and’ to things (and the worst improvisers are those that roll their eyes over someone else’s choice!). Let things be cheesy, who cares. There is more potential when you do not shut things down because they go against your personal narrative. In the end, they may teach you about the gray lines between what you think is right and what you think is wrong.

The Shaman closes by asking us, “Can your demons be your guardians? Can you treasure your demons the most?”

I feel grateful for my demons, and I’m willing to air them publicly like this so I am not afraid of them. I let go of how this story comes across — what you think of it is none of my business really anyway (though my friend Ethan wisely replied to this tale by saying, “Please don’t join a cult over some hot chocolate,” which made me laugh very hard). And while I write that, I feel the exact opposite! But I’m going to apply something I teach in improv: fake it until you make it…to assume competency and learn by trying new things wholeheartedly and making mistakes, rather than half-committing to change to protect yourself from looking foolish. And by faking it, you start to build the confidence to make a sustainable change in how you approach the world. You force a smile on your lips when you don’t feel like smiling, and your mood starts to improve…blah blah, we all get it.

And in case you think my adventure here in Bali has been all doom and gloom, this whole ceremony ended in an ecstatic dance of pure joy and freedom…so, yes I am having fun in Bali! And, I am enjoying writing some truth.

Written by

Performer, storyteller, teacher - living in NYC and traveling worldwide ( Artistic Director of The Brooklyn Comedy Collective.

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