INTERVIEW

"The control I thought I had was one big fat illusion": When crisis makes you not yourself anymore

"Bomb Shelter" author Mary Laura Philpott talks about love, hope, loss, and learning from turtles

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published April 10, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

Fingers Crossed (Getty Images/Marlene Ford)
Fingers Crossed (Getty Images/Marlene Ford)

There is a moment in Mary Laura Philpott's beautiful, very funny "Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives" where she must resign herself to being a Baby Spice. After taking an online quiz that determines her identity within the iconic girl group, she bristles at the label, takes a different Spice Girl quiz, and comes up Baby again.

It's not easy being Baby in a world that's Scary in every sense of the word. It's hard hanging on to your most joyful self when you have been through the most difficult, devastating moments of your life. And after Philpott's teenage son experienced an abrupt medical crisis, the author of "I Miss You When I Blink" found herself reckoning with the hard truth that she had lost some semblance of control. "All I want to do is take care of everyone I love, but I can't do it," she laments. That feeling may be familiar to those of us who have experienced medical crises, either in ourselves or among our families, that are random or completely outside of our ability to control. 


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Such abrupt and random crises test not only faith, but one's resolve. How does one stay hopeful after hardship? How can we let such experiences deepen our empathy, instead of raising up our walls? 

Philpott speaks from personal experience, and she has some ideas. In "Bomb Shelter," she contemplates the imperfect art of letting go, and discovers what turtles can teach us about life. Salon talked to Philpott recently via Zoom about optimism, meditation and nurturing our truest Spice Girls. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Like you, I am a Baby Spice. And then life comes along and throws you these things that make you realize, "Oh my God, I'm really very out of control."

Yeah. I have no control over anything. All the control I thought I had was one big fat illusion.

I want to ask you about that metaphor of the bomb shelter, which in your family's case is literal. Why was that the thing that you wanted to pin this book on?

"Bomb Shelter" was not the original title for this book. The original title was "Hello From Upside Down," which is now the title of the second chapter, when I'm lying on the floor and looking at everything upside down. But when I got to the chapter about my dad and about that actual underground secret fallout shelter, I got to the end of writing and I said, "What am I going to call this chapter? I think I've got to call it Bomb Shelter."

As I typed the words on that document, I thought, "This is the title for the book. This is the whole thing." It has that tension of opposites that runs throughout the whole book. Bomb and shelter. It has that illusion of control. Bomb shelter? Is there really such thing as a bomb shelter? I mean, yes. But in the case of the one my dad was working in that was meant for nuclear war, it's, I hate to say this, kind of fruitless. You can go into that bomb shelter and you seem safe while you're down in there. But if the whole world has actually just been atomic bombed and you come out, you're not going to be okay when you get out.

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It's a temporary illusion of safety. I loved that it was just two words. I loved the soft consonants and the hard consonants. I loved that it meant I could put a turtle on the cover. Frank, the turtle, has just a couple of cameos in the book. I loved the image of the turtle, how he is this little, soft animal in a hard shell. The turtle has something that we don't have, which is that built-in protective mechanism. We're just these little water balloons made of skin. We have to create our own protective mechanism.

It reminded me also of that saying that when you have a child, you walk around with your heart on the outside of your body. It's terrifying in a way that is also kind of abstract until you have that real crisis. Until you have that, "I've seen my kid fall and I've taken her to the emergency room and I'm really scared now."

I'm breaking out in a cold sweat as you're saying that. It's true, it's all hypothetical until that moment where you're like, "CPR. CPR. How does CPR work? I've got to remember how CPR works," or, "911, where's the phone?" When it happens, then you just feel how absolutely vulnerable we all are. And helpless.

I remember feeling like, the wheels are going to come off me once we get past the crisis and she's going to be okay.

Now I'm not okay, ever again.

It changes you.

Forever.

When we went to college orientation, there was another mom in the front row asking, "So how close is the closest hospital? Where are the hospitals?" and sobbing. I went up to her afterwards and said, "I feel like you and I have some things we could talk about." 

You find them. I have found them among people I already knew, because you don't talk about this all the time. I have found those other parents who have been here. Women I've known for years and years and years, somehow we managed to give out this signal and pick up on it like, "By the way, did you know that my adult daughter has diabetes that means she can never sleep alone and everywhere she ever goes she has to know where the hospital is?" Somehow, it's almost like you can see it in the eyes of other people.

You say, "Everybody has something." While everybody does have something, there are people who've had a specific experience of going through trauma, and are also thinking, "But I l want to be happy. I want to be hopeful. I want to believe in good things. I want to be the fun one." When bad stuff happens you're like, "Who am I now? How do I go forward?"

I want to be myself again. That's the exact emotional plot of "Bomb Shelter" with me as the main character. It's that journey of, "Now how do I get up every day? How do I reconcile these two forces that have always been in my mind, the anxiety and the optimism?" But now it's come to blows, and the anxiety is screaming, "Everybody's in danger all the time." My optimism is going, "If we believe that we'll never get out of bed." It just ratchets up the stakes of everything. It's both discomforting and comforting, but where "Bomb Shelter" lands is admitting and accepting that I don't have control and admitting and accepting that yes, this awful thing is true.

Everyone's going to die. Everyone is in danger. I cannot protect the people I love forever. That is a fact. I hate it, but it's a fact. But the more I sit with it and accept it, this struggle becomes less violent because I'm not fighting against reality any more. There's a part of my mind that does this magical thinking where I'm like, "If I just want it bad enough, I can make it true. If I just want it to be true, love is enough to keep everybody safe." No. There's no amount of wanting that to be true that will make it a fact. Letting go of that helps me let go of everything else a little bit. It helps me let go of these children who are now turning into adults and going out into the world where I can't physically protect them all the time.

It helps me let go of this struggle over my parents getting older and seeing that they don't have as much time left on this earth as they used to. And the fact that I'm getting older. I mean, every day I look in the mirror and I'm like, "Who are you? I don't know." Accepting that impossibility, as much as I hate it, gives me calm and lets me move past it a little bit and go, "I'm not going to be able to change that. I might as well move into this day and see what I can feel good about."

Being able to go, "I can be sad and feel out of control, but as long as I can keep trying to point my compass back back towards some degree of hope and happiness, I can do it."

And the things that we can't control feel so big. I find, on the mornings when I can't get out of bed, it's because I'm thinking, "I will never be able to stop climate change. I cannot stop this war. I cannot find a way to prevent death." Huge, enormous things. Of course I can't do any of this. What gets me out of bed is going, "Okay, but here's some things I can do. And they're small and probably from afar, they look meaningless, but they matter."

It matters for me to get up and go out in my yard and make sure there's a fresh dish of water for the animals. To come home and do my work that's going to go out in the world and someone's going to read it and they're going to feel better. To make something for dinner for whoever happens to be in the house tonight that is healthy and will maybe give them another day on earth. Focusing on the little things that I can do and make a difference for other people. That helps a little bit too, I think.

One of the things you write about is that when you are in that spiral of anxiety, then your eye is not on the ball. You can lose sight of so many other things, which is unproductive. 

It'll wear your engine out. Okay, I've got my eye on this person, but wait, I've got to get my eye over here too. Thinking that it is important that I am attending to every single person and every single issue, because that's the only way things will be safe. That is just the recipe for exhaustion and burnout and misery.

You can't be a biblically accurate angel.

This is a personal book, but it resonates for the people who weren't already pessimistic. It resonates for the people who are not competitive about suffering. 

No, I don't want to be in the adversity Olympics at all. I don't even want to qualify.

How do we take ownership of our optimism and hope?

You can't change other people, which is the lesson I continue to learn again and again and again in the world. But if I'm going to get through this life without melting into a puddle of anxious misery, I've got to find every little sparkling bit of joy I can along the way. Everyone's little sparkling bits of joy are different. For me, it can come from really goofy things. It makes me happy to put on a really bright color. It makes me happy to talk to pets. When I'm walking down the street, I greet every dog I walk by and maybe that's weird, it gives me joy.

By the time I get to my destination, I feel better because I've talked to 12 dogs. These little things that make my day better. It's not anybody else's business if they think that's silly. I need to believe that the world is a place full of little sparkling tidbits of joy, because I'm letting my children who are now becoming adults go out there. I need to believe that they are walking around in a world that has little pieces of joy everywhere and nice people and friendly pets and whatever it is, that's going to bring them happiness along the way. I need to believe that's the world we're walking around in. So I look for evidence that it is.

It's hard because we know that this is a generation that is struggling with its mental health, more than any other. I wonder what our role as parents then is to model for them, that what they are experiencing is real and unique, but also that happiness and joy and those little sparkling bits are out there.

They're out there. And they've also just been through the weirdest past two years of development. Whether they're little bitty kids or they're teenagers, or they're the ones who went off to college during pandemic and had to experience that. What is that going to do to them long term? I don't know.

I keep thinking it's our job to be as hopeful as possible, that pessimism is not an option. So how do you balance that? I want to ask you because you still feel anxious. You still feel sad. You still have to let in the grief for the person you were. You still have to let in the legitimate concerns about COVID, about politics.

I have to be realistic. I can't be in denial of reality. As much as I am naturally drawn to seeing that horror now because I see it everywhere, I do have to look for the good stuff at the same time.

I write in the book kind of jokingly about meditation and how I've tried to use meditation to help still my mind. But I'm not kidding. I keep coming back to meditation. I cannot do it without a guided thing in my ear doing it or me. I don't have that much control over my brain, but I do keep coming back to it because it's that practice of stillness and taking stock of what is actually happening right now around you, versus trying to somehow absorb everything that's happening everywhere and letting that all in it once. That stillness practice is really helpful.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Bomb Shelter Interview Loss Mental Health Psychology Trauma