Author of Touch and Costalegre Courtney Maum returns to the podcast for a third time to talk with Zibby about her highly anticipated debut memoir, The Year of the Horses, which was just picked by Amazon as a Best Book of May. Courtney shares which parts of the book were the hardest for her to write and how her general demeanor has changed since her return to horseback riding. The two also discuss how to be there for someone who doesn’t know how to ask for the help they need, the impact her insomnia has had on her life, and why she’s looking forward to having a boring summer.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Courtney. This is your third time on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” Touch, Costalegre, Year of the Horses. Amazing. So exciting.

Courtney Maum: Thank you for having me again.

Zibby: I said to Kyle at the beginning of the book, I was like, “Oh, my god, I’m reading about Courtney Maum’s depression.” He’s like, “Was she depressed because she got stuck in Mexico writing that other novel?” I was like, “No.”

Courtney: Definitely not. No, that was very happy, happy time in my life.

Zibby: We met two years ago. I was surprised by everything in this book. I had a totally different perception of you. I was like, really? I flipped. I’m like, this is her book, right?

Courtney: Really? You know what? That actually makes me happy to hear because something I think that so many of us struggle with — I’m sure that you fall into this camp because you’re a public person. People look at your social media and everything you’re doing, and many people must think, oh, my gosh, Zibby has it all. She’s doing it all. She’s spinning all the plates. As you well know, social media is fun. To a certain extent, it can be authentic, but it also sort of becomes our job to look a certain way in public. I do think, unfortunately, that social media has allowed us to become lazy and kind of poor friends to one another because we rely a little bit too much on the social media feed to stand in for what might actually be happening in someone’s life. You see people out and about, and they’ll say, oh, my gosh, it looks like, from Instagram, you’re doing all the things. You’re in all the places. That blocks you from actually being able to say how you really are. What are you going to do? Negate yourself or say, oh, no, those images are fake? It’s a very delicate dance. I think with the pandemic, a silver lining is that people are a little bit more attuned to saying, but are you really okay? What’s really going on? I’m happy to see that shift. Really, we have a lot in common. I’m a taskmaster. I do the things. I time-management really well. It wasn’t convenient for a lot of people in my life for me to fall apart, so they kind of decided not to see it.

Zibby: Interesting. First of all, your childhood, you grew up in Greenwich. Your dad was on Wall Street in the city. You went to Greenwich Academy or something like that.

Courtney: The whole thing, yeah.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You owned a horse.

Courtney: I thought we owned a horse. It turned out it was a lease, but still.

Zibby: Okay, whatever. I feel like that’s the same. I have friends with partial leases. I’m like, I don’t even know what you’re talking about, but fine.

Courtney: It was still a very fortunate, privileged childhood.

Zibby: And yet there was so much that was going on, like in every family. That doesn’t protect you from everything. The story about your brother, his health issues and the moment in the pool where you found him floating in the pool and resuscitated him with his seizures and everything — you explain later what they found out about his dual heart condition or whatever was actually causing it. You felt this need to be this perfectionist while your brother was really suffering. I feel like that often happens when there’s a problem. Some child soaks up all the attention. Maybe you were just going to be like that anyway. Speak about him, growing up with him, your whole family dynamic, and how it had to take the bounce on the —

Courtney: — My brother’s health issues started to manifest when he was just turning five and I was about nine, which coincided with the dissolution of my parents’ marriage, which was not a coincidence. My dad only wanted one child. He now has five. He wanted one kid. My mom fought and fought. She really wanted a second child. By the time my brother’s health issues began, my dad was just checked out in many ways. It’s hard to speak about because it was so opaque back then. The best doctors in the country could not figure out what was going on with my brother. He kept having these sudden cardiac arrests, which as a five, six, seven-year-old is incredibly dangerous and rare. My mom more or less moved into this hotel room by the Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital. I was alone a lot. I stayed with friends. I eventually ended up moving into my father’s house in high school when my brother’s health had just completely deteriorated. Self-sufficiency, to me, became absolutely crucial. It was the only way I could see to go forward.

When I moved in with my dad, he lived in this development called Conyers Farm, which is actually where the Greenwich Polo Club is. My friends were really far away, but I couldn’t stand just being locked up in this house. My dad was never there. I didn’t know where he was. I started long-distance biking. My dad — I credit him for this. I really do. He wouldn’t give me an allowance. It’s Greenwich in the eighties. My friends were very fancy. I talk about this in the book. They’re going out for sushi. They’re doing all these things. I wanted to at least be at the table. I think my first job was when I was thirteen. I always had a job, which was very unusual in my social circle. The feeling that if I couldn’t rely on myself emotionally, financially, professionally, that I’ll be okay has never left me. That’s what made my unraveling so hard for me. I was in denial about it myself because I’d always just risen to the occasion. No matter what, I’ve worked through it. I’m a solution-finder. That’s sort of my forte, but I fell apart. It seemed like the only one who could pick me back up was me. It turned out to be horses, but that took me a while to find.

Zibby: And Joe.

Courtney: And my wonderful Joe, young Joe, the world’s youngest therapist.

Zibby: You wrote about your struggle with anorexia, how it wasn’t even really addressed or called that. It was just like, whatever. People praised you for it or ignored it. You had a line later where you said, if my daughter were to go into her room at five o’clock every night and eat Grape-Nuts and that’s it, I would throw myself at her feet or make her do this. Back then, that’s just what happened. Nobody even noticed. Then of course, it resurges later. Tell me a little more about that.

Courtney: To me, that section of the book or those sections remain the hardest for me. I write about this moment in the book when the world’s youngest and smartest therapist, Joe, is really trying to encourage me to understand that I did have reasons to be sad, that there was emotional neglect in my childhood. I was just really like, no, I wasn’t neglected. They gave me everything. He brought up this question of the anorexia. It opened up this Pandora’s box where I thought, no, I wasn’t hiding it from anyone. They just decided not to say anything except for, I think there’s two people in the book who say something. The wound reopened because I shared this book with my family. Their reaction was just like — god, what was in the water in the 1980s in Greenwich, Connecticut? My mom was like, “I don’t know, I thought you were just a picky eater. I didn’t want to call you out on it. You were so difficult in those days.” Then my stepmother, I sat her down and said, “You know, you’re going to read some –” Honestly, the house we lived in was just so big that it was hard to know what anyone was doing at any given time. I thought, maybe they think I’m having a banquet or something. I sat her down. I said, “There’ll be some material in this you might not be aware of. I get into the disordered eating I struggled with.” Without even reading it she said, “Oh, we knew you were anorexic.”

Zibby: What?

Courtney: Yeah. No follow-up. That’s fine. I’ll sit with that. We have things in our families that will never be tied up with a bow. We all have our stuff. That didn’t feel great, doesn’t feel great. The gift of motherhood, if one chooses that path, is that I can try to course correct for my own child if she encounters whatever it is, be a little more in her face and annoy the hell out of her and just watch out for these things. We’re living in a different time. Even the language that we use to talk about things, the fact that my daughter can choose from a variety of genders, things are different. I hope that she’s growing up with a community of friends who will have the courage to say to her if anything ever went wrong, whatever it is — to call her out on it and have a hard discussion instead of just this toxic silence, which is so American. If this had been happening now — I’m married to a Frenchman. I can tell you, whenever I go back to visit his — my family now. If I’ve gained an ounce, lost a pound, I’m going to hear about it. My mother-in-law, who I just love, I love so much, she’s never greeted me without saying, “Oh, you look tired.”

Taking stock of the other person’s appearance and calling them out on stuff is very French. Listen, it’s not great to walk around and comment on people’s bodies and stuff, but there is, I think, a dangerous middle zone where, especially now — we’re starting to get back out in the world. I’m seeing people I haven’t seen in a long time. Some bodies have changed. Some people have gained quite a lot of weight. Some have lost a lot of weight. Some look bloated from what definitely, as a daughter of alcoholics, looks to me like alcoholism. It’s hard to gauge. It’s hard to gauge when you just sense with people that something’s off. If I push, if I press, if I try to find what’s going on, will the dam break in a way that’s going to flood everything, or is this a welcome intrusion? These are emotional navigational skills that we’re not really taught, especially those — I shouldn’t generalize. I’ll speak about my own experience growing up in Connecticut. The given example was to sweep things under the rug, to be good at everything, be fun, be up for everything, and land a banker husband and learn how to throw a great dinner party. Whatever was happening on the side, the prescription pill bottles, the vodka, all that stuff, let’s just not talk about it. It was very Updike.

Zibby: Wow. Wait, let’s go back to what you said a second ago about sleep because that was also a big thing. You had serious, serious insomnia. The way you described it with this gray pallor you got and the anger, when you’re sleep-deprived — just talk about it.

Courtney: I have had chronic insomnia since the unfortunate age of seven. It gets really triggered in changes in habits, so travel. When I was younger, it would manifest with sleepovers. Too much social interaction gets me a little jazzed up. It’s basically an electrical current I can’t turn off. Periods of anxiety, there’s lots of things that fuel up my insomnia. During the year that I write about in the book, I still don’t know exactly what led to it. I saw a lot of doctors. I saw a lot of holistic practitioners. I was in adrenal, almost failure, so there was definitely some hormonal issues. I stopped sleeping for almost three months. I would get forty-five minutes here or there, or two hours. Even sleeping medications weren’t working. Nothing could get me to sleep. I have beautiful friends here where I live who were running around with little Ziplocs going to all the people and gathering up all different kinds of pills for me to try. I tried hardcore stuff. Nothing was working. I don’t know if I was trying to, maybe, fully collapse so that some other people in my life would kind of rise up and help or what. Whenever I talk about this book, I do always say it was an insomnia-fueled depression because it did not come out of nowhere.

When I sleep properly, I have a very positive outlook. I always have, but that precipice for me is always really close. I don’t think I’ll ever beat it. Still, my insomnia makes it really hard for me to accept invitations to teach at summer writing workshops or to apply to retreats myself because I know if I stay home with my schedule that I’ll be able to work. I’ll be able to write. I’ll be a decent version of myself. I can’t guarantee that if I go away. It makes me nervous about travel. I do it. I do it anyway. I love to travel, but I do a lot of research to try to figure out, are we going to end up next to a noisy — it’s a chronic illness. It’s something that I just have to roll with, but I have to really, really watch out for not going past that point of social stimulation that flicks the switch and makes it impossible even with medication to turn it off. The Year of the Horses is very much about how, among all the different things I was trying, acupuncture, talk therapy, couples therapy, massage, different forms of exercise, antidepressants, it was returning to this childhood passion of mine that gave me a way out. I joke with my editorial team now. I’ll require a horse on every book tour, please. It has become an emotional support thing for me.

Zibby: I love how you said how it was so obvious to you that you had to manipulate your own energy levels to calm down the horse, and the breathing, even just calming down your breathing, how that had such a profound effect. You had no choice or else you would be scaring the horse.

Courtney: Right. Especially if you were on the horse and you get on and you’re blocking your breath and you have your shoulders raised, which is my go-to duo — stop breathing, raise my shoulders, tense — the horse goes into flight. Not fight, flight. They bolt. They rear. They spin really quickly and throw you off because you’re saying to them, be very, very afraid. They say, of what? You, as an anxious, depressed person, says, I don’t know. I don’t know what to be afraid of, which makes it even scarier. Facing the fears that are inherent with horseback riding has literally been the most powerful and obvious healing for me. The way I’ve trained myself now — I do want to keep riding. I want to, not overcome my fears, but learn how to meet them better. If I’m on a horse now and I see, for example, oh, gosh, someone’s redoing their roof down the road and there’s weird things flying up, a tarp flapping around, it’s my job to really lower my heartrate, start breathing, have a heavier body, and just let the horse know, hey, you’re going to feel a little jittery, but I’m here. I’m calm. I’ve got you. I’m truly able to carry that over now in a way where I wasn’t before. For example, the moment at which you and I are speaking, my book’s about a week out from publication. I remember how I was with my second book a week out. I was awful. I was a wreck. I was doing such terrible things, seeing how other people’s books were performing. It just felt like, it’s my book or nothing else, so self-concerned and anxious and jealous, just not in a positive space. I felt very desperate about that publication. With my first book, you don’t know what the heck to expect, so it’s a very nice place to be. The second, I think, is the hardest. I had a nice go with my first book.

Now, I have to say, some of it’s just maturity, but a lot of it is really thanks to the riding because I now am able to truly look at the weeks ahead and say, okay, here’s what I can control. Here’s what I can’t. Here’s the energy I have and the emotional resources I have. Here’s where I can expend them. Here’s where I can’t. Everything feels a lot more simple. When things start to feel not simple and frenetic, I literally picture myself in front of a horse. Would the ears be forward, in the middle, or back? If the answer is back, which means, you’re making me really anxious — this is a visualization activity I do all the time. It’s intrinsic to me now. I just change my posture. I change my breathing. I become heavier in my body. I calm myself down. I’m able now to do that. I still have the wakeups in the middle of the night, but I used to spiral completely into this swamp of anxiety. The two-AM, the four-AM wakeups, I would just lose my mind. Oh, my god, I won’t be able to function. I’ll be late with my book deal. You just start going into these crazy avenues of anxiety. I do this visualization. I’ll wake up at two in the morning and think, okay, it’s all right. You still have many, many hours in front of you before you need to be awake. I breathe. I picture the horse. I try to imagine the horse’s smell. Generally, it works. I’m just so grateful to have that.

Zibby: Amazing. I have a bazillion more questions. What are you working on now? Do you have another novel coming? What are you doing? I feel like you always have a million projects.

Courtney: I do usually have a million projects. I started up two different projects before I really went into pre-publication mode. One was a nonfiction proposal. The other was a novel. I was full steam ahead on both. Then I just reached a point, honestly Zibby, where I thought, oh, my god, screw it. This time, I don’t know what’s next. I’m just going to enjoy — excuse the pun — the ride. I want to go out. I’m so lucky that my independent publisher is sending me on tour. I’m just going to be centered and invest myself in this journey and take some time off. I’ve had a book come out every two years since 2014. Honestly, it’s so hard to have a book out right now that you do sometimes wonder, why the hell am I doing this? You work so hard. You have such an amazing editorial team. You sell forty-five copies. That’s nice. I’m going to try to hustle slightly less. I’m going to try, maybe it won’t work, and then see. I’ve got a bunch of different ideas, but I’d like to have an actual summer. I’d like to have a lazy summer, one of those summers where you feel bored. I would love to have some boredom in my life.

Zibby: It sounds nice.

Courtney: We’ll see. Then I’m going to try to not be hurried and pick up — I’ll do something, but I haven’t decided on the direction. We’ll see.

Zibby: I love that. Even your whole demeanor is feeling very in control and intentional and mindful and all the right things.

Courtney: That’s thanks to the horses because I know that people have told me, oh, my god, when I first met you years ago, you were too much. Actually, Tony Perez at Tin House, he’s sort of an editor-at-large. When I went to the Tin House writers’ workshop as a student, I did one of those sit-downs with a gatekeeper. He was the gatekeep as an editor of Tin House then. He told me later because we became friends, he was like, “Oh, my god, you were exhausting. Your energy was like this tsunami. I thought, this is just the worst person in the world.” He said, “Now you’re one of my favorite people.” That energy management, it’s something, also, I’m getting better at, not as good as I am with horses, but with my child. In the book, I really work through or show the reader how my distraction and anxiety and worry was imprinting on my child. As a two and a three-year-old, she was constantly crying and kicking and having temper tantrums, only with me, not with my husband.

Now it’s same thing with her. Again, I don’t always master this. I find if I’m in that crazy place, if I’m in that crazy pre-pub space where you have to be on all the platforms and you have to respond to everything and set up the Facebook invitations to your events — you know, you’ve been there. I need to do that away from her. She does not need that whirlpool around her. I try. I think I nail it maybe two days out of the week. If I want a calm, receptive, loving child, I need to present that front myself. I find that in my friendships now. This is all thanks, slightly to Joe — got to give Joe credit, world’s youngest therapist — and to the horses. I used to think that my frenetic energy was fun and alluring. It’s not that I’m denying my true self. It’s just that manic energy can make other people feel manic. That can be fun. There’s a time and a place for very high, up energy. I now better realize or better see — I can see it like a forcefield. I can see because of the horses — they’ve trained me to see it — what my energy is doing to other people.

Zibby: I feel like you’ve harnessed it.

Courtney: Yeah. That’s the thing about this nonverbal communication, which I always believed in. When you stand in front of a horse and see their ears pinned back for no other reason than you, whatever it is you’re bringing is making them pin their ears, which is the only time that horses look unattractive. You do whatever you need to do, loosen up your shoulders and breathe, and then watch the ears go forward. That’s better than any couples counseling I ever invested in. It’s pretty quick. You don’t even need a riding lesson. You just need to get in front of a horse. Don’t take that to go trespassing on other people’s farms because the liability is — equine therapy is real, very powerful. It works for some people who are unable to find solace in therapies that work very well for other people. It’s been tremendously beneficial for war veterans who just don’t have the language, perhaps, because they’ve been kind of raised in the military sphere to not talk about things and to just follow orders. Asking someone who came up in that kind of environment to talk to someone on a couch and to pay them to listen, for a lot of people, that just doesn’t work. For me, I have to say, again, I love Joe with all my heart. I’m so lucky to have found him, my twenty-three-year-old psychologist. I will say I was so resistant to therapy because I’ve always been able to sort things out myself. I would just go for a run, write a short story, figure it out, and move on. I’m not going to pay someone to listen to you. You have friends. Sometimes you do need to pay someone to whatever, touch your head, rub your shoulders, hug you. There’s a reason that professional cuddlers exist, right?

Zibby: That goes back to your novel, Touch, the importance of that. I feel like a lot of your earlier life — not even so earlier. I feel like you’ve been crying out. Your behaviors have been some of these cries for help, in a way. Yet still, they’re not heard. What do you do when your last-ditch efforts to get attention fail? What happens is you pick yourself up and you learn how to sooth yourself, which is what you did. It’s really amazing and inspiring. I think it’s really cool. It’s a great lesson for other people to find whatever their thing is and realize that sometimes we can’t rely on the people who maybe we want to come forward for us. It’s something that has to come through from ourselves.

Courtney: That’s true. Also, I think it’s hard, especially for women who are socialized to just do all the things and spin all the plates, but sometimes we have to ask for help, actually use our words and ask for help and then forgive people if the help doesn’t show up in the way that our type-A brains wanted it. That’s something I still struggle with with my husband. Mother’s Day is approaching. I have very specific ideas of how I would like him to show up for me that day. Now I’m presented with a choice. I can either tell him flat-out or hope that he’ll get my secret — and then be disappointed.

Zibby: Don’t hope.

Courtney: Looking back now, if I’d had the courage and less shame, I wish I’d just gotten on the phone with a friend and said, “Hey, I need you to drive out for the weekend with ten boxes of mac and cheese and tequila. I need a hug,” instead of these vague, “Oh, I’m okay. I’m really busy.” These are code words. If people can start using their words and not — it can seem embarrassing, but you got to help people to help you. If you tell someone, “I’m really struggling. ‘Oh, what can I do?’ Nothing,” that’s not helpful, actually. Say to someone, “I’m really struggling. ‘How could I help?’ It would be an enormous help if you could clean my bathroom. I just need someone to watch Netflix with me tonight.” Sometimes it’s these very small things.

Zibby: That makes the person helping feel so good too. Oh, I can do what she needs.

Courtney: Right. It’s so hard when you’re faced with a depressed person. They don’t know what they need. You don’t know. It’s very overwhelming. Help people help you.

Zibby: Courtney, thank you. I personally, having known you, I wouldn’t say superficially, but the way we know each other, now there’s this whole new level. I’m just so glad you shared it. It’s amazing. Thank you.

Courtney: Thank you for taking the time to read my memoir and share it with your audience. I so appreciate it.

Zibby: Of course. I couldn’t wait. I was so excited when it arrived. It was great. Thank you.

Courtney: Thank you, Zibby, for your time.

Zibby: Of course. Good luck. Stay calm. I love your bored summer idea. I love it. I just love it.

Courtney: Goals. #Goals.

Zibby: #Goals. #Bored. 2022.

Courtney: I wish you a little boredom, too, somewhere, Zibby.

Zibby: I’ll get there.

Courtney: Thank you very much. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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