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— Self-worth

Jill Kargman

The author, actress, and writer who believes we are our flaws. That is what makes us and is so much more interesting than being perfect. Together, Jill and Jayme sat down to talk about suburban panic disorder, motherhood, starting therapy at age 36, and getting a mastectomy and how that impacted her self-identity.

I want to go back to 2017. You were on Jimmy Fallon and you said you have suburban panic disorder.

Yes, that shit is real. I created it and diagnosed myself with it. Being a city person for 40 years, I’m so used to sirens that I prefer them to crickets. And when I have to spend a night in the suburbs or even something more rural, the quiet stresses me out. I am so much more wired for an urban environment. So, I definitely think suburban panic disorder is real because, before Uber, I never knew how I was going to get home. If I was in a city, say, San Francisco, and I went to a party across the bridge, in the olden days, you’d have to call a cab company. And they would say, car 318, 47 minutes. Just hearing that right now gives me a full panic. And I still have that. If we have a wedding or something and there’s no shuttle bus or whatever it is, I feel like I need to know how the fuck I’m getting back.

Understandable. As a comedian and writer, you have this character named Dzanielle with a Z. Where did she come from?

That was a character I did in a one-woman show at the Williamstown Theatre Festival that then went to the Carlyle. It was a heavy metal cabaret called Stairway to Cabaret, where I did covers of 80s metal bands, but sort of reappropriated as a middle-aged female, so Girls, Girls, Girls, Seventeen by Winger, which is an anthem of statutory rape. I had a 17-year-old at the time, and the whole thing was so twisted and fucked up and crazy. But I wanted to take that power back and do the show. I had these characters in between the songs, and Dzanielle was one of them.
During COVID, a bunch of my friends were having a really hard time and felt very locked down.

Most of them had younger children. I feel bad saying this, but I had a great COVID because I have older kids. But if I had had little kids, I would have been in a mental asylum. I don't know how young mothers got through those two years. I had three kids in four years and those were the hardest years of my life without a pandemic. Talk about mental health. You feel tits deep in chaos and that you're never going to climb out of it. And every day, you're kind of crawling through all these things. And even though you're hashtag blessed, that's almost worse because you feel guilty about feeling overwhelmed.

So a bunch of my friends were really depressed during COVID, so to cheer them up, I did little Dzanielle text videos. And one of them said that you have to post this, so I did. And then I realized people wanted someone to go off on. It was like a funhouse mirror reflecting the chaos of the moment, being in unprecedented times. I just kept posting. It was more just being silly, goofing around, and doing something every day that felt creative, even if it was stupid.

Would you say you do a lot of characters?

All day long. I have character Tourette's. I do accents all the time.

Do your kids like it? What are their thoughts on these characters?

They're all pretty used to it, but they like it. I can do a French person trying to speak English, trying to find the words or Italian. I have a character from Eastern Europe who was Slovenian and knew Melania Trump back in her home country. So they like it when I'm abroad because I have an ear to speak the language. Not Slovenian, but French and Italian. They feel like we can go to a restaurant and we don't seem like Americans.

You were diagnosed with melanoma in your 30s and I read that you said that it had an impact on the way you felt about your body and how it wasn’t yours. How did that impact your identity and self-worth?

I had stage three melanoma. I have a footlong scar, and I also have another scar in my box. They took all the lymph nodes out of my vag. Fun. So, I was in a wheelchair for six weeks. And that, weirdly, was not a big identity shift at all. But it triggered me to get genetic testing. So I got the genetic testing and I was fine that whole time. I had one other melanoma, but it was in situ, very small. Seven years later, I had a lump in my boob. And they said it’s stage zero, tiny, we’ll take it right out, lumpectomy, you’re home in your own bed. Weirdly, the genetic testing from the melanoma revealed that I have CHK2, which is a gene that also can be a harbinger of breast cancer. It raises your chances by 60% versus BRCA, which is an 85% chance you’ll get it. So I said, fuck the lumpectomy, I’m getting a double mastectomy. I didn’t even think about it. People said that must have been a really hard choice for you. And I said not for me.

But that was one that threw my identity. It was such a change. First of all, I had three surgeries because you have the plate, the spacers, and then I had a second surgery. Then they recalled those implants and I did other implants. But that was weird for me because I actually liked saggy boobs. I think natural boobs are more European and sexier. And I think fake boobs are kind of tacky. It makes me think of the Playboy girls. I realized how judgy I was because I would always go skiing. I don’t go to beaches. I hate the sun. But I love to ski. It’s my only sport. I’m the worst athlete of all time, but I love to ski.

So afterward, we’d be in the hot tub, and I would see all the LA women in their bathing suits with their big fake tits. And I just thought, that’s just gross. You look so cheap. I liked my natural boobs. And now I look at them and someone’s going to see me in a jacuzzi and think I did this on purpose, and I didn’t. That was where my identity shifted. I love my clothes. I mean, I’m wearing a schmatta right now, but I have good clothes. And when you have real boobs, you can smash them down to zip. Whereas now, they’re like these balloons, so I had to sell a ton of shit that I loved. So that was much more of a bummer in terms of body stuff.

But I don’t care. I’m alive. Now, at 48, that gene would have caught up with me because of my mom’s entire family. My grandmother was dead by the age of 47 from breast cancer. My mom’s sister died at 50. It’s all over my family. So I feel like, whatever, who cares about the damn clothes. It was an adjustment, but I never looked back. And I actually think, for mental health, I don’t understand how people would make the other choice just to do the lumpectomies and keep doing mammograms. I used to get what I called scan-xiety. After my melanoma, they said the type of cell I had likes to travel to the lungs. Even though I’ve never smoked a cigarette, I was susceptible to lung cancer. So, I had these chest X-rays for five years. And every time I went, I thought, today’s the day they’re going to tell me you have lung cancer, we found a tumor or whatever. And the same with my mammogram. So, I was always feeling like a time bomb. And now I’m so relaxed. I never have to do another mammogram. It’s that phantom algorithm is weighing your genetics, weighing your familial history; you also have to weigh your mental health and how you would process every single mammogram and ultrasound for the rest of your life. It’s a no-brainer. I’ve never looked back.

That's a good transition into my next question, which is you said that being imperfect is good for your health. Tell me more about that.

I went to my dermatologist, who was doing a mole check and said that scar is really nasty. They're not plastic surgeons over at Sloan Kettering; they're there to get the cancer out. So I have a very big grizzly scar and he said, I can treat that and laser it and we can make that go away. And I said, No fucking way. I love this scar.

I was telling a friend of mine who's covered in tattoos everywhere. And he said he wanted to get one that said 'nous sommes nos cicatrices,' which means we are our scars. Our flaws make us. Even as a little kid, I had so many moles, hundreds all over me. People would tease me about my moles on my face and they called me Bambi because I guess Bambi had spots. And I said they're not; they are beauty marks. They make you more beautiful. I was just parroting what my mom told me. But I believed it. I shut them down.

I had done some photos for something and they airbrushed my moles out. And I didn't that. There's a Ronald Dahl short story, The Birthmark, about a beautiful model with this one birthmark. And they said if you just got rid of it, you'd be perfect. They get rid of it and she dies. We are our flaws. That is what makes us and I think that's so much more interesting than being perfect. The people who are the most beautiful always have something more offbeat and pronounced about them. I don't want everything perfect, whatever that even means. I'm all about getting to the balsamic reduction. Why be someone else? That's so boring. So many people dilute who they are to assimilate and be whatever that cultural standard is.

Is there any ongoing stressor or anxiety that gets to you?

I was in therapy from 36 to 40. Those four years, I would say, were the hardest years of my life because I was coming out of my melanoma. I had these three little kids. I was a weird Jewish New Yorker who had not gone to therapy until I was 36. But I went in there and burst into tears, and said, I feel like I’m drowning in my life. I was such a strong, secure 28-year-old and then I had kids and it shakes the etch a sketch on everything you built for yourself, your whole character. It feels like everything is kind of out the window. In a way, you draw upon who you are, but you’re starting over and in some aspects, there’s a vulnerability that you have where people can say whatever the fuck they want about me. But if they say something to my kid, then you have this whole new feeling of sensitivity.

For example, people call me an ugly Ducati on Instagram. I don’t care. But when a kid said something to Fletch, I went bananas. I can’t handle my children suffering for being Jewish or something like that. Whereas I’m used to assholes like Kanye West spewing vitriol. You’re used to it at 48. But with a child, it’s so much more heartbreaking. So it was sort of a series of vulnerabilities nonstop for years of different things. Everything is so heightened because of the fatigue.

I sleep so much now. I sleep nine hours a night, every night, and I have really low blood pressure. I need my sleep. For 11 years, I slept for five or six hours. I was just so underwater in terms of fatigue. I remember feeling almost drunk on fatigue. I would cry at the drop of a hat. I would cry in the Olympics; I would cry in a Volvo commercial. I never cry now. I’m not made of stone. I’ll watch a sad movie and cry. But I just don’t feel the same thing that I had as a young mother. And that’s why my heart really went out to the young mothers during COVID. I don’t know how they did it without their parents there or classes or a community because I had all those things. And it was still hard.

And then, honestly, as the kids got older and were launched into school, it became more Tetris than feeling like it was raining on top of me. It was more about managing their schedules and stuff like that. But motherhood can definitely come at you in a way where you feel like you don’t know how to catch your breath. There’s always another wave of something else. So that was a hard time.

With middle age, a lot of my friends are struggling and I feel very lucky because I’m not. I think a lot of it is that I don’t get that stressed out about aging. If you said, right now, here’s a DeLorean time machine, you can go back and be 25 and have no wrinkles. I would say no fucking way. I am so much happier at 48 than 25. I like my personality and I’m more wired for certainty and knowing what’s happening. I hate question marks and the mystery of the future. I didn’t know if I’d be a mom. I didn’t know if I would be working. I didn’t know so much about my life and to be where I am now, I feel so happy. I definitely love my life and I did not love it at 25.

What would you tell younger Jill regarding her mental health?

I would say everything works out. Everything's going to be fine. You have a fabulous husband. I met my husband at 26, and at 25, I thought I was going to be alone forever and that I was going to be a spinster. It's so weird. I just had a very antiquated notion. My mother was Orthodox and grew up in a community where it was normal to get married at 21, which she did. I felt behind at 25, which is so weird and bizarre now. But at the time, I remember thinking I was going to die alone. So I would tell young Jill, I mean we all die alone in some capacity, but I would tell young Jill not to worry. Cut to a nuke from that Russia falls on this house and we all die. Just kidding. There's always something to worry about.

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