Full text of Glennon Doyle Melton’s talk: Lessons from the Mental Hospital at TEDxTraverseCity conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Lessons from the Mental Hospital _ Glennon Doyle Melton _ TEDxTraverseCity
Hi. I have been trying to weasel my way out of being on the stage for weeks. I am doing fine. But about a month ago I was up early panicking about this. And I watched in all of Tech Talk that Brené Brown did on vulnerability. Dr. Brown is one of my heroes. She is a shame researcher and I am a recovering bulimic, alcoholic and drug user. So I’m sort of a shame researcher too. It’s just that most of my work is done out in the field.
And Dr. Brown defined courage like this. She said, “Courage is to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” And that got me thinking about another one of my heroes Georgia O’Keeffe and how she said, “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant. There is no such thing. Making the unknown known is what is important”.
So here I am to tell you the story of who I am with my whole heart and to make some unknowns known.
When I was eight-years-old, I started to feel exposed and I started to feel very very awkward. Every day I was pushed out of my house and into school all oily and fuzzy and conspicuous and to meet the other girls seemed so cool, and together and easy.
And I started to feel like a loser in a world that preferred superheroes. So I made my own capes and I tied them tight around me. My capes were pretending and addiction. But we all have our own superhero capes; don’t we? Perfectionism and overworking, snarkiness and apathy, they’re all superhero capes.
And our capes are what we put over our real selves so that our real tender selves don’t have to be seen and can’t be hurt. Our superhero capes are what we keep us from having to feel much at all, because every good and bad thing is deflected off of them.
And so for 18 years, my capes of addiction and pretending kept me safe and hidden. People think of us addicts as insensitive liars but we don’t start out that way.
We start out as extremely sensitive truth tellers. We feel so much pain and so much love and we sense that the world doesn’t want us to feel that much and doesn’t want to need as much comfort as we need. So we start pretending. We try to pretend like we’re the people that we think we’re supposed to be. We numb and we hide and we pretend and that pretending does eventually turn into a life of lies. But to be fair, we thought we were supposed to be lying.
They tell us since we’re little that when someone asks us how we’re doing, the only appropriate answer is: “Fine. And you?”
But the thing is that people are truth tellers. We are born to make our unknown known. We will find somewhere to do it. So in private, with the booze or the over-shopping or the alcohol or the food, we tell the truth. We say actually I’m not fine. Because we don’t feel safe telling that truth in the real world we make our own little world and that’s addiction. That’s whatever cape you put on.
And so what happens is all of us end up living in these little teeny, controllable, predictable, dark worlds instead of altogether in the big, bright, messy one.
I binged and purged for the first time when I was 8 and I continued every single day for the next 18 years. It seems normal to me but you’re surprised.
Every single time that I got anxious or worried or angry, I thought something was wrong with me. And so I took that nervous energy to the kitchen and I stuffed it all down with food and then I panicked and I purged. And after all of that, I was laid out on the bathing floor and I was so exhausted and so numb that I never had to go back and deal with whatever it was that it made me uncomfortable in the first place. And that’s what I wanted. I did not want to deal with the discomfort and messiness of being a human being.
So when I was a senior in high school, I finally decided to tell the truth in the real world. I walked into my guidance counselor’s office and I said ”actually I’m not fine. Someone help me”. And I was sent to a mental hospital.
And in the mental hospital, for the first time in my life, I found myself in a world that made sense to me. In high school, we had to care about geometry when our hearts were breaking because we were just bullied in the hallway, or no one would sit with us at lunch. And we had to care about ancient Rome when all we really wanted to do was learn how to make and keep a real friend. We had to act tough when we felt scared and we had to act confident when we felt really confused.