Two months into my new job at Mt. Sinai, I got a call at my desk. “Hi Jacqueline, this is Melissa from the casting office at The Bachelor!”
“Oh, hi,” I say cautiously. I’d forgotten that my friend had nominated me as a joke 6 months before.
“Are you still living in NY and single?” *sigh* “Yes.” She asked a few more questions and then: “Do you think you could take 9 weeks off work in September?”
A lot of people quit their jobs to go on The Bachelor. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, and jobs come and go. But I had a checkered career history and for the first time in my life, was beginning to feel like I was getting somewhere. And I still had a long way to go. Four years prior, I was working in web design, having graduated college with a philosophy degree. I had spent four years studying, you know, the meaning of life, and then was unceremoniously spit out of the warm bath of academia and into the 9 to 6 grind where I felt like a nuisance and a fraud. And I know that Imposter Syndrome is real, but I actually was an imposter. I mean to this day, I can’t even build a Squarespace website. So here I am, doing work that felt totally wrong to me, fearing that I’d be undriven and depressed for the rest of my life. There were days I did nothing but cry on the couch after humiliating interviews, filled with debilitating fear. And then it hit me: I already spent 100% of my time thinking about depression; I might as well get paid for it. I spent the next four years starting over: I moved in with my parents, returned to undergrad, and began years of low paying research, all in the hopes that I’d be one of the 3% that gained admissions to a clinical psychology Ph.D. program. Once I made this decision, I was motivated and happy. Psychology had an intellectualism, relevance, and edification that I craved, and I’d just been hired at a top research hospital for a two year position studying exactly what I wanted to research in grad school.
It was with this newly won sense of fulfillment and gravitas that I was asked to try out for reality TV.
My first reaction was “no thanks.” Taking 9 weeks off from my new job, which was the most substantial asset for my Ph.D. applications, was out of the question. But just as I began to scoff at the ridiculousness of the idea, the devil on my left shoulder tugged on my earlobe and whispered: “Remember high school?”
It’s a humbling experience to realize that even though I went to a great college and have made traction in an amazing career and have dated all sorts of good looking, successful men, I’m still not over the total injustice of having been a loser in high school. Once the idea of permanently cementing this chip in my shoulder started to take hold, I started to grasp the true depth of this experience.
See, I didn’t just want validation from the kids I went to highschool with, although I wanted that too. I wanted cosmic validation. To feel anointed by the universe. I wanted to know that I was really special- that I got to peak beyond the bounds of normal reality and experience, even fleetingly, fame. That I was privy to an experience that was exceedingly rare. And I know this is narcissistic. I know that. But it was right there within my grasp. How could I not close my fist around it? And it wasn’t totally about validation: it was essentially psychological skydiving. I would have to undergo the excruciating experience of watching myself through the eyes of others. I would have to watch my identity sculpted by indifferent editors, my moments of vulnerability and weakness displayed before everyone I knew, and, depending on my ending, I’d have to allow people who hurt me in the past to see me hurt again- to see me dumped or discarded on TV. Even simple things were scary: seeing the way I move, kiss, or smile. You know that feeling when you suddenly hear your voice on a recording? Most people hate it. It somehow challenges their whole view of themselves. I was about to see it all. I figured I’d watch the episodes hiding under the bed, squinting at the TV screen while cradling a bottle of vodka. But I would deal with my anxiety later. I went through the casting process, and to my horror and elation, was asked to join the show.
Next I had to confront the most anxiety-inducing experience of all: asking my boss to go on the show. The worst part is, he had never even heard of it. It’s difficult to truly describe the humiliation of telling your 75-year-old psychiatrist boss the plot of The Bachelor. I mean I tried to intellectualize the shit out of this, telling him all about the deep psychological reasons I’d come up with. I even referenced Karl Jung at one point. But in the end, you can’t escape the simple reality:
“Um, so there are about 30 women, and uh, we’re all dating this one guy… and then every few weeks he dumps someone until he marries the one that’s left. So can I go?”
He was not stoked about this idea but he knew how much I wanted to go on. He had a very real and legitimate concern that our very small lab couldn’t function correctly understaffed so he let me go. But I gave my lab a phone number to call if they really needed me back, if it became too stressful.
A week later, I stepped out of a limo and into total emotional upheaval. That first night, surrounded by women in color-saturated dresses in a gaudy mansion, lined up by a man wearing foundation so that another man could select 21 women to advance to the next round, I wanted to go home. But I stayed, and I started making friends in the house, and it turned out Arie (the Bachelor) and I actually had pretty good chemistry. I went in with my career in mind- I did not want to appear demonstrative or judgmental. In the first week, when my producer pulled me in for an interview when I was crying, I felt violated and betrayed. I hid in the corner of the room and refused to say anything useful. But two weeks after that, I was begging to be interviewed while I was emotional. I hadn’t come to avoid exposure; I’d come to be stripped bare in front of 10 million people.
As for Arie, I went in wondering whether the greater psychological challenge would be to fall in love or to resist. But as my time went on, I became more interested in the former. When Arie asked me on a one-on-one date exactly one month into my time there, I realized I was on the brink of a huge decision.
He picked me up outside our Paris hotel in a red convertible that promptly broke down. Even though we’d only spent bursts of time together: probably 10-20 min every few days, it felt like a lot more than a first date. We had the kind of magnetism that kept us physically connected at all times. I’d gone in thinking I would be the weird bookish girl, but the one word Arie used to describe our connection most often was: “chemistry.” We went shopping at an extremely high-end store in Paris and ended up buying a $1000 simple black dress. Next he took me to Maxim’s: a restaurant I’d told producers I was dying to go to because it had been featured in one of my favorite old movies. It was a five story art nouveau masterpiece that had once been called the most famous restaurant in the world, and production bought out the entire place. We ate escargot and drank scotch, before moving outside for cigars off-camera. We talked about marriage and kids and about my Ph.D. aspirations. He told me if we loved each other, we’d make anything work. At one point, he gave me this look that was so sweet, so full of shy yet unmasked vulnerability. When I saw that look again on TV, I immediately broke down crying. The whole date was out of a dream, but I was soon torn away from the fantasy.
When I got back to the hotel that night, I found out that my coworker had called. It had been extremely difficult being short-staffed at the lab, and they wanted to know when I’d be back. I had known this was coming, but until that night, my heart hadn’t been on the line. I spent the next few days wracked with guilt and anxiety. Arie was about to choose the four women who would go to hometown dates, and I could not continue if I didn’t think I could get engaged in less than a month. So that was my choice: sacrifice my job that provided the first concrete sense of achievement in my career, or sacrifice a man I thought I might be falling in love with.
A few days later, I knocked on Arie’s hotel room door. I sat down with him on his couch and immediately located the closest alcohol in the room. I launched into a shaky explanation of how I thought I should go home, knowing there was no real way to practice saying goodbye to someone I wasn’t ready to leave. It wasn’t until then that I understood how much he cared about me too. He asked me to stay, and for any reason why we were breaking up that made sense. We held each other, and kissed throughout the entire break up. I didn’t tell him about my job, because here’s the thing: even though I cared for him, and even though when I came back I lay on the couch watching his season of The Bachelorette and sobbing, I had no idea if what I felt for him was real. In fact, the one thing I did know was that we had fundamental differences that could not be resolved in three weeks. We would have no business getting married and so even though the reason I left The Bachelor was my job, the reason I left Arie was because we weren’t right together.
My exit was just the start of my grief. My airtime was erased. I did not feature on the show until 6 episodes in, when we went on our date. Even as I gleefully ignored the facebook friend requests pouring in from high school classmates, all I could think about was what could have been. I had figured if I went on the show, no matter what happened, I would be a degree happier than I had been before. After all, I had 50k more instagram followers and sponsorships and attention than I had pre-Bachelor. But now, all that mattered was how much less I had than the other women. Suddenly I had a measure of social dominance: the instagram follower count. It provided an actual measurement of what I had given up. It’s amazing how unhappy you can be with a great situation if you know you could have had more. I obsessed to friends and family, and even pushed away a man I was falling harder for than Arie. I sought therapy. Eventually, the anxiety started to subside. It warmed up in New York City, and I started dating again. I was generally happy, but there was one more decision I had to make…
The producers were asking me to go on a spin-off show, called Bachelor in Paradise. It was shorter, so I figured it might be possible to go. But it was a tawdry show where ex contestants sit on a beach in Mexico and take tequila shots and make out with each other. I’d known about the show all along and had always been firm that I would never do it. I figured it would absolutely torpedo my Ph.D. aspirations. If I was going to leave The Bachelor and Arie for my career, why would I jeopardize it again?
I still shudder in fear at what will happen if I don’t get into a Ph.D. program. There’s nothing else I want to do. I don’t want to be an actress. I don’t even want to be famous, as a goal in itself. It’s just that I don’t want this experience to have been irrelevant. I didn’t know if I could live with not making the most of the opportunity I had. But what about the opportunity to get a Ph.D.? I lay on my couch and typed out a research question I thought would be interesting for grad school, if I ever got there: “How much will a person risk to seek social dominance?”
If I don’t get into grad school, I will be totally adrift. I have no back up plan. I would lose my source of fulfillment and promise. But if I didn’t go on Paradise… I would have FOMO.
So how strong is the pull of attraction? Well, a few weeks after typing out that sentence, I boarded a plane to Mexico.