Melissa: The Girl Who Would Never Say No
For Melissa Urban, the wellness icon behind Whole30, setting boundaries is the name of the game. But she wasn’t always like this. To cope with buried trauma from her teen years, she began using drugs to escape. And at quick-sand speed, it became a full-blown addiction that she had to feed at every turn. Melissa recounts the slivers of opportunity that helped her find her way to recovery. By creating healthy boundaries, Melissa went from self-loathing to self-loving and built a wellness empire focused on helping others set boundaries of their own.
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Melissa, Stephanie Wittels Wachs
If I had gone to an AAA meeting and I got my one year chip and what feels like a week or two later, I’m at this party with people I don’t know there is a white single sink with like just a cheapy little mirror over it. And I am looking like lifting my head up from the sink, looking at myself in the mirror feeling something dripped down the back of my throat and I don’t even know what it was. But all I know is I gotta like little from the bathroom. And the next thing I know I’m high.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 00:44
This is LAST DAY, a show about the moments that change us. I’m your host Stephanie Wittels Wachs. Today, a story about boundaries, and the lasting impact when someone you love and trust crosses them, how the inability to create them can lead you down a dangerous path. And how once you set them, it’s possible to completely turn your life around If you were to look at Melissa Urban today, you almost certainly think something like now that is a woman who has her shit together. She’s the CEO and co founder of Whole 30 which is a wellness program that millions of people around the world have adopted. She’s written multiple New York Times best selling books, and her hair and manicures are always on point. I literally DM her last week desperate for the name of her nail polish color. So of course finding two hours and Melissa scheduled to jump on a zoom and unpack her trauma was no easy feat. And while I carve out dedicated time every Friday for these last day chats, my plate is also quite full. So you can only imagine how stressed I started to feel when the tech decided to go bananas in the midst of a meeting time that finally worked for two extremely busy women.
Oh, wait a minute. You’re breaking up on me a little bit, but I think.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 02:22
Am I breaking up still? You guys are looking at me like I amy. Yeah, it’s not just me
Stephanie, if this is the worst thing that happens to me this week, we’re in pretty good shape. You know?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 02:38
This was a fun moment. The wind outside my house had taken out my power. So I had to call in to my own interview, like from an actual phone. But as you can hear, Melissa was taking it all in stride. I can hear you. Okay, great. And then I don’t have an echo. And we’re all good now. Okay, perfect. Amazing. Hello. Welcome to the show. Melissa’s childhood, unlike our zoom call, was actually pretty smooth. She grew up in a big Catholic Portuguese family that got together for every holiday and went for coffee at our grandma’s house every weekend. She remembers being surrounded by a zillion aunts and uncles and cousins in New Hampshire and asked for Melissa, she was a stellar kid.
I was the good girl in school, I was the pleasure to have in class I was the oldest girl and I was the smart one. And my sister was the cute one that everybody liked. And those were sort of our, our brandings you know, the things we adopted to be true for ourselves. So I got really good grades. I didn’t get in trouble. I didn’t misbehave. And my mom stayed home with us while my dad worked sometimes two jobs so that she could stay home. And that took us all the way through I guess when I was like 14 or 15 was when my mom got her first part time job.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 04:07
Those early teen years were good for Melissa until they weren’t something I very much relate to. The thing about the show, especially when you’re looking at an entire lifetime, is that there are so many turning points and before and afters for us. You know, the entire reason we started this show and network is because Jess and I lost our brothers to heroin overdoses. And that was our, you know, big last day before and after a moment. But it wasn’t my first last day. So when I was 15 I had a really life changing event. I got pregnant I had an abortion. It was a massive turning point in my childhood. I mean I really I really feel like I changed overnight. And I can feel the like inner child fallout from that event to this day. Okay, I need to be very, very clear here that terminating the pregnancy was not To the trauma, it was being emotionally abandoned in the aftermath and dealing with the shame and isolation that accompany that. As Dr. Gabor Ma Tei spelled out for me in season one, episode 17 trauma isn’t what happens to us. It’s what happens inside us. It seems like at 16, you had a similar before and after that you were sexually assaulted by somebody that you really trusted. And I’m so sorry. And I’m wondering for you, if you have the same experience where it felt like one day you were in this idyllic space, and the next day, it was a different space.
Yes, Stephanie, I describe it like a record scratch, it was the first record scratch of my entire life. I found myself in a situation with someone I very much trusted who was 10 years older than I was, who plied me with alcohol, and over the course of a weekend sexually abused me, and it was my first sexual experience. So the word that my therapist likes to use with me is imprint, it left an imprint. And because it was someone that I really loved and looked up to and trusted, I adored this person, I had like a very healthy and appropriate, almost crush on this person, you know, we were related, and he was so much older. And yes, that was the moment that was like the weekend, where after that everything changed, I became incredibly withdrawn, I became moody, I began acting out. And my parents had some marital difficulties kind of happening at this point, they were struggling to make their marriage work. And I think people assumed or blamed my difficulties on that situation. But I didn’t tell anyone what happened for a year for a number of reasons. And in that year, I just feel like I went completely off the rails, and was both begging for someone to notice what was wrong with me, while desperately trying to get everyone not to look at me at all.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 07:05
And your parents did they know what was going on?
So not yet. I didn’t tell anyone for a year. And when I finally did tell my dad, in a moment of like sheer panic, because this person came to my house to pick me up to go out for like a really fun outing. And I physically could not get in the car with them and felt sick. So I kind of told my dad, what happened. And obviously, he told my mom, and we had this big kind of conversation. And I want to say, my parents both did not handle it well, and also did the best they could with what they had, we had a very close family. And the decision was made to just not talk about it to protect the family. And I didn’t want anyone to talk about it. Like I didn’t want to talk about it either. So, you know, looking back now, as a parent, I think about all of the ways I’m thinking about it now and sort of how could a parent have let that happen. But at the same time, you know, at 17, I certainly didn’t want everyone in the family to know and the way my family had always historically handled any challenging situation was, if we don’t look at it, and we don’t talk about it, then it doesn’t exist. And this just fell right into that umbrella. We all made the pact that we wouldn’t look at it, we wouldn’t talk about it. And I tried really hard to pretend that it was fine.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 08:27
Yeah, I completely relate to that sweeping under the rug thing I completely relate to. It wasn’t handled well. And they did the best they could both of those things can be so true at the same time. But also so painful. Looking back at that, you know, I mean, I’m in my 40s, too. And I feel the same way, look back. And I’m like, Man, y’all really blew it. And also, what other tools did you have?
You know, I know. I mean, I felt so isolated, I felt so abandoned. I was still going to holiday celebrations with this person. I was forcing myself to go and pretend like it was fine, because I felt like that was what everyone needed me to do. And I felt like that was how I was going to somehow make it fine. And it just ate me alive from the inside out.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 09:16
That is a whole lot for a teenager to shoulder for anyone really, but especially someone who is still figuring out who they are and what their place is in this big wide world. And the thing is, these imprints as Melissa’s therapist calls them leave permanent marks even decades later. I mean, you should have heard me in my own therapy session yesterday. My goodness. I sometimes think how is it possible that this stuff is still rearing its ugly head after so much time has passed? For Melissa. That moment imprinted on her that she couldn’t speak her needs. She couldn’t assert her boundary Raise. Above all, she had to push it all down and pretend everything was okay. Even though it was absolutely not okay.
And I remember spending the next year or two while I was in high school, just looking for the thing that would take me out of my own life. And I tried drinking, and got in trouble for having a couple parties and drink you know, being drunk ones and, but drinking didn’t do it. For me. It like didn’t work. I didn’t like it. And it wasn’t what I was looking for. I went through like the ABCs, after school special gamut of situations trying to like get myself out of my own mind in my body. And it wasn’t until I smoked my first joint in between my senior year of high school and college with a friend who was in college that I was like, Oh, here we are this, isn’t it? I found it. Yep, yeah.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 10:49
So you find this thing that finally settles you, right, like gives you some sense of peace? And once you found that, how often did you start to use? I mean, were you full blown by that point, when you found your thing? What did that look like at this point?
I dove in as hard and as fast as anyone has ever dived in. You know, as someone who had no experience to drugs or really alcohol before this, I ended up meeting a group of people, one guy of whom was a pretty prominent drug dealer in the area. And he became my boyfriend and my, I don’t know what my guardian, my, I don’t know, he was like, my everything. And there was nothing he didn’t have access to. And there was nothing I wouldn’t do. I was the girl who would never say no. So whatever you had, whether I knew what it was or not, I would try it. I would layer it. And I, you know, I had these kind of like rules where I said, Okay, well, I don’t shoot up. And I’ve never smoked crack. And to me, that was like the like, you’re still doing okay. Like, yes, you just drip for 24 hours straight. And you know, all of your MDMA is caught with heroin. And like you now date, you’re dating a guy who just went to prison, but like, you’ve never showed up and you’ve never, you know, smoked fine. So those were like, I had a line at least I’d standards, Stephanie.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 12:10
You had boundaries around the way that you used your drugs? Yeah. Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. And other than the boundaries you had around what you wouldn’t do, Were there moments where you were able to be somewhat self reflexive, and say, like, Hey, this is, uh, this is probably not safe. Like, I’m probably not treating my body well, or was there none of that messaging going on? Like, what was the voice in your head telling yourself?
I mean, at first, it was just really fun. And I embraced the idea that I had had such a proper upbringing. And I had been such a good girl and I had always studied and I never partied. And I was like, This is my room spring. Alright, get it out of your system, like this is just really fun. And then slowly, by my junior year, I started to realize that the thing that I was doing, to get away from my problem was now becoming a problem. Except I was so deep at that point that I was like, just every time the lid came off, I just stuck it right back on like, we’re not gonna we’re not gonna worry about this right now. And only in retrospect, what I occasionally have experiences where we get pulled over with like pounds of marijuana in the trunk or once I overdosed on the floor of a party and like came to with someone kicking me being like, hey, you weren’t breathing there for a little while only in retrospect was I like, that’s kind of fucked up. But I was in so much pain at that point, if I stopped using that I just didn’t give myself any time to think about it. This I was now in maintenance mode. And I needed something to wake up and something to go to bed and something to modulate. And it was no longer fun, but I did not have any other way of existing.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 13:54
She says this time was often a blur, which didn’t exactly mesh well with a full college course load. So she dropped out of college and worked random jobs to pay the bills. Remember Circuit City, she worked there, then in a call center for an insurance company. She did accept offers from family and friends to stay with them. But her addiction was still very much in the driver’s seat. And it refused to reveal to anyone how all consuming the drug use had become.
I just ended up bouncing around from kind of place to place until people were getting wise to the fact that I was not in fact, okay. And I met this guy and we had been dating and he was a user but only casually. And I managed to like keep it together in front of him enough that he didn’t realize how big a problem I had. And I think I did pare down some of the more boisterous kind of sessions and kind of limited to just my I limited it to just my everyday use. But I managed to skate by with him for like a year before he started to realize that I I was very much not okay. And I was very much not using drugs the way that he and his friends were, which was to say casually, and occasionally and only in moderation. And yeah, he tried to stage a couple interventions, you know, I encouraging me to go to therapy or trying to talk to my parents about it. And I didn’t listen. And the wheels continue to fall off my boss until he realized that he needed to set like the ultimate boundary with me. And he sat me down one day and said, I cannot continue to watch you do this to yourself, and like, I cannot let you continue to drag me down with you. So I would love to take you to rehab. There’s like a place I can take you to tonight. And if you agree, like I will take you and I will be there for you and I will continue to support you. And if you can’t, I have to leave. And you know, that was like the moment.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 15:48
And do you go? Do you go to treatment?
By the literal grace of God and I mean, an intervention from my dead grandfather’s ghost in that room now maybe I was just high as hell. But I am telling you that my Lulu came down from heaven and gave me the power to say all go to little words all Gah. I like I get goosebumps when I think about it. That was hand to God, my boo. And I said, Yeah, I would go and he called. And he was like, Okay, we’re on our way. And immediately I start backpedaling, like, well, I’ll go tomorrow, and I can’t go tonight. I don’t have anything packed. And he was like, nope, like, get your shit. We’re getting in the car right now. I’ll bring you your stuff. And I checked into an inpatient rehab facility and I had very good insurance, thank goodness. And I stayed inpatient for a couple of weeks, they paid for my detox, they paid for some of my recovery. I went outpatient three nights a week kind of intensive therapy. For several weeks after that. And after about maybe two or three months, I was back at home and trying to go back to work and like rebuild my wife again.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 16:50
What is that? Like? What is it like to I mean, I witnessed my brother go in and out of this cycle a ton. And but I was on the other side of it, right? And I always was like that feeling of getting out of rehab and being sober, and then coming back into your life and re entering your life and trying to figure out like, what tools am I going to use? Now? How did that go for you that first time like leaving rehab? Yeah, and coming back to your life.
So to be clear, I had every privilege that are recovered, or a recovering drug addict could possibly have, I went back to a job with really good health insurance, who held my job, because they wanted to help me. You know, when I got out to reestablish my life, my family was supportive. So that’s like one thing that’s really important to know. But it was, I mean, it was awful, I got out and I still felt like this worthless piece of shit. I mean, I would walk into the office, and people would say, I’m so glad you’re back, you look good. And I’m like, six weeks ago, I was like face first in a pile of heroin, like I felt like I had, I didn’t know what my worth and my value were, I did not know how to advocate for myself. I reverted back to what I always knew to do, which was just pretend that everything’s fine. Because if you pretend that everything’s fine, and everybody else believes that you’re fine, then you can like not rock the boat and not create waves. And this will be okay. And the only thing I did in that first year out of rehab was I set this one shaky boundary with myself that I said I was going to try not to use. And I hung on by the skin of my fucking teeth for a year just waiting for like a stiff breeze, or a temptation I didn’t see or like a moment, I mean, anything could have knocked me off.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 18:43
And as you’re holding on by the skin of your teeth, are you going to therapy? Are you working the program? Are you going to meetings, are you doing any of that stuff to try to, to stay sober, you’re doing all of that.
I’m doing all of those things. So I was in therapy, the therapist that was assigned to me in rehab happened to be again sent from God, someone I would go on to work with for the next like 15 years. But I was not ready to really unpack all of the things that led me to use in the first place. So I would go to therapy, but I wasn’t making a lot of progress. Because I was not willing to like open that box. I would go to AAA meetings. But every time I would sit in that meeting for me with my history of trauma, and the lessons that it taught me that I can’t trust myself to sit in that room and be told every single day that I was powerless over my addiction made me feel like well, you know, I guess like it is what it is and I’m just going to like pray to my higher power and show up to these meetings and like really hope that somebody doesn’t come like Jimson drugs up my nose. It was it was I went right. I went but like it wasn’t doing it. I don’t know you know, the program says it works if you work it and maybe I just yep wasn’t working it. But I also do believe that that was what I needed at the time, so I did what I thought I would do or needed to do, but that it wasn’t doing it for me.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 20:20
We are back. When we left off, Melissa was white knuckling her way through recovery. But she knew her grasp on sobriety was shaky. And this was the backdrop when one night she did a thing that all 20 Somethings do. She went to a party.
I know for a fact that I was not holding my one year chip at that party. But like in my head, they’re so interconnected. Because I had gone to an AAA meeting and I got my one year chip, I’ve stood up on that stage and got my chip and was so proud of myself. And what feels like a week or two later, I’m at this party with people, I don’t know, there is a white single sink with like, just a kind of cheeky little mirror over it. And the next thing I know, I am looking like lifting my head up from the sink, looking at myself in the mirror, feeling something dripped down the back of my throat, and I don’t even know what it was. That was how fast it happened. I don’t remember the party. I don’t remember who I went with. I don’t remember how I ended up there. But all I know is I got a like little from the bathroom. And the next thing I know I’m high. That’s how fast it happened.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 21:27
I mean, that’s not even the way that you’re describing it. It’s not even like, I let my guard down. It’s like no, like went right past your brain didn’t it didn’t even register.
It did not. There was not even a moment. There was not a moment where I ever recall thinking. This doesn’t feel good. This is not okay, it was there. I had no margin. I had no buffer, there was no layer of insulation to protect me. So it felt like it just assaulted me. Even though Yeah, obviously I was the one with the choice.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 22:00
Yeah, of course. And, and after you’re feeling it and you’re like, Okay, are you like, Well, fuck it. Now I use again? I don’t know.
Yep. Because here’s the thing. They don’t tell you. Or like, maybe they do, but you just don’t know you pick up right where you left off. There is no grace period, when you come back from a relapse, there is no like easing back into it. And I felt like I dove as hard and as fast as I could like, I could not call my contacts fast enough to be like, Hey, she’s back. What do you got? What can you give me? And I spent the next like three or four weeks, using whatever I could get my hands on as fast as humanly possible by myself. I don’t think I went to parties. I didn’t tell people like it was me in my little apartment just using drugs.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 22:50
All of my close friends were people that I used to use with. So I was kind of trying to hold them at a distance. I hadn’t made any new friends. Because I didn’t think I was deserving. And nobody would want to be friends with like a piece of shit druggie. And I was like, I felt very by myself. Yeah. And I felt like that was what I deserve to, you know?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 23:09
Yeah, so much shame and so much like self loathing in that sense. Yes. Yes. And you’re, you know, you’re using alone. You’re spiraling back into this. What motivates you to seek recovery a second time?
I had a moment, a window, I describe these things like just windows or slivers of opportunity when you are depressed when you are addicted. When you are going through grief, you will occasionally have a sliver. A moment where like, light pours in for a split second and you think to yourself, like, Ah, okay, I can breathe. And in one of those moments, I picked up the phone, I called my outpatient counseling program, and I said, I am using again, can I come tonight? And they said, Yes. And I somehow got myself to that program. And that was it. I was like, Okay, I that was the moment that like, I stopped using from that night on.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 24:11
Oh, my God. I’ve been doing the show for like four years and I’ve never heard that phrase that way. That sliver, that sliver thing I’ve heard it described. And I felt it. Yeah, but I’ve never heard it. Like, that is an incredible way to describe that sensation. That’s exactly what it is. Yeah. Melissa does outpatient treatment for a month. It’s three hours of treatment three nights a week. It’s intense, but so was her first round of treatment, which ultimately didn’t stick. But one of the reasons it didn’t stick is that she wasn’t ready to open up. She didn’t want to look at why she started using drugs in the first place. Here I go bringing up Dr. Gabor Ma Tei. Again, but he really does describe this best. He says, quote, addiction began And we’re solving a problem. And the problem is that of human pain, emotional pain. The question isn’t why the addiction, it’s why the pain, unquote. So this time around, she is ready. She reconnects with her therapist and lays it all out for him.
Because I basically said to him, I’m like, I’m ready to like, unpack this box, I’m ready to open the box and look at what’s in it, and like, pull out all the shit, because I don’t want to go through this again. And at that point, I believed that if I could make the progress, or like at least some of the progress that I knew I needed to make in therapy with my trauma, that I really believed that would help ease the cravings and the need to go back to drugs. And that was kind of what I hung my hat on, was that premise.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 25:48
How did you all of a sudden decide, I’m now ready to unpack this box? Like, what was the motivator? Because that’s a big shift right for you.
I was so tired. I was so sick. And I was so tired. And I hated myself. And I missed who I used to be. I remembered that 15 year old Melissa, she was so bright, and sharp and hopeful and optimistic. And she had that like, special thing that some people have where you’re like, things are gonna work out for this one. Oh, yeah. She’s like, she’s got it. She’s gonna make it happen. And I missed being that person. And I didn’t know who I was anymore. And I had tried. I had tried to just not use I had tried to do other things. The one thing I hadn’t done, as my therapist had been encouraging me to do was like, take a look at this thing that was holding me hostage. And I think I was just so exhausted and beat up at that point that I was like, okay, all right. Let’s try.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 26:57
Wow. So Melissa grabs that sliver of opportunity. But knowing you want to change and actually changing is an entirely different story. Most people in Melissa’s life don’t even know that she relapsed and had gone into treatment a second time. And there is she’s doing great, like absolutely crushing sobriety and posing zero danger to herself. And even if you’re not hearing the stressful horror movie music in your head, as I say this, I think you can see where this is headed. Her friend James invites her to come with him to another house party, and she says yes. Now a night like this could easily turn into yet another last day of sobriety. But it actually turns into a very different kind of last day.
We drive up we’re in this apartment, I’m sitting on the floor next to a keg of natty light. There’s like a beer pong table. We’re sitting in the living room. He’s got like a Sam Adams bottle in his hand. I’m drinking tap water out of a red plastic Solo cup because I did at least say no thank you to drinking. And I’m looking around and people are getting like we’re getting ready for the night. The night hasn’t even started yet. And I’m like, What the fuck are you doing here? This is not safe. This reminds me of exactly what happened the last time you went to a party and walked into a bathroom and and nobody here knows the danger that you’re in and I was terrified. I was so scared. For my life. I honestly didn’t know if I’d make it back a third time. I didn’t know if physically I would. Or if emotionally I would care enough to drag myself back a third time. And in that moment of just sheer panic. The first probably honest to god boundary I ever set tumbled out of my mouth. And I said to my friend James, I can’t be here. This is not a good environment for me, I need to go home. And, of course, I expected him to like make fun of me or say well, you can find your own ride or be like, don’t be dumb. Here’s a beer loosen up. And instead he you know, was like, oh, okay, you know what’s going on? He asked me a couple questions. I kind of told him I had relapsed, and this wasn’t a good environment. And after we talked a little bit, he was like, Okay, let’s go. And he took me home. Wow. And that was the first domino to fall in this cascade of new healthy habits and new mindset. That was the experience that cascaded my Okay, fine. Now, I am a healthy person with healthy habits and I’m taking no shit. And I am going to change everything and anything to adopt and embrace this identity. And I’m not going to stop until I feel like I am whole and healthy again.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 29:40
Oh my gosh. That is an unbelievable. It’s truly remarkable. I mean, what’s the next day like when you wake up and you set the boundary and you didn’t use? Like, what? What how what was that?
Like? I still felt awful. Don’t Don’t like, it’s not like all of a sudden, this is no like Rocky montage and all of a sudden, I’m like winning and muscular. And I still felt like shit. I didn’t know what I was gonna do or how I was gonna do it. But there was this small shift where I had in just a moment, reclaimed my power. And don’t forget, for the last year and a half, I’ve been told I’m powerless. And that never sat well with me. And I didn’t like it. And I, I didn’t want to adopt that. And everyone told me that it was I was resisting the program. And I was like, no, no, this is my new framework. Like I do have power, and I can trust myself. And we will rebuild that together. So I’m sure the next day felt a little bit of a vulnerability hangover, a little bit of pride. You know, my next therapy appointment was certainly awful, as they all were for a little while. But it definitely unlocked a shift in my mindset, for sure.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 30:52
Wow. It’s also just amazing hearing you talk about the tiny, tiny little sliver shift of mindset here. Because of the work that you do now and who we know, you’ve become, you know, to see that kind of groundwork being set right there that no, I’m not powerless, I am powerful. I do have agency, I do have the ability to set a boundary and stick to it.
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, and everything changes. And sometimes it’s great. Sometimes you’re like, oh my gosh, thank God, I can shift my perspective on this, because it opens a whole new door and a whole new path for me. And sometimes you’re like, god dammit, why can’t I go back to the like, blissful ignorance that I had before I realized that this was what was coming up for me in this scenario. So it definitely cuts both ways. But once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And to try to resist the thing that you now know to be true is really painful. And so you know, I had kind of two options, I could either take this thing that I had seen and explore it. And as painful and awkward and uncomfortable as that was that was one direction or I could pretend that thing didn’t exist, and go back to living the way that I used to live, which was equally painful, and now felt wrong and felt like a real betrayal of myself. You choose your heart. And I just, I chose that heart.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 32:32
We’re back. So at this point, in her recovery journey, Melissa is back in therapy. She’s opting for the hard work of unpacking her trauma, rather than the hard work of pretending she’s fine. She stops ignoring her past and brings her full self to the table, including the parts of herself that she previously wished would just disappear.
I really feel like for the first few years in therapy, my therapist was talking to 16 year old Melissa, that was the only person who was able to meet him in that room. Yeah, what a five year old Melissa was like, not there. Yeah. So we were going all the way back to sort of how I was feeling in that moment. And I definitely did not have the language. I didn’t know what a boundary was. I didn’t know what a growth mindset was. I think the message that I remember thinking or internalizing was just something around this concept of worth your worth this. And, you know, again, thank God that my friend James is such a good guy and said, Yeah, I’ll take you home, I will drive you The hour home. He demonstrated to me that someone else thought I was worth taking care of like that. And I mean, I don’t know what that night would have looked like if he had laughed at me or left me to my own I don’t know. But again, just that moment that like sliding door moment where he did the thing that made me think to myself maybe like a little tiny whisper like maybe you weren’t worth it. And that was I think what I clung to.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 34:07
That’s amazing. That’s huge. That’s huge. Yeah, and the the behaviors that followed what is the process like of like changing your identity changing who you are, kind of midstream in your 20s.
It started with just a process of noticing moments where I felt icky. So a Portishead song would come on my playlist and I would feel this just I couldn’t listen to Portishead for like a decade. I mean, it was, right?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 34:34
Me neither. The amount of times I have been hired to Portishead No, no, no, no, no cannot go back. No.
Same. So I would notice the song on my playlist and I’d be like, Oh, this doesn’t make me feel good. And I’m like, maybe you should get rid of the song. So I did. And then I would be going through my closet and I would pull out my beloved red baseball hat with the pot leaf that I like swiped from my friend Nick, my favorite hat. I pulled it out. And it gave me a moment of IQ. And I was like, oh, maybe you shouldn’t be wearing a hat with the pot leaf on it now that you’re not smoking. Let’s give that away. And like while we’re at it, are there any other like T shirts or band things or anything else that kind of reminds you of this? Why don’t we? Why don’t we go through that and like make a pile for donation or to give away. So a lot of things happened organically like that just by paying attention to moments where I just didn’t feel good, and then trying to identify what didn’t make me feel good. But then the big thing for me was, I made this one I like sat down, I remember being like, what would a healthy person with healthy habits do. And immediately I was like, go to the gym at 5am, I was back to working my corporate job. I had a new job at this point. But it was a nine to five I had never set foot in a gym in my life. I’m in like my mid 20s. I was not athletically inclined, I didn’t play sports. I’d never gone to the gym, but I decided that I was going to start waking up at 5am and going to the gym, and I did that every single morning, five morning’s a week for the next I mean, we can call it 22 years, because I’m still doing it now. But like when I committed to doing it, I just did it.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 36:09
Yep, I know. I heard it in real time, friends, you can pick your jaw up off the floor, Melissa set this massive intention. And she actually followed through with it day by day, week by week, for 22 years. And by now in her life trajectory. She’s in a new city with a new job and soon enough and apartment all to herself. But most importantly, she hits the social reset button.
So I got to meet these new group of women who only knew me as Melissa, I’m new to running, and I just moved to town. They didn’t know anything about my history, they didn’t know about my addiction, they didn’t know about my recovery, or my relapse or any of it. They just knew that I was like this nice girl who had a new job and was new to running. And they became my group. And we ran together three mornings a week, and I would go to the gym the other two mornings a week by myself, every morning like clockwork at 5am. And that was I think the habit that truly anchored me in my recovery because no worthless gummy drug addict would be getting up at 5am to go to the gym. That was like, that was my mantra.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 37:23
It’s also in doing so many of these conversations over the years, this idea that maybe the meetings weren’t working for you, but you found this other community, you found the community that felt good for you. And you found the ritual that felt good for you. And you had that accountability of like showing up at 5am. And you had friends who if you didn’t would say like, Hey, where were you? Right? Like, it’s not it’s not an AAA meeting, but it is certainly a really powerful force and a really powerful community that you kind of carved out, right?
Yes, yeah, that’s a really good point. I don’t I never really thought about it like that. But I mean, these women were my group for the next like two or three years, we would go out to dinner, we’d go out to brunch, we would run we would do races, we’d take weekends together. We do vacations together, like we were really super tight. They were a relatively diverse group in terms of age. So there was one woman younger than me, a couple of women who like one woman who was in her 50s. And I was in my like, mid 20s at the time. So we had this kind of broad range of ages. There was a little while in my early gym, going where I was definitely trying to use the gym the way I had used to use drugs like to numb to escape to reward and self soothe. But it really modulated itself surprisingly quickly. I don’t know if it was because I was so skinny and winded and out of shape that I literally couldn’t train myself into the ground as hard as I wanted to because I was so weak and puny or if it just maybe I’d like to tell myself that maybe that behavior of numbing and escaping no longer felt good because now I had another kind of tool or other tools in my toolbox. But yeah, it was really a very healthy habit, and a very healthy social group for a really long time at a point where I feel I feel like I needed at the most.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 39:20
It’s this chapter of Melissa’s life that most closely mirrors who she is today. What started as a baby gym habit blossomed, and she became super interested in fitness and nutrition. Then she and the man she would go on to marry created a food program called Hole 30, which is an elimination plan to help people identify foods that don’t make them feel so great. She also published the book of boundaries, which is essentially a guide for protecting your peace, just like she did that night at the party with James. Melissa intentionally chose a life that helped her feel as good as she possibly could in her body. Instead of feeling nothing at all, and at some point, she decided she wanted to help other people do that, too. You have built in the actual empire, right? I mean, you, you are a force, you are a force and hearing you talk about this time in your life, how did you get from that person was on such shaky ground to the whole 30 lady to the lady who’s like Montra online, it’s like boundaries, bitch, like, how did you get to? Like, it’s incredible. It’s incredible to see that, that growth and progress that I’m sure you know it, but I’d love for you to reflect on it if you can.
I mean, don’t. So there’s 20 years in between that, you know, woman who’s like running at the gym with her girlfriends and who I am today. That’s a long time. Yeah, it’s a shit ton of therapy. I was in therapy. I’m still in therapy. By the way. My last therapy appointment was Friday, I’m still in therapy. And I had Thank you, it feels good. I had found a therapist who was perfect for helping me unpack this stuff. I mean, I still remember the lessons and the skills and the tools that he gave me and taught me and I still use them to this day, but he was the guy who would not let me get away with any of my bullshit, he called me on all of my tricks. I was such a good manipulator and such a good like, like an illusionist, I could get you to look over here and make you feel like it was your idea because I really didn’t want you to look over here. And I’d had decades of practice and in hiding those pieces of myself, and he saw through all of it and called me on it right away. And I hated him for it. But I made so much progress with him. He was the person who taught me the skills to evaluate my own worth and value and to decide how I felt about myself. So I no longer needed to rely on external validation, which is a very precarious situation. Yeah, so he gave me those skills. And then I’ve had 20 years to practice them in a variety of challenging situations.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 42:16
What is it like to look at a thing that you have built? From your perspective now and see, I mean, how different the story could have been, right? Like, I mean, this was, what would you say this was a long shot? Would you say like, you know?
Yeah, I mean, the path, nobody really had this path on their bingo card. I’m certain of it. I didn’t even it’s not like I never wanted to run my own business. That was never something I aspired to do. I may very reluctant CEO. But, um, you know, when I did my first full 30, and discovered sort of the incredible radical transformation that that brought into my life, where it was like from this point forward, your life is not the same. That was like another, you know, another avenue for me. And when I saw what it could do for other people, I knew I had to quit my full time, nine to five job, I knew I had to see if I could make this thing work. I had a business degree, but I certainly didn’t follow any business strategy unless my strategy was like, give it all the way for free and see how people do and tweak the program based on their feedback. And like, always ask the community what they need. That was our strategy. And it worked great, right? It turns out that it wasn’t exactly like super strategic. And people from the outside see it differently. But because I’ve been in it since day one. When I do get those moments, either by invitation, or happenstance to take a step back and look at it, I almost feel a little bit like I’m looking at the sun like it’s so well, yeah, process.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 43:46
Totally. What happens when you come up against old thoughts or behaviors, right? Like, are there moments where you will say, Oh, God, that was old, Melissa, that was old messaging, like, Where have that wiring? Get back in here? Like, what does that does that happen to you?
It happens all the time. And I call them echoes, because they are like, they’re faint messages, or impulses or urges or behavioral triggers. And they don’t feel the way that they used to feel it used to feel good. To push people away violently. To keep myself safe. It used to feel good in my life, when things weren’t going well to blow it all up. That used to feel good because then at least I could control the way that it was gonna go because I knew it was going to end terribly and I might as well like be in control of that those things used to feel good. They no longer feel good. So when I get those echoes, I can acknowledge them for what they are. And I have gone through a lot of re parenting exercises through my therapist, but I’ve also kind of developed my own style of re parenting and I kind of just tell younger Melissa Hey, you know that behavior absolutely served you, it did. And I’m so proud of you for doing what you needed to do to keep yourself safe and save your own life like you did awesome. But today, we’re in a different place. And we have a lot more tools. And we have a lot more support. And we are so strong and capable and powerful. And I don’t need you right now for this. I promise, like, you can just go rest. And I’ve got this for us.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 45:28
Oh, my God,
I’m getting emotional. That’s conversation I have with myself. These echoes are behaviors that used to serve me. And I’m so happy that I had them when I did even the drug addiction, I am so happy that I had that because that saved my life. In that moment. I didn’t know how to cope. And I found a way to cope in that let me continue. But it’s also really nice to be able to reassure that younger girl that we are, like, look at us today. You can just like sit and chill in your room. And you can read your book and I’m gonna take really good care of us and like, I don’t need you here we can I’ve got this. And so that’s what I do when those come up.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 46:12
Oh my god, I’m in tears. You just were talking to my 15 year old. It’s so such a powerful like, so true. Like you don’t have It’s okay. We’re in better shape. Now. Go back to your room, listen to your listen to your email records is gonna be fun. Yeah. So if you if you were gonna give, like a snapshot or paint a picture of, of your life now, what would that be?
I would say I am really confident. And kind of unapologetic. At this point. I’m like, I’m 49 I kind of rant like I don’t have a lot of foxes left to give, if you know what I mean. And I have kind of figured out that maintaining my own boundaries, maintaining my own peace is really the most important thing. So you know that, that sense of confidence. And I think what might people might call assertiveness, but really what it is, is just a comfort level in advocating for myself, I am deeply connected to my own needs and my own feelings and my own body in a way that I wasn’t when I was 16 or 20 or 25. I check in with myself all the time, I am the first person I check in with in all situations in all things. And I’m really comfortable advocating for what I need and how I feel. And I think that makes me like a safe person. Because people in my life know that I say what I mean? And I mean what I say? And that I don’t say yes, but grudgingly or resentfully I am, you know, clear, but kind to use that Brene Brown phrase. And I think it’s made a lot of my relationships just so much easier. You know, I got remarried a couple years ago, my husband and I have the healthiest relationship I’ve ever been and and our communication is excellent. So anyway, I think the older I get, the more comfortable I am in my own skin. And the more comfortable I am advocating for my views, and just showing up exactly as I am. And that’s the thing I think that feels the best is right now no matter where I show up, I’m always showing up as me.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 48:34
Yeah, it actually strikes me as you’re saying all of this, that the big thing that you were trying to do so desperately with the drugs was to Escape to get out of your body, right. And now you are so thoroughly in your body. I mean, saying, I check in with myself first and every situation is not running away, not trying to run away and escape and hide. And so my question is, like, is it one of those things where you think you could have gotten here today, without that original desperation to not be in your in your body?
I never spend a second thinking about questions like that, because it doesn’t matter. I don’t know. I will never know. And I can make myself crazy. If I go back and think about like, well, what if that didn’t happen? What if this did happen? I, you know, I talk a lot about how I don’t have regret. I do not live with regret. Because everything that has happened happened to the way that it needed to happen. And I know that because that’s how it happened. If it could have happened any other way it would have, but it couldn’t. So it didn’t and like I just don’t spend time thinking about that.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 49:42
Well, this has been an absolute delight, despite the fact that I cannot see you. I’m so grateful that you stuck with me through all of these technical malfunctions.
This was obviously the way it had to happen. I don’t know why but it was.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 49:58
I know and you know what, we’re not going No fucking regretted. It is exactly the way that it should have been.
There’s even more LAST DAY with Lemonada Premium. Subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content like an AMA with yours truly. AMA stands for Ask Me Anything in case you didn’t know. So just FYI and FYI means for your information. So subscribe now in Apple Podcasts. LAST DAY is a production of Lemonada Media. The show is produced by Kegan Zema, Aria Bracci, and Tiffany Bui. Our engineer is Brian Castillo. Music is by Hannis Brown. Steve Nelson is our Vice President of weekly content and production and Jackie Danziger is our Vice President of narrative content and production. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and me Stephanie Wittels Wachs. If you’d like what you heard today, we have three other seasons that you can check out. Have a story you’d like to share, head to bit.ly/lastdaystories, or click the link in the show notes to fill out our confidential Google Form. follow and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership. You can find us online at @LemonadaMedia and you can find me at @WittelStephanie. Thank you for listening, we will see you next week.