Photo: Courtesy of Smiley Books
By Iyanla Vanzant
336 pages; Hay House, Inc.
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Chapter 9: Pushed to the Breaking Point
There was a period of about three years in which I simply was not fully present to what was going on within me or around me. The re-release of Acts of Faith
, coupled with the simultaneous release of two new books, In the Meantime
and One Day My Soul Just Opened Up
, took my work to the New York Times
bestseller list and put me in such demand that I was traveling four or more days a week, every week, month after month for more than two years.
And it was during this time that Spirit and I became all but strangers. On most days, I lost track of my spiritual practices and my faith. I prayed and I meditated, but I was no longer sure what I believed or how I felt about what I believed. The thing that saved me and kept my faith alive was when I sat to write, stood before an audience to speak, or coached another person, I could feel the living presence of Spirit in my being. These were the times when the failure of my marriage and my feelings of unworthiness didn't matter. When I was on purpose, doing my work, I knew without a shadow of doubt that God had my back. Yet, for some reason, I slipped out of the Presence when it came to handling my personal life. Then, in the midst of my human madness of living out my personal lie, I got the telephone call that would change my life forever. I was invited to be a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show
Long before the young Eminem penned the lyrics, some part of me knew "You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow!" I got my hair and nails done, put on my best suit, and flew to Chicago to seize the opportunity of a lifetime. I was going to be on the show to talk about love and relationships. Lesson number one: Never talk about stuff publicly that will be broadcasted around the world unless you are really clear that you mean what you say. My relationship with God was hit and miss at best. My marriage was on the verge of being a mess. My relationship with myself was a complete disaster, and I was slated to appear on Oprah to talk about things that I was still trying to master.
I was totally numb until I walked through the door of the studio. In that moment, a fleeting thought caught my attention:
She is going to do your show.
What show? I don't have a show.
Then the security officer beckoned me forward and the moment passed.
Everything went beautifully on the set. I connected with Oprah, and I felt that she connected with me. I sat across from her, sharing what I knew to be true about love and relationships, even though I had not mastered it in my own life. Then I left the studio the same way I had entered it: numb.
Back home, [my daughter] Gemmia was beside herself with joy. She knew, in a way that I did not, that something magnificent had been set into motion from that one appearance. She was always right. Within a few months Oprah premiered what she called Change Your Life Television, with a faculty of experts that included Dr. Phil
, Suze Orman
, and John Gray. I was invited to be a part of that faculty. It meant that I would appear on the show once a month. My area of expertise would be love and relationships. Oh joy! Oh rapture!
Working with a few of the show's different producers, I appeared in several segments that were widely popular. One, which told the story of my life, was particularly meaningful to many viewers. Many of them knew my name, but few knew my story. With my entire family in the audience, I shared things about myself that had been healed but not exposed to public light. Oprah, an excellent interviewer, asked me a number of probing questions. The one that really caught my attention was, "How do you know when you have healed an issue?"
From a deep place within my gut I responded, "When you can tell the story and it doesn't bring up any pain, you know it is healed."
In that moment, on that stage, I was being as authentic as I knew how to be. I would not discover until much later that my personal lie was running my life and using my mouth.
One of the best shows during my time with Oprah was the men's show. On one side, the producers gathered a group of men of all ages, my husband among them, to talk about their challenges with women. On the other side was a group of women who were ready and willing to talk about their disappointments with men. My job was to help both sides get on the same side of the table. It was meant to be insightful, inspiring, and instructional, and it seemed pretty innocent—until one of the men made a comment about women only wanting men for their money and what they could provide. I offered several counterarguments, but he and a few of the others were intent on arguing me down. So, to make the point, I put another nail in the coffin of my marriage. With all of the sincerity I could muster, I stood there on national television and said:
"That may be true for some, but it is not true for all. I love my husband and he doesn't have any money. What he has is a huge heart and a lot of love for me. That is what really matters."
As I spoke, I pointed at my husband. The camera zoomed in on him. He looked fine to me, or perhaps I needed to believe that my announcement about him would not have any effect on his masculine ego. Meanwhile, the man I was talking to told me that I was special and that most women were not like me. Oprah saved me by bringing in another point of view. It was innocent. It was a disaster. We never talked about it, but I learned from friends that my husband was devastated. What I had said was true, but he was still devastated. Although I apologized several times, he never really recovered from my unintended humiliation.
It really is true that being on Oprah can make or break you. While in one sense that appearance was the straw that broke the back of my marriage, it also injected a hot shot of adrenaline into my career. Everywhere I went, I became "the lady on Oprah." People were mobbing me for photographs and autographs in the airport and Target! My books were flying off of the shelves. The publisher was printing more to keep up with the demand.
Every organization that had anything to do with love, relationships, saving the environment, or anything else wanted me to speak. My travel schedule tripled. My office telephones were ringing off the hook. My husband and I were barely speaking, and I was, for the first time in my life, beginning to believe in myself. At last, I was loved and I mattered. I had something to say and people were listening. I could pay my bills on time and I had something left over. I could buy things without looking at the price tag. People knew my name when I walked into a restaurant or store. And yet I was always preoccupied with the next thing.
The first book royalty check I received after a season of appearing on Oprah was so large, I was afraid to touch it. I made a copy of it. I wept over it. I deposited it in the bank and could hardly sleep, thinking that the money would not be there in the morning. It was.
Gemmia told me that I needed to buy myself something special to commemorate the achievement. I thought about it for more than a week. I decided that I would buy two peach-colored armchairs. I wanted to be able to sit in and on that money! I had them custom made and I still have them today.
The chairs were just the beginning. When my husband and I bought our home, I was determined to make it everything I ever wanted and more. I had started with the kitchen, which had to be torn down and rebuilt. Next, I wanted a sauna room with a hot tub. I decided to wait, and instead I built a sun room onto the side of the house. My husband was all for it until the work began. Then he got quiet. I asked him what was wrong. I asked three or four times before I got an honest response.
He said, "This is your house, not our house." He felt bad that I was paying for everything and he could not contribute. I reminded him that we were partners and that I didn't consider the house or the money mine. It was ours. I felt that my job as a wife was to make our home as comfortable and beautiful as possible. I wanted him to participate, and it did not matter to me who paid. The truth is that he had to participate because I was never home.
Since he was unhappy anyway, I decided to proceed with the construction of my sauna room. He bought into the idea and even suggested that we build a stairway from our bedroom down to the sauna room so that we wouldn't have to walk through the house if we wanted to use it late at night. While construction was going on, I kept traveling and working.
During the summer hiatus after my first season on Oprah, I recorded my first spoken word album. It was a collaboration between the recording company and my publisher to put the message of the book In the Meantime to music. The producers understood my vision and pulled together a team of artists who could deliver the sound that supported the essence of the book. Working on that project gave me something that I had not felt for a long time—joy! I flew all over the country and met musicians who were my all-time favorites. The maestro himself, Mr. George Duke, crafted the title track, which was sung by Howard Hewett. Donnie McClurkin came into the studio to record, then flew to London to record a track with the London Tabernacle Choir. Maxi Priest sang the opening track, which was a remix of a Bob Marley song. Yolanda Adams gave us permission to use one of my favorite songs, "Just A Prayer Away." Donald Lawrence served as the music director and produced a song with Kelly Price and Tulani Kinard. It was all so magical. It was divine.
At the same time, I had begun negotiations to make my role on Oprah's show more regular. Of the Change Your Life faculty, Dr. Phil and I were the only two invited back for the next season. I remember the day my attorney and I went to the office for a meeting with Oprah and her attorney. This time, rather than just going to the studio, I got to go upstairs to the office. It was magnificent, dogs and all. The conference room was warm and comfortable. Oprah was gracious and very down to earth. We talked about my plans and my vision for the future. Oprah asked me if I wanted to do my own show or if I wanted to wait. In the back of my mind, I heard the message that I had gotten on the first day I walked into the studio: She is going to do your show. Now it made sense.
I also heard: Just who the hell do you think you are to be sitting here? I tried to ignore that voice.
"I will wait," I answered. "I want to be ready." So we agreed that I would be a recurring guest every other Tuesday with Dr. Phil.
When something unbelievably phenomenal is happening in your life and you don't believe you are good enough to have it, you will consciously or unconsciously find a way to sabotage your dreams come true. My sabotage was totally unconscious. My life had changed so much, I hardly recognized it or myself anymore. I was going through the motions with no real emotional connection to any of it. My saving grace was Gemmia and my incredible staff. I had attracted a group of women, sister-friends who absolutely loved and supported me. They, along with Gemmia and my grandchildren, kept me sane. They ate chicken wings and drank Pepsi with me. They encouraged me when fear and doubt crept in. They answered the telephones and the mail. They supported the hundreds of people who flocked to my workshops and classes. They kept reminding me of the importance of the vision I had to build an international spiritual institution. They became the family I always wanted and thought that I never could have. They became the soft place I could fall as I realized that my marriage was falling apart.
Between recording sessions and speaking engagements, I would fly home. I remember the time I landed in my home-sanctuary just before the sauna room was complete. It was so beautiful! The walls were all glass, and from the hot tub I would have the perfect view of the three and a half wooded acres that surrounded the house. The one solid wall was built of blue marble that matched the tiles on the floor. The inside of the tub, also blue, was lit with rotating lights. The sauna was made of cedar, which gave the room an earthy smell. There was a spiral staircase up to the new redwood deck outside the master bedroom and a French door that led into the living room. It was just about done. By the next time I came home, my husband and I could float in the tub together and perhaps find our way back to each other.
I left for a three-day trip to finish up the album. When I called home the next evening, I got no answer. Several calls, still no answer. I didn't worry; I knew my grandson was with my husband, so there was little chance for hanky-panky on his part. He called me back after midnight. They had been to dinner, he and my grandson and his best friend. Then, because the hot tub was finished, they had all gotten in. I suddenly felt as if someone was trying to pull my eyeballs through my ears.
"Who was in the hot tub?"
"Me, Oluwa, and Jerry. It is really nice. I know you'll love it."
"Are you telling me that you let Jerry into the hot tub with my grandson?"
"Yes, I did."
"Are you crazy?"
"What do you mean?"
Jerry has AIDS. Jerry has full-blown AIDS! He has no business in a hot tub, and he has no business in that hot tub with my grandson or my husband.
"Well, he is my best friend, and I don't have an issue with it."
"Well, you should!"
"You can't catch AIDS like that."
"Did he sweat?"
"I guess so."
"Well, my love, sweat is a bodily fluid and that is how AIDS is transferred. You must be crazy."
"No, I'm not, but you are!"
I am not sure who hung up first. I just know we both did.
Now I knew that my husband either had left or was about to leave our marriage. The man with whom I thought I would spend the rest of my life was communicating to me in a passive-aggressive manner to display the depth and breadth of his rage. I had no clue how to address it. So we did not address it. When I arrived home the next day, I called the contractor and had him come and drain the hot tub. By the time my husband returned, there was fresh hot water bubbling in the tub waiting for us to immerse ourselves. He went to bed. I sat in the tub alone and wept.
Once the album was complete, I embarked on a 16-city tour to promote it. The plan was to debut the album on my first fall appearance on Oprah and begin the tour the next day. In each city, I would be joined by one of the artists who appeared on the album. I would perform the spoken word, they would perform the music. The producers at Harpo, Oprah's production company, wanted the exclusive right to promote the album and announce the tour. I was fine with that until I learned that it meant they did not want me to make my annual appearance on BET with my friend Tavis Smiley.
Tavis and I share the same birthday. Each year, I would appear on his show on our birthday, and we would discuss our plans for the coming year. The producers wanted me to forgo it that year so that my first appearance for the season would be on Oprah's show. Tavis and I discussed it, and we agreed not to talk about the album. I told the producers, but either they were being overly cautious or they didn't believe me. They insisted that I not do the show. Numb as I was, though, I was not quite ready to have people tell me what I could and could not do.
Oprah sent me a message that it was my birthday and I could do whatever I wanted to do. Though I was delighted to have her support, I also sensed that something had subtly shifted. The producers seemed a little less cordial and a little less amenable to my suggestions for the show. I decided to pray about it and hoped that everything would turn out for the best. Little did I know that I was revving up to sabotage everything I had dreamed of and worked for. Lesson number two: You do not get full-time blessings for part-time devotion.
The album debuted on Oprah as planned. Shortly thereafter, I got a hand-written note from a vice president at Buena Vista Television. I read the note in total amazement. The VP praised my work and wished me good luck. She gave me a telephone number and invited me to lunch at any time. So I picked up the telephone and called the number. Perhaps I thought I would leave a message letting her know that I had received her note. Perhaps I thought that it was good business to have the private telephone number of a television executive. Perhaps I just didn't think. My personal lie of not being good enough simply could not pass up such a self-destructive bonanza.
I was completely unprepared when she answered the telephone on the second ring. When I introduced myself, she squealed and thanked me for calling. She said she'd been trying to contact me for some time but had been told that I had a six-figure deal with Harpo. You would think that, knowing I did have a deal on the table at Harpo, I would just keep my mouth shut. You would be wrong. Instead, I helpfully explained that while I had a wonderful working relationship with Harpo, I did not have a six-figure deal.
A few days later, she called me. Her boss had an idea for a television show on relationships that she thought I could help her develop. She assured me that all they wanted to do was pick my brain. When she told me her boss's name, my mouth dropped open. Why in the world would Barbara Walters need my advice? Apparently they were getting nowhere with the show, and Ms. Walters felt that I could help them find a new approach.
This is me, I thought, a poor, ugly, unworthy girl from Brooklyn, talking to an executive of a major
television network who, on behalf of Barbara Walters, is asking me what to do. This could not be happening to me! But it was. I was amazed. I was scared to death. I was primed for self-sabotage.
I had become so busy, so self-directed, I had lost touch with my inner voice and my sense of self. My marriage, my most intimate relationship, was failing. What better way to boost my sagging ego than to have the two most powerful women in the television world talking to me, courting me, wanting to make a deal with me? That was not my first thought, but I must admit, it was a thought. Beneath it all, I now realize that I was still trying to heal the poor, dysfunctional, ugly, bad girl who needed to prove to herself and everyone else that she really was good enough. Someone once said that those who are buried alive do not die. They smolder. They steep. They emit a lingering stench that invades the most secret parts of your life. They stimulate the pathology and ignite the patterns. The only reason I could even consider living beyond what I was feeling was because I remembered to pray—Oh God! Please help me! Please! Tell me what to do!
The network flew me to New York and put me up at the Plaza. Over a lovely meal of food that I could not spell and did not recognize, Barbara Walters and three other network executives plucked my brain and stroked my ego. Back at home, I got the first in a series of telephone calls from the network asking that I consider an offer to host a new show. My response was, "No, thank you. I am happy where I am." The executive said she understood. She just wanted to ask in case I had changed my mind. There were changes going on at the network, she said, and they needed to make some decisions very soon. If I changed my mind within the next week or so, I could call her. She gave me her home telephone number. That bothered me, but it was also intriguing. Why are these people so hot on my tail? What do they want from me? What do I have that they want?
Until and unless you know that you are enough just the way you are, you will always be driven to look for more. Knowing that you are enough is a function of consciousness. Your enough-ness develops in direct proportion to the relationship you have with your true identity. Until you wholeheartedly believe in your own worth, in spite of your accomplishments and possessions, there will be a void in your Spirit. I had more than a void. I had a gaping hole that no amount of achievement, money, or acknowledgment could fill. I'm not good enough, and I will never be good enough to deserve this kind of attention. It was the personal lie, the core belief running my show, encouraging me to blow up my life just to prove once and for all that I wasn't good enough to have or keep what was coming my way. There was a part of me that knew that I was on purpose, the same purpose the spiritualist had made me aware of so many years before—ushering other people on their spiritual journey. I wanted to do just that, be of service and support to others. There was, however, a part of me that refused to believe I could be that valuable.
After the fourth or fifth telephone call from the executive, I concluded that the offer warranted my attention. I knew there was a lesson I needed to learn, but I had no clue what it was. I decided to reengage my spiritual practice of prayer and fasting. I committed to pray and fast for seven days or until I got the direction I needed. The issue at hand was whether to stay at Harpo or leave and start my own show. My preference was to stay put, but I had that black hole in my Spirit to be filled.
On the sixth morning, I awakened with the thought, The time is now. I shot straight up in my bed and spoke aloud, "I am not leaving Harpo." As if someone were whispering in my ear, I heard it again, The time is now! Time for what? I concluded that the message meant that it was time for me to stand on my own. Then I came face to face with the belief that I was not good enough to stand on my own. That meant I was avoiding the offer because fear was driving my choice. But I really didn't want to leave Harpo; it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Why would I walk away from a blessing as huge as the one on my plate? Then I had one little egotized show me that I am good enough! thought. The thought was: Tell Oprah what is going on and ask her if she would be willing to back my show. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
I followed the thought into action, with a few minor and perfectly devastating adjustments: I did not reveal to Oprah who had made the offer. I just said it was someone very big in the television world. I shared with her—honestly, I thought—why I should move forward with my own show now, even though I had said just the opposite in our meeting. I asked for what I thought would be an appropriate next step—to create a pilot project for a show I would host. Oprah seemed to receive my request with gracious consideration. The executive producer asked me who had made the offer. I told her that it was not important. What was important for me, I said, was to listen to the guidance I had received after praying and fasting. Instead of pressing me, she simply said that I would hear from Harpo soon. Oprah remained silent.
A week later, I heard that I should accept "the offer," because it was evident that I was not moving in the same direction as Harpo. My attorney received a similar curt call. He too was shocked and confused, since I did not actually have a firm offer from the Walters camp. Yes, there had been inquiries, but we had dismissed them, saying that I was happy with Harpo. Not one to give up on a dream that easily, I pursued the executive producer for a better explanation of why they had decided to drop me. When I finally got her on the telephone, she let it rip!
"We were offering you the chance of a lifetime. We were offering you something that not many have been offered, and you have the nerve to tell me that someone 'big' made you an offer. Someone big! Who is bigger than we are? Because you prayed and meditated, you think that someone big can do more for you than we can? I'm not sure what you want, but we must not have it."
For the next two weeks I could barely eat or sleep. I waited and I prayed, but there was no more information forthcoming. Not a word, a note, a card from Harpo, and only self-condemnation from my own mind. How could you be so stupid! Now look what you've done! You have totally and royally f***** up!
Each thought made me more nauseated than the one before it. While I had often been numb to the excitement of appearing on Oprah's show, I was intensely aware of the pain I felt at being put off it. Pain was something I had learned to anticipate and expect. Joy was a completely unfamiliar emotion in my life.
When your life starts to fall apart, it doesn't always happen all at once. One fell swoop of the universe's backhand across your face might be more merciful. I had no idea that this was just the beginning of a collapse that would span seven years. It was October 1999 when the Oprah
pebble landed, sending an unmistakable ripple through the river of my life. It was December 25, 2003, when the proverbial brick hit me in the head. And it didn't stop there.
More from the show
Iyanla returns to The Oprah Show
How Iyanla lost it all
10 life lessons Iyanla has shared over the years
Watch Iyanla apologize to Oprah
©Iyanla Vanzant 2010. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of SmileyBooks.