“One of the things that I was working through in my life and in this book was recognizing that I couldn’t keep somebody else alive. That was hard to accept.” Zibby is joined by Eleanor Henderson, author of the visceral memoir, Everything I Have Is Yours, to talk about the painful reality of caring for a loved one who’s suffering from an undiagnosable condition. Eleanor shares the ways in which her fiction writing prepared her to discuss her personal life and why she loves reading books that break her heart.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Eleanor. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Everything I Have Is Yours.

Eleanor Henderson: Thank you.

Zibby: By the way, I loved how on Instagram you actually have the song playing with the reels of your pictures. I imagined the song, but oh, my gosh, it was amazing.

Eleanor: It was fun to see that that song was available. It was irresistible. I had to do it.

Zibby: After I read your book, which, by the way, was so good and so — I had to actually close the book several times because it got so intense. I was reading, and I kept being like, . I kept stopping. My husband kept being like, “Are you okay?” I’m like, “This book. Oh, my gosh, this book.” It broke my heart five hundred times in a row and yet inspired me all the same. I was bowled over by what you’ve been through and the way you wrote about it. Wow.

Eleanor: Wow, thanks. That’s the kind of experience that I like to have when I’m reading a book, so it’s gratifying to hear that.

Zibby: First of all, how you even remembered all of the things, you’re a fountain of knowledge about even all the medical stuff. Actually, maybe I should back up. Why don’t you tell listeners what your memoir is about? Then I can dive in and poke around.

Eleanor: It’s a book about marriage and illness. It’s, in a certain way, about a journey that my husband and I were on, are on, have been on for about ten years starting with an acute illness that he developed about ten years ago and the search for a cure or some understanding of what was happening to him. Then the larger story is really about the root system of our relationship, looking back at the early years and clues to what might develop over the course of our twenty-four-year relationship now. It seemed like even though there were some really acute symptoms in this skin illness, there was also a much deeper story about what was happening to him and his body and what it means to witness somebody go through that kind of horror and still maintain sanity and love and understanding. That’s a little bit about what the book is.

Zibby: Your compassion and patience and all of it — I was like, oh, gosh, my kids get sick and I’m like, ugh. It’s just boundless, it seems.

Eleanor: that way. I think I did develop patience, but it was a big learning curve. One of the things I wanted to try to write against in this book was this narrative that even I was trying to tell myself, which was that it was my job to save my husband and that I could save him. I just had to be patient enough and loving enough, and I could make him well. Number one, I wasn’t perfectly patient. There were times when I lost my mind, for sure. Two, I didn’t really have that ability. As hard as I tried, as much effort as I put in, I learned that it wasn’t my problem to solve. I think I can say that without spoiling the book.

Zibby: Is it spoiling? Can we talk about — I feel like that was a huge part of it. Here, wait, let me find the quote that I wanted to read you about it. It’s not that far in when you talk about — I can delete this part if you wanted me to take it out. His suicide attempt, can we talk about that?

Eleanor: Yeah, I think so. It’s revealed in the first chapter.

Zibby: I wanted to read this section because one of the heartbreaking times — although, in a way, it becomes understandable, almost, when you describe the pain that your husband is living through in so many ways from trauma to his memories to his physical discomfort. The way you write about it, I wanted to crawl out of my own skin. I could feel it, oh, my gosh. You wrote, “When the person you love tries and fails to end his life, you are glad that he is still living, that he failed. There is a kind of embarrassment in that failure, though, embarrassment in the company of others who love people who successfully ended their lives, embarrassment that the person you love is still living, embarrassment that he did not succeed. He did not go about suicide seriously. His anguish was not deep enough. You don’t have much time for embarrassment, though, because another thing that happens when someone you love tries and fails to end his life is that you spend the rest of your life trying to keep him from trying again, trying to create a world in which he will not want to try again. When someone you love tries to end his life because you took your love away from him, you will spend the rest of your life trying to keep him alive with your love.”

Eleanor: I haven’t had that read back to me. That was a kind of voice that I was hearing in the months after Aaron made his first suicide attempt. In a certain way, it had been my worst fear realized. I had this sense that if I try to leave him, he might try to do this. When he did, it was confirmation of that worry. Yet I found that I had some more to give to that relationship at that point, in part because that was a kind of bottom that we had reached. It was like, well, we have gotten to this point where my worst fear is realized, and so it seemed, in a way, that the only way was up. I did start to notice this weird whirlwind of feelings of both, of course, immense relief that the person I love is alive, but also, in just talking with people, I know many people who have loved ones who have committed suicide. There’s an odd distance sometimes between talking about the person who took a bunch of pills and somebody who went to greater lengths and “succeeded.” I wanted to try to capture what it was like to continue to live with somebody who is suicidal because sometimes when people try, there’s the worry that they might get to that point again. It wasn’t a healthy way of trying to reenter that relationship, but it certainly was a powerful instinct for me, that I could somehow keep him alive if we stayed together and if we did everything else right.

Zibby: That is just a lot of pressure. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, on a relationship. That’s hard to carry, I would think. That’s a heavy load to be schlepping around.

Eleanor: Yeah, it was an incredibly hard load. Nobody asked me to do it, but I felt this obligation. I write in other parts of the book about my coming to understand my own codependency, coming to the way that I believed — I might not have admitted that I believed that, but certainly, unconsciously, deeply, I believed that taking care of a deeply, at that point, disturbed person would give me, in my own life, meaning. By that time, I had children with this person who I loved very much and just wanted so fiercely to keep our family unit together. It so happens that that is the case. I think those efforts were not for nothing. I do believe really strongly in the power of love, as cheesy as it sounds. The way that people love each other, it can do a great deal to make life worth living, but I can’t do everything. That’s where the title comes in. You can’t give everything to somebody else. You can’t give them all your oxygen. You need a little bit for yourself. That was one of the things that I was working through in my life and in this book, was trying to recognize that I couldn’t keep somebody else alive. That was hard to accept.

Zibby: It wasn’t just Aaron and his mental health, but you also, at times during your story, especially this one moment when you had your sons and you had your father-in-law living with you and you had Aaron, and you were like, I’m trying to take care of people at every age group. I was just like, how is she doing this? The way you presented that and put us in your shoes while you were literally tending to one disaster after another, it was just amazing.

Eleanor: Thanks. I think a lot of do it. I think a lot of women do it. There was this particular period where there was this confluence of needy people, also, needy boys and men for what it’s worth, which felt somewhat unfair. I had my father who was eighty-six and Aaron who was forty-six or whatever. My sons were nine and six, I think, at the time that I’m writing about. It did feel like they were all sort of equally able to care for each other, so I could run out to the grocery store or whatever. They would all keep each other alive. I could text them to check in on each other. I think I had some real worry about the fact that maybe something would go wrong. Also, it was incredibly hard for me to let go of them. I needed them to need me in a certain way too.

Zibby: Let’s talk, also, about the writing. First of all, this is so well-written. Second of all, you had so many lines in here where I was just like, oh, that’s a perfect line. There was one that I want to put on a sticky or something like that. You had all the things. We said all the things. No, hold on. I had it right here. You were talking about how you were functioning as a family. You said, “All of the things we said were well and good, but we were not saying all the things.” I just love that. That’s a perfect line, FYI. Then you had this other one. “The morning after Aaron is taken to the psych ward, a Saturday, I do the only rational thing, which is to descale the Keurig.”

Eleanor: Absolutely. It seemed the absolute one thing I could control. It was the thing that everyone dreads doing. I hate descaling the Keurig. It felt like, okay, this is Saturday morning. I can’t even visit my husband for hours, let alone get to do anything about it. I got out the vinegar and gave that thing a really nice shine and drank some very clean coffee. An insane time.

Zibby: I’m sorry that that was your experience, but it did make for an amazing first sentence of a chapter, I will say.

Eleanor: Thank you. That’s the thing. In addition to only being able to descale the Keurig, the only other thing I could do was write about it. Being able to put language to something that felt difficult, impossible, unmanageable was the way that I was able to get some distance from it to be able to process it. It did help. It didn’t do everything, but it did help me. Hearing that it’s helping others even on the sentence level is gratifying.

Zibby: You wrote in this book about your previous book coming out. When were you finding the time to do this? How were you getting this done? It’s exhausting to market a book and promote a new book when you don’t have all of this stress and trauma and tension and all of the stuff and medical issues and, oh, my gosh, all the stuff you had. To then come out with another book… Tell me about Ten Thousand Saints and also just the writing in general and how you were able to manage all this and all of the good stuff that came with that.

Eleanor: Writing a memoir was really different. In some ways, I had this reliable routine that I could fall back on from my two novels, Ten Thousand Saints, which came out in 2011, and The Twelve-Mile Straight, which came out in 2017. It was right after I came back from book tour for my second book that I really just sat down to write this book. It started out pouring out. Again, it feels a little bit like a cliché, but it had been sort of stopped up for a while many of those years, really, all of those years from my first book, because it was on my first book tour that Aaron got sick, were very much about managing that illness. It was in the background for a while, but it had really moved to the front of our attention by the time my second book came out. I felt that I had to work through it. I had to give it the attention that it was asking for in order to, one, begin to process it myself. Two, there was really no other space in my imagination for another story. The idea of making up people seemed preposterous at that time because I really felt that I had, in some ways, been kind of neglecting that story. Even though it was taking up so much of my attention, I think I hadn’t really admitted to myself that this was a reality. When I came back from that book tour — it was on that book tour that Aaron gave me his permission to write the story when I asked him.

The first night I came back, he had a really bad night of a lot of pretty scary symptoms. It was a typical night. We’d lived hundreds of nights like that. I felt that they were just passing us by. I didn’t really know what to do with them except for grab it and put it down. The next morning, I wrote that chapter called Bad Night which opens the book. Then I was able to rely on a somewhat consistent writing schedule. I kind of felt like I was writing for my life, in part because I wanted to get it down, and another way, because I was getting paid for it. After some months of working on it, I was able to get a contract with Megan Lynch, a wonderful editor who was holding my hand through the process. I really felt that, okay, someone’s paying me for this. I’m the only one in my family working right now. I need to be able to finish it. In another way, it gave me something to do with all of the stress of having so much to manage and the pain of watching Aaron being in pain. I would often sit down and write early in the mornings when my kids are sleeping. They’re a little older now, so they sleep in a little later, thankfully, but getting up at sometimes 4:45, five in the morning to write for an hour or two before they were awake. Books get written that way. I knew that from experience, which is one thing I had to fall back on, that I could put together pages from waking up in the morning and trying to recount what had happened the previous day. It became a kind of diary, really, the only diary I’ve ever kept.

Zibby: Wow. You mentioned at the beginning that this is the kind of book you like to read. Are there some that stick out to you as ones that move you as much as this one probably moved me?

Eleanor: That’s a good question. I have, definitely, books that I turned to that were close to the genre of this book. I’ve talked quite a bit about books like The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang and Sick by Porochista Khakpour which were very helpful and powerful to me in writing this book because they’re about these sort of compounding chronic and mental illnesses. I’ve talked a little bit about marriage memoirs which I really love like Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass and Diane Ackerman’s Hundred Names for Love. There are definitely touchstones that I had. It’s a good question in terms of the intensity that I often am looking for in a book. It’s fair to say that I also look for intensity in life partners. I’m often looking for the thing that will really just make me feel a lot. That’s a great question. What’s a book that’s really made me feel deeply? This is something that probably most of your readers have read quite a while ago, but The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, probably the book that most riveted me recently. It’s also written in — actually, I’m not positive about this, but it feels to me like it’s first-person present. Actually, it might be the past tense, but it feels as though I’m there with her experiencing the intimate dynamics of that family. There’s also, probably, some mental illness in her family and her parents, but she doesn’t have to name it, really. You just experience the high of being in that family. It’s a family that has experienced so much, and yet there’s love there underneath all of the insanity. That’s the kind of feeling that I like to try to achieve on the page and also that I love to read.

Zibby: You might like Stephanie Thornton Plymale’s American Daughter. Have you heard of that book?

Eleanor: I don’t think so.

Zibby: It’s really good. She grew up literally eating seaweed on the beach abandoned by her parents. She goes through all this stuff. From a feeling standpoint, it’s the one that came to my mind that most made me physically react.

Eleanor: That detail, the seaweed on the beach, I can see why that would stay with you. Wow. The one that should have been at the top of my mind because I’m doing an event with her tonight, Nina Renata Aron and her Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls. That book just scorched me. It’s so honest. It’s dark in a way that feels light because it’s true. There are definitely moments and scenes I remember from that book that give me the chills and remind me that I’m alive. She’s an incredibly incisive writer.

Zibby: She wrote for my first anthology, actually.

Eleanor: Oh, she did?

Zibby: Yeah. Tell her I said hello. Amazing. I just wanted to ask, also, how is Aaron? How is he now? Have any medical people come out of the woodwork after this book is out there to be like, wait, let me help?

Eleanor: Not yet. I have to admit that there was a little fantasy that that might happen. No. There have been quite a few people even in the few days it’s been out who have written me emails about what they think is wrong with Aaron, not necessarily , which is also expected. He’s doing well. Thank you for asking. He is doing well. He has not had one of the incredibly terrifying episodes that he was having regularly in about eighteen months. I’m going to knock on this desk.

Zibby: I’ll knock on mine.

Eleanor: We don’t really know why. I have some guesses. He’s well. He’s sober, which I don’t take for granted. I feel very, very lucky every day that he is in my life. When he’s well, he is so present. He gives so much to our family. I’m feeling very grateful about that.

Zibby: It’s amazing. What about your writing now? Are you continuing this diary?

Eleanor: It’s interesting. I’m not, but there was a little bit of a loss that I experienced when I was done. There was always that question about, when does this end? How does this end? Life just goes on in the same way that it did on the last page. I’m not continuing the diary, but I really found something in nonfiction that I’m quite taken with. I don’t think that I will say goodbye to it forever, but I don’t think the next book will be nonfiction. I’m not sure, but I think I’m eager to get back to my imagination. Escaping to another place, I think, will be the next thing. I just don’t know where yet.

Zibby: You certainly have no lack of material to dig through. Fictionalize all that emotion. Someone recently taught me the term autofiction where the emotions are there of yourself, but the story is not.

Eleanor: My two novels were so far outside of my experience that I really wanted to take a U-turn. I really did, for the first time, write about myself really intimately. I wonder if maybe the next project will be somewhere in between.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Eleanor: Good question. My first piece of advice to my students they don’t always love to hear is to read as much as they can in and around the kind of work that they want to do. Also, reading things that push them and challenge them. I would advise them to subscribe to some literary magazines and do their part as literary citizens to try to support their local bookstores and become involved in the literary community that’s certainly right around them. In terms of craft beyond that and developing a career beyond that, I think good work almost always finds an audience. Spending time on cultivating a writing practice that works for you is something that I would suggest. That, for me when I was a younger writer trying to figure that out, often meant saying no to more things like not going to the party. I have a very good memory of, right after college, being in New York City and being very excited to go out to a friend’s party in Brooklyn or something and then realizing halfway through the party that I really just wanted to be home writing. I said, “Bye. I’m going to go home and write.” Everybody sort of looked at me like I had five eyes. Then I’ve always gone back to that moment. You have to just sometimes leave the party. That’s served me pretty well. I mean, I like parties too, but you have to sometimes say, no, I have a hot date with my MacBook or my notebook. Just get used to the loneliness of being with your own thoughts. It can be a rich place if you spend enough time there. I don’t know, all that feels kind of .

Zibby: No. I just interviewed, last week, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers who wrote The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. Her advice was, just tell people you have a meeting. Nobody ever gives anybody any pushback if you say, I have a meeting.

Eleanor: Yeah, that’s so .

Zibby: If you’re like, oh, no, I have to edit my manuscript, people could be like, whatever.

Eleanor: My art is calling. That doesn’t make .

Zibby: No respect. Whatever that meeting is, happens to be with yourself, but it’s okay. Eleanor, thank you for sharing all of the stuff that you shared, all of it. You may have stuff you didn’t put on the table in this book, but there’s so much history, your family, Aaron’s family. It’s a sign of so much respect for the reader that you would trust us all with it. I really appreciate that because it was really, really powerful. I’m just so glad to have been in your shoes for a little bit reading it.

Eleanor: Thank you for saying that. I appreciate it. I know there are days where I wake up going, what have I done? Hearing that you’re reading that as a respect for the reader is a big gift. Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Best of luck. I’ll be, honestly, thinking of you in the back of my head as I go through wondering how you and your family are doing and hoping that things stay good.

Eleanor: Doing okay. Thanks for reading and for talking with me.

Zibby: Of course. Thank you. Bye.

Eleanor: Bye.



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