Transcript

742: The Thing I'm Getting Over

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

There's not much to the story of how Chase got injured. He was invited to a New Year's party in Philadelphia. He flies in, goes to the party, goes back to an apartment where he's staying with three other people, gets up around 7:00 in the morning.

Chase Friedman

Lack of sleep, still hungover, maybe a little drunk from the night before. And I went to the bathroom, and I tripped. And next thing I know, I'm on the ground. All three of them are around me. They're freaking out.

Ira Glass

He's concussed, doesn't know where he is or what's happening. They're like, get up.

Chase Friedman

And I was so confused. I was like, OK, I'm trying. And I was just like face down on the ground. My arm was like this, and I was pushing.

And they were shaking-- the moment I realized I was paralyzed was they were shaking my leg. And I kind of knew something was happening to my leg. I was like, are you touching me? And they're like, yeah, we're shaking your leg. You don't feel that? And I was like, no.

Ira Glass

At the hospital, he learns that there's trauma and internal bleeding in his spinal cord around the C4 vertebra. They tell him he may never walk again. He can't stand, or control his arms, or use his hands. It's not clear he ever will.

Somebody has to feed him. He's all alone, no visitors. He's basically immobile in front of a television that's set to Comedy Central, which those particular weeks, he says, was reruns of The Office most of the day. He said he watched from season one all the way up through the finale of season nine, and then season one began again.

And one day early in the ICU, he's in a group chat with his buddies-- which means, since he can't pick up his phone, a nurse reads to him what they are saying, and then he dictates what to write back. And they're trying to cheer him up. And they come up with a project for him, a goal, a heroic goal, an unusual goal, a goal that is the reason that I wanted to talk to Chase, this goal that really started as a joke.

Chase Friedman

My one friend Julian said, get better. Dan said he'd let you kick him in the [BLEEP] when you get home.

Ira Glass

Oh, wait a second. Let me just stop the story right there. I actually checked with our lawyers. It's not actually forbidden to say that word on the radio in the United States, but it falls into a gray area. And rather than beep it over and over as you tell the story, we thought we might just substitute a word when you and I are talking. And here are the phrases our lawyers approved to replace that word with-- manliness, man parts, nether region, loins, twins.

Chase Friedman

[LAUGHS] Sorry. That is so-- what was the first one?

Ira Glass

Manliness, man parts, nether region, loins, twins.

Chase Friedman

You can't say [BLEEP]?

Ira Glass

Can't say [BLEEP]. Can't say [BLEEP]. We specifically asked about [BLEEP] and [BLEEP].

Chase Friedman

[LAUGHS] Sorry. This is such a funny part of this conversation. Well, what do you think is best? I'll just go with whatever you prefer.

Ira Glass

I like nether region just because it sounds the funniest to me.

Chase Friedman

OK, we can do that. I like it, the nethers.

Ira Glass

The nethers. Before long, Chase got physical therapy, where they planned what kind of electric wheelchair they would get him because there was a chance his arms and legs would never recover. But of course, he knew exactly where he was headed, a goal so pure that even a small child could understand it, a goal set specifically because his friends believed he never could reach it.

Chase Friedman

Dan would let me kick him in the nethers. I kept that in the back of my head the entire time. The entire time I was getting better, I was like, Dan's going to have it. Dan's going to have it.

Ira Glass

You had a goal.

Chase Friedman

I had a goal. I had a lot of goals. And on a more serious note, that was-- having multiple goals was so important to the recovery.

Ira Glass

In fact, he had three goals. Kicking Dan in the nethers was the most ambitious and pie in the sky, but the other two were no cakewalk either and also pretty idiosyncratic. Take this next goal.

Chase Friedman

To flip people off, to give the middle finger. And I worked so hard on my hands.

Ira Glass

How old are you?

Chase Friedman

25.

Ira Glass

OK.

Chase Friedman

But come on. Come on. I couldn't move my fingers at all until about two and 1/2 weeks in. I had a breakdown with the therapist there. I was crying. It was one of my first big mental breakdowns.

Ira Glass

He thought he'd never use his fingers again. She's like, let's see, and told him to try to move his thumb. He couldn't do it, but he could move his index finger, like just a quiver, like a millimeter. And he set this goal, which he actually achieved a month and a half later with incredible effort. He was finally able to get his middle finger fully straight.

Chase Friedman

And I freaked out. I was like, look, I did it. All the therapists look at me, and I just start flipping all of them off. And they're like, yay, yay!

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

His next goal-- well, Chase actually lives in California, but he'd flown to Philadelphia for the New Year's party and injured himself in Philadelphia, and was now recovering in Philadelphia. And for him, as an out-of-towner, one of the things that Philadelphia means is those steps Sylvester Stallone runs up in the movie Rocky in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Chase wanted to climb them, all 72 steps.

Chase Friedman

I told my therapist about it. And even though, in the beginning, she thought it was going to be impossible, we just kept practicing steps as much as we could. That's the thing about the therapy, is they take your goals and they work at it, no matter how ridiculous they are, whether it's kicking someone in the nethers or climbing up some steps. They really try to gear it towards what you want.

Ira Glass

To give you a sense of why the therapist thought it would be impossible or ridiculous-- when Chase came up with this goal, he couldn't stand. He couldn't walk. Later, they would suspend him above a treadmill with ropes, and two therapists would move his legs to get the muscles to remember what walking is. Then he would learn to walk with a cane and then without a cane. But before he did any of that, back when he was still just learning to get around in a wheelchair, they started him going upstairs to make this goal. And two and 1/2 months after he entered the hospital, he went to the steps where Rocky trained, rode in a wheelchair up to the first step, stood, and started climbing slowly, watching each foot as he planted it-- one, then the other, a physical therapist steadying him from behind.

Chase Friedman

And balance is difficult. I have to look down. So the whole time I'm looking down at my legs. And I can hear a bunch of people clapping, but I'm so focused. I go up the first little flight, go up the second little flight. I look up-- hundreds of people.

Man

Nice.

[CHEERING]

Ira Glass

He actually posted a thing online saying he was going to climb the Rocky steps and livestream it, and he didn't expect that lots of people would actually show up in person to see him climb to the top.

Man

Almost there. One more! One more! One more!

[CHEERING AND CLAPPING]

Ira Glass

So, a triumph. But there was one goal left, the final goal, the most difficult goal for a bunch of reasons that we'll get to in a minute-- kicking Dan in the nethers. Dr. Emily Beus is one of Chase's physical therapists. She says most of her patients had spinal cord injuries, and they had all kinds of goals. But when Chase first told her about this one, she was like, wait, you want to work on your kicking why?

Dr. Emily Beus

That was definitely a first for me. I'm not sure I've ever had anybody request that. And as a physical therapist, just like with doctors or anybody else, our general motto is "do no harm."

Ira Glass

Oh, it hadn't occurred to me that you helping him kick Dan in the nethers could actually be a violation of your Hippocratic oath.

Dr. Emily Beus

I know. Yeah. Well, it just made me hesitate because we talk about ethics a lot, and we never want to harm anybody else. And so I was a little hesitant at first, but the more we talked about it and I understood that it was not like he was just going to try to go out and harm somebody without their consent.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Dr. Emily Beus

And so I said, OK, well, let's break it down.

Chase Friedman

We practiced kicking. We warmed up with some kicking a soccer ball because it was soft. It was easy.

Dr. Emily Beus

Kicking a soccer ball-- a lot of kicking isn't just the leg you're kicking with. It's being able to have your balance standing on one leg, which for Chase was a challenge.

Chase Friedman

It's a lot more difficult for me to stand on my right leg, even today.

Dr. Emily Beus

And then it was a little bit higher kicks to a standing-up kind of bolster. And we practiced each leg and figured out which leg would produce the most force, which one he had the best balance on, and all of that.

Chase Friedman

The left side of my body is in better condition, so we thought, is it better to balance on my left leg and kick with the right? Turned out no, it was better to just try to balance on my right and kick with the left because it was a lot stronger.

Dr. Emily Beus

So it was kind of strategic and fun just to sort of figure out which one would get the task done, make it so it wasn't just like he was tapping him or--

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

Which leg would really do some damage.

Dr. Emily Beus

Yeah, I mean, which would make him feel like he'd really recovered.

Ira Glass

Chase did recover much more quickly and completely than most of the patients Emily saw, she says. His particular injury just ended up working out like that. And so just a month after the Rocky steps, he reached his final goal and made a little video.

Dan

Hey, guys. I'm Dan. I'm about to be kicked in the [BLEEP].

Ira Glass

In the video, Dan seems like the most good-natured person who has ever lived. He smiles.

Chase Friedman

And let me tell you, when the day did come, when we were actually doing it, the first time I went for the kick I thought I got him, but I hit him in the thigh and not the nethers. And he could have faked it. He could have laid on the floor and pretended to be in pain. Immediately, he was like, Chase, you missed. Do it again. I'm like, all right, here we go.

Ira Glass

In the video, Dan stands there, legs spread awkwardly, one hand covering his eyes, but laughing, which I think summarizes all the feelings you could have in that moment. Chase quietly says sorry. He told me he felt bad for Dan, but he also felt like he'd come so far.

Chase Friedman

When the text got sent initially, they thought it was never going to happen. They thought it was going to be impossible. Instead, I slammed him in his nethers. I slammed him, Ira.

Dan

Oh!

[LAUGHTER]

Chase Friedman

He was on the ground. He was not OK. He was OK after. And also, he says in the video, "Chase slammed me in the nethers, and it felt so good." Because he, at the same time, was so proud of me for being able to get to a point where that was even possible.

Ira Glass

He still has a way to go. He's not all recovered, still devoting his days to physical therapy. His latest goal says a lot about where he is right now. He wants to walk well enough that people can't tell he ever had an injury. He wants to seem how he used to be.

It's still hard for him to open a water bottle or change a light bulb. Chest down, he doesn't feel temperature at all. So he can feel the water from the shower hit him, but can't tell how hot it is.

Chase Friedman

And then my fingers, I can feel when they're touching things, but I can't always feel the texture. So when I'm reaching for something in my pocket, I don't always know if I'm grabbing my wallet, or my keys, or just the pants. It's kind of difficult. But I do have sensation everywhere. It just varies, the level.

Ira Glass

But it's interesting that you are so recovered, but you're not totally there. You've come so far, but you're not totally there. You're in this weird limbo.

Chase Friedman

It is weird. I'm not sure how much I like it. I just want all this to be done. I just want the recovery to be done. Whether I fully recover or not, I just want to be at the point where I don't have to dedicate my entire life to getting better.

The point I'm super excited to get to is when I'm not thinking about it. Because right now, every time I move my hand, it's just in my head-- oh, I have this injury. Every time I move my leg, oh, I have this injury.

Ira Glass

He wants to get to the point where he's used to what his body can do at whatever level that turns out to be. He doesn't want this dominating his thoughts and his whole day. But this is the thing-- recovery means something different for everybody. Each person sets their own goals. Part of recovering is actually defining for yourself what your own recovery means.

Today on our program, we have people coming back from some very different things. They're in the same limbo Chase is in, where they're partly there, but not all the way. They're in the middle, which is this moment of enormous hope, but also a lot of other stuff too. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act 1: Naked Lunch

Ira Glass

Act One, Naked Lunch. So today's show really came out of a question that one of our longtime producers, Susan Burton, had about something that's happening in her own life. You may remember, a few months ago, Susan told a story on our show about her eating disorder. And that was something she had kept secret for most of her life from everyone in her life, and then she revealed the secret in a book she wrote, this memoir that came out last summer.

And the book is about what it's like to have an eating disorder, not about how to get over one. Because when Susan wrote it, she was not over it. She still isn't. And over the two and 1/2 years that she's been working toward recovery, she started to wonder, what does recovery from an eating disorder even mean? A heads-up that if hearing stories about eating disorders aggravates your own eating disorder symptoms, this may affect you. Here's Susan.

Susan Burton

At the beginning of recovery, I never thought about recovery. What I thought about was telling my secret. The secret was the eating disorder I'd had for 30 years.

What was this eating disorder? It had been so many things-- starving, bingeing. It's not like you pick an eating disorder as a teenage girl and you have that one for the rest of your life. The [BLEEP] up relationship with food is what you have for the rest of your life-- or what it felt like, to me, I was going to have when, at age 45, I stepped into my therapist's office for the first time.

I'm preoccupied with food, and I don't want to be, I told her. That was the beginning. Now I'm in the middle, two and 1/2 years in. And what that looks like, it isn't easy to summarize. Easy would be, I now do X behavior instead of Y. I don't have that kind of sentence, but I do have examples like this one.

One afternoon this spring, my husband made cookies. I took one from the cooling rack, and I ate it with him and our 16-year-old son. Maybe that sounds like a small thing. Maybe that sounds like nothing. I have to curb that impulse to tell you how small these things are, how nothing they are, because with an eating disorder how you relate to food connects to and disrupts how you relate to everyone in your life.

And eating something sweet at that time of day-- for me, that's not nothing. That happens alone, in secret, because the pleasure is so intense. It cannot be seen. It cannot be shared. There will be no pleasure if it's shared.

But that day, I leaned against the counter and ate the cookie, and it felt good. It was one of so many things I didn't realize about recovery. It's not just eating intuitively. It's making food something shared instead of something secret.

Another day, my other son, age 13, came into the kitchen. He wanted me to come out to the garden so he could show me how the vines of his cucumbers were hardening as they twined. He wanted to show me now, and it couldn't be now. How could anyone be asking me to do anything now? I couldn't. No. In a second. And he went back outside.

But the reason I couldn't was that I just pitted cherries that I was going to put on ice cream. The food was incoming, on the way. It could not be stopped. I could not be intruded on.

When I finished, I went straight to the garden, and my son showed me the vines. I stood there hating myself, reflecting on how many such moments there have been over the years. I can't right now, not right now. I've done a lot of that, like a lot of mothers. And a lot of it has had to do with work.

But work-- come on, really? There's no shame in that admission. There's all this hand wringing about guilt and work and motherhood, but hard work is the most culturally sanctioned thing in America. Try revealing that you've turned your child away because of food.

Do you detect anger? Most of us with eating disorders-- volcanically angry. Also most of us-- placid or even fun girl disguised. That's part of recovery too, expressing anger, not hiding.

My body-- my body is recovering too. It's changing. My body's like those sponges my children always wanted when they were young and we were in line at the grocery store. The sponges are thin, like sticks of gum, the color of Manila envelopes. When you put them in water, they expand. That's what my body has done. It's like one of those flat sponges that expanded.

I told this to my therapist. That's an interesting word, flat, she said. It's the word I mean, I emphasized-- flat, not thin. Yes, she said. And you were flat inside too, emotionally.

And that was true. That's what the eating disorder does to you. That's part of why you have it, so you won't feel. That's maybe the whole point.

Clothes-- a blue linen dress with buttons down the front. There came a day in May when it was the right weather for it. I put on the dress, which used to be loose, but no longer was. But the difference was that I didn't want it to be loose.

In the kitchen, my husband reached for me. He put his hands on my waist, rounded them over my hips. And I wanted it. I wanted to be touched. That was new too.

But the way I've gained the weight-- OK, so this is mixed. Some of it-- it's not the bingeing I did for years, but there's been a lot of reaching for food all day. I long to eat in an orderly way, like meals on plates at consistent times, but I struggle to do so.

There's a specific meal that comes to mind when I think about not only where I am in recovery, but what I want from it. I want to be normal about lunch. Want to know the scene I associate with lunch? Our This American Life staff meeting, which happens in person once a week, when there's not a pandemic.

Every week, food is ordered in and laid out on a table in takeout containers. I've never once taken the food we order in for this meeting. For years, I've watched people pick up plates and just put food on those plates, and then sit down at the meeting and eat that food while we are talking. Every part of this is a marvel to me. But actually, what happens even before they get to the food, that's probably the most important part, that they stood from their desks and came to get the food, neither hating themselves for already having eaten at the wrong time nor brittle and empty because they've been too scared to put anything in.

I imagine hunger rising in a normal way in their bodies, a kind of rising hunger that's so unfamiliar. It's like I crave it in the way people maybe crave love, or touch, or something. It happens so rarely for me.

This is what I'm thinking about when I sit in a circle of coworkers with plates on their laps. I'm looking at these people and imagining what they feel in their bodies. It makes me feel very distant from them in a way that's kind of far reaching, and it extends out to other ways I relate to my coworkers and everyone in my life. So yeah, in recovery, I want to be normal about lunch.

Normal-- we all know there is no normal, that normal is being phased out. But normal stays in my head when it comes to food. Normal about food-- is that recovery?

When my book came out and I was first doing interviews about it, people would ask me, where are you with food now? I would say, I'm working toward recovery, but I felt so uneasy whenever I said this. Felt like I was throwing around a phrase I didn't understand and that my ignorance was clear to everyone who actually knew about eating disorder recovery. I just felt so out of my depth, just so new to this, to every part of it, to the working toward it part, to recovery-- which, just to say, was that the process or the end? Was there an end? What does recovery from an eating disorder even mean?

Square one-- I went looking for the official clinical definition of eating disorder recovery. I wanted this as context, as a baseline, but it turned out there was no baseline. There's no consensus about what recovery means. Most definitions include physical criteria like, are you at a healthy weight, and behavioral like, have you stopped bingeing? But there's also how much you're thinking about food, your ability to express emotions, all the stuff that has nothing to do with eating. This is where the lack of consensus comes in, over what other stuff belongs in the definition.

Intellectually, I was interested in all of this. But emotionally, what I really wanted was to talk about recovery with people who'd been through it, people further along in it than me. I wanted to talk about what recovery felt like to them, maybe as a way of imagining myself into my own version of it. And I had two people in mind. The first one was someone who'd said a single word to me about recovery that captured how I wanted to feel there, a word that I'd been returning to for months. The word was "sturdy."

Jennette McCurdy

I'm very happy to be talking to you again.

Susan Burton

OK, good. Me too.

If you're-- I don't know-- under 30 and you grew up watching Nickelodeon, you probably know who Jennette McCurdy is. She was a star of teen comedies-- iCarly, Sam & Cat. In her early 20s, she quit acting. It was actually part of her eating disorder recovery. And now she has a podcast called Empty Inside. She interviewed me for it last summer, which is when she said that word, "sturdy," that stayed with me ever since.

Jennette McCurdy

First and most importantly, I felt sturdy enough in my recovery that I could share my story.

Susan Burton

When we spoke, you use this word to describe your recovery. You said you waited to tell your story until you were sturdy. As soon as you said that word, something about it grabbed me. And then when I responded to you, I even repeated the word, kind of trying it out.

It just shows a lot of self-knowledge too that you waited to a point where you were sturdy. Because, of course, it opens you up to all kinds of stuff.

And it stayed with me after the interview. And I think it had so much significance because it described to me both an emotional and a physical place. I had for so long privileged and tried for frailness and fragility, and so the idea of being sturdy was suddenly appealing to me. Like, a sturdy body, but also sturdiness in the way that you could be buffeted by bad [BLEEP], by the hard experiences, come out OK. You could withstand it. You might get blown about, but you wouldn't get broken. You would be OK.

And I think as far as thinking about my recovery, it's been an interesting word to return to because it's not as woo-woo as some other stuff, like phoenix rising or--

Jennette McCurdy

the tiger

Susan Burton

--yeah, you know what I mean?

Jennette McCurdy

Yeah.

Susan Burton

There's something really real about it. Anyway.

Jennette McCurdy

Oh my god.

Susan Burton

OK, so I want to hear what "sturdy" means to you.

Jennette McCurdy

Well, I mean, I just have to say, anytime somebody starts comparing people to animals-- the lioness prowls and the night sky-- I'm like, you lost me. There's nothing real that I can grab onto. So for me, it's really important to use language that reflects reality.

Susan Burton

What "sturdy" meant to Jennette was that she felt strong enough in her recovery to speak publicly about her eating disorder without falling back into it. And to give you a sense of what she had to recover from, her eating disorder started when she was 11.

Jennette McCurdy

And being a child actor, I always played roles that were younger than my actual age. And it was very beneficial to be able to play roles that were younger than my age because you could work longer hours. So they were much more inclined to cast you if you were 12 playing eight than if you were eight playing eight.

But when I was 11, I sort of started developing a little, tiny-- I'll call it a nipple bud. I don't know what else to call it, like just a little-- like the littlest peep of a breast. And my mom had actually had cancer when I was two years old, so I thought-- the only thing I knew about lumps in breasts was that that meant cancer. So I thought, oh, no, she had cancer. Now I have cancer.

I showed my mom this lump. She felt it, and she said, oh, Nettie, no. You don't have cancer. You're just getting breasts.

And in my 11-year-old mind, breasts were just about as bad as cancer, truly. I did not want to be older. I knew that that would be really, really not good for my acting career. And I was largely the financial support for my family. So I knew that meant bad things for my family.

I just wanted to stay young. So I said, well, how can I keep the boobs from coming? And my mom said, well, there's this thing called calorie restriction.

Susan Burton

Jennette actually wrote a song about this conversation. It's from a one-woman show she's been performing.

Jennette McCurdy

(SINGING) It might be time for me to teach you a thing called calorie restriction, yay.

[LAUGHTER]

I'm 11 years old. I don't know what that is. Well, 11 years old is the perfect age to find out.

Jennette McCurdy

And from that point on, she not only coached me, but really-- she had had eating disorders of her own for quite a long time, so we were sort of this-- I call it a mommy and me eating disorder team. And we were just-- we'd help each other out every single night-- meal planning for the next day, calorie counting for the day that we just experienced, and swapping tips and tricks, and reading Woman's World magazine diet pages together. And we were just-- I thought it was this fabulous thing where we were just this little duo. And I thought, wow, I'm so lucky my mom's helping me with this thing. I'm helping her. Look at us go.

(SINGING) Life's better when you're empty inside. It's harder when you're full. Trust me, I've tried.

Susan Burton

The idea of going over the calories for your day with your mother-- I mean, how many times in my life have I made little lists of 200 plus 150 plus-- but it was so alone. I mean, my god, that you were doing it with your mother.

Jennette McCurdy

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think definitely the experience of eating disorders so often is something that's so lonely. And while it became that for me after my mom died, and the eating disorder switched to bulimia, for almost the entire time that I had anorexia, it was very much a team sport.

Woman

Now you try, sweetheart.

Jennette McCurdy

OK, Mommy. (SINGING) Life's better when you're empty inside. I will stay empty to fill you with pride.

Woman

Nice.

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

Susan Burton

Was there, like, a moment or, like, a stage where you started using the word "recovery" to describe your experience to yourself?

Jennette McCurdy

Well, I'm glad we talked a little bit about woo-woo words earlier, because there was something, actually, in recovery that I did not like. When I thought of the word "recovery," I thought it's somebody in head-to-toe linen, just beach waves, grinning ear to ear, laughing about how easy their life is, picking up a seashell and tossing it into the sea. That was not how I felt about life or was sure I would ever, ever feel about life.

So I was very wary of using the word "recovery" for quite some time. And I would say I-- I just try to bypass that and use other words. I'm trying to think of what I said. I would just be-- I would say it's something I'm working on.

Susan Burton

Midway through, she got to a point that sounds a lot like where I am now. She describes the feeling this way.

Jennette McCurdy

I've been in recovery for a few years, and I'm not where I want to be. This has been very stop and go. It's been a very good week, bad week. I'm not satisfied with that. I want to wake up tomorrow and work toward being fully recovered. I think it's time, and I felt ready.

Susan Burton

Yeah. So at that point, I mean, because-- among the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because you are-- as somebody who dislikes the phrase "recovery journey" as much as you-- but you are further along that beach-- along the beach in your linen dress than I am. And I feel really ready to be on the other side of this. So for somebody like me who's listening to you tell this story and is like, I have that thought too, I want to put it behind me, so like how are you able-- what did you do next that got you to where you are now?

Jeanette's answer to my question about what she did next was essentially it wasn't what she did next that mattered. It was all the work she'd already done. In therapy, she'd grappled with a lot of the underlying reasons for her eating disorder, felt rage toward her mother, grieved her mother. Yes, she was still purging and still restricting, but way, way less. She just knew that she didn't need those behaviors as coping strategies anymore.

She developed others. She started writing, finding her own voice. That was a few years ago. She describes where she is now as recovered.

Susan Burton

How does the reality of feeling recovered-- how does it compare with what you imagined?

Jennette McCurdy

Oh my god. It feels like there's not that weight constantly. And while I would say I'm definitely a far distance from peace-- it's another one of the woo-woo words for me-- but I feel good. I feel--

Susan Burton

She feels more present, more able to focus, more able to feel her feelings and to tolerate the uncomfortable ones. These are all things I hope for, like, precisely. I asked her about something that might sound weird if you've never had an eating disorder, but I feel food in my body just intensely. Jennette said she understood 1,000% what I meant by this. And she said that's gone now too.

Jennette McCurdy

It's like I'm more in tune with my body--

Susan Burton

Yeah.

Jennette McCurdy

--but less aware of those types of things.

Susan Burton

Talking to Jennette, it made me think of a term I'd come across in the research I'd done about the definition of recovery-- indistinguishable, as in a person can recover so fully from an eating disorder that they become indistinguishable from someone who's never had one. It sounded almost sci-fi, like we erase your eating disorder, but also your old identity-- not even something I would want, but also something I instantly wanted. I thought I'd try out "indistinguishable" on Jennette, see if it resonated.

Susan Burton

There's no difference from them and somebody who's never had an eating disorder. Their brain is indistinguishable--

Jennette McCurdy

I love that. I love that.

Susan Burton

But so does that-- so it sounds like that is appealing to you. Is that what you feel like? Do you feel indistinguishable from somebody who's never had an eating disorder?

Jennette McCurdy

That's hugely appealing. I think I'd be lying if I said there wasn't always some awareness of that being my past. But I would say that I definitely notice when somebody doesn't have any sort of eating disorder. I feel like I can spot them quite easily like, oh, wow, they just are normal is my thought.

And I would say I'm as close to that as I can possibly be. I have zero food rules. I eat whatever I want-- breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks-- and I don't think at all about it. It's almost odd to me when I think about my past. I've said several times to my partner-- I'll say, I cannot believe that there was a time in my life when that was who I was.

Susan Burton

Yeah.

Jennette McCurdy

It's so wild to me. It feels like a different person. It feels like-- I mean, it does feel like my brain was wired differently then.

Susan Burton

I felt hopeful after talking to Jennette, like the freedom she feels, that it was possible for me. Here was someone who'd thought thoughts like mine, who'd felt feelings in her body like mine, who now had new thoughts and a new experience of her body. But I've had these thoughts and feelings for a lot longer time. I'm 47. Jennette just turned 29.

One of the realities of my recovery is just that I've lived with an eating disorder for so many years. And I really wanted to talk to someone my own age who'd started recovery in middle age, talk about what it had been like for them. I had someone in mind-- Anissa Gray.

Anissa wrote a novel called The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, which I read last summer and was really affected by. The novel's protagonist is a Black lesbian in her 40s with an eating disorder, a description that explodes all kinds of stereotypes about who has eating disorders and who gets to tell stories about them. Anissa is in her 50s. Her bingeing and purging started in college. Like me, she hid her eating disorder from everyone in her life for years.

Anissa Gray

I used to be very careful about not doing certain behaviors at home when someone could hear. But my wife heard me in the bathroom at one point, and that was when the shoe dropped.

Susan Burton

Anissa agreed to get help, but only because her wife wanted her to. They live outside Atlanta. Anissa found an eating disorder center there. She showed up for her first group therapy session straight from a three-hour workout and a binge and purge.

Anissa Gray

And one of the things I noticed immediately upon walking in was that, A, I was the only Black person in the room. I'm not unfamiliar with that scenario. That's essentially been the case for me most, if not all, of my life. So that was fine. But I was really struck by how young the women were in the group.

Susan Burton

Mostly college age and 20s, one around 40 like Anissa was then. They were the oldest ones.

Susan Burton

So for those of us who have had this history of eating disorders that's lasted for decades instead of for several years, it's different. The neural pathways are just so much-- the grooves are so much deeper at this age.

Anissa Gray

Yeah, yeah.

Susan Burton

I think back to some adolescent diary entries I would be scrawling after a binge. And this has been a part of my life for two years. I've lost two years to this. And my god, I didn't know how many more years. Is this something you've thought about?

Anissa Gray

Yeah. And I think there's something for women sort of in our cohort perhaps not to have sought treatment early. And that's why I think it's so important for older women to talk about it. When I was out on tour, I met so many women-- 40s, and 50s, and 60s-- who had struggled for just years and years and were finally trying to get well.

Susan Burton

Yeah. I mean, same. Whenever I get a note from a woman-- 40s, 50s, 60s, even 70s-- it's always somebody who struggled for years. And I have thought the exact same thing as you, that there's something about our contemporaries where we didn't seek treatment early. And then part of me started wondering, is it some kind of Gen X latchkey kid thing--

[LAUGHTER]

--or was it just a different time?

I didn't know anything about Anissa's own recovery beyond that she had more of it under her belt than I do. 10 years into it, she doesn't feel totally free. It wasn't what she expected at the beginning.

Anissa Gray

I thought that there would be an end, that I would reach this place where I didn't have these thoughts anymore, I did not have these urges anymore, and I would be, quote unquote, "normal." I would have a very healthy relationship with food. I have a better relationship with food for sure, but I don't know if I will ever be, quote unquote, "normal" when it comes to food and exercise.

Susan Burton

Yeah.

Anissa Gray

I mean, there was disappointment in realizing, OK, this is going to be with me. But there's also a sense of accomplishment and resilience that I have. I know what life used to be like for me, and I know what it is now. So it's easier, but I just have to be vigilant and careful.

Susan Burton

So if at the beginning of treatment you're imagining that there will be an end and you'll reach a place where you don't have the thoughts anymore, and then there's kind of a stage where you're disappointed to realize, OK, this is going to be with me-- I'm curious about this as someone who wonders if this will be where I wind up too. And so I'm wondering something that might be hard to answer, but I'm just wondering how you knew that and when you knew that.

Anissa Gray

I think it was somewhat evolutionary. I ended treatment with still some of the thoughts, and I was much better at managing them. But as time went on I did start to wonder, OK, so is this just how I'm going to be? I thought it would sort of work itself out as I went on.

And so far it hasn't. On the positive side, the thoughts are much fewer. The compulsions are nothing compared to the way I started out.

Susan Burton

Anissa says that one thing that was important to her in this process was watching a friend get sober. In sobriety, for many people, the idea is that you're never recovered, always in recovery. It's a process that's always ongoing, that never ends, as Anissa saw with her friend.

Anissa Gray

I think it was through that and sort of watching her manage and watching her understand that this is going to be-- this is an ongoing thing for me. Her peace with that, I think, was really helpful for me to sort of get some peace with myself, to not feel so tortured about it, to not feel like, oh, woe is me. This is the cross I have to bear. You can live life, and you can be happy. You just have your thing. Maybe there is some point where I'll just be fine, but I don't see-- but I'm also OK with that.

Susan Burton

Talking to Anissa about being OK with an ongoing thing, it helped me imagine how I might feel in the future. What I want, it's simple. Like if my son were to come into the kitchen and ask me to come to the garden while I was making food, I'd have a reaction like, oh, I'm about to eat something, but I'll come out when I'm through. Do you want to sit with me while I eat, and then we can go out together?

And when we went outside to the garden, I would just be in my body. I wouldn't feel my flesh. And if my neighbor came over I would wave and chat, and not feel fake or terrified. There would just be an ease. And if something did rise up, some spikiness, some fear, some urge to reach for food or to reject it, I'd be able to handle it. And if, despite my best efforts, I submitted to it, I'd be able to tolerate the disappointment.

I don't know if that would feel like recovery to me. I don't think I can know until I get there. But I think it would feel like sturdiness.

Ira Glass

Susan Burton, she's an editor on our program. Her memoir about her eating disorder is called Empty.

Coming up, people in bars ask a question that Dr. Fauci has not weighed in on yet-- which COVID vaccine is the most likely to get somebody to make out with you? That's in a minute on Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act 2: Shot Girl, Summer in the City

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "The Thing I'm Getting Over," stories of people who are in the middle of changing their lives, figuring out the puzzle of exactly how they're going to get from where they were to where they're heading. We have arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Shot Girl Summer in the City.

So this past spring when more and more people started getting their COVID vaccines, this phrase kept popping up when people talked about the country getting back on its feet.

Woman

What does this mean, the hot vax summer?

Reporter

America is vaxed and waxed. Hot girl summer is now shot girl summer.

Man

Hot vax summer in the city.

Ira Glass

Shot girl summer-- it's the idea that, this summer, people who got the shots and have all this pent-up energy from over a year of isolation will be out there hooking up like never before. It all got started as a Twitter joke and ended up as something they were actually covering on local news. And I think it got all this attention because it is a very understandable way to measure how far the country has come in its recovery from COVID. But you know, what's reality here? What is shot girl summer like, really, for the people living it?

Elna Baker looked into that. Quick warning, if you're listening with kids-- there's nothing explicit in this story at all, but it does acknowledge that sex exists and is a thing between adults. Here's Elna.

Elna Baker

I've heard this summer compared to the Roaring '20s or the '60s Summer of Love. I've read articles about people making out in the streets. I've seen the viral picture of a condom shelf at Walgreens in New York City that is so empty it looks like it's been raided. And I've heard waxing salons were booming with lots of people prepping to be naked in front of one another for the first time in 15 months. So I decided to stop by a salon, Sugaring New York City. I talked to a waxer named Parminder, who said, yeah, this is true.

Parminder

Oh, yeah, definitely. Sometimes it's so busy that you don't even get a break to even have a snack in between. You're running in and out, clients like in and out throughout the room. And it's good because the day goes by faster.

Elna Baker

But that's one of the things I witnessed in the lobby, the urgency. This woman was trying to make an appointment, and she was like, no, I have to. I have to. You guys are like-- it's like the doors are being knocked down right now. Why? Why is the urgency so big right now?

Parminder

Hookups, late, last-minute hookups.

Elna Baker

And the hype is specifically about sex this summer, right?

Corina

Exactly.

Elna Baker

This is another waxer I spoke to, Corina.

Corina

Especially with the Brazilians, yeah. I've had numerous people say, I'm getting this Brazilian for a shot girl summer.

Elna Baker

The staff at a cafe and bar on the Bowery called Short Stories confirmed the trend with the most television-ready quotes I've ever heard. Are people acting bolder and hornier this summer?

Tom

On a level that we thought not possible since the inception of the internet, since the newspaper and the printing press went into effect.

Elna Baker

That's Tom, the late night manager.

Tom

It's been unprecedented, to say the very least.

Elna Baker

I asked him, what's his proof?

Tom

The amount of bleach that we use in the bathroom is probably at an astronomically all-time high. I'm waiting to restock the bathroom, make sure everything's OK. And it's kind of like, OK, well, there's a couple of people coming out all at the same time, and belts aren't on, which is interesting because our lost and found is currently filled with pants. I don't know-- I've never seen this happen. I've got skirts. I've got shorts.

Elna Baker

Is this is true?

Tom

This is true. When was the last time you went somewhere and lost your pants?

Elna Baker

For the record, six years ago, my friend Ayesha's birthday.

Joey, the beverage director, has been watching people try to get back in the game. One of the things she notices is how quickly people cut to the chase. The most common pickup line, which vaccine do you have?

Joey

It's the new "Do you come here often?" Yeah. So Pfizer, Moderna, you know? It's a club. It's a club. It's incredible.

Elna Baker

God, that's so boring. That's such a boring opener.

Joey

It's completely vapid, it's so boring, and it does the trick.

Elna Baker

People at the bars did seem to have a lot of vaccine brand loyalty. One woman told me she had Moderna, which she liked best because when you say "I'm Moderna," it sounds like you're saying "I'm a modern woman."

Elna Baker

What are your shots?

Woman 1

I am a Pfizer girl.

Woman 2

Moderna.

Woman 3

Moderna.

Woman 4

Pfizer.

Woman 5

Johnson & Johnson.

[CHEERING]

One and done.

Elna Baker

I spent a couple nights outside of bars talking to dozens of people, looking for evidence that hookups are on the rise, asking for stories. And I have breaking news for everyone-- shot girl summer is a sham. It's one of the oldest lies in the book, straight out of a high school locker room-- lots of people talking about having sex, but no actual sex.

Woman

Everyone's been horny for months. Now is the time everyone's unleashing. If you're not getting laid, something's been majorly wrong.

Elna Baker

Are you getting laid?

Woman

I have a boyfriend, so yeah.

Elna Baker

Friends, that's not a thing. Having sex in a long-term partnership is not the post-pandemic bacchanalian free for all we've all been hearing about.

Elna Baker

Are you having lots of hookups this summer?

Man

Not really, no.

Elna Baker

Really?

Man

No. Maybe people are [BLEEP] more than they were, but--

Elna Baker

But you're not?

Man

But I'm not, no.

Elna Baker

One night, a friend and I were out at a hookah bar, talking about how none of the single people we know are hooking up during shot girl summer. We named names. It was a long list. We turned to the table next to us, a bunch of attractive 20-somethings dressed for a night out, and I explained I have this theory that everyone is saying we're all having casual sex right now, but nobody actually is. Is this true?

They told me no, I was dead wrong. This summer is wild. This is the summer to be single in New York. They've been going crazy.

And I was like, oh, OK. So you guys are having sex? One by one they each said no, no, no. I started recording.

Woman

--used to be before.

Elna Baker

Yeah, but I feel like we just cracked some case where everyone is saying everyone is [BLEEP]. And what we've discovered is no one is [BLEEP].

Woman

I think that's the intention of the people. Everybody wants to [BLEEP]. They just forgot how to do it and how to start a conversation with a stranger. Going to feel I'm weird or think I'm weird, or whatever. But are we going to break that ice? They'd be like, yeah, who cares?

Elna Baker

So in theory--

Woman

In theory, that's the plan. And practically, we have to figure it out.

Elna Baker

Of all my friends, if anyone was having a shot girl summer, as in hooking up, there's one that had to be. Her name is Mads. She's 25. She goes out almost every night, travels in a pack of single girls. I asked her if this is the summer of hookups for her or any of her friends.

Mads

We're going out together. We're trying to have sex. We're trying to have a good time. But none of us are finding anything.

Elna Baker

Because all that bartenders-- I talk to bartenders. I talk to people who work in waxing salons. I talk to people doing all the prep work to get people sex ready or whatever.

And they're all like, yeah, people are like-- they're boning. It's wild. But then as far as they know, that's what people are doing, because people leave the bar together. But in reality, what you're seeing is--

Mads

-- no bone zone, no bone town USA.

Elna Baker

So if no one's having sex, what is even just-- help me understand the transaction. Like, what happens when you meet someone? What goes down?

Mads

There is back and forth banter, teasing. Then you-- I don't know-- sometimes get drunk and then just start talking about all the things you want to do to one another. You get in a cab. You go back to their apartment. And then you're alone with them, and you just want to hug.

Elna Baker

And that's on both sides?

Mads

Yeah. Yeah. In fact, I tried to sleep with a few people recently. And it was them. They were not interested. It didn't work. And they were just like, sorry. I don't know why.

One of them was like, can I just hold you? And the other one was like, can I just like take a shower with you, and we can talk? It's like people really looking for things that make them feel comfortable after this year.

Yeah, we're all flinging ourselves back out into the whirlwind of dating in the city, and we're not equipped at all.

Elna Baker

Why?

Mads

This last year, I know people who've died from COVID. I know people who are really sick. I lost my job. I went through a breakup. I lost my home and had to move to a new city to move in with my family. And now I tried to date normally the way that I used to, but I can't. I feel more raw and honest with myself and with others, but I think that doesn't really result in sexy times.

Elna Baker

This tracks with my experience. Recently, I went out with this guy whose profile said, I'm just coming out of a long-term monogamous relationship and not looking to get back into one. I interpreted this as code for hookups only.

But then when we went out, he talked to me for three hours about all the inner reflection the pandemic had led to and how he couldn't be with someone until he sorted out his demons. I, in turn, told him how sick I'd gotten, how it took me a full three months to recover. It was sweet, but not as advertised.

I've been out with five other guys since. It starts hot and ends feeling like I've been to a support group. It's confusing. Mads agrees.

Mads

You're in the mood, and then you're not, all of a sudden. It's weird. I don't know. I can't put my finger on what it is, really.

I definitely felt like there is a thing inside of me that's-- yeah, there's a sadness inside of me that will be fine. I'm good at hiding it. I'm good at not addressing it. But then when I'm alone with someone in this intimate setting, it flares up inside of me, and something flares up inside of them too.

I used to worry that the things that I had been through, my traumas and sadnesses, ruined me for other people, just people who wanted to have fun or were cool and nice. In a way, it's kind of lovely to feel like, oh, I see this in everyone now.

Elna Baker

I thought it would be a sign of recovery if people were moving on, cutting loose, leaving the past year behind. But instead, it seemed like they felt very aware of what they've been through, what everyone is feeling. That decision to not look away, to embrace the sadness, that's a sign of recovery too.

Ira Glass

Elna Baker is a producer on our show.

Credits

Ira Glass

Today's program was produced by Lilly Sullivan and Susan Burton. The people who put together today's show include Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Sean Cole, Noor Gill, Damien Graef, Chana Jaffe-Walt, Beth Lake, Mary Marge Locker, Tobin Low, Miki Meek, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Ari Saperstein, Alissa Shipp, Jessica Suriano, Christopher Swetala, Chloee Weiner, and Diane Wu. Managing editor, Sarah Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry. Special thanks today to Anna Barone-Cone, Andrea LaMarre, and Ashwin Deshmukh.

If you want to see the videos that Chase Friedman made of kicking his friend in the nethers, and the Rocky steps, and giving the finger, and other stuff, they're at his TikTok account. His handle there is @chasegetsbetter, all one word, or on Instagram, he is @chaseunfiltered. Our website, thisamericanlife.org, you can stream our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free. Also, there's videos and lists of favorite shows for your summer car trip listening and tons of other stuff there too. Again, thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He is the worst person to tell a joke to. Knock knock. Who's there?

Chase

[LAUGHS] Sorry. What was the first one?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.