Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Abby Sher who’s a writer and performer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Self, Jane, Elle, Redbook, and many other publications. Her essay from the Modern Love column of The New York Times was recently adapted for the TV series Modern Love. She is the author of five books, Kissing Snowflakes, All the Ways the World Can End, Breaking Free: True Stories of Girls Who Escaped Modern Slavery, Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying, and her latest novel, Miss You Love You Hate You Bye. Abby has written and performed for The Second City in Chicago, HBO, Nick Jr, NPR, and Upright Citizen’s Brigade. She currently hosts the monthly Chucklepatch Comedy Show with Molly Reisner. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

Welcome, Abby. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Abby Sher: Thank you very much for having me.

Zibby: Miss You Love You Hate You Bye, please tell listeners what this book is about.

Abby: This book is about a sixteen-year-old girl named Hank, short for Hannah Louise, and her best friend Zoe, who is self-destructing. Hank has to decide whether she can save her or if it’s better to walk away.

Zibby: What made you write this book?

Abby: I’ve been toying with not saying this, but I didn’t want to write this book. This was like the last thing I wanted to write, but it kept on coming out. All my characters were kind of skirting the issue of an eating disorder and self-destruction. Then my daughter, about a year ago, came home one day and said, “I saw this thing on YouTube where people want to be skinny so they make themselves throw up.” I just lost it. I was like, “Those people — there are a lot of — hold on. Let me think about how to say this.” Then I knew that I had to write this book. I think that there’s been a lot of books about the process of going through a disorder or an addiction, but not as many about being a friend watching it happen and not knowing what to do about it.

Zibby: I had a very close friend in high school who had an eating disorder and was hospitalized for it. I remember going to visit her in the hospital and doing everything I could. Reading this just brought it all back because we were sixteen at the time. I had not read any sort of fiction about anybody who had gone through that other than me, and that was so long ago. This particularly struck a chord with me, which is perhaps why I liked it even more than I might have otherwise. Not that I wouldn’t have. I didn’t say that very well. You know what I mean.

Abby: Thanks. I mean, I’m sorry.

Zibby: No, no, it’s okay. A lot of this book centers on Zoe and this alternate persona she creates for herself on social media. It starts in the beginning where she has this new cat. She’s going all over. There’s so many references to how many followers and “Oh, look. Look how many I got.” She just is all in on social media and this constant need for attention and approval and everything. Tell me about how you think that plays in and if there’s any sort of comorbidity with social media addiction, if you will, and eating disorders.

Abby: That’s a hard question, a great question. There are not that many studies that I’ve read about whether social media addiction or personas online really correspond to eating disorders. There was a minor study done, I think it was written in 2018, about the propensity towards anxiety or depression after being really heavily online. I think what struck a chord for me personally — because when I was going through it, we weren’t into social media, so not giving away my age too much. That was way before. I had a beeper before I had an eating disorder.

Zibby: Did you really have a beeper?

Abby: I did have a beeper.

Zibby: Oh, look at you.

Abby: Yeah, it was fancy. I think that when you’re online, you can make up, obviously, whoever you are and whatever vacation you’re taking and how wonderful your life is. It’s just another way to avoid telling the truth to someone face to face. As Zoe, as this character gets more and more approval online, then she has less of an impetus to face the facts in person. It’s a push/pull because she’s sort of keeping it a secret, but then she’s also more and more revealing herself online to people. Not many people online are going to be like, you look sick. That’s not very often the case.

Zibby: No. Interestingly, all the social media followers, once Zoe goes into treatment, which starts at — you can tell at the beginning, so I’m not giving anything away. All the followers just disappear. She tells Hank, she’s like, “You know what? You were right. Those followers didn’t follow me into this in-patient facility. Just as quickly as they came, they left.” I think that’s something that people don’t talk about as much or think about as much. All this effort to build up your followers, do they really care? No. I mean, what is it? Is it true anything, or not? You know what I mean? That wasn’t even a question. That was sort of a venting. I don’t know.

Abby: To all of our followers out there, who are you?

Zibby: Don’t disappear. Zoe admits to Hank that she wishes she had called her out on this eating disorder later even though at the time she didn’t really want to. It wasn’t just the eating disorder, but Zoe has some cutting behavior and lying and a collection of symptoms. In this letter that she writes, she says, “You know that I know that you know that the world knows you’re too smart to have bought any of those make-believes I fed you. Sometimes I watched you raise an eyebrow and I thought, today’s the day when she’s going to crack me open and make me come clean. Only you never did.” What do you think about that? Is the ownness on the friend to come forward? Do you think that the people struggling want that to happen, or not want? I know that’s a really broad question. So many broad questions. I’m sorry.

Abby: No, they’re great questions. The best kind of questions don’t have answers. It’s so hard. I know that friends — it’s told from both perspectives. It’s told from Zoe and Hank because I’ve been on both sides of this story. As the person with a disorder or with addictive behaviors, I know that when a friend took me aside and said something, I kind of rolled my eyes, laughed in their face. I will say, it did make a mark. Whether I showed it to them or not, I do think their words had an effect on me. Well, she’s noticing that I really don’t look well or that I’m really not acting like myself. It did make a difference, whether I could admit that at the time or not. The book is dedicated to the friend who was like, enough is enough. Without her, I don’t think I would be here today. On the other side, I am horribly afraid of conflict. When I see somebody who I think is in trouble, I have done all the wrong things. My most brilliant move was — don’t try this at home. I left a note at the yoga studio where I thought this woman went, and then I signed it anonymously, like, “I think you’re having some trouble.” I don’t know how I phrased it. She was so upset and went to the management because, “How could you say that this is a safe space if somebody’s looking at me and leaving a note for me?” I was like, oh yeah, that wasn’t a great way to do that.

Zibby: Aw, but you were trying to help.

Abby: I was, but I didn’t know her circumstances. It’s a tricky one. I would say, when in doubt, say something face to face. That’s really the only way to make it — it forces the issue.

Zibby: Can you tell me about your own experience? I know you wrote a memoir about the loss of your father and how you ended up with a collection of OCD habits. Tell me about the eating issues, if you don’t mind.

Abby: I don’t mind. They didn’t actually start for me until after college. I was always sort of particular about eating. Really, most of my rituals and obsessions were more outwardly — I thought I was responsible for everyone else. I had to pick up anything sharp on the ground. I had to make piles of glass and piles of metal and washing my hands until they bled and repeating prayers over and over again. Then I just fell in with the right crowd that were all doing bad things to their bodies in college, I guess after a breakup or something. I don’t know. I took it upon myself. I was like, oh, well this is something. There’s another regimen I can follow where I can become the smallest person ever. Actually, I didn’t wind up with an intervention or going to any sort of facility until I was thirty.

Zibby: Really?

Abby: Yeah.

Zibby: What happened then?

Abby: That’s a note to listeners. It’s a really loser time to go to rehab. It’s really not a fun time. There’s no fun time, but that’s a really-not-fun time to go to rehab. It was a great facility. It was also a horrible facility. I hated it when I was there. I see some of the tools they gave me now. The fact is I think whenever someone feels like they’re in this disorder — this is my experience. When I was in my disorder, I really felt like, well, I know how to do this. I have a different way of doing this, and I’m going to make it. You’re not going to make it. It’s this superhuman feeling. I don’t need to eat. I don’t need to do this. I don’t need to do what they say. But in the end, we all do. We’re all human.

Zibby: Did you have a hitting bottom type of moment? What did your friend do to get you to treatment? Did you have bulimia and anorexia, or just anorexia?

Abby: I had anorexia, and I would just exercise until I was dizzy and weak. I had friends telling me, “You don’t look good.” I took that as a compliment. On my thirtieth birthday, I thought I was getting a surprise party. It was actually my friend and my boyfriend doing an intervention.

Zibby: Surprise!

Abby: That was a really crappy birthday.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Abby: Also, since I was an independent person, I had to sign myself in, which was another humiliating experience, not that it’s ever going to be fun, again. I think that this feeling of, “Other people have suffered from this, but I know how to do it the right way,” just kept me propelling forward.

Zibby: What about your parents? I know your father had passed away. Did your mother — I want to read this one quote. This is from the book, so I’m not saying this is you. This is what you wrote in fiction. You talked about the effect of losing your father, not just on you, but the effect of essentially losing your mother as she was grieving so deeply too. You said, “I missed my dad, especially his laugh that was so big it shook the floor. But to be honest, I missed my mom more. She was just so distant and frail-looking for so long. She was physically there for me and Gus, but there was all this unaccounted-for time when I feared she’d just disappear.” You talked about how the house kind of fell apart and nothing was working right. Did anything like this happen in your family? Did you have that same sense of missing your mom as well as your dad?

Abby: Yeah, definitely. I talk about — in the book, she has this coat of grief that she wears around. My mom had this horrible brown dress that she wore. I was actually — my sister and I were away the night that my dad died, staying at cousins’. I remember coming home and my mom walked out of the house with that dress on. I was like, “I hate that dress.” I was never into fashion or anything, but it just felt like grief. It just looked like somebody dying. She was sort of here but not here. I mean, she did her darndest. She had very small kids. She had three small kids, and she was suddenly a widow. She worked so hard to be there for us. Then I really became very clingy. She knew that something was going on with me, but she was just trying to keep me going. Typical Jewish mom, she was like, “You have to eat. You have to eat.” When I went away to college, she was very scared that this is exactly what was going to happen.

Zibby: Can I ask what happened to your dad?

Abby: Oh, yeah. My father died of cancer when I was eleven. This is a portrayal of my mom after that. In the book, Hank’s dad dies of heart attack. That was actually my stepdad.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Abby: My mom got up the courage to go out and date. Then she got married. It wasn’t even nine months. He had a heart attack on the train. We were all like, we’re not doing this again.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I’m so sorry.

Abby: She was a trooper. That scene was very much how I experienced it. I came in. I got called out of school. He had just moved into our house. I didn’t know him that well. I was really not nice to him because he wasn’t my dad. I was so resentful of him. I kept on thinking, I gave him the silent treatment that morning. He was really cheery in the morning all the time. I was like, that’s unacceptable. My mom was in the office saying, “Something has happened.” She wasn’t making much sense. She said, “David’s at the hospital.” I wasn’t connecting words. The first thing I said to her was, “Can I still go to play practice?” It was such a sixteen-year-old moment of, I don’t believe you. You don’t have any right to step in on my social calendar. It was a very surreal time.

Zibby: How’s your mom now?

Abby: My mom did pass away.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Abby: I know. I’ve had a lot of death in my life. Actually, when I went into rehab at thirty, she came to visit me. She came to visit me and she said, “You’re doing so well.” Then she said, “Do you mind if I take a nap?” I was so startled because she never asked to do that. When she went home, she was diagnosed with leukemia. She died shortly after.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. That’s a lot to fall into your lap. That’s a lot to go through by age thirty.

Abby: Yeah, thirty was not my best year, neither was eleven or sixteen.

Zibby: How did writing play into this? Did you write to make yourself feel better? Did it help?

Abby: Definitely.

Zibby: Had you always written? Did it really start later?

Abby: My go-to was always journals. My favorite aunt who was very close with my dad, and I speak about them a lot in my memoir, she always gave me journals. I was like, “You’ve given me so many journals. This will last me a lifetime. I haven’t touched any of them.” Then slowly, I started writing. When my mom passed away, that was when I was like, oh, I need to write. I was in the theater. I was not going to go put on makeup and go for an audition. There was no part of me that could speak, but I could write. It was so therapeutic. It was really therapeutic. I started with, I took a personal essay class with a wonderful woman, wonderful editor also. That’s actually how the first Modern Love came about. That was the first essay I sold. That was shortly after I decided I was just was going to write until I could speak again.

Zibby: Wow. That essay was the one where you dated the man, Andrew, who was old enough to be your father, and that was the one the Modern Love was based on?

Abby: Yeah.

Zibby: Wow. Did you ever tell that guy that you wrote the essay about him? I was just wondering.

Abby: I didn’t, no.

Zibby: I’m not explaining this very well, but Abby wrote an essay about a professor that she met and, in a beautiful way, describes going to his house and his brown socks with the golf clubs on them and how she wanted to cuddle up to him, but really she was trying to cuddle up to her dad, and so then realized that she had to get out of there.

Abby: He was a real gentleman about it. He really was. No, I’ve never reached out to him. Some people have reached out to me because it was a job. It was my first job out of college with these professors who were studying AI. I had no right to be in that job. Some other people that I met there have reached out and said, “Is this the Andrew that we worked with?” I should look him up. I definitely should. It was really helpful. Again, I didn’t know that I needed to express these stories until I really had no other way of communicating. To this day, I feel that writing helps me say things that I wouldn’t be able to say out loud.

Zibby: After you published your Modern Love piece, did that inspire you to try to do a book-length piece? How did that all happen?

Abby: It was all that first class, actually.

Zibby: Sue Shapiro, or is this a different class?

Abby: It was before Sue Shapiro. Sue Shapiro’s another amazing influencer in my life. The first one was Paula Derrow.

Zibby: Oh, I took a class with her too.

Abby: Did you?

Zibby: I took a class with both of them.

Abby: She’s amazing. I forget even what the prompt was. She just gave us these great prompts. The sky was the limit. I think one of them was called a moment when you feel out of place. All I could write about was being in the elevator in the rehab facility. Then it was obviously not about being in the elevator. It was about going into this world that I didn’t want to be in. Then another was — I’m forgetting what the prompt was. It was such a precise phrase, though. The essay that I wrote was about thinking that I killed someone with a grocery cart. This was one of my OCD fears for twenty years, that I really was sure that I killed someone with a grocery cart, that it had smashed into their car and they had run someone over. My mom would try to talk me down, like, “I was there. Nothing happened.” I would make her read the news. I wrote about just that moment of seeing the grocery cart and thinking that I couldn’t take it back, that somebody was dead because of me. Paula published it in Self magazine. That’s what led my memoir.

Zibby: Wow. Then what about the next, the praying? When did the praying start?

Abby: Praying was actually long before then. Praying was, I think, as a way to cope with my dad being gone. I needed to repeat things over and over again. I’d say the Kaddish. Then I’d say the Shema. Then I’d say I’m sorry. Then it became, I’m sorry if I killed him. I’m sorry if I did this. It was litany of prayers that just — by college, I was praying for hours a day. I was missing classes.

Zibby: Then you also had, which you have in the book too that Zoe does and she pretends it’s cat scratches, but she starts cutting herself as well. You talk about it in the book as it being such a release for her. You were doing that as well.

Abby: Yeah. To me, that was around the same time as anorexia. It was kind of another way to be like, well, I can control my body. You guys all think that I look sick, but you don’t know what I really have underneath my shirt. I have all these markings. I’m in control.

Zibby: Now you have your own kids.

Abby: Yeah, I hope they’re not listening.

Zibby: You got out at thirty. Just give me the two second, how did you get from thirty to sitting here with five books published and three kids and all the rest of it?

Abby: A miracle. The boyfriend that got me into rehab is also my husband. There is at least — that bridge was nice to cross. It was a slow slog out. I think that there’s no magic button as far as I know of. There’s no like, you enter the rehab facility and then they give you the tools and then you leave when you’re done. Every day was making a promise with somebody. We would literally pinkie-swear. “I pinkie-swear that I won’t cut myself today,” or “I’m going to go to that bathroom and I’m not going to purge,” or whatever it was. It wasn’t an inpatient facility, I should say. It was an outpatient, so you were there from nine to five, or nine to six. You ate nonstop, which was horrible. Then you had this time where you had to be with yourself after you ate and after you listened to these talks and after you let out everything that you’re feeling. It was very much like, you have to own your recovery because we can’t do it for you. That said, I left mostly because my mom was sick and had to get back to New York. I was in Chicago. As the doors were closing behind me, they were like, “You still have work to do. Don’t forget.” Thanks. Thanks for the great times. Then I do think that writing and walking and yoga and listening to meditation, all the things that I guess we know are good for us but don’t want to do, did put me on a steadier path. My body was healthy enough to have three kids, which I’m so grateful for. When somebody asks me how I’m doing, the best way I can say it is we’re all steady. We’re all okay.

Zibby: As a parent, how do you feel like you need to approach this whole eating landmine, basically, of what to do with your kids? I know there’s so much advice out there. How do you make sure you don’t pass along your issues to them? something that I try not to do as well.

Abby: This is my everyday conundrum. I don’t really have an answer for that. I think the most important thing I have to keep on reminding myself is they’re not me. My daughter is very much like me. She’s built like me. She kind of has the same hang-ups or affinities as me. She’s much smarter than me. Sometimes it’s helpful for me to remember she can draw. I could never draw. There are specific things that she is really good at that I was never good at. It helps me feel like there will be things that I think are always going to affect her, and they won’t necessarily affect her. She’s the one I focus on the most just because I think we do have so much in common. Also, she’s my oldest. She’s eleven now. She’s very aware of this book. She doesn’t really know what it’s about. I think I’ve described it to her as one friend is doing bad things to her body and the other one has to decide if she can help her or not. But she’s too smart to leave it that. I know very soon she’ll be like, how’d you know that? How did you know that people do those things? Then I’ll have to talk to her. I will talk to her by herself. She’s a very studious person. She needs to listen, process, and then go away for a little while and knit or bake or do something that she’s really good at that I’ve never been good at and come back with her questions.

Zibby: When you were writing this book, where and when did you like to write it? How long did it take? What was your process like?

Abby: That’s a great question. I’m very old school. I have to write in a notebook with a big pen. I always have to start there. I have tricks to get myself to write. It usually has to start with a page or two of just blah, blah, blah, and a grateful list every morning. Then I’ll give myself an assignment of, what are twenty-five traits that I want this character to have? What are twenty-five secrets that this person might have? Then when I’m really trying to piece together a scene, it’ll be like, write three pages of just what happens when they go to this party. I try to really break it down. Then once I have a chunk in my notebook, then I transfer it all to computer and try to make it into a chapter. It kind of goes through a bunch of edits before it is really on the page.

Zibby: That’s nice. It’s old-school. You don’t hear that that much. It’s great.

Abby: I have to. There’s something about the physical contact of the pen. I’m very particular. It’s the basic BIC pen with the blue cap.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Abby: Write everything. Write everything. I would always say write by hand if you can because I think it really moves a different muscle. It’s coming out of your brain into a pen onto paper. If you can’t do that, record your thoughts into the phone and then write it that way. When you have a thought, don’t let it slip away and think, oh, I’ll remember that later.

Zibby: Yeah, I never remember those thoughts. They never come back.

Abby: Nope. They’re really awesome too, if I could tell you.

Zibby: What do you have coming next? You have another book? ?

Abby: I do, yeah, in September, a book called Sanctuary.

Zibby: Sanctuary. Can you tell I did not sleep last night?

Abby: Aw, I’m sorry.

Zibby: No, it’s okay. Sanctuary, there you go.

Abby: I cowrote it with Paola Mendoza who is an amazing artist and activist. She’s one of the cofounders of the Women’s March. It’s about a slightly futuristic world where everyone in America who’s undocumented is being rounded up and taken away. A seventeen-year-old girl named Valentina has to get herself and her little brother to safety. I think it’s really awesome.

Zibby: Wow, yeah, it sounds really awesome. Oh, my gosh. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Abby: Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you.