I watched "The Oprah Winfrey Show" most of the way through for the first time last month. I've never been able to watch it all the way through before because, at some point in the broadcast, all the people on there look like kooks to me. Last month, I was one of the kooks.
I was minding my own business in Charlottesville one day when I got the call. The woman said she was one of the producers of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and she had read a story of mine called "I Was a Support Group Junkie" on The Washington Post Style Plus page. She was putting together a show on support group junkies and would I be comfortable talking on the air?
"How many groups are you in?" the producer, whose name is Dana, asked.
"Well, I don't go to Weight Watchers anymore," I said. "They sent me a postcard saying they missed me but I don't think they even know me. And I was in one for dysfunctional families until I realized that 95 percent of America lives in dysfunctional families.
"These groups. They're mostly women. And mostly women complaining about men.
"I go out some Thursday nights with the women in my neighborhood. I call them the Mothers' Mafia. And I go to supper once a month with a group and we call ourselves the W Club."
"That's still a lot of groups," Dana said. "And I thought you were a reformed support group junkie."
I got this funny feeling that I was being called on the national carpet. And that I was being typed. Stereotyped. I had better keep quiet about my church and the PTA, I thought.
What about the other people on the panel, I asked, were they real sickies?
"Oh no. There's a woman who's got her PhD. And her son's going to come on."
"Because he's upset she spends so much time with the groups, right?"
"Right. How'd you guess?"
"Look, ideally, your family is your support group," I said. "And if you supplant your family with another group, they're going to be disappointed. Am I going to look like a wet blanket saying that?"
"Oh no. You'll be great. And the set's very cozy. Just tell those funny anecdotes and I'll clear this with the executive producer."
For the next two weeks, I told funny anecdotes about support groups. I told the one about the woman who looked at me across the room and said, "I love you," and then didn't recognize me some weeks later at the recycling center. I talked and talked. At parties, at the supermarket, at my daughter's elementary school. Everyone said I was a natural for a talk show.
Dana called with the news that the show had cleared the last hurdle -- the executive producer. She scheduled the taping for June 11. I asked her if my support group could fly to Chicago with me. She laughed. I said, "I mean my husband."
I was wracked with anxiety. The thought of appearing before 20 million people made me feel weak, powerless and fat.
I chose a purple jacket for the TV show, and a pink jacket to fly into Chicago. I did watch the Oprah show on women's clothes and the message was: Wear a jacket.
A man in a chauffeur's cap was holding up a small sign with my last name on it. My husband and I climbed into the limousine, a shiny black Cadillac. We checked into the hotel, all paid for by Harpo Productions, (Oprah spelled backward) and were given meal cards for $25 breakfasts and $50 dinners. I began to see how people could go on national television and tell Oprah things they might not tell their own kin.
Then I worried that I wouldn't be worth all the money being spent on my appearance. Briefly I wondered if there was a support group for talk-show guests.
There was plenty to be nervous about. And maybe that's why when the limo finally arrived at 7:30 on the morning of the taping, I wasn't nervous at all. It was a relief, however, to reach the Green Room and get a glimpse of my fellow sufferers. There was fresh squeezed orange juice, a dish piled with strawberries, hot coffee and bagels. Already I was willing to tell everything I know and I thought of the 99th funny thing I could say on the air. So I tried it out on a fellow sufferer: "What about Talkers Anonymous? Can you imagine how that would fly?"
She looked at me without a trace of a smile and said: "There's a format for that. Everyone gets three minutes and there's no cross-talk."
She was the PhD. She meant business.
The makeup artist meant business, too. I'd always wondered what a professional makeup artist would do to me so I submitted to her hands and watched her work. She maneuvered the brushes like painters do, so I asked if she painted.
"I used to," she said, "but I have to make money. And I'm a workaholic."
"I'm a talkaholic," I started to say but didn't. Already the humor was draining out of me.
The makeup artist combed my eyebrows straight up. It gave me a look of perpetual surprise.
The two women I would appear with were seated with me in an area behind the studio set. They had been involved in almost two dozen support groups. I could hear the studio audience wildly applauding, which I thought odd because there was Oprah behind the set, pacing around it, looking slightly worried, but other than that, looking just, well, regular.
At last we were led to three comfortable seats in the brightly lit studio and microphones were hooked up to our jackets. The producers told us: "Now Oprah reads from the TelePrompter, but don't you look at the TelePrompter, look at Oprah."
The producers handed Oprah three blue index cards and pointed to us. Oprah was wearing purple too. She said our names and aimed the cards at us, getting us straight.
Then something magical happened. Oprah became animated, alive, what people call "sparkling." She spoke of us with zest, even though she was looking away from us. As for me, I felt every spark of personality drain from my body.
"How many groups do you belong to?" she asked me.
For a moment I was silent, stunned.
"Well, none now," I said and went on to explain my theory that my family and friends were my support group. My tone of voice was matter-of-fact.
We paused for a commercial break and to let the PhD woman's son join us on stage. A water cup was passed to me by someone wearing headphones. "Are you all right?" she asked, and I nodded. More chairs appeared.
The son said to his mother: "The line under your face reads: 'Support Group Addict.' " Poor woman.
"Your line says, 'Reformed Support Group Addict,' " he said to me.
Well, what can you do about it, I thought, but when we were back on the air, the PhD woman said she was a support group advocate, not a support group addict. That's why she has a PhD, I thought, and I don't. And talk about confrontation. It's clear she's been in a dozen support groups.
I said another line or two and then it was time for me to step down into the studio audience.
The "experts" filed in. After a few more rounds, the show ended.
Back home there was nothing to do but wait until the show would air.
My jacket and Oprah's dress didn't look purple at all. They looked blue. And nobody looked fat. Everything else looked just as I remembered it. Watching it was fun. My friends and I had popcorn and beer. I can hardly believe it but I didn't watch it all the way through. I went into the kitchen to get another beer and started talking to someone and just couldn't stop.