Christie Tate, GROUP

Christie Tate, GROUP

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Christie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Christie Tate: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited.

Zibby: I am so excited to finally be talking to you. I got this book in the middle or towards the end of the summer. I opened it up. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover or anything, but I opened this book up this summer, and these are my favorite colors. This is my favorite design. This wins my favorite-cover-ever award just in case you were wondering.

Christie: Thank you. I feel super lucky. That was one of the first designs. I thought, this has exceeded all expectation. I love that blue.

Zibby: Amazing, my favorite color. I know your subtitle is How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life, but could you explain a little more in-depth to listeners what Group is about?

Christie: The book opens, and I had just completed my first year of law school. I had gone to the Bursar’s office. I got a little index card that told me my class rank was first. I didn’t feel any joy. I felt really, really depressed. I started having suicidal thoughts because my life looked really great on paper and obviously my professional future was going to be fine, better than fine, but inside I just was so lonely. I didn’t even have that word yet. I had to go to therapy to learn that word. I was isolated. I had no close friends. I’d watch people from college go on girls’ trip. I’d be like, how do they do that? People would reach out to me. I didn’t know how to reach back. I thought, this is great, I’m just going to die alone. A friend recommended her therapist. I was on a student budget, so I was like, “I can’t do therapy.” She was like, “It’s group, and so it’s cheap.” I was like, “Okay.” I could see something different in her eyes. The memoir is the story of how I went to group and my life was cracked open by the people I met there and the therapist who was the ringleader of all of it.

Zibby: Wow. I loved your descriptions of not only the other people in the group, but Dr. Rosen and how, actually, you had met him. You have been at twelve-step programs for eating disorders for quite some time. In one of your meetings, you had actually had him come, but he was Jonathan R in the group. What did that feel like?

Christie: It was terrifying. When you open the door, I was like, is that the same guy? Between the time I’d made the appointment and then sat in the waiting room and then he opened the door, I decided, this is it, this is the one thing that will save my life. I had my heart set on it. Then he opened the door and I’m like, I know him from twelve-step world. I thought that would be an automatic disqualification. I’m like, well, I won’t tell him. Why would he recognize me? There’s tons of women and people in these meetings. He didn’t recognize me after the first session. Then I started to feel like someday it might trigger him. Then he’d have to kick me out. That would be so embarrassing. It became one of the first tests of, can I tell the truth? Can I risk rejection by saying what I know, which is, I know you from meetings? It seems like you’re not supposed to know that about your therapist.

Zibby: I know. This goes back to Lori Gottlieb’s book. Do you know that?

Christie: Yeah.

Zibby: She talked in the beginning of that book, as a therapist, of running into a patient at the Starbucks. She was a mess, and that forever altered her relationship with her patient. Now we go to your book where it’s sort of similar. You have this view into your therapist that most people do not have, should not perhaps have. I don’t know.

Christie: Obviously, I only know what transpired for me. The idea of the blank slate is not quite as blank in my case as it is, I suppose, traditionally.

Zibby: I could so relate to the times in your book where in therapy you were asked to do or say something and you were just so uncomfortable that I could feel you cringing off these pages. You were like, no, no, no, I’m not doing that. I actually can’t even say it on this podcast, what they were suggesting that you do. You were like, I could never. Part of the work was opening you up to love and men and not just totally bad-for-you guys.

Christie: Part of what drove me in was I was bereft of all relationships, but it was particularly salient in my relationships with men. I tended to fall for guys who were alcoholic or had very serious depression and didn’t have the ability to be in a relationship. Sidenote, I didn’t either, but I could just focus on them and say, why don’t you love me? I bought you pineapple.

Zibby: The reliable pineapple love trick that we all rely on so much.

Christie: It’s standard. It’s very standard.

Zibby: Very standard. My question about group therapy — by the way, I’ve never actually been in group therapy, but I have been in regular therapy. Do you ever get a diagnosis? I know you had three sessions at the beginning. Does everybody get a pull-aside, let’s go in the corner, PS, you have OCD, or something like that?

Christie: That is such a great question. How I’ve seen this play out for me in my groups is people have brought in insurance forms, and you have to put in a code in order to get reimbursed. Everything that is negotiated happens in group. I saw many people come in and say, “I need your signature, Dr. Rosen, on my insurance form,” but they want a code. They say to him, “What do I have? What am I?” We would have long discussions, anxiety and depression is a certain code or whatever. I remember I always paid out of pocket because I was — this is terrible. This is not a part of the book. I’m very, very afraid of forms. I just felt like it was easier. I always knew I had to earn enough money to go to group because I’m so afraid of forms. I remember one time I said — this was probably year two. I said, “What do I have? Do I have PTSD? Do I have anxiety or depression?” Dr. Rosen said, “Why do you want to know?” I was like, “Well, what’s wrong with me? What’s my thing? What’s my label?” I knew I had an eating disorder, but that was before I even got there. He really discouraged me. I didn’t press it super hard because as soon as he said, “Why do you want to know?” I realized my motives weren’t good for me. I wanted to know so then I could be in that box. Then I could go off and do a checklist in a magazine. I have not pressed it. I’ve not asked for my notes. I can imagine a scenario where if somebody needed to know or wanted to know, it would be discussed in group and they could get that information. It’s hard to get information in group without a full discussion, which is something you have to weigh if you really want to go there.

Zibby: Wow. I just could not believe all the stuff that came out in your group and even your unexpected moments with individual members of the group. You were like, wow, I’m not alone anymore, like Marty. It was just so sweet and heartwarming in a way. That’s probably mischaracterizing this book which is very emotional, but it’s so funny too.

Christie: It’s funny. Sessions themselves can be very brutal. That would be my lived experience. Someone confronting me on things I don’t want to talk about or that are painful or I start to talk about it and then I misunderstood, that experience is so painful. That’s some of the work of intimacy that I have just never done. I was really immature in that way. That’s why I was so alone. When I look back, some of the quieter moments with individual group members, in group and outside, they were so filled with love and care. I had just been running from people for so long that I didn’t know that people might just rub your back if you’re crying or hand you the tissues or offer to come get you. I had kept myself so isolated that those acts of kindness couldn’t even penetrate my defenses, essentially.

Zibby: When I met my current husband, by the way, we were walking down to the tennis court and I was upset about something that had happened with my daughter that day. I didn’t know him that well. I wasn’t looking for a relationship. He put his hand on my back and was like, “Are you okay?” I married him.

Christie: Yes, Reader, I Married Him.

Zibby: I get the power of those little connections when you feel like you haven’t had them in so long and you so need them. He’s probably like, what am I even doing here? This is all a big mistake. The part of your book during the accident on the beach in Hawaii was, first of all, so well-written and just edge-of-my-seat type of reading, which is always wonderful as a reader, but I’m so sorry for what happened. Are you able to share now? Do you want to keep it quiet?

Christie: I think sharing is probably helpful. I was so young. It was right before my fourteenth birthday. I was from a very modest family in Texas. We weren’t going to be going to Hawaii. There was a friend of mine, and her family had been so welcoming and so loving to me. We went to Hawaii. While we were there, her father drowned in the water of the ocean. For years, I just didn’t talk about it, but I thought about it. It’s not like I thought about it all the time. Right around the anniversary time, I’d get really emotional and kind of a panicky feeling. I felt like I was never allowed to talk about it because it was a long time ago. I remember saying that was a long time, and it had been eight years. Each year, I had an excuse not to — it wasn’t my dad. I think I had the overriding feeling that I got to go home to my family in Texas. My dad and mom were alive. We were all well. It’s almost like that didn’t happen to me because it wasn’t my father. That’s some of the early work I had to do in group to see what the cost was of disavowing the trauma for me and how that might have impacted my ability to attach. I was so out there, like, I’m a recovering bulimic. I had stories I was willing to tell about myself. Then there were these quiet ones that I felt buttoned down about. I think they were, obviously, tripping me up in relationships.

Zibby: Before the accident on the beach, or the drowning, were you able to be more open with people? I know it’s such an important age where things would have developed and then didn’t. As a child, were you very withdrawn in terms of how you were talking to people? Did anyone notice a shift in you? Did your family or anybody?

Christie: That’s a great question. I’m pretty outgoing and extraverted. I did always have friends. From a very young age, I had a lot of shame, shame about my body. I remember that by age five. I wasn’t actively bulimic until right before Hawaii, actually. I think timing really matters. The woman that I went — she was a girl at the time. The family that I went with, she and I tried out for cheerleader together. The winter before, we’d gone skiing. She’s lively and hilarious. I was there. Even if I can’t quite remember who I was, I know who she was. She wouldn’t have picked some morose bump on a log. I remember us laughing. I have snapshot memories of us laughing. I was a good student, but I was also kind of a wisecracker, as you can imagine from the book. I had an irreverent sense of humor that seemed maybe a little more male than female at the time, the way that Texas is coded. I think that it was the beginning of adolescence and the trauma. Probably even without that, I was gearing up for just regular adolescence strife. You add in that, I think it bumped me off the road for quite a while.

Zibby: You say it wasn’t your dad, but it’s not like you were in the hotel and you found out he drowned. You were on the beach and saw him and had to pull him on the beach and get help. You yourself had almost drowned a second ago. That is hardcore. Everybody’s had stuff in their life, but most people have not had to pull a drowning grown man out of the water. That’s a lot to hold onto and not talk about. To not feel like you have permission to cope with it is a lot.

Christie: It’s funny. I’m sure a lot of people have this experience. Now that I have a daughter who is — she’s not that old yet. As I imagine packing her off to go on a trip with another family and imagine getting the phone call that my parents got, I have much more compassion for myself and carrying that burden. I had the insane idea that I could’ve prevented it or I should have. That is a lot for a kid to carry. I can see that now that I have kids approaching that age. I’m like, wow, I’m glad I got the help I needed. Let’s say that.

Zibby: By the way, do people still go on vacations with other families? Nobody I know does that anymore. Maybe families go together. The idea of sending my kid off on someone else’s vacation — it used to happen all the time. I brought kids all the time. I went on other…

Christie: That’s a really funny question. The only instances where I know that in our community is we know some kids who were only children, and they so they may double up for obvious reasons. It’s not nearly as prevalent as it was when I was growing up in the eighties.

Zibby: Me too. It was like, who’s coming on vacation with us? Each of you take a friend.

Christie: Yeah, the bring-a-friend thing. I would take friends to the exotic location of Forreston, Texas, where my grandparents had a farm. It was super fun. I would take all kinds of friends there. Now it’s funny, that’s an interesting marker of change in generations.

Zibby: And the idea that I would just not spend my vacation with my child. I am fighting my ex-husband about, how days of the vacation could we each have? To be like, let’s just send her with the Jones’ over there, I don’t know.

Christie: I know. It’s so funny.

Zibby: Not that there’s anything bad. It used to happen all the time. Oh, well. So tell me about the act of writing this book. You sort of alternate between being private and not private. Some of these things, you held close to home. Some, you feel okay with. Now you’ve let it all out.

Christie: When I started the book, I did a first draft. I started the book on November the 9th of 2015. I remember the date because I just did some research about it. I was like, how long have I been living with this book? First drafts are terrible. It was just anecdote. Then my therapist said this. Then I dated this guy. It didn’t have any arc or some of the heart and no specificity. There was no scene of me binging on apples. I was very light about the Hawaii situation. It was pretty superficial. I got feedback that it was superficial and I needed to dig deeper. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how to revise a novel. I mean, it’s not a novel. I didn’t know how to revise a whole book length. I ended up in a situation where — the writer Lidia Yuknavitch, she does a class called Body of the Book. You can workshop in a small group, the first 130 pages of your work. I thought, I’ll do that, and then they can tell me what’s missing or what am I doing. It was incredibly transformative because they were able to, both Lidia and my workshop mates who were incredible, they would circle something. I vaguely made a comment, like, I binge on apples at night, and then I move on very quickly. Everybody circled it in red pen, like, show us. I was like, show you? Every apple? It felt to me like that would be tedious. Once I went in there, all the places where they said, give us a scene, I started building scenes. I think that’s where a new energy came to life. Instead of telling, I was showing what I was like, what happened, and what I’m like now because of this process.

Zibby: In terms of the law career and where you are today — now, of course, you’re an author, which is amazing. What is your daily life like? Tell me about your daughter. I mean it. Now I feel so invested in you with the book.

Christie: I feel really lucky. The great thing about talking about the book now or having it out in the world is every day, I feel grateful. Every day I talk about the book, I touch back to that woman who was first in her class. I clung to that because it’s all I had. Now it’s so obnoxious to be like, I’m the valedictorian, but literally, it was the only tentpole I had. When I look back, I get to think about who’s in my life today. I have two children. I have a husband. It’s corona time, so we’re all home doing our things in our little corners of the world. I still go to group. I still work full time, so that’s that. I am really committed. I get up really early, in the fives. I do writing. I also do meditation just because I don’t know how to survive things that are happening in the wider world without a little bit of meditation. Do the writing until the people wake up around me. I get them going. I do my day job. During lunch, I do more writing. That’s when I would meet with a writing group.

Then twice a week, I Zoom into my therapy group. What readers will see is the memories of my group and I are very close, and so I’ll go on a walk with someone from group or we’ll meet for a socially distant coffee. It’s a really full experience. The other day, I was complaining to one of the characters in the book, Max, this is a super obnoxious thing, “I’m so busy. I have so much going on.” First thing he said was, “Everyone does, so get over yourself.” Also, he’ll say to me, whenever I complain, he’ll say, “This is the life you wanted, remember?” I’m like, oh, yeah. Driving my son to the baseball field or getting my daughter to her outdoor dance class, this is exactly what I wanted. In my minivan and my family and all these people and phone calls to return to people who love me and who want to fill me in, that is exactly what I wanted. Like anybody who has a full life, it’s kind of like, what plate am I going to drop today? But it’s a privilege to have plates.

Zibby: It’s a privilege to have plates. I love it. It’s so true. In terms of advice to other people who might want to write a memoir, what would you say?

Christie: I would say read, read, read. Read the memoirs you love. Read them again. This is super advice I’m taking myself right now. I’ve reread my memoirs that I really love, particularly Claire Dederer’s Love and Trouble and Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. Every year, I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water. I love those books. They’re artists. I want to get inside of what they’re doing. I think that the idea that the only part of writing a book is sitting down and writing has not been my experience. I would say reading widely. Also, join a writing group. We’re all long distance, my writing group. We’ve been together almost three or four years. We all live across the country. We’re telephonic because this was before everything went Zoom. Now we’ve got on Zoom. It’s free. You have to make the time for it. I learn so much from the women and the way that they push themselves. Some of them are novelists. Some of them are essayists. Some of them are memoirists. Having the community is invaluable, learning from them, getting that every-two-week feedback on my writing. We’re going to talk about one of my pieces this afternoon. I still get nervous. Even though it’s a first draft and it doesn’t need to be great, but just the exercise of putting myself out there, I think that’s really invaluable. For years, I wanted a writing group. I didn’t know how to get one. What worked for me was I took a couple classes. Then I would ask people in the classes. It doesn’t have to be giant. It could be one other person. I just think having company and feedback is really invaluable. I don’t know how people do it without it.

Zibby: That’s great advice. What are you working on now? What’s your piece for today?

Christie: I was trying to a write a piece about — one of the things that I’m interested in is what’s happening to my body right now. There’s middle age, of course. There’s anxiety. There’s upcoming elections and book publications. I’ve been having this totally random trapezius pain. I didn’t even know what the trapezius was until I got the pain. I’m writing about the sensation and what the trapezius means. In woo-woo Eastern medicine, the trapezius, it’s the heart of the back or whatever. I’m just exploring what that pain means. I think when it started was when I went to record the audiobook. I was sitting there and I was reading a scene. It was painful when it happened, painful when I wrote it. It was one of these groups that was very intense. I’m alone in the booth. There’s this old engineer. I’m talking about my problematic sex life. I’m sweating. I’m alone with this man. I’m reading it into the world. My trapezius just instantly crimped. I’ve had enough therapy to know that those are all related. I’m interested in thinking about what part of me is still afraid to have my story out there, my truth, my experiences, to get bigger in the world. I think my body is registering my anxiety. It’s right now showing up in my trapezius. We’ll see if they got any of that in two thousand words I gave them.

Zibby: I think that’s so interesting.

Christie: We’ll see.

Zibby: I love it. I feel like new aches and pains come every day. I’m like, really? I’m only in my forties. I thought that was a sixties, seventies situation.

Christie: Totally. It’s so humbling.

Zibby: Oh, well. Thank you. Thanks, Christie. I loved this book. I’m so excited you came on the show. I can’t wait to see it come out into the world. I’m just so rooting for you, in your corner, and all that.

Christie: Thank you so much. Thanks for all you do for writers and readers and listeners. It’s incredible. It’s such a bright light. You are a bright light. I am so happy to be here.

Zibby: Thank you so much. I want to read that essay, by the way. I’m serious. Send it over.

Christie: I definitely will.

Zibby: Okay. Workshop it, and then I want to see it.

Christie: Perfect. All right, see ya.

Zibby: Bye.

Christie Tate, GROUP