Steph Catudal, EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE: A Memoir

Steph Catudal, EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE: A Memoir

Zibby interviews New York Times bestselling author Steph Catudal about Everything All at Once, a heart-wrenching, sincere, and lyrical memoir about her experience with grief. Steph describes what it was like to lose her father to lung cancer at fourteen and then endure her husband’s battle with the same disease during COVID. She also talks about how writing has always helped her process her emotions and explains how her vulnerable social media posts evolved into this beautiful memoir.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Steph. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Everything All at Once.

Steph Catudal: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I loved your book so, so much. I could just have you on here and rave about it for half an hour. Tell listeners a little bit about your story and your whole journey to writing this memoir and how you wrote about your dad at first and how you wove it all together and just how you created this amazing piece of work of art.

Steph: First of all, thank you so much. That’s seriously such a nice compliment coming from you especially. This book is actually almost ten years in the making, which is crazy. I started writing it in 2014. At the time, I was pregnant with our second daughter, Iris. At the time, my goal was just to write the story of my adolescence, losing my father to lung cancer when I was fourteen years old. I actually called the book This is Where I Leave You. I finished it in 2019. It was supposed to be symbolic of me leaving my grief behind. Now I kind of laugh at that because one of the hugest things I learned in the past few years from my husband being sick, which is also part of this memoir, is that you never leave grief behind. It becomes a part of you. It’s a continuous journey. I wanted to weave that theme throughout the whole book. My memoir jumps back and forth in time from my adolescence, which is the book I originally wrote, and then to the past few years when my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer, which is the same disease that took my father.

Zibby: The way that you had us going along with you while you tried to figure out what was going on and a search for a diagnosis and treatment and all of that was just so harrowing. It literally felt like we were right there with you in the rooms while you were experiencing it. Tell me about using writing as a tool to get you through that time.

Steph: I wrote throughout my husband’s illness. I also wrote throughout my father’s illness. Writing has always been my means of making sense of the world. I’m not a very verbally emotive person. I kind of have a wall up when you meet me in person. I often don’t know how I feel about something until it comes out on the page. It’s almost like I’m out of my body. Then I write something. I read it, and I have this aha moment of, that’s exactly how I feel. Call it dissociation. I don’t know what it is. When my husband, Rivs, was in the hospital, he was in the hospital for 101 days during COVID. I was very isolated. I had to quarantine. I couldn’t be with friends or with family other than my mom and my mother-in-law. It was a really lonely time. Writing was my lifeline to the rest of the world. I started writing in prose and poetry. I just started putting it on social media. In some way, I think it was a cry for help, just saying, does anyone understand me? Is anyone there? It really was met with a lot of love and acceptance. I think a lot of people, although they weren’t going through the same thing, it was generally a feeling of loneliness. I think that that’s what people related to and resonated with people. I wrote through his illness. Then I started writing the actual memoir in the months after his remission.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. The contrast between Rivs being this ultramarathoner endurance athlete — that’s probably not the right word to describe. Extreme athlete.

Steph: Yeah, that’s right.

Zibby: Then what it’s like for someone as strong and vibrant and just a body conqueror — he conquered the human form. To show that nobody is protected no matter how fast or hard you train or run, illness, you can’t escape it. You can’t avoid any of the stuff, whether it’s losing someone you love or being sick yourself or coping with it. I don’t mean this to sound depressing. I mean it to sound like we are all sort of facing this together. Yet we have to go about our daily lives pretending like this threat does not loom constantly. Then what do you do when the background noise sort of becomes the foreground and that’s all you can do? This is the book that shows all of it coming to the fore.

Steph: It’s a lesson I sadly learned in my youth too. My dad, he wasn’t at the level that my husband was at in terms of athletics, but he was super fit. He was a professional barefoot skier. He would slalom ski in the winter. He’d run marathons and did triathlons too. Then of course, he got sick with a non-smoking-related lung cancer. It was a lesson I had learned in my youth, but I almost came to believe that grief has some kind of lifetime cap and that nothing bad would ever happen to me because my father had been taken from me. Then of course, that narrative cracked wide open when my husband was diagnosed. Like you said, not to be depressing, but if anything, it taught me just to appreciate exactly what I have right now. I know it’s done the same for my husband, who can no longer race. His whole career in life was built around running and movement. Now because of the scar tissue on his lungs, he can’t run more than thirty seconds at a time without having to stop and walk. Instead of being bitter about that, he’s just come to appreciate more, his ability to be alive and to be here with me and our kids and to be able to move at all. Some people don’t get that luxury at the end of a long illness. It’s really just brought this new gratitude to our lives.

Zibby: You had a moment in the book — I hate to give things away.

Steph: I think I already did. He survives. He’s in remission.

Zibby: I guess anybody who googles you or him would figure it out, but I actually had not googled you or him. I didn’t want to know. I intentionally kept myself in the dark. I was like, oh, my god, what is going to happen? Not to give things away, but you did have a moment when you thought you were going to lose him. You attribute your past psychedelics use and your openness to the universe at large and all of that to literally have one of the most powerful reading moments I’ve had. I can’t imagine how powerful it was in real life to have this communication soul to soul where you basically drag him back. It was unbelievable. Tell me more about that moment. Do you think about that moment? Was this a life-changing thing for you? What does it mean about the universe as a whole? Give me the meaning of life.

Steph: Oh, my gosh, I wish I knew. The interesting thing about that chapter that you’re referring to is that’s the only chapter — I wrote that in one sitting. Again, it felt out of body. It felt as though I was, not to sound woo-woo, but channeling something. It was the only chapter that the editors didn’t touch. There was no edits to that entire chapter. It’s not that it’s perfectly written, but I think you could feel the emotion that went not only behind the situation, but behind the writing of it and reliving of it for me. Another interesting thing is when my husband “woke up,” as one slowly does from a coma — it’s not like in the movies where you just open your eyes, and you’re awake. After a few weeks, he had a similar experience of him coming back. He said that he was sort of floating in nothingness and then kind of heard my voice and remembered that he had kids, remembered that he had a life, and had to find his way back. We hadn’t talked about my side of the experience. Of course, I second-guess myself. Did that really happen? Did we really communicate on this other dimension? I still have to second-guess it because I’m a natural skeptic. Hearing him have that experience, it just reminds me that life is so much bigger than the empirical and what’s before us. That’s probably another one of the most important lessons I learned in the last few years, is to be open to everything and the possibility of everything. I don’t think I would’ve ever entertained the idea of even a spiritual world before his illness. Now I’m open to all of it, which is a beautiful thing.

Zibby: You are also dealing with your daughters and your life and managing them post-all of this happening. How do you feel? Do you have some sort of PTSD? How did you protect your girls from your own stuff as you went through everything? I guess those are kind of two separate questions, or not. I don’t know.

Steph: It’s a really commonly asked question. People ask me, how did you do it with your kids? I don’t think there’s a right way to do it. I think that when we’re grieving ourselves and we’re in tragedy ourselves, we’re just doing the best that we can to survive. Then when you put the weight of our children on top of that, it’s basically an impossible task. I was able to recognize, I guess I call it a gift that I had of having been in my children’s shoes before with a sick father. If anything, it almost made me grateful for having been through something like that because it allowed me an empathy that a lot of parents don’t have when they’re leading their kids through a parent illness. I was able to almost heal from my father’s passing by kind of garnering a new meaning and attributing a new meaning to it. I did, I broke down. I cried in front of my kids. I was scared in front of my kids. I just kind of offered them all of the human emotion that I was going through. Who knows? Maybe in ten years, they’ll blame me for scarring them. I don’t know. I also had my mom and my mother-in-law with me. They lived with me for the whole nine months of his treatment. I didn’t do it alone. I definitely could not have done that alone because I was at the hospital pretty much all day with him. They were home doing the online school. They were doing the quarantine with them. It truly was like a community rallied around me and our family at that time.

Zibby: Almost at the exact same time that you were dealing with this, my husband’s mom did have COVID and got so much damage to her lungs. She was on a ventilator. Then we did have to airlift her. She was on an ECMO, but it ultimately didn’t work. Like you, you have to advocate. You have to do this. I had people in my life who I barely knew who came out from — I knew them, but the fact that these people took center stage in the narrative at that particular tiny slice of life was bizarre. Okay, thank you, this random woman I met on one vacation three years ago with my son who was like, you have to stop what you’re doing. If you don’t make these calls or you don’t fight and do all this stuff, this is it. Then you said in the book, was I up for that? Can I even do that? That responsibility is so heavy. Is it really coming down on my ability to make some phone calls? I felt that same sort of — not to put myself in your — just this one particular slice of it. If I don’t ask in a nice enough voice, if I don’t make the right calls, that’s the difference here? Then it did end up working. Then it’s like, what if I had done that sooner? I don’t know. I always feel all this responsibility. If it’s my responsibility to save, doesn’t it mean that the whole responsibility would fall on me?

Steph: Yes, I know exactly what you mean. You don’t hear many people who can relate over ECMO, so that alone is pretty wild that you have that experience. The responsibility of it, especially when you feel like you’re drowning just in your own fear and sadness, and then on top of that, you now have to step up to this assertive role, which isn’t in my nature — I’m a very passive, quiet person. It was kind of a wake-up call. One of his nurses basically called me and said, “If you’re not his voice now that he’s sedated, now that he’s in the coma, no one is going to fight for him. We’re in the midst of a pandemic. They’re not taking extra time to care for patients that don’t appear to have a chance of survival.” At the time, it didn’t look like he did. She said, “If you don’t speak for him, he’s going to die here.” That was the turning point for me. Am I going to let my passivity be the reason he dies? I think I would’ve had she not given me that wake-up call. So glad that I did. On the other side of that, you have the responsibility of knowing that all the things that they’re being put through, all the things that my husband was being put through, surgeries and medication and chemo, all while he was completely unaware of his diagnosis — he went into sedation not knowing he had cancer. I was making all of these calls on his behalf not knowing if I was just torturing him and not knowing if he was going to survive. That responsibility compounded. I think I also knew that he would’ve said, do whatever you can to keep me here. We’re fortunate enough to have had it work, but I know it doesn’t for a lot of people. Again, I have to remind myself that we’re just extremely lucky to be where we are.

Zibby: When he was going through all the additional chemo, I’m like, how can he be okay? Oh, my gosh. Then I went on such a deep dive and watched every single thing that was ever posted on both of your Instagram accounts. Now I’m a stalker, basically. I want to see everything. How are they? Then the video that he posted with some of those images, especially the one looking down at his legs, I just keep replaying it. It’s so sad. It’s amazing, but it’s so sad.

Steph: He lost seventy-five pounds. To an athlete who has two percent body fat, he went down to ninety-five pounds. He’s 6’1″. The mere fact that he continued moving when he was that skinny, he’s just such an incredible human. He wouldn’t say that’s why he’s here. He hates the hero narrative. He says that it’s all the doctors. It’s all the community that saved him. I was there. I watched him fight day after day. I see both sides of it.

Zibby: The way you talked about the doctors, too, was so moving, how they really took a personal vested interest in him and tried everything. That is so important.

Steph: Reading it back, I wish I had gone into more detail about just what they did. They really put their reputations on the line. So many of their colleagues were telling them, don’t accept this patient right now. He’s going to die, and then that’s on your hands. It’s the middle of the pandemic. Why would you take this patient? There was two in particular that just said, if anyone can do it, it’s him. We want to give him a chance. I actually met one of the doctors again at one of my book events in Phoenix. He showed up. Actually, a few of the people from my book that I had written about showed up without my knowing that they were going to be there. They met Rivs awake for the first time, which was surreal. Some of the nurses that had cared for him never got to see him awake, which is kind of strange. It was just emotional. They’re really superheroes, for sure.

Zibby: You also take us through a lot of your own coming-of-age, if you will. You mention your tattoos in the book. Then I was like, oh, really a lot of tattoos here.

Steph: I didn’t have that many when I went to BYU. I went to the Mormon LDS school. I only had a few visible tattoos at that time. It was kind of easier to hide them. I don’t know if they would’ve accepted me with these hand and finger tattoos.

Zibby: Tell me about the tattoo journey. When did you get them all? What’s the story there?

Steph: I got my first tattoo when I was fifteen, actually. I was visiting my sister in California. There was this little tent with this guy with a tattoo gun. He was like, twenty-dollar tattoos. I was like, sure. That was my first tattoo. Then I got several more after my father passed away. I think it was my way of having some kind of catharsis and some kind of pain being a little bit constructive. At least it was art. I tried to go back to Mormonism for a few years, so I stopped getting tattoos. After I met my husband, after we got married, I tried to be a good, obedient member of the church for a while. Then I realized again that didn’t resonate with me. Then I started to get tattoos. The first one that I actually got in my adult years was a quote from my dad. He wrote me a letter before he passed away. I have that. I have a couple of his — it’s his actual handwriting — quotes on me. Now my thing is I’m just getting jokes tattooed on me. I have inside jokes from my friends. I’m just kind of putting the script between the images. Once you have this many, it doesn’t really matter what you get anymore.

Zibby: It’s just, you might as well. It’s like a blackboard. That sounds like an outdated reference. I guess there aren’t . You’ve shared so profoundly, your whole life story, your love for your husband, the intimacy of your relationship, your love for your girls. It becomes a best-seller, which is amazing. Now where do you go from here? Where is happily ever after? Is there such a thing? How do you just take out the garbage and move on with the day-to-day stuff?

Steph: That’s what I’m asking myself now. Okay, so you have this lifelong goal, which for me was writing a memoir and having it reach The New York Times best-seller list. That’s always been the pinnacle of my career. I did it, so now what? Is it all downhill from here? No. I think this happened at the perfect time in my life because I feel as though the rest of my life hasn’t changed, and it’s going to continue to remain the same. I’m still just a mom. I have my kids home for the summer. We’re running around. I’m glad that my life hasn’t changed, other than the podcasts and the interviews. I think had the book come out a few years ago, I might have been more susceptible to either the criticism or the praise of it. It might have changed the way I see myself. I feel like I’m still me. I’m still awkward and weird and mom and wife. What I would love to do is I really want to write a novel. I feel like I’ve done enough of the memoir. People know way too much about my life, the intimate details of my mind. I’ve actually written several chapters of taking a character from my memoir and then creating a story around this particular character. It would stay within the whole, probably, medical realm because that’s what is close to my heart now, and trying to humanize the medical staff, but in a fictious way.

Zibby: Wow, that sounds . I tried that, by the way. I wrote a memoir.

Steph: I know you did.

Zibby: It came out. Then I was like, oh, but I’ve been working for twenty years to do that. Now what’s my next goal? Then I wrote a novel.

Steph: Open a bookstore.

Zibby: It’s felt very, very different to me, this type of writing. Obviously, it’s far less personal. If people don’t like it, it’s not going to be the same as people not liking the memoir, which is basically like, here is my lifeblood on this page. That means you don’t like me. Do you know what I mean?

Steph: I do know what you mean. Believe me. The night before my book came out, I had this courage. I was crying and laughing. I think I realized for the first time that people were going to have an opinion on not only my writing, which is subjective, but on my life and about the decisions I had made and the way that I had dealt with difficult things. It’s a really terrifying thing to put yourself out there like that. Then you have no control over the way that people receive it. I don’t know if I’m going to do it again.

Zibby: If there’s anything I can do to help spread the word, if you want to come do an event at my bookstore or you want to teach a class for Zibby Classes on memoir writing or writing your way through trauma, I don’t know, just let me know. Open door.

Steph: I love that. Thank you. You’re not in LA, but your bookstore opened in LA? Is that right?

Zibby: I’m in LA now. Although, I don’t know if I will be when this comes out. Over the summer, I can spend a couple weeks out here, but I have my kids. When they’re with their , I can come. I’m here in and out. Yeah, my bookstore’s here.

Steph: That’s so cool. I’m going to stop by. I’m going to be out there in a couple weeks for another podcast, so maybe I’ll come. It’s open, right, the bookstore?

Zibby: Yeah. We can talk after. You can do, even, just a signing of stock if you don’t want to do a whole event.

Steph: Cool. I would love that. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you again. This book, as a reading experience, is everything I personally look for where you think, you feel, you connect, you cry. It was so good as just the book journey itself. Then the feeling that I had towards you, after you finish, it’s like, .

Steph: Thank you. Thank you so much. I’m honored. Thank you.

Zibby: Enjoy the summer running around with the kids and all the rest. Good luck with the novel.

Steph: Thank you. We’ll see you. So nice to meet you.

Zibby: Nice to meet you too. Buh-bye.

Steph: Bye.

EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE: A Memoir by Steph Catudal

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