If you had met Paula Deen in high school in Albany, Georgia, you wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. Paulann Hiers had the personality you know: gregarious, bubbly, and funny. As captain of the cheerleading squad, she was practically royalty in the South of the 1960s. “Life was just so great. I had so many friends,” recalls Paula.
But between the ages of nineteen and forty, she was almost unrecognizable. It started when her father, Earl, died of a massive stroke at age forty in 1966. Paula, who had married her high-school sweetheart at only nineteen, was devastated. The night of her father’s death she insisted upon sleeping with her mother on one side and her husband on the other.
“I was so scared,” she remembers. “I was the apple of Daddy’s eye. I was his princess. A girl feels as long as her daddy is alive nothing can touch her.”
She spent a lot of time crying, and began to have “crazy thoughts,” but wouldn’t share them with anybody. As a Baptist, Paula had been taught that everything happens for a reason, so her brain immediately began working out God’s motive for taking her father. In her grief and confusion, the answer she concocted was that she was going to die soon too, and God had decided to spare her father the ruinous pain of living through that experience.
This strange reasoning began to take firmer shape in her mind, and then, four years after her father’s death, her mother died from cancer. By then, she was twenty-three and had two babies under the age of three, a sixteen-year-old younger brother to finish raising, and a firm expectation of imminent death. “I woke up every day waiting to die. I would cough and try to get blood to come up. I was scared to death, because of what would happen to my two babies,” she recalled.
Instead of abating, Paula’s irrational fear sprouted a new branch. She began to be terrified not just of dying, but of dying in public. She started to avoid leaving her home. In time, she could not be outside of her house unless accompanied by her husband—even then, she would venture only a block or two away. “It really hurts me to think I put my needs above my children. I was that crippled. I had to take them out of activities, because I couldn’t take them,” Paula says.
Two years later, she learned that her fear had a name—agoraphobia. A neighboring couple in whom she had confided, called to tell her to watch Phil Donahue’s talk show. “If you turn that on, you’re fixing to find out what you have,” her neighbor said. She watched and wept.
The day that changed her life came eight years later in 1987. She had spent two months in bed depressed over her recent move to Savannah, where her husband had taken a new job. One day Paula got out of bed and, she says, it was like “I reached over and flipped the light switch on. In that moment I understood the Serenity Prayer and what I was supposed to be asking God for. I accepted my father’s death, and my mother’s, and my death to come. I realized that there are some things you have no control over.”
From that split second, emerged the adventurous, capable Paula Deen you’ve come to know. But her letter is written to herself eight years prior, when she was thirty-two years old, sitting at the foot of her bed and watching Phil Donahue with tears streaming down her face.
You are capable. You’re a survivor. You’d never know it from the way you’ve been living, but you are a fighter.
When Daddy died, your world turned upside down. It was such a sharp turn from the perfect life you’d known. Then when Momma went, there didn’t seem to be a safe place in the world for you. You took those deaths, wrestled and kneaded and mashed them around inside your head, and somehow came out believing that you’re gonna die too.
Now, here’s what you don’t realize: this is your way of fighting Daddy’s and Momma’s deaths. This is how you are mentally and physically refusing to take responsibility for yourself.
Because you are a product of the ’50s and ’60s, you didn’t think education was that important for women. You went from Daddy’s house to your husband’s house. You thought it was completely all right to be taken care of by your man. Never has it dawned on you that you could be a major breadwinner.
So you keep waiting for your husband to take care of you. You wait for him to stop drinking and behave the way you want. You’re putting a lot of pressure on him, instead of getting off your ass and up on your own two feet.
There is not one thing you can do for your mother and daddy now—except make them proud of the person that they raised. They did not give birth to a loser, and right now you are a loser.
But it’s not too late. Think on this, until you really understand it:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
It’s gonna feel so damn good to be responsible for yourself.