Coming Out of My Plastic Shell

The comedian Carmen Lynch on how her scoliosis paved the way for her career as a stand-up.

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If you had asked me when I was a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, I probably would have said a forensic pathologist. It was a good fit, because I was so shy, I walked behind the other kids in school so I wouldn't have to interact with them. I grew up Catholic, so death was a constant in my thoughts, and you don't have to talk to dead people.

On top of that, although I had been born in the United States, I spent most of my childhood in Spain, so my English was full of errors. I translated everything from Spanish literally: Instead of "Please turn on the light," I would say, "Please open the light." And a phrase like "Me too" became "Same thing I say." I sounded like a grade-school Yoda.

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I quickly became aware of the endless ways I could say or do something stupid. And I watched my Spanish mother deal with it constantly, in a country that wasn't her own. This was northern Virginia, and in our town it seemed like everyone spoke perfect English, so I understood why my mother would sometimes ask me to answer our landline or call her doctor's office to confirm her appointments.

But then there'd be other moments where she'd forget herself, and those times it would be in public. Like when she'd get excited in the middle of JC Penney and yell out at me: "CARMEN, ¿TE GUSTA ESTE VESTIDO? ¿QUE TAL ESTE? ¿¿O ESTE??¿¿CARMEN?? CARMEN, ¿¿DONDE ESTAS??" I would hide behind racks of clothes, waiting for her to stop blabbing in Spanish, because anyone in hearing distance was staring at the weird foreign lady talking to herself. Of course, the fact that she couldn't find me only made her shout louder.

If there was ever the perfect opportunity to hide from anything embarrassing, it came in the seventh grade, when I was diagnosed with scoliosis. Dr. Esposito, my orthopedic doctor, said: "we need to fit you into a back brace," and I started to cry. Like I needed another reason to stick out! Half-Spanish, the tallest girl in my class, and now I'd have a shell of hard plastic on my back. Dr. Esposito said, "Don't worry, you'll STILL date." Who did he think I was dating? It's not like I was talking to other kids even with my spine straight.

I started middle school with a back brace on, and only one thing made sense: to never tell a soul. I grew up with the idea that you're supposed to hide your flaws. I didn't even tell my best friend Alison or her boyfriend, Houston, with whom I spent so much time they were basically my second set of parents. But one day at school, Houston tapped my back, and I must've felt like the man of steel. "What's this?" he said. I replied, nonchalantly, "Oh, it's just a back brace I have to wear … what's up with you guys?," trying to change the subject.

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After that, Houston would knock on my brace as if it were a door while endearingly saying: "Knock-knock!," and although it made me feel like maybe they accepted me, something about it still felt off. I couldn't let it go — I couldn't accept the brace because that would somehow mean I was OK with it. And then I might let my guard down! And then what? Bend over and reveal my plastic shell? Let the world discover it and decide it wanted nothing to do with me? I couldn't take that chance.

The more I made myself feel invisible, the more I thought I could convince myself it wasn't happening. In the mornings before school, I would squeeze the Velcro straps as tight as I could: it was time to face the world again. I lived in thick sweaters and baggy jeans and spent all my nights at home watching TV, waiting for it to come off. After a while, I didn't even think about it; holding back just became a part of me. I became like an old person, always saying, "Go ahead without me, I'll catch up." I walked to class quickly so I'd be the first to find a seat in the back of the room. If I dropped something on the floor, like a pencil or a ruler, it stayed there, and I just kept walking.

***

Three months after my fourteenth birthday, I got my period. According to Dr. Esposito, this meant I had "approached maturity," and after going through two braces (I had outgrown the first one), it was time to go without my shell. I was in shock. I never thought this day would get here. In fact, Dr. Esposito seemed more excited about it than I did.

I started easing myself into this brace-less life by taking it off for a few hours a day. I felt un-sturdy, like I might collapse. I wasn't used to holding myself up. I sat down a lot. A light breeze gave me a chill. A hand on my back was intense. Being tickled felt like torture. I felt weak, as if tightening my brace as much as I could for fear that someone might notice had actually shrunk me.

I'd never done that many drugs, but I knew this was way better than any high.

I started looking at myself in the mirror again. I had a waistline! I wore pants and tops that showed off my figure. I exercised. I could feel a pillow against my back. A hug. I got my body back but just didn't know how to use it. Was I supposed to be dating? Flirting? How do you do that? Where do I begin?

There was no rule book. I just had to get out there. And it happened slowly. I went to college. I got drunk (which helps a lot with the shyness). I had many panic attacks. I went to therapy. And then one day, in New York City, I went to my very first stand-up-comedy show.

I loved acting, but this was a different kind of performance. These comics onstage, they were just regular people, talking, doing things their way. It was refreshing, but it wasn't something I thought I could ever do. Performing in front of others seemed thrilling, but it was also terrifying. So I went for the next best thing: becoming a comedy writer. I signed up for a stand-up-comedy class so I could learn how to write jokes. For the very last class, we went to a comedy club and performed what we'd learned. I told the teacher I would absolutely not perform, but that I would still attend to support the class. I was just there to learn the structure of a joke. That's it.

The night of the performance, I wrote a few joke ideas on a tiny sheet of paper — you know, to participate. And then, in the middle of the show, I felt a tap on my shoulder: It was my teacher. "You're next," he said. Surprisingly, I was thrilled that he asked. The next five minutes onstage were going to be mine, to say whatever I wanted. I glanced at those joke ideas on my little piece of paper. I got onstage.

People laughed.

People laughed more than once.

It was thrilling to be onstage, all eyes on me, everyone listening to what I had to say. Eventually, after two or three minutes, I ran out of material. But that had been enough. A gate had opened, and I knew I'd be back.

I started going to open mics regularly. I'd never done that many drugs, but I knew this was way better than any high, and I became addicted. It was clear I'd been depriving myself of attention I craved, and now it was like I was eating a gallon of ice cream after a long diet.

My favorite part of stand-up comedy (besides coming up with a new joke) is that feeling of sharing. It's not so much "Please like me" but more "Hear what I have to say." And that's something you feel whether there are six people in the audience or 600 (you're probably getting more money for 600). I get to do what I missed out on for years. And that part hasn't gotten old. It still keeps feeling better and better.

I look at those days and I wish I hadn't excluded myself from life so much. But then maybe today I'd be an accountant.

Carmen Lynch is a stand-up comedian currently living in NYC. She is currently performing at the Edinburgh Festival. For her schedule, please visit carmenlynch.com or follow her on Twitter at @lynchcarmen.

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