How Lisa Lampanelli Found Her 'Choir'

Lisa Lampanelli told me that while attending a workshop, the workshop leader said, "Make a list of the people in your 'choir' ... . If you're not on your own list, then you're doing something wrong.

"You have to really be on your own side."

Of all of Lampanelli's accomplishments -- being a member of the Friar's Club, her famed Comedy Central roasts and her comedy specials -- being on her own side has not been something that she's been able to do. And as a result, she has felt alone and empty, often filling that void with food.

But now, with her new play "Stuffed" -- in which she addresses the many faces of eating and weight disorders -- Lampanelli finally has been able to be on her own side. And she has found that if you are on your own team, part of your own choir, you can conquer feeling alone.

Photo credit: Dan Dion

Lampanelli grew up in a tight-knit family that didn't allow for much freedom. "My parents were strict ... . There wasn't a lot of freedom," she explained. "This was years ago, so there was one telephone in the house, and it was attached to the wall in the kitchen. So there weren't a lot of secrets you could have. You couldn't sneak off and meet friends."

While her family environment may have felt restrictive at times, it also provided a very clear sense that her family wanted her around and was looking out for her. This gave Lampanelli the freedom to feel like being alone was not such a bad thing.

"I was somewhere between the lost child and the mascot," she said. "The lost child disappears, but you can find them upstairs reading or drawing or making music or something. But I was also the mascot, too -- not necessarily the one who could be funny, but the one who could defuse some tension in the house. I always liked the aloneness when I knew it wasn't a default.

"It was a choice."

Similarly, Lampanelli was able to find people at school who shared her quirky view on the world. "I somehow found friends in school, because they were like-minded weirdos, too. They were the 'Freaks and Geeks' type," she said.

But that cocoon was shattered when Lampanelli went to college, where she felt isolated and disconnected from her peers. "Instead of going into housing with freshmen, where you're all in the same boat, I was one of the unfortunates who got put into a four-person apartment with three seniors who couldn't be bothered with me," she recalled. "And I had to get a part-time job, which made me feel more alone, because I was off campus."

For the first time, being alone was not a choice. "I didn't feel ready to leave home, because it went from no freedom to all freedom. And I was like, 'Oh, my God, I don't know what I'm doing in college," Lampanelli said. "There seemed to be no like-minded people where I was ... . I didn't have a clan. I didn't have a choir... . There was no safety net.

"So the minute my parents drove away, I was alone."

Soon, Lampanelli turned to food to fill the void. "I think the aloneness was what drove me to food ... . Food was the safety net of feeling alone. Since my family didn't drink, and we didn't do anything except eat, because we were Italian -- which was the celebratory thing to do -- that's when I turned to food to make me feel better," she said. "And it's such an unconscious decision ... . You don't say, 'I'm going to eat because it makes me feel better.'

"You just go, 'OK, I have nothing else.'"

As she gained weight, Lampanelli found that her self-esteem plummeted. Rather than accepting and supporting herself, she actively shamed and loathed herself and her body. As a result, she not only felt horribly about herself, but also she felt paralyzed to make change.

"Until I got the weight off, there was something inside of me that said, 'You hate yourself,'" she explained. "You get too depressed over the weight to really work on this. For whatever reason, I had to take the weight off to do this work."

Lampanelli tried a range of programs to lose weight, including diets, Overeaters Anonymous, therapy and residential "food rehab" programs. Nothing worked and she felt stuck. In retrospect, she thinks that part of the problem was that she was looking for a "magic bullet" that would help her understand and solve her eating and weight issues.

"I was always looking for the bolt of lightning of 'Why do I eat?' I don't think there will ever be one answer as to why I'm prone to eat," she said.

Eventually, Lampanelli decided as a reset to have gastric-sleeve surgery so that she could lose weight. "I kept yo-yoing until I was 50. And that's when I said, 'Enough of this.' Thirty-two years of working on food-related issues, I'm ready for a do-over -- get the surgery, lose the weight and start over."

When Lampanelli lost weight, she realized that part of the issue she faced was that while her being alone started the cycle of eating, the shame she felt from food drove her further away from being in a place of self-acceptance.

In retrospect, she recognized that she felt she could motivate herself through self-loathing "because we were brought up that way, that being yelled at changes you," she said. "Somebody said to me at a workshop at Kripalu, 'No one ever made permanent change from getting yelled at.'"

But she also realized that she couldn't simply start loving herself. She first had to start by accepting herself. "You want to know why it never worked for me to look in the mirror and say, 'I love myself'? Because I can't go from hate to love," she said. "I may never love my hips and thighs and saddle bags and my big arms or whatever ... But you can say, 'Those are my arms today.'

"Acceptance might lead to love someday."

And soon, what Lampanelli found was that not feeling alone, feeling connected to oneself and others, and finding and being a part of your own choir was a process. And in effect, it is the process that fills that void and emptiness that comes with being alone.

"It's daily work. And it will never end. It's not about, one day I woke up, and I loved myself. It's years and years of hard work, and even those people who love themselves have an off day," she explained.

For Lampanelli, much of that hard work starts with being OK that she is alone -- particularly that she is not involved in a romantic relationship.

"I'm very good at alone now. I love it. But it took me 40 years to get there. I feel like people assume that you're not really happy if you say that you're happy alone, because it's so rare," she explained. "It's so rare for people not to be looking for 'love.' I'm enough.

"And if people don't believe me, that's fine."

And by being more comfortable with being alone, Lampanelli feels that she is able to more comfortably stay away from toxic relationships. My life is 99 percent joy. So why invite anyone into my life who takes that joy away?" she asked.

As a result, she has been able to concentrate on friends and family who make her feel more connected and less alone. She also spent about six months helping to care for her now-deceased father when he was sick. I think the play and taking care of my father helped a lot with filling the hole," she said.

And she's found her choir again. "I've done what I wish the universe had put in front of me in college, which is to have the great community of friends, have the weekly gathering of friends and family for game night, and have my family who are awesome reach out all of the time," Lampanelli explained. "So the aloneness is what I had to heal."

In addition to the work that she put into healing her aloneness, she also realized that even with gastric-sleeve surgery, there is ongoing work that needs to be done to manage her weight.

"Now that I've gotten the surgery, all I can do is continue to do the emotional work for when I'm 'hungry' and not physically hungry. I have to ask, 'Really? Am I physically hungry? Is food really going to make that better?' No. Because like they say in AA, if you drink over a problem, now you have two problems. So the problem doesn't go away because you used alcohol or, in my case, food," she said.

Now that Lampanelli feels more comfortable with herself and her weight, she is able to better balance being accepting of her missteps with holding herself accountable.

"Sometimes, as comics, we have to call bullshit on ourselves. It's that thing between accepting who you are and not letting yourself off the hook," she explained. "I tried to eat healthy, and I failed. But after a week, you have to call bullshit on yourself and say, 'OK, don't let yourself off the hook. Why didn't you?' And you have to be vigilant about that. There's a difference between loving yourself to death ... and holding yourself accountable.

"Calling bullshit, but being nice about it."

She thinks that over time, her experience in working on her eating has given her more positive experiences on which she can build. "You have history to prove, 'Oh, I've done that before,' Lampanelli said. "I may not do it every time. But I do remember that time. So, now there's hope."

And with "Stuffed," Lampanelli is hoping to share her experience so that others may not feel so alone and isolated when they struggle with eating and weight issues.

She wants to help others with eating disorders to think, 'I'm not weird. I'm not the only one who goes to the refrigerator and just eats everything in the house or even just a little too much" because of feeling alone.

While this play has helped Lampanelli to feel less alone and less empty, filling one's emptiness is an ongoing process. "Isn't it interesting that the emptiness inside always has to be filled? I think the play helped a lot with filling the hole. But what do you do when that ends? Part of me wonders, after this play is over, what am I going to fill the hole with?" she said. "I hope the hole is smaller. I hope it's shrinking. It's been shrinking as I'm getting older."

And she is hopeful. "There's a line in the play where I say, 'I'm never going to be fixed.' It is a process. But it gets better and better. I'll be working on this until I'm 80. And I don't care. I'm in a better place this year than I was last year.

"And I was in a pretty good place last year."

Buy tickets for "Stuffed."

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International's Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.