Until that moment, the Halifax native had told herself that being on a much-loved and respected talk show was the opportunity of a lifetime. Family and friends were excited for her. She had even daydreamed about being “discovered.” Besides, people always told her they loved her bluntness. And those who didn’t, well, they just couldn’t handle the truth.
The audience grew quiet. Here we go, she thought. Oh crap. How am I going to get through this?
Host: “Thanks for joining us. On the show today…”
Cut to a pre-filmed clip of Sabrina: “If your boyfriend’s an idiot, I’ll tell you to dump him.”
Host: “When you should tell the truth…”
Sabrina: “I don’t give a shit how it sounds.”
Host: “…and when a tiny fib might be best.”
Sabrina never saw it coming – not the public vilification and not the ensuing self-loathing. But how could she have seen it? In denial about her own childhood scars, Sabrina was incapable of being sensitive to anyone else’s pain. Empathy and compassion just weren’t part of her constitution. What’s more, she was completely oblivious to the effect her harsh behaviour had on others. She thought of herself as strong, tough-minded and resilient – and expected others to be the same way.
Of course, when it came to honesty, what Sabrina really needed was to be truthful with herself. And yet, it took the most public kind of exposure – with her flaws illuminated under hot studio lights and projected from TV sets across North America – for her to finally see the hardened person she’d become. Only then was she forced to confront her painful past, begin a journey toward self-discovery and learn to embrace the barrage of emotions that come with a rich and meaningful life.
*Name and identifying details have been changed
About a year before Sabrina’s 20 minutes of fame, a different network’s program on successful women rubbed her the wrong way. Irked because the participants didn’t fit her notion of success, Sabrina wrote a letter complaining to her favourite talk show. In her note, she bragged about being an accomplished single woman with many great qualities, including a rare sense of honesty. Then she forgot about it.
Sabrina had every reason to be proud of herself. Born to two teenage heroin addicts, she’d worked hard to avoid repeating her parents’ – especially her mother’s – mistakes. When she turned five, Sabrina recalls her mom showing up at her grandmother’s doorway to say goodbye. “I knew when she left, she would be gone forever.” By that time, Sabrina’s father had cleaned up and remarried, so she moved in with him and his new wife. But the couple split up when Sabrina was 15, and again her life changed dramatically.
Living alone with her father turned out to be a pretty wild ride. As long as she let him know where she was, Sabrina could do as she pleased. Boys slept over. She snuck into bars. Still, Sabrina was determined to complete high school as well as a subsequent diploma in computer programming.
By the time she sent that letter, Sabrina had amassed a pile of career achievements and bought her own home. She had also escaped several unhealthy long-term relationships. “I worked hard at surviving,” says Sabrina. “I wanted to make my father and grandmother proud.” She had always told herself that she was lucky compared to most other kids who came from broken homes. If she ever felt sorry for herself, Sabrina simply told herself to suck it up.
Enter the show’s producers, calling to tell Sabrina they’d held on to her year-old letter. She couldn’t believe it. “I was like, humph, maybe my big mouth finally got me somewhere.” They wondered if she still considered herself brutally honest. She answered frankly, of course. Would she take a day off work in the coming week to fly out and tape a show about being honest? Absolutely. Would she mind being filmed while acting out a day in the life of Sabrina for the show? No problem.
Caught up in the urgency and excitement, Sabrina doesn’t recall telling bits and pieces of her life story to the producers, who called frequently in the week before she left for the show.
Immediately after the clips of Sabrina aired, the cameras zoomed in on her, seated across from the host in the TV studio. Her hands rested comfortably in her lap. She smirked slightly. The host raised one eyebrow as if to say, “Would you get a load of this one?” Then he turned to her and asked, “Why don’t you take people’s feelings into account when you tell them something?”
“Because I don’t think their feelings matter when I have a point to make,” she said. And so began a discussion about the motive behind her honesty. Was it a genuine desire to be helpful (her claim) or a selfish need to be right (his assertion)? The host made a few mild cracks. The audience chuckled.
Sabrina took it all in stride. She shrugged off difficult questions without really hearing them, letting out a few guffaws along with the audience. The host continued to delve into why she was so blunt. She deflected the remarks with churlish backtalk, such as “If you say so,” and “It doesn’t keep me up at night.” The conversation grew more heated. At one point, when Sabrina wouldn’t concede that she was being stubborn, there was an uncomfortable pause and the host turned to the audience in disbelief. Cameras panned to stunned audience members, also taken aback by Sabrina’s arrogance.
But as the host delved deeper – asking whether Sabrina might be bitter because she was abandoned by her mother – you could see Sabrina’s face fall. Her eyes squinted and her body grew tense. She was listening. The host fired off more razor-sharp questions. Her answers became monosyllabic.
“I was in shock,” recalls Sabrina. “I was still thinking the show was about being brutally honest. Who cares about my background and how I was raised? To me it wasn’t relevant.”
After the taping, Sabrina was whisked off to the airport and flown home, where she tried not to think about the experience. “It sounds weird, but I really just felt numb.”
But when the show aired six weeks later and she saw herself on TV, there was no hiding from the facts. Her outward aggression was obvious, and Sabrina was ashamed. In one clip, she confronted a friend about her choice of job. She gesticulated wildly as she shouted, “You’re selling yourself short. You could do so much better!”
“I couldn’t believe the facial expressions I made. I was like, wow. I get so excited and frustrated over other people’s lives when really, it’s not my life, and why do I care so much?” Sabrina didn’t like herself, with all her finger-wagging frowning superiority. “You are forced to deal with reality when you see yourself on TV. You can’t make excuses for your behaviour.”
Unfortunately, most of North America saw what Sabrina saw – an abrasive cold-hearted woman. The network forwarded a slew of mail to her. Strangers tore her apart. They wrote that she was a bitch, that she was insecure, that she was arrogant. “I read all the messages and tried to understand the points of view,” says Sabrina. “And I absolutely could. I thought, Is that who I really am? Am I this angry person? And part of me said, Yeah, that is really who you are. And another part of me was asking, Do you want to change it?”
Sabrina sank into a funk. She stopped going out with friends, preferring to brood at home every night. When she asked her closest friends why they stayed by her side, they told her they found her honesty endearing. She wasn’t consoled.
Meanwhile, the host’s remarks about Sabrina’s childhood ricocheted inside her head. True, her mother’s absence had played a part in the person she was today: self-reliant and strong. But she finally admitted that it had also made her bitter. “It was as if [the host] gave me permission to acknowledge emotions that I had never really dealt with.”
Although Sabrina had always held back her tears, she spent the next month crying. She sobbed in her car on the way to work, and she sobbed on the way home. A lifetime of pent-up emotion gushed out. “I felt really abandoned for most of my life,” explains Sabrina, “and I had just shut it out.”
Finally, at the urging of her roommate, she saw a psychologist. In her sessions she talked about her childhood and began to recognize that she had built a protective shell, cutting herself off from her own pain, as well as everybody else’s. Before the meeting ended, the psychologist recommended she work on opening up to people, perhaps through volunteer work.
Eager to change, Sabrina began by expressing an interest in her colleagues’ personal lives. “At first it felt fake. Very forced,” she says. “But then I actually started to care.” She also examined how her heavy-handed approach affected past relationships. Sabrina even reconciled with an old friend – something that she was much too stubborn to do earlier.
But Sabrina’s biggest breakthrough came with her volunteering. In addition to joining Big Sisters of Canada, she also started spending time on the street, handing out clothing, blankets and food to the homeless. One day, while sitting with another volunteer in a shabby downtown coffee shop frequented by street dwellers, Sabrina met Sarah.
When Sarah sat down at their table, she was crying. She had been beaten up by a street gang the day before. Sabrina was shocked and horrified. Moments later, the other (more experienced) volunteer was paged. As he left, he encouraged a reluctant Sabrina to stay with Sarah.
“The first thing I said was, ‘So, ah, you actually live out here?’” recalls Sabrina. “I was blind to homeless people before. I just couldn’t believe there were people who lived like that.” But as Sabrina asked more questions, Sarah’s story unfolded. Sabrina learned that Sarah was 20 years old, that she was a crystal meth addict, and that Sarah’s child had been taken from her by social services because of her addiction.
Over the next week, Sabrina often thought about Sarah, with her blackened fingers, greasy hair and dirty clothes. But the next time she visited the coffee shop, Sarah wasn’t around. Just before she left, a disappointed Sabrina told another volunteer, “If you see Sarah, tell her I love her.”
Her expression of feeling took even Sabrina by surprise. “It came from my heart,” she says. Somehow, rock-hard Sabrina suddenly knew lost souls such as Sarah needed love as much as food, clothing and shelter. No, Sabrina’s mother hadn’t been capable of teaching her daughter about love and compassion. But Sabrina learned the lessons anyway, intuitively understanding the loneliness and despair of a young woman so much like her own mother.
And none of it would have happened if it weren’t for the talk show.