When We Dwell In Bittertown: Moving Beyond Misery

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It’s happened to all of us: Just when we think things are going swell, something or somebody comes along and knocks the stuffing right out of us. Demoralized, mis-understood, mis-treated and miserable, we pack our bags and move to Bittertown, where we threaten to remain for good… or at least until we get our come-uppance…someday… somehow. Some of us never make it out of Bittertown.

Bittertown: Where, to quote my own song lyrics (BITTERTOWN, © 2007 E.Kelakos) “the coffee’s always black and it burns you going down”… Bittertown, where the café’s are filled with has-beens and never-weres… where you share and celebrate your wounds, point a wagging finger at “them…the ones that did this,” mutter yourself into a dark and fruitless corner… Bittertown… where all roads lead in, and none lead out.
Bittertown is a darkly comforting place. You’ve been there. And so have I. Just visited it this morning, in fact, after I was stood up by a new client who was supposed to begin two days of intense coaching on his keynote presentation. Yep, flat-out stood up. Despite a signed contractual agreement, this person left me swinging in the breeze… No phone call. No e-mail. No explanation. No apology. No nothing. To make matters worse, when I tried to phone this so-called client, at a number where I’d easily reached him before, the number was no longer accepting messages.

So, how did I feel? Lousy, with a big L. It wasn’t just the money that I had expected in return for my services. It wasn’t just the fact that I’d painstakingly rearranged my schedule (and the schedule of some existing clients) to accommodate this no-show. It wasn’t the four phone calls, the fax and the many emails I’d taken the time to write and send to this person. It was the fact that, in the end, he failed to treat me with the consideration due another human being. And that’s when the road to Bittertown beckoned.

I thought about it: Wouldn’t it feel good to roll around the rutted streets of Bittertown, let myself gnash and wail and fling my fist at the heavens? “How could this happen to me?” I could cry? I could check into the grimy Bittertown hotel, draw the dingy blinds, drop into a creaky bed, pull the linens over my head and stew in my self-righteous anger. Aaah! The sweetness of Blame! The oblivion of Avoidance!

I stood there for a moment, tasting the tempting, acrid smell of Bittertown, feeling the familiar just-punched ache in my gut, the helpless hopelessness— All too familiar sensations to any one of us who has come face-to face with something promised and not given. Something expected and not delivered. When the job falls through. When The relationship fails. When the promotion is given to someone else. When the red skis don’t appear under the Christmas tree (OK, so Santa didn’t come through when I was seven…). We all know—and sometimes love—the sights, smells and sensations of Bittertown.

I remember my first few trips to Bittertown, back when I was a young actress just starting out in NYC. Every time I didn’t get the role I had auditioned for (which was often), I ranted and wailed and trundled stoop-shouldered into Bittertown. “What was WRONG with those people?” I wailed to the equally distraught and disgruntled denizens of Bittertown. “How could they not cast me? Don’t they realize what it took to go in for not one but three callbacks? They made me improvise with the other actors, they had me learn bizarre interpretive dances, they insisted I learn and sing three new songs… but they DIDN”T GIVE ME THE PART!!!! It’s just not FAIR!.” And my fellow wretches in Bittertown would nod in grim understanding, sucking down their black coffee, sugar a mere memory.

For those first few years in New York, I stayed for long stretches of time in Bittertown, a regular in the decrepit hotel, feeling good and sorry for myself. After a while, yanked by a twinge of hope, I’d take a few disgruntled steps out of town, and back into the land of the living. And I’d audition again. And more likely than not, wind right back up in Bittertown. Stuck as a duck in muck.

Then, one day, something shifted: I got a part. A good one. A role in an HBO movie, the part of French Diplomat’s wife… the director liked me so much that he promised to make the part even larger. I had gone to three auditions to nail this part, beating out other, older, established actresses who actually WERE French. The movie shot in Israel, somewhere I’d lived for seven years and had been longing to visit again. I was ecstatic. This was a dream come true. How wonderful was this?

At my agent’s urging, I got my passport updated and waited for the travel arrangements to be made. I also called everybody I knew and shared the good news. Bittertown seemed like a distant memory.

And then the phone rang, not more than one week later. It was my agent, with the news that the “suits” at HBO (who had never met me, nor seen my audition), had decided that they could save money by hiring an Israeli women to play my part. The role that had been bestowed onto me, that had held such promise, had been unceremoniously whisked away.

And oh, how my heart was broken. Oh, how I wanted to point my sorry little self towards the familiar haunt of Bittertown and never leave.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t go. Sure I moaned and groaned and shed a few tears for an hour or so. But then I got up and made a couple of new cushions for my living room chairs. Nice ones, at that. And after the cushions were done, I went to the gym and worked out, hard. And when I was done with that, I went back home, sat down messy and sweaty at my desk and addressed a few promotional postcards. And despite how lousy I felt, I also felt pretty good.

So this morning, when I realized my would-be client was just not going to darken my door, I let my eyes drift towards the murky shadows of Bittertown. I took one step onto Bittertown’s dusty Main Street. And stopped in my tracks. “Naaaaaaaaaaaah.” I thought. “Don’t need to go there.” Then I sat down at my computer and wrote a scathing email to the so-called client who had stiffed me; I followed up some leads I’d made at a recent conference; I assembled –and then drove to the post office to mail– a promotional package to a speaking client; And I wrote this Blog.

Because here’s the thing: If I’d chosen to hang my head in Bittertown, I would have given my heart, my soul, my purpose and my potential to an errant client who, for whatever reason—and unlike me– didn’t have the courage to show up. And one little step away from Bittertown is one BIG step towards a life that is utterly and richly my own.