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Family dynamics are complicated—but what happens when you learn that you have dozens (and possibly hundreds) of siblings?
When writer Chrysta Bilton’s mom decided to build a family as a gay woman in the early 80s, she employed a sperm donor. This man also played a role in Chrysta and her sister’s life as “dad.” But he continued to donate to other women—in secret—for almost 10 years. Chrysta learned this shocking truth from an article in the New York Times. On this episode, Chrysta joins Dr. McBride to discuss family secrets, shame, her unconventional coming-of-age story, and how all of this affected her mental and physical health.
Chrysta’s critically acclaimed memoir “Normal Family: On Truth, Love, and How I Met My 35 Siblings,” is available now.
Get full access to her free weekly Are You Okay? newsletter at https://lucymcbride.substack.com/welcome
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The transcript of our conversation is here!
Dr. McBride: My family is everything to me. I think a lot about how they're like me and they're not like me. And there are many ways they're not like me, that they're so lucky not to be like me. And there are things that I've inherited from my parents that I'm grateful for, and there are things that I would maybe tweak a little bit. But I think all of us need to recognize how much we have in our genetic profile that we take for granted sometimes, and then [00:00:30] how much we're capable of change even though we may think we're just genetically programmed to be, you know, forgetful or not ask for directions when we're lost.
I guess my point is it's good to reflect on where we came from, it's good to reflect on where we're going, and it's good to kind of sketch out in our minds where we fit in our family dynamic because that informs a lot of our daily health habits, the way we think, the way we feel. And today's guest is [00:01:00] such an important example of someone who's reflected deeply on what it means to be part of a family that became a lot bigger than she ever knew.
Hello, and welcome to my office. I'm Dr. Lucy McBride, and this is "Beyond the Prescription," the show where I talk with my guests like I do my patients, pulling the curtain back on what it means to be healthy, redefining health as more than the absence of disease. [00:01:30] As a primary care doctor for over 20 years, I've realized that patients are much more than their cholesterol and their weight, that we are the integrated sum of complex parts. Our stories live in our bodies.
I'm here to help people tell their story, to find out are they okay, and for you to imagine and potentially get healthier from the inside out. You can subscribe to my weekly newsletter at lucymcbride.substack.com [00:02:00] and to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. So, let's get into it and go beyond the prescription.
What defines a family? What are the ingredients for healthy family relationships? What happens to us mentally and physically when family secrets are kept, and then when they are revealed? These are some of the important questions Chrysta Bilton explores in her critically acclaimed memoir, "Normal Family: [00:02:30] On Truth, Love, and How I met My 35 Siblings."
In it, Chrysta describes how she learned that she has dozens, if not hundreds of siblings, the offspring of sperm donor Number 150 from the California Cryobank, and how she has reckoned with her past to better understand herself, what is nature, what is nurture, and how she cares for her mental and physical health. Chrysta, thank you so much for joining me today.
Chrysta: Thank you so much for having me. I really admire [00:03:00] what you're doing with this podcast. I'm so grateful to be here.
Dr. McBride: I appreciate that. And I wanna start with your mother who sounds like a real character. I mean, I kind of loved her from the minute I learned about who she was. She was a lesbian in the early '80s, desperate to have a family when a lot of sperm banks wouldn't even let gay women participate. So, tell me what she did.
Chrysta: Yeah. They wouldn't allow gay women or single women for that matter. So, it was a different time. I think we forget how [00:03:30] far we've come, at least in certain parts of the country, in terms of homophobia. But in the '70s and '80s, even '50s and '60s, when my mom was growing up, everyone was closeted at that time. When she decided she wanted to have a family in her 30s after getting sober from drug addiction and, you know, dealing with a whole host of other stuff from her chaotic upbringing, what she wanted more than anything was to have this family. But she didn't know a single gay person who had had kids.
You know, she knew women who were in marriages who were maybe on the side exploring their sexuality, [00:04:00] but she didn't know a single person who had set out to do this out in the open. And, you know, I describe a comical journey that she has to trying to find a father or, you know, a sperm donor for her kid.
She starts with this place called the Repository of Germaninal Choice, which in the early '80s was this...basically this traveling salesman type man with a briefcase who she'd read about in the "LA Times" or "The New York Times" who'd come to your home with a binder filled with what he called, like, Nobel laureate sperm donors. And you'd flip through these [00:04:30] anonymous men with no pictures and she picked a mathematics prodigy. And that was gonna be my sperm donor.
And she tried to get pregnant and she didn't. And then she got spooked and hired a PI to get a photo of this would-be mathematics prodigy. And this very unattractive professor photo came back and she was like, "You know what? I need to know the father of my kids and I want him to be good-looking." These were her criteria for what she wanted.
So, she went on this manhunt and my very handsome model, musician, actor, [00:05:00] man who would become my father walked into a hair salon in Beverly Hills and she was like, "That's it. That's the one." And she took this man to lunch and paid him $2,000 to give her sperm. And I refer to him as my dad, not a sperm donor because after that initial transaction, my mother realized that, you know, she was filled with shame about going about having a family in this different way. And she felt like maybe she was depriving me of something by not giving me a dad. So, she then paid this [00:05:30] man to play a role in my life and I knew him as dad.
Dr. McBride: And he promised her at that time that he wouldn't donate sperm to anybody else, that you and your sister Kaitlyn would be the only offspring, yet he was making a living off of donating his sperm. Tell me about the moment that your mom learned about him not keeping that promise.
Chrysta: Shortly after the hair salon transaction, she made him swear he would never do this for anyone else. And at the the time, he was just like, "Of course," because it's not like [00:06:00] women were coming up to him at hair salons on a daily basis and, you know, lesbian women asking him to father a child. But then it became more apparent why she was so adamant about this because shortly after that she took him to the California Cryobank, which was just starting at this time, to be tested for STDs and to test his sperm count.
And he saw a bunch of men walking in and out of donation rooms and he was like, "Oh, now I understand. It's because she was gonna bring me here and she knew I'd get ideas." And he did. So, while he was [00:06:30] playing dad to us, he then donated to the California Cryobank for almost 10 years, 3 times a week. I think he was one of their most prolific sperm donors.
And we did not learn about this until I was in my 20s. And through a wild series of events that I document in the book, my mother discovered it from a front-page story in "The New York Times" featuring my dad with his arm around one of these half-biological siblings. And it was a big story at the time because he was [00:07:00] one of the first anonymous sperm donors to "come out" and welcome all of his biological children to come meet him. So, yeah, that started a real nervous breakdown for my mother who, I think, already had a lot of shame around our family that was so different to the other families around us. But this was too different, I think, in her mind.
Dr. McBride: And how long was it between that 2005 New York Times article where his story was revealed and you finding out that this man who is your father and not really always present in your [00:07:30] life but part of your life had fathered these other children?
Chrysta: So, my mother decided that she would never tell us this story. And by the way, after "The New York Times" story, like, this was a huge story. Suddenly, you know, "60 Minutes" was calling to have my dad come on, and lots of newspapers were coming to interview him. There was a documentary film crew from Canada who were gonna document the story.
So, I don't know how my mom thought she could keep this from us forever, but she did. And the only reason she finally sat down with me and my little sister to tell [00:08:00] us was because, again, through just a bizarre series of events, it turned out that I was most likely dating my half-brother, which I guess is, you know, what happens when sperm donation is that unregulated. That's the fear. It just happened to happen in my actual life.
Dr. McBride: And so, that brought the conversation to a head. You had to know and she told you.
Chrysta: That's right. Yeah. And that was a lot to unpack because she had never told me that she'd paid my father to have me. I was told that they were best friends who had had a kid [00:08:30] together, and she'd also never told me that he'd been financially incentivized to play the role of dad. So, even though she didn't say all that in that initial conversation about the siblings, it just alerted me to the fact, which I already in my gut knew that there was just so much more to the story of my conception and upbringing than my mother had told me. So, yeah, the book is a bit of a mystery because it's tracking me as I unpack what the real story was, if that makes sense.
Dr. McBride: And so, what do you think holding [00:09:00] that secret in your mom's body and mind did to her? I mean, how did that affect her everyday life?
Chrysta: You know, my mother was someone who had a lot of secrets, which of course stemmed from having a lot of shame. And beyond just the secret of my conception and the true nature of my mother and father's relationship, it turned out that there were quite a few really big life events that I didn't know about my mother. Like, I didn't know about her traumatic childhood, I didn't know about a couple really [00:09:30] heavy things that she had gone through.
Shame is just such a powerful emotion. I think that's a big theme in my book, shame, because I inherited a lot of shame from my mom. You know, she was ashamed of being gay. I was ashamed of having a mother who was gay. She was ashamed of...you know, there was some suicide and some other really heavy stuff in her family history and alcoholism, and she was ashamed of all that.
So, you know, the problem with keeping secrets is then you can't really be close to people because you're presenting a false self and you're not really your whole self. Yeah, [00:10:00] the book is sort of me mirroring that journey to being false. And then ultimately I wrote a book about it, so I guess it's all out in the open now. But yeah, I don't know, shame and secrets, it's a topic that I'm very interested in.
Dr. McBride: Yeah. And I think shame is an almost universal experience that we all have and it does so much damage. And I think it propagates this notion that we need to keep things under the vest and we need to keep secrets. But the secrets perpetuate the shame and the shame perpetuates the secrets. And so, the treatment, if you will, is coming [00:10:30] clean and being honest about who we really are and showing up as ourselves and daring to be vulnerable, which isn't easy if you've experienced trauma in your life as it sounds like your mom did as a youngster.
Chrysta: Yeah, that's absolutely right. You know, there's another piece of it too. So, the shame perpetuates the secrets and the secrets perpetuate the shame, but then also close you off to other people that you can only heal through those relationships, and I think through revealing those parts of yourself and then being loved in return, which, of course, you have to then have [00:11:00] healthy relationships to find that. I feel like people who have a lot of secrets and shame also sometimes seek out more unhealthy connection.
Dr. McBride: So, you're a parent, Chrysta. I think sometimes as parents we struggle about what we should reveal to our kids about our past, our own struggles. I mean, I think some parents think that we should just cover that up and not talk about how hard things were because we don't wanna give our kids ideas, like telling your child that you smoked as an adolescent might give them an idea that they could smoke. When actually I think being honest and open with our [00:11:30] kids helps them feel less alone and helps them feel less shame because they too have ups and downs and struggles. And I wonder how the secret keeping in your family when you were being raised, how that affected your mom's parenting. Like, if you look back on how you were parented, can you see the traces of the secrets being held?
Chrysta: Absolutely. I mean, there was so much going on beyond just the shame and the secrets. My mom also struggled with probably a mood disorder [00:12:00] and also severe drug and alcohol addiction. And so, even if I didn't know what was going on, it was clear that I was a parent to my mother from a very early age. And even if she said she wasn't drinking, it was still clear that things were insane. I just didn't understand the cause.
So, I guess that's out of the bubble of just speaking about the shame and the secrets. But I definitely think that it was only as an adult and understanding both of my parents, like, their full story and biography, that I was able to [00:12:30] get over a lot of the resentment I had about some of the more dysfunctional ways that I was raised, and also find it's not as much forgiveness but just, like, so much compassion for both of them. Because I think when you understand people's stories, you just can't help but have compassion because everyone's been through things that shape them in some way.
Dr. McBride: When your mom told you about the sperm bank donor at 150, what was your initial reaction? Anger, resentment, confusion? I mean, what went through your mind?
Chrysta: You said earlier, you had said... What [00:13:00] I loved about the book is that, you know, I cried, I laughed and I was like, I think those were my two emotions. I didn't know if I should be completely overwhelmed and start hysterically crying or if I should burst into tears of laughter because it felt like growing up me and my little sister had been through so much.
You know, my mom was involved in many pyramid schemes, so life was very boom or bust. We were on the verge of homelessness multiple times. She had her drug addiction up and down. She also had all these relationships with women who would come in for a few years and then leave. So, family was [00:13:30] so complicated to us already. It was just like, if this was going to happen to anyone we knew, of course, it would be us that potentially had hundreds of brothers and sisters because the universe has a great sense of humor and they just wanna throw one more thing at us, I guess.
But yeah, I think at the time I was at a very fragile and vulnerable state because I had just gotten over an eating disorder. I was quitting drinking because I realized that I think I just had a biological propensity towards alcoholism and so I wanted to cut that as a possibility [00:14:00] early on. So, I was just doing a lot of healing work and this was just one thing too many to deal with at that time. So, I just shut the door on it and sort of pretended that it wasn't a thing for almost 10 years.
You know, also, my father had become homeless at that point and that was a whole other thing emotionally to deal with for me. So, yeah, it was just too much at that time. But then once it was a different time in my life and I was in a better place, then it came back in a really interesting and powerful way.
Dr. McBride: So, what allowed you to go [00:14:30] from kind of compartmentalizing it and sort of walling it off in your mind, this whole other life you potentially had, to inviting your siblings, the ones who were known, to, like, a family reunion? I mean, that's a big leap.
Chrysta: That's a big leap. Yeah. I think just a lot of emotional maturity and also being in such a different place. You know, I'd had kids at that point, I had a loving partnership, I had really healed things with my mother [00:15:00] in many ways. So, I think that I was just like, you know, you can grow in stages, I think, and take on different challenges at different times. And I think it was just, "Okay, all the other areas of my life were pretty settled. Maybe I can look at this now."
But also it was the way that one of the siblings came into my life. No one in my family was interested in art, but I really was. And I'd wound up after college where I'd studied writing, I'd wound up going to this tiny little art school in Italy called the Florence Academy of Art. I only [00:15:30] discovered that school through a random set of events. And it's like Renaissance painting. It's not exactly, you know, oil painting, it's just not really something that a lot of people you've encountered in life go to study.
And one of my half-sisters studied there right after me as a coincidence. And that was just such an incredible coincidence. And, you know, we had all the same friends and we were so alike, but it was one of those sliding doors. Genetics is more powerful than nurture. It [00:16:00] was so much, it was so much to think about that I was... And she had grown up, you know, across the country in a very different family and we dressed the same, we had the same gardening books.
So, when she reached out to me as opposed to other times when I'd been contacted by siblings and just sort of ignored it, I was like, "Wow, this is pretty crazy. Okay. I'll have one sister, one extra sister. I can get to know this one woman because we have so much in common and the universe has put us in this interesting situation."
And then [00:16:30] what was fascinating to me is she had grown up thinking that the father who had raised her was her biological parent. And it was only through taking a DNA test on ancestry.com that she learned that she had a sperm donor. And I document some of her psychological experience with that in the book. But what was fascinating was that her attitude towards this larger biological family was so profoundly different from the attitude I had taken. Like, I thought, "Oh, this is one more thing to feel ashamed of and this is [00:17:00] so weird and strange."
And for her she was like, "I have always been an only sibling, I always wanted a sister. And, oh my god, now I have dozens of sisters, maybe hundreds of sisters. And my life was so boring and this is just the most exciting thing that's ever happened. It's like a lifetime movie. This doesn't happen in real life," you know? So, she was excitedly getting to know all of the siblings that she could track down.
And I was just confronted with such a different attitude towards the whole thing that [00:17:30] it occurred to me, "Oh, I could have that attitude. At any point, I could just choose to see this completely differently." And that was really powerful. So, I did. So, I sort of just took her lead and, you know, she suggested, she's like, "Why don't we do a family reunion?" And I was like, "Okay. I'll host it. I'm big sister, it's appropriate."
Dr. McBride: That's amazing. I mean, when you were gathered around with all of your different half-siblings, what were the similarities among you? What were the threads that were, like, undoubtedly [00:18:00] genetic and biological? Can you think of any?
Chrysta: Yeah. Well, to start with the physical similarities are uncanny. Physically, I take more after my mother, but my little sister Kaitlyn looks exactly like our dad. And I would say that maybe 80% to 90% of the siblings look exactly like my dad. So, you know, anyone who came over that weekend, it was like an episode of "The Twilight Zone" because when we were just all standing next to each other, we just all looked like siblings. But there are a lot of us.
You know, beyond the physical, we all have a different [00:18:30] mother and we all shared completely different upbringings. But still just as a scientific case study of all these people who come from the same sperm donor, it's fascinating. The great majority of us have ADD, which, you know, I know is proven to be already a very biological thing.
So, that manifested in, you know, the first night we went out to a restaurant, all of our phones are always at 1%. We're very spacey, we lose things all the time. I'm sure somewhere in this conversation I'll trail off. So, as we're leaving the restaurant, the waiter comes running after [00:19:00] us with, like, four sets of keys, three phones, two purses. And it's this hilarious moment of, "Oh my god, this is just bizarre."
Dr. McBride: And this is family.
Chrysta: And this is family. Yes, absolutely. And it's been pretty cool. Since coming out with the book, I realized that there's also this whole community, it's called the NPE community, which is the Not Parent Expected. I didn't even know that was a community, but it is. And it's people, you know, who were adopted and never told, or who had a sperm donor and [00:19:30] were never told.
Again, I think the origin of never telling is often rooted in shame. But those kids gain a lot from knowing about their biological origins. And even just seeing in my sibling group, the kids who were never told, they described things about themselves that they could never relate to their biological family that confused them or made them feel out of place, and then just knowing the information, looking in the mirror, and seeing a different person. So, that wasn't my experience. I knew [00:20:00] my father, but that's such fascinating psychological material to work with.
Dr. McBride: Yeah. I mean, in medicine, you know, we talk about nature and nurture, right? We talk about what is inherited, what is fixed, and then what is environmental, situational. And, you know, when you're trying to help someone become healthier in some way, you always try to kind of tease apart what is something you can't control and what is something you can.
And what's so interesting in hearing you talk right now is, you know, you had these, like, [00:20:30] fixed commonalities, like, these facial features, maybe hair color, maybe even ADD, which I think is nature and nurture, but it's a lot of nature, and then there are these experiences that you had that were completely different. Some of you were told from the beginning that you had a sperm donor and some were not. And the psychological impact of that on people's health is huge.
And that's really where I would as a doctor, if someone was struggling with, like, addiction or disordered eating and having had that background, I would [00:21:00] suggest they lean into that sort of nurture part because that's where you can reclaim some sense of agency and control over your story, or what you tell yourself about where you came from. Because I think the...as you outline in your book, for you and for your siblings, the dishonesty, which I don't think was intentional, but the withholding of the truth really does so much harm to people, when I think in your mom's case, she was just trying to protect you.
Chrysta: Yeah. I think in a lot of these parents' [00:21:30] cases. You know, I think at the time, we talked about we've come so far, you know, now there are books, you know, whether it's a gay family raising a kid or a single parent. Like, there are specific books where you can start introducing those ideas in sweet age-appropriate ways from very early on. But none of that material existed back then. And often these sperm banks were advising parents not to tell their kids.
And, you know, there's all kinds of fear like where it's the case of a heterosexual couple and the man is infertile, I think there's shame in that. And so, [00:22:00] you know, "Will this child not love me the same if they think that I'm not biologically connected to them?" And so, I have so much compassion for the reasons why the parents didn't tell the truth. That's not shared by all of the siblings. Sometimes there's a lot of anger around it.
Dr. McBride: I'm sure. But to me, that's sort of the varsity head space if you can get there, is like I'm sure you've experienced some anger and frustration towards your mom. I mean, that would be kind of weird if you didn't. I think we all have that and I think my kids are probably stewing at me right this minute as we speak for some reason.
But anger then can [00:22:30] become curiosity which can become understanding, and that can lead to empathy and compassion. And that's where I hope I am with my parents, and I hope we can all get because I think, you know, as parents we're doing the best we can and we sometimes think that withholding information is the right thing to do when actually kids are more perceptive and intuitive than we sometimes give them credit.
Chrysta: Yeah, absolutely. But I also think it's, like, of course, everything's age appropriate. Like, if you're [00:23:00] really stressed about something that you don't want them to take on, it's not necessarily something you wanna share with them at, you know, a certain age, of course. But yeah, these bigger things and especially as they are ready to deal with them or understand them, I think it's helpful to connect with your kids in that way. But, you know, I don't know, I have a seven-year-old and a five-year-old. I'm sure once I have teenagers, it'll be a whole other...
Dr. McBride: Yeah. I mean, I think you're right, it has to be age-appropriate. You don't wanna share all of your dirty laundry with a five-year-old because that becomes a burden, and they can't handle emotionally a lot of information that [00:23:30] they can't relate to or understand. But I also think that kids have a sixth sense and know when we're not being authentic or honest.
My kids are teenagers now and I actually love this phase of parenting because they're so able to understand things in meaningful ways, and so you can really be honest with them, it's great. But you also don't wanna be, you know...I never wanna be the person who is, like, the kid's best friend because I feel like they need the knowledge that we have, like, some guardrails and boundaries, and that we are still the authority even if we don't act like one every day. [00:24:00] What does your life look like now vis-a-vis these half-siblings? Are they part of your life? Do you connect with them? What is that like?
Chrysta: Yeah. Some of the siblings call it more like a cousin relationship. I always had a very small family with the exception of my mom's girlfriends who would come in and out. But when you have so many, it's impossible to have deep relationships with all of them. There are now siblings whose names I don't know. You know, it starts with trying to keep track of their pets or their birthdays, and then it's just information overload and you sort of remember one key [00:24:30] detail that separates one person from another, like where they're from or what they're interested in.
But what I have is close relationships with some of them, whether that's through common interest, or you know, location, being close by because they're all over the U.S. We're still waiting for our first international sibling. I'm sure it exists but... You know, my core family is me, my husband, my kids, and my mom, and my sister that I grew up with. But there are now this rich extended family that I see, you know, a few times [00:25:00] a year.
And, you know, also all the siblings, you know, originally they were on Facebook and then they moved to WhatsApp, and then WhatsApp became incredibly overwhelming because you'd go on and after a few days of not being on, and there'd be, like, 500 new messages, and all on one thread and you just couldn't keep up. So, then we moved to this app called Discord, which is sort of like Slack if you're familiar with that, where you can organize by topic. So, genealogy is a topic, politics is a topic. You know, everyone's very passionate about their views even though their views [00:25:30] can be on either side of the spectrum. So, that's also hilarious.
Dr. McBride: Can you talk to me a little bit about...? It sounds like you had an eating disorder, you had a wobbly relationship with alcohol. I mean, how much do you think that was genetic and how much do you think was environmental?
Chrysta: You know what? There was some point at which my husband was getting to know me, which he was really the first person I ever really opened up to about the truth. You know, around adolescence, I had started lying about what was happening at home. I was ashamed that we had financial struggles, I [00:26:00] was ashamed of my mom being gay, I was ashamed of her alcohol...like, so many things. So, I was very much a fake person for a lot of my life. And I think that contributed to the eating disorder and the substance abuse because alcohol, I think, made me feel comfortable in social settings where I had this horrible anxiety otherwise.
Dr. McBride: How did the eating disorder serve you in the time you kind of "needed it?"
Chrysta: I think it gave me a sense of control when my family situation was so out of control. You know, my father was [00:26:30] living in the streets and my mom was at one point in a halfway house or in rehab for coke addiction, and I was taking care of my little sister like I was the mom and it was just a tremendous amount of responsibility, I think, early on. And I think that the eating disorder gave me a sense of control. And there was also this strange element of wanting to be childlike. And so, my physicality suddenly became, like, almost prepubescent, if that makes... It's very bizarre. [00:27:00] I wanted to be taken care of and there was some sort of reaction people would give me like, "Oh you're so delicate." I could just... I don't know, it played into something.
Dr. McBride: Yeah. I think we make the mistake in assuming that girls or boys who are suffering from anorexia are just vain or they wanna fit into their jeans. I think it's so much more complicated. I had a patient recently who was starving herself consciously and then sort of unconsciously because she was experiencing gender dysphoria and didn't wanna menstruate. [00:27:30] I mean, I think we can't assume that the path to these disorders, whether it's a relationship with food or alcohol are kind of one size fits all.
Chrysta: Yeah. I mean, I'm sure there was a vanity to it as well. I had had a really abusive boyfriend in high school that continued for many years and, you know, he had started calling me pudgy. And so, there was an element of wanting to, like, be loved. But I think it played into I wasn't getting my needs met and it was like I had just somehow indulged [00:28:00] in something nurturing. I was, like, gonna deprive myself of that rather than allow others to be depriving me of it because I couldn't control...I don't know, it's complicated. I don't pretend to be a psychologist.
Dr. McBride: I think what you're hitting on is what so many people with disordered eating struggle with. I mean, it's a physical, psychological, and mental health manifestation of not having your emotional needs met. And instead of identifying that and then trying to problem solve for it, which you may have not been capable of at that age, you're sort of [00:28:30] channeling all of this distress into the attempt to control your body.
Chrysta: Yeah, totally. So, recovering from some of that stuff definitely happened in stages. Like, the first thing I worked on was my eating disorder because it got pretty bad. You know, I'm 5'6 and I got down to, like, 95 pounds. I went into a school doctor when I was in college just because I felt ill and they could notice. They noticed how much I weighed and they started asking me questions about my eating.
And for whatever reason, I don't know if it was this [00:29:00] overriding desire to be healthy because I was both anorexic and bulimic. And so, I admitted that I sometimes threw up, enough to give this woman who I was speaking to plenty of red siren warning signs. And so, for whatever reason she just made me sign away that I would go into treatment for that. And so, I started seeing a therapist once a week.
And luckily, I think when you catch that disorder pretty early, I had only been in it for two years, two or three years, I think there's a lot more success rate than people who have been struggling with it for a long time. So, I started seeing this [00:29:30] wonderful therapist. And she was working on some of the psychological piece, but she also just wanted me to gain weight. And so, even though I wasn't necessarily figuring out all the reasons why I was anorexic, I would just sit at the plate and, like, force myself to eat. So, I'm really grateful that I'm fully recovered. I don't struggle with it at all.
Dr. McBride: It's incredible that you must have had very good treatment because a lot of people don't fully recover and never do. It's so interesting that you say the thing about the...just eating. You know, my patients who have anorexia get [00:30:00] so mad at me or the nutritionist, or the psychologist that they're being forced to eat when they're like, "I'd rather just talk about what's going on and what the roots of this are." Or, they just don't wanna do it at all, but...
Chrysta: They just don't wanna get to it yet. So, they're like, "Let's stall."
Dr. McBride: Well, they wanna be the one anorexic in the history of treatment who can stay underweight and underfed. They think that there's, like, a workaround. But the reason you have to eat before you talk about the feelings is because until you're fed, you can't really get to the root causes. I mean, if you're underfed, your brain just isn't [00:30:30] working properly. So, vitamin F is the most important ingredient, food, for then uncovering what the root causes are and connecting the dots between what's happened in your life and what's happening in your mind to then be healthy.
Chrysta: Definitely. Yeah. And there's this concept that I was introduced to, which in general I think with getting healthy over things is, like, contrary action. So, it's like even while you're maybe sitting with a therapist and talking about all the reasons why you do something that you know to be dysfunctional, you can do that but [00:31:00] you can also just behave in the way that you know is the functional way.
Dr. McBride: Yes.
Chrysta: Even if it's against your instincts. And then sometimes the behavior can lead to the health too. Like, it can be a reverse.
Dr. McBride: Yes, you're exactly right. You can stop drinking even though you may have convinced yourself, you know, "This is just temporary and I probably am fine drinking," which will then reinforce your recovery and you can talk in AA or with a therapist about the reasons behind why you drink too [00:31:30] much and kind of hit it from both angles. So, there's the practical, the psychological way of getting ourselves out of behaviors that are self-sabotaging. So, it sounds like, for you, the disordered eating and the alcohol served a purpose.
Chrysta: And relationships as well. I would say that my biggest addiction was to toxic relationships, both female friendships and men that I was attracted to. With the nurture side, you can understand why I had loved my mother who was a drug addict, and [00:32:00] that there are patterns to that type of relationship that you get into. So, I was very attracted to men who just could not show up for me emotionally, or who I had to say because ultimately they couldn't meet my needs. So, it took a lot of work to get over that one too.
Dr. McBride: Yeah, that's a big one and one we commonly see, you know, in the world and I see and my patients and in friends. I think the saying is that we're comfortably uncomfortable, right? It's like you know your discomfort, and so then you gravitate to repeat history. It's like a repetition [00:32:30] compulsion that we have until the light bulb goes on and you're like, "Wait a minute. This relationship is not serving me. It's actually unhealthy." So, when did that happen for you vis-a-vis relationships?
Chrysta: That one happened later. So, I'd say I, like, hit the eating disorder then the addiction, then even though I had recovered from those things, I was in this, I would say I was addicted to this guy that I had been on and off for 10 years. And I tell a little bit of that crazy story in the book, but that's just a sliver. And he was physically abusive and psychologically, and I think [00:33:00] just mentally unwell. I actually don't think he was a bad person. I just think he had a real mental illness but I could just not stay away from this person.
And I think it was only when we started talking about kids and I was like, "Oh." There was this instinct where I was, like, for whatever reason, I could allow someone to treat me that way. But when I suddenly imagine little kids in the picture, that was the thing that allowed me to finally end that relationship. Thank goodness. I think just because I had had, you know, my parents, who I do have [00:33:30] so much compassion for, I think they had been really hurt in their childhood and then they had not fully healed enough that they could parent in a healthy way. And I think just not wanting to do that to a kid was really the thing.
Dr. McBride: Well, you had clearly suffered so much in your childhood and you'd already worked so hard to get through the disordered eating and the alcohol issue. I don't wanna put words in your mouth, but it sounds like you just didn't wanna pass on any of that chaos to the extent you have control over that as a parent.
Chrysta: Yeah. No, that's exactly right. Which of course doesn't mean that [00:34:00] like, "Oh, now there are no challenges and it's..." you know, life continues to throw challenges in your way. But to the extent that there's stuff I can do that I can work on, yeah, you know, trying. There's progress, not perfection.
Dr. McBride: That's right. So, what's your relationship with your mother like now?
Chrysta: Oh, it's a great relationship. I'm so happy to say she's sober for more than a decade. And I'm still very much her parent and there's some codependency there on her side. So, it's not like, oh, we completely went to a [00:34:30] normal relationship. Like, she sometimes accidentally calls me mom. You know, I take full financial care of her, which at one point was a real stress but is now okay. Thank goodness. But she is an extraordinary grandparent and she's just a really beautiful person.
Dr. McBride: That's incredible. It's really a testament to your sort of inner strength and also just the work you've done that you have so much compassion and forgiveness for her. Because like I said in the beginning, it's really the book is kind of, like, a love letter to her, which you [00:35:00] wouldn't expect because, you know, things started out pretty chaotically.
Chrysta: Yeah. You know, the big thing that stopped me from writing this book, you know, even before I knew about the siblings, I was compelled to write the story of me and my mother. And I would do various drafts throughout the years. And I think there was one time when I'd accidentally left a draft on my computer and she'd found it and she went to hysterics, and she was so upset and she couldn't believe I was writing this thing.
And so, I think I put the project down for, like, 10 years because I was like I didn't wanna hurt my mom because there was a lot of challenging [00:35:30] material in that book. And I think that I was also worried that beyond getting over the hump of her feelings about it, which was a long process, it was also not wanting readers to judge her. And, you know, everyone's like, "I have all these problems with my mom," but as soon as you hear other people telling you, "Oh, she was a terrible mother," you take offense to that even if you hold sometimes those views.
But I've been pleasantly surprised that for the most part, of course, you know, once you get [00:36:00] a lot of readers, people have divergent views. But for the most part, people have loved the character of my mother. And she is a character. I would say that there's never been anyone like her.
Dr. McBride: If you're listening to this, you have to read this book not only because of the story of the sperm donor and your myriad siblings but because of your mom. And you paint her in a very empathetic, protective, and beautiful light.
Chrysta: Oh, thanks. Yeah, I tried to bridge the gap I think between being honest because it got hard, you know, when she was doing lines in the carpool [00:36:30] for our high school, things got dark. But I think sometimes it's also good to see stories of that, and then see that you can get through it and out of it. Of course, that's not everyone's. My dad is still on the streets. So, it's not like it's a perfect Hollywood ending, although he's happy in his way with that.
Dr. McBride: So, what would you say, what is a family? What defines a family? Is it the people that we are genetically connected to, or is it people that you cultivate a relationship with?
Chrysta: I think it's different for [00:37:00] every single person and there's, like, a journey to figuring out what that is for you. But I'd say that whatever you define family as, it's such an important component of mental health to feel that you have a family, and even if you're building that. You know, I know some people that grew up in situations where they couldn't find peace with their parent because it wasn't...you know, maybe it was someone who had more ill intentions or had really done serious damage.
So, I would never say, like, go find peace with that person. My conception of family is ever-changing. [00:37:30] But you've definitely built family through shared experiences. So, even if biology brings people into my life, it doesn't become family until you've spent time together.
Dr. McBride: And I think, to me, family is also about shared vulnerability. It's about feeling safe to kind of show up as our true authentic selves, and it's about being seen and being heard. And it's also, to me at least, about people celebrating your [00:38:00] wins with you, and then mourning your losses with you, and being there for the highs and the lows.
Chrysta: Yeah, the people that you share your deepest life with, I would say.
Dr. McBride: That's right. So, Chrysta, what do you do now in your everyday life to maintain your health? Let's start with mental health first. Not that mental and physical health are separate. In fact, that's the whole point of this podcast. But what do you do to maintain your mental health?
Chrysta: I would say spending time with loved ones, trying to be a good person, you know, trying to be a present [00:38:30] parent. I'm still sober, I participate in some groups through that. Speaking of the biological component, like, I am on an SSRI, and that helped me a lot. And whether that's nature or nurture, a lot of the siblings are also on meds. So, I don't know that's important to mention as well, I think. Because, like, I could never meditate until I was on that and people would be like, "If you just meditated, it would go away." And I was like, "Well."
Dr. McBride: I'm really glad you mentioned the SSRI part because it is always a question, "Is my anxiety disorder, is [00:39:00] my depression genetic or is it environmental? Should I be doing therapy or meds? Should I be doing both?" And I think we can't really measure in blood or with testing, like, how much someone's emotional health or emotional challenges are genetic and how much are environmental. But there's a role for medication.
I completely agree with the people who say that we have, in many ways, medicalized the human condition and that we're over-prescribing Prozac. But [00:39:30] I only believe that when we're talking about not understanding the person in their deepest truest sense and simply prescribing a pill and assuming that the pill will do the work.
But for so many of my patients, and it sounds like for you, the medication is just another tool in the toolkit in addition to the work you do in sober groups, the work you do in therapy, and then just showing up as you are. And so, I think it's really important to destigmatize medication. It's [00:40:00] not a crutch, it's a tool like all the other things you do.
Chrysta: Totally. Also, like, I don't know that it would've worked had I not been able to do all the work to get over some of the things. I don't know if I'd medicate and then suddenly my eating disorder would've gone. I had to do a lot of work on that and I had to do a tremendous amount of therapy to get out of my abusive relationship cycle, and I had to do a ton of work to be sober.
But after I had done all that work, and I would say I did a ton of it, I still had this crippling anxiety. I did [00:40:30] have a block against medication in my brain and it took a lot...you know, and I don't know what exactly that block was, but I remember seeing the psychologist and he is like, "Let's just say, I'm not saying there's any proof that this is the case, but let's say that taking this takes one year off your life, but the rest of those years that you live, you're a less anxious person, would you still take it?" I was like, "Yeah, that would be great."
And so, I was like, "What is that thing?" And he is like, "Also you could just get right off, you know, in a responsible way with a..." And I had also seen because I came from a family of drug addiction, I was [00:41:00] very terrified of pills because I had worked so hard to be sober and, you know, that's why I have ADD and I don't medicate for it because I'm like, "There is some possibility of abuse there. I don't wanna go anywhere near it." Not saying that people shouldn't. But finally, I was like, "Look, I've done all this work and for some reason, this is still happening. Maybe I don't need it forever, but I'll try it." And it really helped me.
Dr. McBride: Yeah. I think some of the reasons that people get hung up on these medications and not taking them when they're appropriate is exactly what you said. They're afraid of kind of losing control. Maybe this wasn't your situation, but they're afraid [00:41:30] of being, you know, labeled as, like, mentally ill officially if they're on medication or they think they can just do more work, which is, of course, noble and valiant and wonderful and needed.
But, for example, Prozac is not gonna make an anorexic eat necessarily. Food is more important than serotonin at that moment, right? All the work you did kind of laid the groundwork for, I would imagine, the SSRI helping with that, whatever, 5%, 10% of anxiety that needed to be turned down on [00:42:00] the volume knob. And by the way, you're not gonna probably have a year lopped off of your life because of the SSRI.
I would argue that you'll probably live longer because you won't have all this unnecessary cortisol and adrenaline coursing through your veins, like, raising your blood pressure and heart rate. And again, it's not a panacea. And that's the mistake we make, I think, is that you know it's gonna do the work then it's gonna fix all of our problems when actually, you know, just, like, going for a brisk walk or you know, connecting with an old friend. Like, that's just part of the [00:42:30] puzzle.
Chrysta: A hundred percent. Yeah.
Dr. McBride: And then what do you do for your physical health now? I mean, do you exercise? Do you eat healthy?
Chrysta: I do eat healthy. I indulge as well, but I eat very healthy. I don't cook. That was not part of our family tradition, but my husband thankfully does. So, I'm cooked five-star meals for most of my meals, which I'm very grateful for. I eat healthy and I need to start exercising, but that's maybe on this year's bucket list. I do have two small children. So, I would say that that is a very [00:43:00] physically active role, but I need to throw exercise into there for sure.
Dr. McBride: I mean, it sounds like you're like most people. You do a lot of things well, you have aspirations, and then you're giving yourself a little break for not doing things perfectly. Tell me as a final question, if you could, what the process of writing this book and getting it out there in the world did for you in terms of kind of, I don't wanna say the word closure because that's too cliche or cute, but, like, what did it do psychologically to get this book out there in the [00:43:30] public?
Chrysta: I think closure, yeah, it is cute, but I do think that there was an element of closure. I think there was also, like...talk about contrary action. Like, I had been so ashamed of the story for so long and it's sort of been eating inside me and now the story is fully out there. And I think that the deepest motivation for writing the book was that at different points in my life, memoirs specifically as a genre, but I guess literature as well in general, novels, contributed so much to me feeling less alone. You know, I read "Glass Castle."
Dr. McBride: [00:44:00] I was gonna say you must have read "Glass Castle."
Chrysta: Yeah. My sister brought it to me actually because she had been assigned it in school and she brought it to me, you know, in secret like it was, you know, the secret gift and she said, "You've gotta read this. It's our story." Even though it's not our story, our story is so different, but we just couldn't believe that a woman had been through this thing that she was so ashamed of and then she'd written a book and put it all out there and wasn't ashamed anymore.
So, I think in that way, the stories are similar. But what I got so much from it was just feeling less [00:44:30] alone and feeling like, "Oh, I'm not in a place yet where I'm ready to share this story." You know, I think part of me thought in my own case, I was like, "No man is ever gonna marry me if he knows that I have this history of mental health, I have this crazy family. You know, no one's gonna ever sign up for this." I'm so glad that that didn't turn out to be true.
But I think that memoirs specifically, I think when people vulnerably share their truth, it just helps you to frame your own truth. And so, I think that I had already gotten to a place where [00:45:00] I was more open. I just love memoir. And for whatever reason, I also just have this deep urge to tell this story from a really young age. And I don't know exactly, I can't fully understand why I had that deep urge, but it ate at me that I hadn't done it. And so, now I just feel a deep sense of relief that it's completed.
I listened to another one of your podcast episodes, which was so wonderful with that amazing author "Corrections in Ink." And she said something about, like, she had [00:45:30] not had compassion for herself until she was rereading her book and could see herself as a character on the page. And I would say there was a really interesting psychological experience. I narrated the audiobook and rereading it through in one sitting, narrating it. I was just like, "Ooh, this little girl went through a lot."
Dr. McBride: It sounds like you just followed your gut and your instinct to put this on paper, and it sounds like also you're now getting a flood of readers reaching out to you. You're also getting new [00:46:00] siblings, even last night.
Chrysta: I don't know if that's the book. I think that's just coincidence. I don't think... You know, I mean, hey listen, maybe you're one of my siblings listening to this podcast...
Dr. McBride: Maybe so.
Chrysta: ...right now and you should go take an ancestry.com test.
Dr. McBride: I'm going to, for sure. I think you've helped other people feel seen just like you did when you read "The Glass Castle."
Chrysta: I have had such a diverse spread of readers reach out, people who discovered they had also biological siblings because they were the product [00:46:30] of a sperm donor, you know, young women who had a parent with substance abuse issues, mothers who had substance abuse issues, who read the book and were like, "I wanna get help."
There have been so many different people that had a gay parent in the '70s and '80s and have never met another person. A few months ago I was at a fancy dinner and I was sat next to someone who just this incredibly fancy person and they were like, "Oh, what do you do?" And I was gonna mention the book, you know, and [00:47:00] of course, I mentioned the book and it was before it came out and he's like, "What's it about?" And I said, "Well, you know, my father who's now, you know, homeless and struggles with schizophrenia was secretly one of the most prolific sperm donors in history. It turned out I had all these siblings and..." but I just decided to like put it out there.
Dr. McBride: Love it.
Chrysta: And I was absolutely sure that this person next to me was gonna be like, "Oh, I gotta scoot further away from this person." He's like, "Oh, I had a really bad drug problem for a really long time." And then the guy across to me is like, "My mother's schizophrenic." And I'm just like,
"Oh, this is [00:47:30] such a better conversation than whatever small talk we possibly would've..." You know, it's like, at any level of society, everyone's got...every family has its complexity. And I think that if we were all just more open, of course, I'm not promoting oversharing, like, you know, you don't need to tell your boss your life story.
Dr. McBride: I could not agree with you more. First of all, that's much more interesting than talking about the weather or sports at a dinner table where you don't know everybody. And then [00:48:00] secondly, when you are a leader like you have been, it gives other people permission to be honest about their own stories. And who knows, maybe that helps them in a small way at being more authentic in their regular lives.
Chrysta: Yeah. I think that's the power of vulnerability and getting over shame, is, yeah, maybe you can, in that tiny way, help other people to do that as well.
Dr. McBride: Chrysta, I'm so grateful that you joined me today. You have an incredible way of writing and relating to not only your family [00:48:30] but to your reader. And I just can't thank you enough for writing this book and for spending time with me today.
Chrysta: Thank you so much for having me, really. It's lovely.
Dr. McBride: Thank you all for listening to "Beyond the Prescription." Please don't forget to subscribe, like, download, and share the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you catch your podcasts. I'd be thrilled, if you like this episode, to rate and review it. And if you have a comment or [00:49:00] question, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed on this show are entirely my own and do not constitute medical advice for individuals. That should be obtained from your personal physician. "Beyond the Prescription" is produced at Podville Media in Washington, D.C.