RHONDA BRITTEN — STARTING OVER
Healing the Masses: One viewer at a time
It doesn’t matter how closely I watch the life of my friend Rhonda Britten; she never ceases to impress the hell out of me. In a mere six years, I’ve seen her go from giving “Fearless Living” seminars to nine people in her living room in Encino, California, to writing three incredible books, starring in her own TV show in England, hosting a radio show back in L.A., and now leading groups of six women at a time through massive life changes every afternoon on a daily top-rated reality show —Starting Over (one of the “gold-standard” of reality shows according to the New York Times). I thought I’d seen Rhonda do it all—give the best advice imaginable, while walking people through some of the most extreme healing crisis’ the harshness of life could deliver. But today’s episode covers a real doozy, and I anxiously turn on my TV for the day’s drama, because I have no idea how she’s going to deal with this new arrival.
The “Starting Over” House
Rhonda’s standing in a beautiful bedroom, the inside of which is roped off with yellow “caution” tape. In walks Bethany—a new woman living in the house under Rhonda’s emotional care. She’s come to bunk with five other women until she graduates, signifying that she’s reached her goal. Bethany’s goal is not uncommon, but the origins of it are highly unusual. She wants to get in touch with herself and find out who she really is because Bethany’s been robbed. Not by an ordinary thief, although she probably would have welcomed that option because it might be easier for this twenty-one-year-old Southern girl to recover from being held up at gunpoint, handing over her belongings to a crazed madman. Things can be replaced, and the enemy, although formidable, would be known. No. Bethany’s been robbed of her memory—all seventeen years of her young life were wiped out totally and completely in one bad night’s sleep. Just like in those soap operas you’ve loved but not totally believed—Bethany complained of a headache, went to bed, and woke up having no clue where she was or who she was. For the last four years she’s waited in vain for her memories to reemerge, and since they haven’t, she’s checked herself into the Starting Over house to try and figure out how the heck to move forward with a life connected to nothing and no one from her past.
Before this moment, Bethany’s always said that she “lost” her memory—implying that she was to blame. With Rhonda’s prompting, however, she sees that it was indeed stolen, and she has every right to feel the pain and anger she’s been denying herself. To prove her point and then move Bethany forward, Rhonda’s added a few items to the “crime scene.” Propped up against a pillow is a blank-faced doll, surrounded by an empty journal, a blank photo album and a Happy Birthday bag with nothing in it. While at first glance these items appear somewhat depressing, and they are, Rhonda also helps Bethany see the flip side-one that leads to excitement, even jubilation for her newest client. Bethany’s job is to ultimately create new memories. “You decide how you want to fill up your life,” Rhonda coaches. “Not let your past decide. Not let amnesia decide. Not let your parents decide. It’s Bethany’s turn to decide the possibilities,” and Bethany immediately starts fantasizing about what she wants for her next birthday, and about the hopeful goal images she’s going to put inside that empty birthday bag—a picture of a pick-up truck, and maybe even a husband (she’s been told that she’s never had her first kiss yet, but she’s ready to start visualizing). In this first day of the rest of her life, another woman under the care of Rhonda Britten is finding her way out from under the darkness of fear and into the light of freedom, one empowering, life-changing step at a time.
I’ve never seen a case that Rhonda couldn’t handle. Whether dealing with addicts, abuse survivors, manic depressives, people living in chaos, liars and cheats, you name it, she’s got endless creativity (and an exhaustive supply of exercises she creates) to lead her clients to the promised land—their desired goals. Her advice is not always easy (although it’s usually remarkably simple in its power), but it’s always entertaining, and it works—even for those of us watching from home with a fraction of the challenges. Pain is pain is pain, and we can all see parts of ourselves in these Starting Over gals, which is, I believe, why the show keeps winning its time slot. By getting to know the women and their issues intimately, we care about their progress and celebrate watching them overcoming their obstacles. And, even more importantly, it’s like getting an hour of FREE therapy every day. I don’t know about you, but therapy is expensive and I’d rather spend my extra cash on clothes and private tennis lessons, so I’m hooked!
The School of Hard Knocks
You might be asking yourself, “What makes Rhonda so wise when it comes to healing people’s broken lives?” You’d think it would take a pretty big degree from an Ivy League school or the like for Rhonda to feel so confident doing this work on the national stage, but other than a smattering of workshops and mentors here and there, Rhonda has no formal training other than her own past. Then again, few people have had to overcome so much at such a young age, and even the therapists who now seek out Rhonda’s techniques seem to think that getting straight A’s in the school of Hard Knocks is enough.
A Defining Moment
Rhonda was only fourteen when she witnessed her father kill her mother—a fact remarkably not discussed more than once on the show (and only for two minutes, in the last season). Rhonda’s two sisters were still in the house getting ready, preparing to go to brunch as a family for Father’s Day, while Rhonda and her estranged parents were in the yard. Unbeknownst to anyone, her father had no intention of celebrating. He was furious that his wife had asked for the separation and was dating a new man, so he pulled a gun out from the trunk of his car and proceeded to shoot her in the stomach as Rhonda screamed and begged him to stop. Next, he pointed the gun at Rhonda. Time stood still. She knew her father hated her—he had tried to strangle her several times before but had been interrupted. This was it. She took a breath and…instead, he put the gun to his own head, knelt down next to his daughter, and shot himself. In a matter of a few minutes, Rhonda was an orphan.
The images of that fateful day would haunt Miss Britten for the next twenty years. After trying to kill herself three times and ending up in a psychiatric lock-down ward, Rhonda decided that she wasn’t very good at ending her life after all. Being a truly smart kid (a real straight-A student), she became instead a self-help and spiritual book junkie and an expert at healing herself, creating and using many of the exercises she now uses on the women in the Starting Over house. “That’s how I know my exercises work,” she says. “They’re the reason I’m standing here today.”
Does it ever amaze you—looking back and seeing how your desperation has led to so much healing? “To me it’s like, okay Rhonda, you lived in hell and created these exercises for yourself, and now you’re teaching somebody else to do them? They worked for you and now they work for others? That to me blows my mind. When I think about it, I still can’t believe it. It’s almost unbelievable to think about this is happening to me.”
What was your process in figuring out ways to help yourself? “There wasn’t so much a process as an intention. I decided to heal no matter what, which came out of utter desperation. I was in therapy and it was helpful, but I still wasn’t happy. I believe in therapy and I adore Dr. Stan’s work (a male therapist who, along with Iyanla Vanzant also coaches the women on Starting Over). At a certain point, I had to start changing my behaviors and start changing the way I thought and felt. Period.
“In therapy, I think I was as honest as I could be, because you can only be as honest as you can be. But let’s look at reality; you can lie to your therapist. For the women in the house it’s hard to keep a lie going because they’ve got two coaches and a therapist watching them, and their housemates as well. I think one of the things that I do for people is I call them out on the truth. And nobody did that for me. Nobody really said, Rhonda, you’re full of it.”
Do you think that’s because people felt sorry for you? “Oh yeah, I think that I had such a good story—such a good excuse. Maybe they thought I wasn’t ready, so they just let me do my own natural process. But I needed more than my natural process. I needed an intervention.”
Do the women in the Starting Over house remind you of yourself? Absolutely! In almost every woman, I see a piece of me. And it’s such a validation and an affirmation for me on how much I’ve grown. I’ll look at someone trying to avoid something and I think, ‘I used to be like that. I used to be that insecure. I used to be that mixed up. I used to be that scared. I used to be that untruthful.’ I was such a mess. Truly, if I can heal, anyone can.
In hindsight, how do you think you would have fared in the house in your twenties? “I think I would have been kicked out. Part of me would have been really open, but the part of me that was so unaware—which was bigger—would have been resistant without knowing it. I also would have been dramatic, because everything I had done was so dramatic. People would have thought I was a drama queen or insincere, and that would have hurt my feelings, and then I would have cried and I would have been like, ‘You don’t love me. You don’t care about me.’ I would have felt abandoned and I would have left. Or I would have been kicked out because I couldn’t have handled the emotional honesty, even though that’s what I was crying out for. We’ve already kicked women out for the same reason, and they’re all about blame. You have to blame someone when you’re committed to being out of control, and so you blame the coach. I think what makes a great coach is someone who is willing to take that rap. I have no problem if somebody blames me or projects onto me because they’re not ready. I wouldn’t have been ready. It’s impersonal. It has nothing to do with me.”
What about your mom? “She was newly separated and had just learned to drive and was starting over in her own life.”
How do you think she would have done in the house? “I think my mother would have been thankful. And craved it. She was starting to ask herself some questions and I believe she was at a time in her life where she wanted to be happy. She just didn’t know how. I think that’s the case for many women. They want to be happy; they just don’t know where to start. I believe my mother would have loved the Starting Over house.”
How long did it take before you felt like you were fairly healthy? “Well, my parents separated when I was 14 and I started knowing what I know now when I was 34, so about 20 years. I always say that it took me 20 years to change my life, and I can change your life in 30 days.” (Rhonda’s latest book, Change Your Life in 30 Days, published by Dutton, has people swearing by that promise.)
Since Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are coming up, I want to get alittle mystical here. When you and I were writing your book proposal for your first book (Fearless Living), I felt that your parents were often in the room-as if they were guiding the whole process. We even prayed to them that we were getting the words right. Do you still think they’re behind your success?“I have no doubt they’re behind it. I really feel like I’m fulfilling my contract. You know, it’s like all three of us were up in heaven talking about our next life. Dad goes, ‘Oh, hey, I got one. Why don’t I marry you and we’ll have three kids—you’ll be the middle one. Then I’ll kill you and then you will have to teach a lot of other people how to live through the trauma. How’s that sound?’ Then I’m like, ‘Okay, groovy. Yeah, that would be really cool. Let’s do it!’ It just took me 20 years to fulfill my part of the contract. Ironically, Mom and Dad were married 20 years and then buried on the exact day of their 20th wedding anniversary. Then it took me 20 years to get to the other side of it. I should say, also, that my sisters are both doing great and are my best friends. That’s another miracle of the story.”
As an avid watcher of the show, I know it gets pretty hard in that house. What percentage of the women have wanted to leave at one point before they graduate? “Every single woman coming into the house eventually wants to leave. Everyone wonders, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ On the one hand they get free therapy and free coaching, but the other side of that is that the environment is very intense. Within the first week almost every woman wants to bail. But, they come because they’ve tried to heal, and this is often their last resort. They figure that they can’t fail in such a massive public forum. It would be too embarrassing, too humiliating. And also, the power of Starting Over is that the other women keep the women in the house—they challenge and support each other to stick with it.”
Okay, Ron, you have a different take on the topic of balance than anyone else I know. Can we close by talking a little bit about that? “Sure! I think most people use balance as another form of stress. Finding ‘it’ becomes another thing on their to do list. Another way to say, ‘I’ve got to get organized.’ Balance for many people thus becomes yet another clever way for them to judge themselves.
“Do I believe in internal peace of mind and satisfaction? Of course. But when people think of balance they are not thinking internally. They are thinking of their lifestyle—how much time they’re spending with their kids, working, socializing, etc. They don’t give themselves any credence to be human. If you’re opening your own business, for example, you know what? You’re going to be out of balance. So, people who use balance as their filtering system, have little room to have BIG commitments. Huge commitments require huge risks and those take more time. If you want to become the next tennis pro, you’re going to get out of balance according to the definition—whoever is making it up. So, I always say, focus on your commitments. That will bring your own form of balance—not necessarily suitable for anyone else. And, if you’re going to be starting over, life may seem anything but balanced, but it will be uniquely right for you.”
A Divine Purpose
I think back to all those years ago when Rhonda Britten and I became friends, and I’m in awe with the way she’s handling her growing fame. Fame is a fickle friend and it changes many things, but in this case, it’s been nothing if not calming and life affirming. Rhonda wondered for many years why her father didn’t kill her along with her mother that day. She didn’t feel important enough to live for, or even important enough to kill. But after being the affect of healing so many others, I think Rhonda’s finally owned the fact that there was a genius in her pain, and a divine purpose to her path. That’s an easy thing to hope for, but a far bigger truth to embody than almost anyone starting over could hope to imagine. I think Mom and Dad are more than proud. I think they’re grateful, as Rhonda’s work is no doubt bringing healing to their pasts as well. May God eternally bless all three of them for fulfilling their contract so the rest of us may benefit.
For more information on Rhonda, the Fearless Living Institute, or where to get further help and healing, visit her website at: www.FearlessLiving.org