Transcript – Glennon Doyle Melton at TEDxTraverseCity: Lessons from the Mental Hospital
Glennon Doyle Melton – Author
Hi. I have been trying to weasel my way out of being on the stage for weeks. I am doing fine. But about a month ago I was up early panicking about this. And I watched in all of Tech Talk that Brené Brown did on vulnerability. Dr. Brown is one of my heroes. She is a shame researcher and I am a recovering bulimic, alcoholic and drug user. So I’m sort of a shame researcher too. It’s just that most of my work is done out in the field.
And Dr. Brown defined courage like this. She said, “Courage is to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” And that got me thinking about another one of my heroes Georgia O’Keeffe and how she said, “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant. There is no such thing. Making the unknown known is what is important”.
So here I am to tell you the story of who I am with my whole heart and to make some unknowns known.
When I was eight-years-old, I started to feel exposed and I started to feel very very awkward. Every day I was pushed out of my house and into school all oily and fuzzy and conspicuous and to meet the other girls seemed so cool, and together and easy.
And I started to feel like a loser in a world that preferred superheroes. So I made my own capes and I tied them tight around me. My capes were pretending and addiction. But we all have our own superhero capes; don’t we? Perfectionism and overworking, snarkiness and apathy, they’re all superhero capes.
And our capes are what we put over our real selves so that our real tender selves don’t have to be seen and can’t be hurt. Our superhero capes are what we keep us from having to feel much at all, because every good and bad thing is deflected off of them.
And so for 18 years, my capes of addiction and pretending kept me safe and hidden. People think of us addicts as insensitive liars but we don’t start out that way.
We start out as extremely sensitive truth tellers. We feel so much pain and so much love and we sense that the world doesn’t want us to feel that much and doesn’t want to need as much comfort as we need. So we start pretending. We try to pretend like we’re the people that we think we’re supposed to be. We numb and we hide and we pretend and that pretending does eventually turn into a life of lies. But to be fair, we thought we were supposed to be lying.
They tell us since we’re little that when someone asks us how we’re doing, the only appropriate answer is: “Fine. And you?”
But the thing is that people are truth tellers. We are born to make our unknown known. We will find somewhere to do it. So in private, with the booze or the over-shopping or the alcohol or the food, we tell the truth. We say actually I’m not fine. Because we don’t feel safe telling that truth in the real world we make our own little world and that’s addiction. That’s whatever cape you put on.
And so what happens is all of us end up living in these little teeny, controllable, predictable, dark worlds instead of altogether in the big, bright, messy one.
I binged and purged for the first time when I was 8 and I continued every single day for the next 18 years. It seems normal to me but you’re surprised.
Every single time that I got anxious or worried or angry, I thought something was wrong with me. And so I took that nervous energy to the kitchen and I stuffed it all down with food and then I panicked and I purged. And after all of that, I was laid out on the bathing floor and I was so exhausted and so numb that I never had to go back and deal with whatever it was that it made me uncomfortable in the first place. And that’s what I wanted. I did not want to deal with the discomfort and messiness of being a human being.
So when I was a senior in high school, I finally decided to tell the truth in the real world. I walked into my guidance counselor’s office and I said ”actually I’m not fine. Someone help me”. And I was sent to a mental hospital.
And in the mental hospital, for the first time in my life, I found myself in a world that made sense to me. In high school, we had to care about geometry when our hearts were breaking because we were just bullied in the hallway, or no one would sit with us at lunch. And we had to care about ancient Rome when all we really wanted to do was learn how to make and keep a real friend. We had to act tough when we felt scared and we had to act confident when we felt really confused.
Acting — pretending was a matter of survival. High school is kind of like the real-world sometimes. But in the mental hospital, there was no pretending. The zig was up. We had classes about how to express how we really felt through music and art and writing. We had classes about how to be a good listener and how to be brave enough to tell our own story, while being kind enough not to tell anybody else’s. We held each other’s hands sometimes just because we felt like we needed to.
Nobody was ever allowed to be left out. Everybody was worthy. That was the rule just because she existed and so in there, we were brave enough to take off our capes. All I ever needed to now I learned in the mental hospital.
I remember this sandy haired girl who was so beautiful and she told the truth on her arms. And I held her hand one day while she was crying. And I saw that her arms were just sliced up like pre-cut S. In there, people wore their scars on the outside, so you knew where they stood. And they told the truth, so you knew why they stooped in there.
So I graduated from high school and I went on to college, which was way crazier than the mental hospital. In college, I added on the capes of alcoholism and drug use. This Sun rose every day and I started bingeing and purging. And then when the sun set I drank myself stupid. The sunrise is usually people’s signal to get up but it was my signal every day to come down — to come down from the booze and the boys and the drugs and I could not come down. That was to be avoided at all cost. So I hated the sunrise.
I closed the blinds, and I put the pillow over my head when my spinning brain would torture me about the people who were going out into their day into the late to make relationships and pursue their dreams and have a day – and I had no day; I only had night.
And these days, I like to think of hope as that sunrise. It comes out every single day to shine on everybody equally. It comes out to shine on the sinners and the saints and druggists and the cheerleaders. It never withholds; it doesn’t judge. And if you spend your entire life in the dark and then one day just decide to come out, it’ll be there waiting for you — just waiting to warm you.
All those years I thought of that sunrise as searching and accusatory and judgmental. But it wasn’t – it was just hope’s daily invitation to need to come back to life. And I think if you still have a day, if you’re still alive, you’re still invited.
I actually graduated from college which makes me both grateful to and extremely suspicious of my alma mater. And I found myself sort of in the real world and sort of not.
On Mother’s Day, 2002 – I am not good at years – we’ll just say on Mother’s Day, I had spun deeper and deeper. I wasn’t even Glennon anymore. I was just bulimia, I was just alcoholism. I was just a pile of capes. But on Mother’s day — one Mother’s day I found myself on a cold bathroom floor, hung over, shaking and holding a positive pregnancy test.
And as I sat there with my back literally against a wall, shaking and understanding watched over me. And in that moment on the bathroom floor, I understood that even in my state, even lying on the floor that someone out there had deemed me worthy of an invitation to a very very important event.
And so that day on the bathroom floor, I decided to show up. Just to show up, to climb out of my dark individual controllable world and out into the big, bright, messy one. And I didn’t know how to be a sober person or how to be a mother, or how to be a friend. So I just promised myself that I would show up and I would do the next right thing. Just show up Glennon even if you’re scared. Just do the next right thing even when you’re shaking.
And so I stood up. Now what they don’t tell you about getting sober, about peeling off your capes, is that it gets helluva lot worse before it gets better. Getting sober is like recovering from frostbite. It’s all of those feelings that you’ve numbed for so long. Now they’re there and they are present. And at first it just feels kind of tingly and uncomfortable but then those feelings start to feel like daggers, the pain, the love, the guilt, the shame, it’s all piled on top of you with nowhere to run.
But what I learned during that time is that sitting with the pain and the joy of being a human being, while refusing to run for any exits is the only way to become a real human being. And so these days I’m not a superhero and I’m not a perfect human being. But I am a fully human being. And I am proud of that.
I am fortunately and frustratingly still exactly the same person as I was when I was 20 and 16 and eight-years-old. I still feel scared all the time, anxious all the time. Really all the time. I still get very high and very low in life daily. But I finally accepted the fact that sensitive is just how I was made, that I don’t have to hide it, and I don’t have to fix it, I am not broken.