Playwrights' Perspectives

Playwright’s Perspective: The Pain of My Belligerence

By Halley Feiffer, Playwright
January 15, 2019

It’s 2015, and I’m on MetroNorth coming home from the Hudson Valley, where I’ve just seen one of the most preeminent Lyme disease specialists in the world, and I’m sobbing. I’m sobbing because I’m in the midst of a particularly uncomfortable flareup and my body is pulsating with that deeply familiar dull and exquisite ache. I’m also sobbing because this doctor just berated me after I told him the treatment wasn’t working, suggesting I wasn’t getting better because I didn’t want to. But mostly I am sobbing because my heart is broken.

I had spent most of the last decade focusing on getting sober, getting a career, getting sick with Lyme, trying to heal, failing at this, and continuing to get more successful materially as I got healthier emotionally and sicker physically. Several years into sobriety and a few years into the sickness, I wanted to open my heart to something other than recovery, work, and health. I decided to open it back up to men.

And soon I was sicker than ever. 

In retrospect, opening my heart in this way wasn’t a decision — it was an escape. And I wasn’t actually opening my heart — I was running away from it. The over-work, the physical pain, the dearth of the relief that alcohol had given me drove me to try to find release elsewhere. I thought I was seeking intimacy in my pursuit of “love;” really, I was seeking escape. Intimacy wasn’t possible, since I wasn’t actually intimate with myself. How could I be, when almost my whole life was work and my whole body hurt almost half of the time?

But what was I escaping? Wasn’t this life my dream? Minus the horrors of Lyme, wasn’t I doing everything I had ever wanted — all the things I had always assumed I never could? Undeniably, yes. So why was I fleeing reality with such abandon?

I blamed the patriarchy. Who wouldn’t want to flee reality, I told myself, when you are routinely forced to come face-to-face with harassment, economic inequality, and the sexist requirement to strategically abandon your own integrity in order to succeed? The irony was, of course, that my solution for suffering the ills of patriarchy was seeking a salve in men.

The greater irony was perhaps that the more I tried to flee — the more I flung myself into one toxic relationship after another — the more the craving for relief deepened. Instead of quenching my emotional thirst, my misguided pursuit of intimacy left me parched: emotionally dehydrated in just the same way my body felt in the throes of a flareup.

This is why I had spent so many years with my heart so closed, I realized. It’s lonelier, but safer. The pain is less sharp. And sure, you might get sick — but you also get a lot more done. 

Miraculously, before I slipped back into my old habits of over-work and illness, I asked for help. It came in the form of guidance toward exploring my part in the pain. How had I contributed to the events that had broken my heart? Where had I willfully eschewed reality in favor of fantasy? What could I do differently? And whom could I help to avoid making some of the same mistakes I had made, please God?

I got better. Slowly, haltingly, imperfectly. The pain started to lift — emotional, then physical. Maybe that belligerent doctor hadn’t been wrong. Maybe he wasn’t the belligerent one after all.

“The greater irony was perhaps that the more I tried to flee — the more I flung myself into one toxic relationship after another — the more the craving for relief deepened.” 

I started writing about it, aiming to explore how I had ended up there — then here. How a confident, powerful, successful woman could find herself seduced into her own subjugation to the point that she barely recognized herself. How this happens to so many women. I didn’t write my story — I wrote a story loosely inspired by it. As I love to do, I wrote a nightmare-version of the truth: a ghost-of-Christmas-future foreshadowing of what could have been, had I not gotten help.

And then the election happened. And I realized that the play wasn’t about me — that it wasn’t even about women. It was about all of us. I hadn’t been totally wrong in blaming the patriarchy for my pain — but I saw suddenly that the pain of living in a systemically unbalanced power structure is an affliction from which we all suffer.

This play aims to explore the corrosive effects of the patriarchy on women and men alike — to examine the culture that has created the phenomenon of toxic masculinity and its insidious effects, and to start imagining ways we can break free from the bondage of our inherited ideology to form a new narrative — and in so doing, find freedom. Because I can’t change who the president is, who anyone is; I can change me. Slowly, haltingly, imperfectly. I don’t have to cry on MetroNorth again. Or if I do, I don’t have to blame someone else for it. And maybe I can even laugh at myself about it, because there is humor in even the darkest moments. And also because that’s how I heal.