I remember the first time Judy Vaughan said, “If someone calls you a b*tch, you’re probably doing something right.”
There were a dozen of us sitting in a circle attending a peer-counseling class and that night’s topic was women’s oppression.
LovingWell Institute was founded by Judy and her husband, Michael, and classes took place in their suburban home outside of Houston, Texas. In my late 20s, I had begun a journey of personal growth and recovery from an eating disorder. My new friend, Richard, introduced me to the Vaughans. He thought I would really like Judy. I really did. We were inseparable for almost 10 years.
The late 80s and early 90s were a fertile time in healing and recovery communities in Houston, Texas. Twelve-step meetings, workshops on healing the inner-child and treatment centers were springing up everywhere. John Bradshaw, best selling author and television personality, built a self-help empire and was also from Houston.
LovingWell Institute sprang up in this fruitful, lush ground, and attracted a strong following.
That night when I first heard Judy’s assertion, I panicked. The possibility of exhibiting behavior worthy of being called a b*tch was beyond my understanding.
Right alongside the sudden, uncontrollable urge to run, I also noticed a pulsating energy that thrilled me. Doing something so out of my character that I’d be labeled a b*itch sounded risky, dangerous, and a little fun.
Growing up as a middle-class, Catholic, Italian girl, I learned early on to keep my focus on the needs of others, keep the peace by taking care of everyone else, and as a bonus, I learned how to cook and feed large quantities of people. Caretaker extraordinaire.
I was compliant and nice. Very nice.
As a matter of fact, a quote underneath my senior picture in the yearbook read, “It’s so nice to be natural when you’re naturally nice.”
If I were a codependent cocktail, I’d be two parts approval-seeking, one part focused on you, and a dash of “can I carry those feelings for you if they’re just a little too heavy?” Shake well and top with a sweet, maraschino cherry. Sugary and artificial—that was me.
Even so, Judy had planted a seed in me that night and I could feel that it wanted to take root and push through the politeness and people-pleasing soil that was covering it.
Continuing my mentoring with Judy revealed how much of a “doormat” I had learned to be to keep the peace and please others. My continued abstinence from compulsive overeating and the binge and purge cycle of bulimia required me to find my voice and start speaking up. If I didn’t start to be honest with others, learn to confront disrespectful behavior and take the risk of being called a b*tch, I’d slip into a relapse.
I decided to take my recovery on the road. When I called an old friend after we’d seen each other at our high school reunion and asked her about a hurtful comment she directed at me, she asked, “Why are you being such a b*tch?”
I remembered Judy’s words.
Shortly after that, I asked a waiter to take back an improperly cooked meal that I had ordered and he refused, stating that I had ordered it just that way. When I refused to pay for the meal that I’d not eaten and left without tipping, he followed me to the door and said, “I’ve never had a customer that was such a bitch.”
I remembered Judy’s words.
“A woman with a voice is by definition a strong woman. But the search to find that voice can be remarkably difficult.” ~ Melinda Gates
Speaking up for myself has become a regular practice in my life, and here is what I now know about being called a b*itch:
>> What you think of me is none of my business.
>> If my assertiveness and personal power threaten you to the point of you calling me a name, that is about you.
>> When I stand up for myself or for someone else, I am a woman in my power. Sometimes the world does not respond kindly to this. Again, not about me. As Gloria Allred said, “There are some people who still feel threatened by strong women. That’s their problem. It’s not mine.”
Judy Vaughan died of an overdose in 2001 at the age of 51. The last gift I received from her was knowing that we are all flawed. Learning to love flawed and imperfect mentors teaches me deeper love and greater compassion for everyone.
I miss you, Judy.
Author: Sally Bartolameolli
Image: @maxfromtax on Instagram
Apprentice Editor: Anne Marie Morello/Editor: Emily Bartran