The Revolutionary Writer
Glennon Doyle-Melton first appeared in virus form. Missives from her blog, momastery.com, were so heart-poundingly great, so honest and funny, and resonated with so many mothers, they spread faster than Sars. She now has over 100,000 people following her. Actually following doesn’t quite sum it up. It’s more like addiction. We inhale her words. Her book, Carry on Warrior, stormed right to the New York Time’s Best Seller list this year. Then came appearances around the US, including The Today Show, where she was alarmed to find herself sitting next to Chris Brown and Martha Stewart; the only thing they had in common, thought Glennon, was that they had all been to jail. Glennon has lived a very interesting life and has, singlehandedly, changed views about Christians and gays.
I drove three hours to meet Glennon at her book signing in San Francisco. She made a room full of women (and a couple of brave chaps) laugh, and laugh, and cry. Her heart is huge and so is her mind. Here is our subsequent phone chat.
BB. You are the fourth bulimic I’ve spoken too who felt uncomfortable in their body, as a child. You mentioned in your book that you felt like you were pushed out the door ‘all imperfect and roly-poly for everyone to see’. Can you tell me about her?
G. I think extra sensitive and a little out of place is just the way some of us are born. From early on I started feeling very lumpy, different and less easy-breezy than the other girls. I remember watching them slip on their clothes so easily and even their hair, they’d clip their hair so easily and I felt, you know, kind of like bigger and oafish and my hair was never right. I wished I could hide. It seemed so ridiculous that I had to be so out there all the time. Being all imperfect and messy.
BB. You got the idea for bulimia from a film – did you diet at all beforehand?
G. Well I’m sure I did diet but I was so young, like 8 or 9, so I didn’t have much time before then. I was visiting my grandmother up in Ohio and have 14 first cousins on that side. Family events were always hard for me. Just, ick. Everyone seemed to be able to relax into the events and I never could. The entire event was spent eating and then running, hiding and throwing up, and eating, more hiding and throwing up. That’s where it started. In Ohio. I watched a Meredith Baxter Birney after school special about bulimia–the film was made as a warning, but they also showed how to do it–and I thought great. This is a great solution.
BB. That’s what I thought at the beginning too…. Brilliant, what a trick! Did it become very obsessive?
G. Yes, it was a daily obsession. I usually made it through school – although I definitely remember lunch being my most awkward time. Because lunch always is. Lunchtime in middle school is like Lord of the Flies. Most of the time I remember holding it all in and then getting home and bingeing and purging. And the funny thing is, when I tell people how severe my bulimia was in school they think I was a non-functioning person, yet I was a student government officer, an athlete, popular and all the things you’re “supposed to be” and still doing all of this. And that’s even more disconcerting to people because they want to believe that if their kids, or whoever, seem OK then they are OK. I’m proof that you can seem okay and not be.
BB. Every bulimic I know is a highly functioning person. That’s what makes bulimia such a bitch. It’s hard to spot.
G. I look back on pictures and I had swollen cheeks–I had full cheeks anyway–but I was like a chipmunk, with all my broken blood vessels. My parents found out in 8th grade or something [about 13 years old] and we all did our best- but the feeling about bulimia back then was that it was not a family issue- it was one person’s issue. So I just got sent to therapy and everything else went on as normal. The message I got was : OK, this is me. I am jacked up and everyone else is fine. So all I did in therapy was “act fine.” I acted for ten years- but in my senior year I couldn’t do it anymore. I thought I was going to die. I was in the bathroom throwing up, seeing stars and so, so exhausted. So I went into my counselor’s office and said I wasn’t leaving the school until somebody took me to a hospital. It was a mental hospital – which I loved.
G. I still feel that way. I feel that life is so crazy and we’re all just used to the way things work and the way people treat each other, and what’s considered the norm – but truly- when you take a step back it’s all nuts. From high school to advertising to war – it’s all crazy. So I feel that places that are more structured, like mental hospitals have safety. I think that’s why I became a teacher. I loved the idea of creating my own world in my classroom where everything is safe, fair and everybody treats everyone well. And same with momastery. I just want to create a safe place. A new, better normal.
BB. You have created an amazingly safe, kind, fair place with momastery. And your book is kind, honest and very funny. Stephen Fry talks about his depression, and how it both made and unmade him. I see that with your work, all the amazing things you have created from really hard times and this crazy thing called bulimia.
G. That’s what I wrote about today on the blog actually – I never feel over it. I don’t think I’ll ever be completely over it. Some people don’t understand that. They want a before and after story, a success; she was a mess and now she’s not! That’s completely not true; I still struggle all the time with food. And this is weird, and I don’t know if anyone feels this way, but I’m fine with it. Everybody, everybody has their own coping strategy. For a lot of people, their coping strategies are destructive, often to other people. The big thing is to be snarky now. To deflect hurt feelings onto somebody else. I guess what I have to struggle with is the numbing out with food. My ‘go to’ is food, but it’s no different to somebody else lashing out with unkindness. I feel like everyone has something they use to cope with life’s hard.
BB. So true. As the Pink Floyd song goes, ‘I have become…. comfortably numb’. I still do it with food sometimes or numb a bad day with wine. We’re given all these amazing feelings but we’re not always taught how to deal with them all, especially anger, sadness, frustration, hurt and loneliness.
G. That’s right and we’re not taught that it’s OK to not do anything about them, to let them sit, and let them come and let them go, and that they will go away. For me bulimia was always a way to deal with feelings. I would have found something. My weight was only one of the many things I decided early on that were wrong with me. So it wasn’t really a way to control my weight. I mean, bulimia is a really bad choice as a way to control weight.
BB. Exactly. It doesn’t work!
G. OMG, I mean, I wasted twenty years of my life and when I stopped throwing up I learned I was thin. It’s so annoying. I never became thin when I was bulimic. I was always a little bit overweight. It’s so ironic, I can’t even….
BB. Same. I know. It’s a scam.
G. I think it’s all about managing uncomfortable feelings. We’re not told or we don’t believe that life is a little bit hard for everybody; we feel lonely because everybody feels lonely and we feel like we’re not good enough because it takes a life time to learn that you’re good enough – I still don’t fully believe it. We’re not told that everyone has uncomfortable feelings so we think we have to numb them away because we think something is wrong with us. And I really think that’s what it comes down to. I mean, I have a friend and she can’t believe that I still struggle with food yet she over-shops, like the world is going to end tomorrow. Every time she gets uncomfortable she reaches for her credit card. It’s the same thing – we have different drugs of choice. Different escapes. I do believe it all comes down to learning to deal with uncomfortable feelings, not labeling them good or bad. Having to sit with them.
G. And some people think, ‘oh I just have to make myself happier’. That’s the worst. I am never going to be happy all the time. It’s not my default. I am generally full of angst, anxiety, prone to depression and highs and lows, and I have to learn to work with that. Instead of forcing myself to be happy I need to accept that I am not going to be happy. Because there is a lot of beauty that can come out of sadness. Some of the best writing I have done, connections I have made, some of the most life-giving and community building work that I do is done when I am sad. Because most of us feel like we can’t talk when we’re sad, we can only talk when we’re happy.
BB. I think that’s why I want to talk about bulimia too. It’s not a happy subject. It’s not on the list of OK things to talk about. It’s so lonely. But some amazing things come out of talking about it. I loved your post recently about yoga. I think yoga was my first healthy addiction…
G. Oh my gosh, totally. I took a breathing class recently and I told my husband I am going to be the first person to become addicted to deep breathing. I will be in rehab for it!
BB. Ha! At least it’s a good addiction. Sometimes I feel like I drive my husband nuts because I have to do something active every day, even take a walk, to be present in my body. I wish I didn’t have to but I do.
G. But you do. I was talking to my therapist this morning and she’s always trying to get me out of my HUGE thoughts – I make it so big, but actually it’s not. Dealing with any addiction, it comes down to making little decisions every day. Like, ‘go to yoga’. ‘Get outside and get some fresh air’. So when I’m in the kitchen and feel anxiety come over me and I’m about to overdo it, she always tells me to stop and ask what’s wrong. Something’s wrong because I need something right now. It could be as simple as ‘I’m really tired’ but I am never going to find what I want in my sixth bowl of cereal. The thing I like about yoga is that it teaches me to pay attention to the messages my body is sending me. And identify. I’m tired. I’m lonely. I’m angry. Because when we became bulimic, or with any addiction, we don’t learn how to separate those feelings, we just learn this is not good, I can’t have this feeling, make it go away. Which is why when you first go to a treatment center they give you a “feelings chart” like you’re two-years-old. In order to know what you need you have to learn what you feel. I had to teach myself to figure out, am I tired, am I anxious, do I need to talk something out with someone? What is it that will help me deal with this moment?
BB. I know, sometimes it can be a warning, if I feel myself reaching up for the crisps in the cupboard AGAIN, it’s like a huge DONG in my head. I think, OK, something’s wrong because I want to inhale the whole bag. I don’t often know what it is, but something’s going on. I’m upset.
G. That’s a brilliant thing. It’s a gift. A lot of people don’t get messages so they don’t check themselves and they end up making huge messes. At least I have a warning before it gets too bad.
BB. We have our own paging system.
BB. Like you, I’m a mum. I have a son (6) and a daughter (4). And I do worry that I’m messing them up—or especially my daughter—with food. They know their mum usually won’t eat ice-cream on a sunny day at the beach, even if everyone else in the family is. They don’t know why—I used to binge so much on ice-cream I feel like I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of it. Give me sorbet any day. I teach my kids to eat delicious nutritious food, and I never diet, but I know they are still getting, subconsciously, the message that mum’s weird with food. Fussy. Do you worry about this?
G. I am always totally worried that I am going to screw my kids up with food. Because, how could I not? I think it’s pretty much a given. More than my food issue, I want my kids to learn that you do what’s healthy for you. And that sometimes, what’s healthy for one person is not healthy for another. My kids’ friends’ moms can have a glass of wine but their mom can’t. Things are different for different people and I want them to learn that about themselves. They will have their own path and will have to figure out what’s healthy for them and what’s not.
G. I had a scale for a while which was such a bad thing for me as every day I was stepping on it asking how I should feel. And I caught my girls watching me a couple of times and I thought oh no I’m getting this the hell out of my house because that’s one thing I don’t want them to learn – don’t ask a scale how you should feel.
G. So I am always nervous that I will teach them the wrong thing. My girls are too little but I have told Chase about my food journey (10). I was on the playground one day and I heard one of his buddies use the word ‘fat’ so I told Chase later that he needed to know how much that word can hurt a little one. I sat him down and told him my whole story, the bulimia and all of that. It’s real and it’s true and I’m not ashamed of it. I am open with my kids; they know what addiction is. They know I don’t drink because I am an alcoholic. What I assume what will happen is that they will take their own path and will screw up completely differently than I did. That’s what people do.
G. I don’t know what they will be. If they rebel against me, I guess they’ll be straight arrows types. Like little Alex P. Keatons maybe? I don’t know—it will be interesting to see how they rebel. Because I’m sure they will.
BB. I joke about that with my husband a lot. We did everything we weren’t meant to do in our twenties—really naughty stuff—so will our kids be extreme goody goods?
G. You know, my favorite people are the people that have been THROUGH IT. You can’t be truly interesting if you haven’ t been through some crap. I wouldn’t change anything about my life, even though it’s been a doozy. My challenge is to apply what I know about what makes a good life and let my kids have their own mistakes and paths. Amma was drawing this picture the other day and she made a little mistake— and she hates to do that— and asked me to fix it, so I colored a little heart and I thought that’s what parenting is, it’s not ‘don’t make any mistakes’, it’s ‘when you DO make a mistake we’ll just make it pretty together’. Mistakes can be the good stuff if you allow them to make you softer and more open. That’s what I hope to do with my babies.I hope they can trust me enough to let me help them with their mistakes and not hold my breath that they won’t make any.
BB. That’s a beautiful way to look at it. That’s how they become humans. Have you heard of intenSati? Patricia Moreno, the founder, was bulimic for twenty years and she has developed a new routine that helps women change their internal dialogue while they exercise. Instead of thinking ‘I wish I looked like that’ she gives them affirmations to say, ‘I love this about myself’. She believes the secret to having a great body is what we tell it, not everything we put in it. Have you learned this secret—that the trick is not what goes through your mouth but what swirls around your mind?
G. Totally. I remember being in 8th grade and being so awkward, and I was in trouble for something and my father was saying ‘we love you’ and I did not believe anybody could possibly love me because I was so ugly. I thought of myself as a monster. Looking back on it now I was a normal, frizzy-haired person. So I think that’s why I love yoga. Because when I’m doing yoga I don’t think about my body in terms of is it thin enough or, can I fit into this or that – I think – am I flexible, am I strong, am I balanced? These are things that are important about a body. And gratitude for the fact that I have a body and that’s how I live my spiritual life – through this body. And that’s hard for me. I tend to only want to live in the spiritual places: in writing, in church. Having a body is difficult for me, all the limitations and awkwardness and puffiness and aches of living in a body. It drives me crazy. And so a practice of gratitude, which I guess is what you’re saying, positive self-talk – it’s a different measure by which we can judge our bodies by. Not ‘how do I look compared to this model’ but ‘look how strong and flexible and balanced I am’. We’re back to what our bodies are made for instead of what commercials tell us our bodies are made for.
BB. Exactly. And it helps us exist in our body from the inside out. Can you tell me three things you love about your body?
G. I kind of like being small. That’s always been part of my identity. I get short jokes all the time but I love it. There’s that Shakespeare quote, ‘though she be little, she is fierce.’ I like my mighty mouse self. I do feel like I am very strong for a small person. And I love how my body can teach me what my soul needs to learn. For example, I am incredibly inflexible—it’s amazing, yoga people actually laugh—and that’s how I am a lot in life. And balance. I am always unbalanced – it’s a joke in my family that I run into things. So my body tries to teach me what my soul needs: balance and flexibility. I love that I can learn that from my body—what I need to have a better life. And isn’t that a better reason to have a body than to fit into a pair of jeans? It’s all about our spiritual journey and emotional journey and intellectual journey, and our bodies are just here to help us to learn about those things. But we’re taught so early on that our bodies are to sell things, to connect to somebody and we get the wrong message, yet they are really here for a beautiful reason.
BB. And to help us feel, if we didn’t have our bodies we couldn’t actually feel anything. Thank you so much Glennon for your time. That was wonderful.
WANT MORE GLENNON? This is one of my favourite posts on her blog about the importance of feeling beautiful (and not petty old pretty): http://momastery.com/blog/2013/12/31/6676/
- Fight the Worldwide Bulimia Epidemic (forcechange.com)