Psychologist Mary Pipher, author of the bestselling book Reviving Ophelia, has written a candid and wide-ranging memoir that focuses on her spiritual renewal following a meltdown at the height of her success. Our review of her new book, Seeking Peace is here. In this interview she talks about range of subjects including the importance of self-care and the value of Buddhist practices.
Q. You've written previously about the emotional lives of teenage girls, women with eating disorders, elderly people, and adults facing the multiple responsibilities of their middle years. But in this book, for the first time, you've chosen to focus mainly on yourself. Why?
A. All of my books have been attempts to understand something that was troubling me. This was true when I struggled as a therapist to understand teenage girls and it was true in 2006, when I realized that I needed to put my life in perspective. I am a curious person and I write to clarify my thinking when I am confused.
For my own inner peace, I felt compelled to embark on a journey of self-exploration. I like to be an appreciative and contented person and I wanted to examine my life in a way that allowed me to see what was true, and to heal.
Q. Why was this book more troublesome to you than any of your previous seven?
A. Looking honestly at oneself is not for the faint of heart. Much of the time as I wrote this book, I felt self-absorbed and sad. I had a great deal of trouble writing about my childhood. I had so many strong feelings I couldn't articulate. I have always loved my parents and I wanted to keep loving them, but, for the first time in my life, I acknowledged their shortcomings. I also had to face my own pain, which I had kept buried my whole life.
Q. How did the runaway success of Reviving Ophelia lead to your inner crisis?
A. No one was more astonished than was I by the success of Reviving Ophelia. At the time the book was published I had a life filled with friends, family, work, and comforting routines. The book's success catapulted me into a chaotic life not unlike that of my childhood. As I traveled and spoke, I constantly felt in over my head and aware that I couldn't take as much care of others as they genuinely needed. I felt a loss of control. I was away from almost everything that calmed me down.
Q. How did your need to nurture others and put your own needs last contribute to it?A. I wasn't good at setting limits and taking care of myself. Since early childhood, my identity had been that of a "good little helper." I had always taken pride in doing what was expected of me. Suddenly, because of the number of people who wanted my help, I stopped being a "Yes" person and became a "No, I am sorry" person. I couldn't behave in accordance with my own moral standard. Even as I worked from early morning until bedtime, I was constantly disappointing others.
Q. How did your crisis manifest itself in your life?
A. With success, I developed insomnia and became more depressed, anxious, and lonely. I felt odd again, like I had in my childhood. After a few years of this, I also had high blood pressure and heart arrhythmias. Still, I want to emphasize that almost no one knew I was struggling. I continued to work, see friends, and act as usual. Mine was a polite breakdown. I mention this because I think we all walk among people in crisis and are unaware of their suffering.
Q. Going out on national speaking and publicity tours sounds very glamorous to most people, but you did not find it so. You had many wonderful experiences, but also some truly awful ones. What were some of the best and the worst?
A. I am grateful for my success and I know how lucky I am to make a living as a writer. Almost all the people I have worked with at speeches and on book tours have been kind and interesting. However, on the road, I was often hungry, tired, and stressed. I was aware I could not meet the needs of all the people who wanted nurturance and attention from me, and this troubled me greatly.
My worst experiences involved working when I was dizzy from hunger and lack of sleep. I had a few times when my mind wasn't working, but I was stage or doing a national interview. My best experiences involved traveling all over the country and realizing how truly beautiful America was. If I hadn't experienced my second lifetime, I would never have visited Cape Cod, Acadia, Denali National Park, and the Cascades.
Q. Were you worried that readers would be turned off by the fact that your misery and despair had actually been brought on by great success?
A. Right now we are in hard times and many people are worried about health care, mortgages, jobs, and food. In this context, I am reluctant to talk about my own small issues. I know I am one of the most privileged people to ever walk the earth and that many writers would love to suffer my problems.
Until I was finished with this book, I was not sure that I would share it. In the end, though, I trusted my readers. I felt that if I told the truth about my experience, it could be useful to others.
Q. How did you heal yourself?
A. The winter of 2002–2003, after I experienced a meltdown, I simply rested. I stayed home, read, cooked familiar foods, and walked on a wintry Nebraska prairie. I went swimming and listened to beautiful music. I kept my commitments, but I did no more than was necessary. For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to do what I yearned to do.
Q. Was your long experience as a psychotherapist helpful to you as you dealt with your own depression?
A. I was able to diagnose, but not treat, myself. Over the years, I had developed good stress-management skills, but that winter, they did not suffice. My recovery began when I relabeled my crisis as a spiritual one. I began reading Buddhism and meditating. I stopped running from pain and faced myself honestly and with compassion. I stopped trying to improve and began to accept the person I already was.
Q. When did you start to explore Buddhism? How have Buddhist teachings and practices like meditation helped you find peace? And why do you call yourself the worst Buddhist in the world?
A. As a student at Berkeley in the late 1960s I had read Buddhist writers such as Alan Watts and Ram Dass. But I didn't meditate until 2002. During my sessions, what helped me most was simply paying attention to my jumpy mind and my long-ignored body. I also benefited greatly from the Buddhist teachings on compassion. I had always thought harshly about my failings. Over time, I began to be more merciful towards myself.
I jokingly refer to myself as the worst Buddhist in the world because that is what my husband called me one day as I ran about the house issuing orders and multitasking. I am a stress monkey with a busy mind. However, the irony of this title is that most of us are the worst Buddhists in the world. Over time, I realized that we all contain frenzy and serenity, pettiness and abiding compassion.
Q. How do you think your story can help other people as they seek peace and more meaningful lives?
A. We humans are all very much alike. We face a similar set of challenges — coping with the slings and arrows of childhood, learning to think clearly and to control our emotions, and finding love and work. We all suffer and we contain within us everything we need to recover and flourish. I hope readers find something of themselves in me. As they read of my journey, I hope they will perhaps be kinder and more accepting of themselves.
Q. Your mother was a doctor, your father was in the military, and both of them were away from home for much of your childhood. You grew up in small towns all over the Great Plains, and you spent summers with relatives in the Ozarks. Do you see your childhood as unusual or remarkable in any way?
A. People often told me that my family was unusual. I was proud of my doctor mother and rather ashamed of my father, who could be quite crude and impulsive. I was aware that most children had parents who cooked them dinner every day. I knew we ate different foods (kimchi, fried rattlesnake, sukiyaki, and menudo) than our neighbors in Beaver City, Nebraska.
I felt my brothers and I were different from other children. We were more imaginative and sensitive, but we were also clumsier and less socially adept. We played with each other or alone on the playground at school.
Q. What are the main gifts that you inherited from your parents? What do you wish each could have given you but didn't?
A. From my mother, I inherited a sense for the moral issues present in everyday life. She was a storyteller whose thoughts about people always touched a deep core of meaning. From my father, I inherited a generous spirit, a sense of humor, and a love of the outdoors. He was a totally open person, without guile or greed. I don't waste much time wishing, but if I could change anything I would not have spent a year without my mother when I was six.
Q. How was it helpful to you to see your childhood and your parents more clearly, with all their strengths and weaknesses?
A. Because I had always needed and wanted to love my parents, I had long avoided judging their erratic parenting. However, as I studied my own life, I realized I had granted amnesty to everyone but myself. When I wrote this book, I realized that I must face the pain of my childhood. As I looked more realistically at my family, I was able to experience my own pain. This allowed me to forgive myself and to nurture myself in new ways.
Q. What new things did you learn about yourself as you looked back on your life? What secrets had you kept from yourself?
A. I learned that I had been a caretaker since I was a year old and my brother Jake was born. My mother was in medical school and my father was fighting in the Korean Conflict. Jake and I were left with various housekeepers. All of my life I have been loved because I was useful. My deepest satisfaction comes from helping others. But the cost of this caretaker identity is anxiety when I cannot help and also a neglect of my own needs. The secret I had kept from myself was that I have been needy too.
Q. As a young woman in the early 1970s, fresh out of college and preparing for graduate school, you became a single mother. How did that decision affect your life?
A. My son was the best thing that ever happened to me. He made me happy from the day he was born. When Zeke was a baby, I was poor and rather unfocused. But I wanted to be a good parent and I made new plans. As I took good care of Zeke, I took much better care of me.
Q. What role has writing played in your life? What does it mean to you, psychically as well as professionally?
A. Writing has allowed me to think on paper. I have found great joy in the hard work, intellectual stimulation, and quietness of the writing life. Writing has made me a more serene and deeper person. It has also allowed me to help other people, and this has been a wonderful gift to me.
Q. You write that growth is the only cure for great sorrow or an identity crisis. What do you mean by this?
A. Crises jolt us of out of the trance of daily life. After a breakdown or a crisis, it becomes impossible to live as before. People who try to move on without self-exploration tend not to heal or grow. They turn to drink, pessimism, or bitterness. Their lives become smaller. When our old ways of coping fail, we have an opportunity to become deeper, more compassionate people. We can move into a larger sense of life. This is the path out of despair.
Q. You also write that happiness is both a choice and a skill that we can learn. How so?
A. People are pretty much as happy as they make up their minds to be. Circumstances alone do not determine happiness. Nor does genetics. We all suffer — some much more than others However, those who suffer the most are not always the most miserable. Some extremely fortunate people despair while others, with quite tragic lives, find joy. All of us can acquire the skills necessary for happiness — gratitude, a sense of humor, perspective, acceptance, altruism, and the ability to inhabit the present moment.
Q. As you point out, a huge number of Americans are currently experiencing despair and a general sense of helplessness as a result of the country's financial crisis. Even though in your case success was the agent of despair, are there parallels to the nature of the suffering that people are experiencing now? And are there any insights, advice, or coping strategies that you could offer people who are suffering to help them get through this difficult time?
A. The first rule of the wilderness is, "Don't panic." Another rule I find helpful is Thoreau's, "Simplify, simplify, simplify."
In all times and places, certain things have helped those who are fending off despair. Often people in crisis need time alone to rest and to think. Healthy food, exercise, time outdoors, art, beauty and spiritual practices sustain most humans through crises. In dark times, we most need the closeness and comfort of loved ones. It helps to realize that we are not alone. In our suffering we join a community of people who throughout time have met with adversity, struggled to find their bearings and then moved on as wiser and kinder human beings.
Q. You had your sixtieth birthday not long ago. How did you celebrate it, and what kinds of gifts did you receive?
A. I asked my family to give me gifts of self-expression. It was the most marvelous birthday of my life. My son cooked a fancy Indian meal and my husband and daughter wrote poems. The grandchildren performed a play that Kate, the oldest, had written. Then my musical family sang a Stephen Foster song to me. While Zeke and I held hands and watched, the grandchildren danced in front of us. As I watched the performance, all of my family, living and dead, joined the dance and I felt utterly happy and at peace. I was home.
Interview provided by Riverhead Books, publishers of Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World.