The Cost of Survival

with Emi Nietfeld

What does it really mean to “survive” when what you survive… lingers? Emi Nietfeld went from being homeless to graduating from Harvard. But the rags-to-riches story isn’t ever completely true. It skips over the hardest parts—complicated families, long-term trauma on brains and bodies, the ways we wish we could go back and undo what has been done.




Emi Nietfeld

Emi Nietfeld is the author of Acceptance (Penguin Press ‘22), a memoir of her journey through foster care and homelessness, interrogating the true meanings of resilience, ambition, and success. After graduating from Harvard in 2015, she worked as a software engineer, an experience she wrote about in her viral New York Times essay, “After Working At Google, I’ll Never Let Myself Love a Job Again.” She’s passionate about mental health, helping young people navigate their careers, and the connection between engineering and creativity. A dynamic, sought-after speaker, she can be found on podcasts, leading conference keynotes, and speaking at universities and companies alike.

Show Notes

Read Emily Nietfeld’s memoir Acceptance, that takes you on her journey from childhood neglect to Harvard and High Tech.

Learn more about the connections and signs of ADHD and Depression in this article from WebMD: The Link Between Depression and ADHD.

Kate talks to Tara Westover about her painful childhood and complicated families in Remaking Home.

If you are going through a crisis or have thoughts of suicide please call 988, this lifeline is free and confidential.


Discussion Questions

  1. Emi gently reminds us that there are things you can change and work toward and it is truly amazing what people can survive… but, also, it’s OKAY to count the cost. Why do you think it is so hard for us to talk about the cost of survival, of trials and hardships? Why do we always need/hope for a perfect happy ending?
  2. One of Emi Nietfeld’s great strengths is how she is able to live in the “messy middle” of the many aspects of her life story that most people would paint as “either this OR that.” The book of Ecclesiastes speaks to the wisdom of this approach in 7:18 when it says, “It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.” Think about something you’re going through right now. Write down some of the one-sentence narratives you could paint about it, both positive and negative. Then see if you can combine some to create a new sentence that holds space for the both/and, not just the either/or. Read your new sentence out loud. If you are with a group, discuss your experience with this exercise–what did you notice? Was any part of it challenging? How does it feel to say out loud the sentence that contains both truths, not just one or the other?
  3. Emi talked about the various types of pressure she felt–both internal and external–to present herself and her story in a manicured, happy-ending sort of way. But there was a cost to not acknowledging and holding space for the reality of the many hard things she had gone through. What are ways we can help the people around us not feel pressure to act like everything is going well, and instead invite honest dialogue about what they’re really going through? Is there someone you know who is going through something challenging right now that you could show up for (whether offering a listening ear and emotional support, practically serving to take something off their plate, something else)? Or are you going through something right now that you need to allow yourself to speak honestly about? Pray for wisdom on who to support or to open up to.


Kate Bowler: Hi, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. So recently I’ve had some news which has been really good. I found out that I’m in what they’re calling a durable remission, which means really that there’s no evidence of disease. And I’ve got to get used to saying it, that I had stage four colon cancer and now I don’t. And that is…beyond my wildest expectations for my life. And they’ll have to keep monitoring and I’ll forever have to get colonoscopies. And I swear, colonoscopies are really not that bad. You can just, you know, make the phone call, schedule yours now. I’ll also remind you to do that because I have a T-shirt that says, What doesn’t kill you is waiting to get you again tomorrow–schedule your colonoscopy. But it’s, it’s this deep belief that I have that it’s really important for us to make more language for this space, this space between what was and what will be. The place between, you know, victim and survivor. But people, you know, myself included, I find it very difficult to live in the in-between. A space between sick and healthy, unwell and perfect. So few words to describe what it actually means to survive. Because while I might not have any cancer cells in my body today, I won’t ever be over it. I will never not be afraid of every scan. I will never forget the feeling of being so disposable, so fragile, so human. So today I wanted to talk to somebody who understands that. What does it mean to “survive,” when it all just lingers? Emi Nietfeld is someone you are really going to want to hear. She’s the author of a gorgeous, honest memoir called Acceptance. And I could give you a few different biographies here. I could tell you that Emi had a really unstable childhood. When she was ten. Her dad came out as transgender and her parents divorced and her mom won full custody. But her mom was a compulsive shopper who hoarded to the point that the house became so full with the stuff and the mice and the mold that Emi left home at the age of 14 and refused to live with her again. And it’s hard to quickly sum up how entirely out of control Amy was of her own life and well-being. She bounced around between hospitalizations, to a foster care, to couch surfing, to living in her car. And the result of that was so much instability and overmedicating and self-harm and eating disorders and suicide attempts. And wow, look at how much she endured. And I could also tell you that Emi is so smart and ambitious and unbelievably resilient. She ended up graduating from Harvard and got a job at Google and married an incredibly wonderful human being. And wow, look at how much she’s overcome. But the more honest truth is somewhere in the middle. Emi is someone I trust to carefully interrogate what it really means to overcome anything. Her story invites us to take a second to just kind of feel that discomfort about why we love stories of triumph. But we don’t always love the truth that sometimes our survival comes at a cost. So. Well, that’s not entirely true. You all know this. You all love this truth. We share this worldview. And so I cannot wait for you to meet me. She is our people.

Kate: Emi? Hey, hello. Oh, my gosh, what a joy to be with you today. I have so looked forward to this.

Emi Nietfeld: Thank you so much, Kate. I’m so excited to be talking to you.

Kate: When we’re kids, we don’t always know that we’re not in the…that our experience isn’t always the normal one. I wondered if there was a moment you can remember when you realized that your childhood might not be the same as other kids that you knew.

Emi: Oh, that’s a beautiful question. There were a couple of those moments. I grew up in Minnesota and my family was really religious and I loved God. I loved church, I loved all that stuff. At the same time. It was kind of a dark thing sometimes. Like when I was turning eight, my friend got me a Destiny’s Child CD for my birthday and my dad, like, shut down the party. I had to go to the basement for the rest of the party because it was like evil secular music.

Kate: Stop.

Emi: Yeah. And I, you know, and back then I was like, okay, I’m just holier than these people. But a few years later, it it made more sense when my dad picked me up from school and pulled over the car and was like, “I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’m changing my name. And I’m going to be a woman now. And I felt this huge sense of relief, like I knew that my life was different and I had kind of felt that way for a while. But then I was like, okay, this is an explanation for why my childhood has been, like, so strict and why my parent has been so mean to me sometimes. And I really thought, okay, things are going to be a lot better now.

Kate: Well, it sounds like, too, your love for your dad, sounds like it was, you, you felt such love for their new expression. And at the same time, that must have been a very strange and difficult time to be understanding different gender identities.

Emi: Yeah, it was a different it was a different time. And I think when you’re a kid, like the world is kind of open to you. You don’t necessarily have all the same expectations of how things would be, but other people were definitely like, scandalized, in our community.

Kate: Wow.

Emi: Yeah. And we’re like, this is a huge–either people were like, this is a huge sin. And Emi is like, messed up now and will be for the rest of her life. Or people were like, this is perfect. And you’re going to have two smiling mommies. You know, there was kind of this this. No middle ground.

Kate: Yes. And then you, and then you never ended up with an idealized portrait of either. You’re very sensitive about that. I really appreciate it. You were like everybody was having issues. And then you say it in the nicest way.

Emi: Thank you. Yeah. I mean, I feel like it’s, it’s also just honest. Right. Where like, there were so many years where people just didn’t know enough trans people, or know enough about being trans, that there were all these, like, stereotypes out there. And it was–I know we’re not looking for great sides here, but it has been really wonderful as the child of a trans person to see this awareness and to be able to be like, okay, now I can speak more freely about what my childhood was actually like.

Kate: Yeah. Your parents’ divorce, your dad’s transition, this really difficult custody battle over you, these are so, like, such big, tender forks in the road. What were things like with you and your mom at that time?

Emi: I loved my mom. She had been the primary breadwinner and had been away a lot like during my childhood and during the custody battle, I moved on with her when I was about 11. And she won full custody. But she had a problem with compulsive shopping and hoarding. And before that time it had kind of been like a fun quirk, like she would go to Target and come back with like 100 wristwatches that had been on sale for a dollar each. But, but I had never been kind of in the middle of it. And suddenly I was. And that put. It put a lot of strain on our relationship. And then also that dynamic that’s so common to kids in custody battles where my mom was like, you know, I saved you, right? I spent all this money and all this time to like, rescue you from your father and you’re not grateful for it.

Kate: I see.

Emi: Yeah. Yeah. And she was totally right. I was absolutely not grateful for it. Not at all.

Kate: Yes.

Emi: I was like, could I just have both parents, like is that okay.

Kate: That’s so funny. Grateful is never a word a kid who’s losing their other version of home is ever going to feel.

Emi: Yeah. At the same time, I feel for her, you know? I feel for her like she was in a horrible marriage. Like, in hindsight, it’s like my parents’ marriage was bad, and I think it was bad for both of them and way worse for my mom, you know? And, and my dad’s behavior, like, affected it affected me, too. You know, I think divorce has the special property where it can take a bad situation, and people who have problems, and it can just amplify those problems to the nth degree. Because it’s like, you know, she was, she was in a crappy marriage and then suddenly she has like legal debt, she’s a single parent, her kid is not happy to be with her. It was a tough it was a tough situation. And she was coping the way she coped, which was in the Walgreen’s clearance section in the Home Depot clearance section, and all that stuff was coming back home.

Kate: Oh, my gosh. At that time, did it just sort of like multiply the like the worse it got for her financial-emotionally, then the worse your living environment became.

Emi: Absolutely. Yeah. And I hadn’t realized how my dad’s controlling behavior had kept my mom’s hoarding in check. And suddenly she was free and she was going to use that freedom to buy, buy, buy. And so we lived in an apartment with like every single surface, had a pile of stuff on it. And the kitchen countertops, they were full. And so we would pull out the drawers and then there would be a pile of stuff on top of all the drawers, like on top of the oven, in front of the oven, like in front of the washing machine. And so there were only these like narrow paths between the rooms, like within the course of maybe a year.

Kate: Mm hmm. Oh, hun.

Emi: Yeah, I know!

Kate: So then like, you know, friends coming over and not an option, like being able to take care of yourself easily. Not an option.

Emi: Yeah. The rule was like, do not let anyone inside under any circumstance, especially somebody from the government.

Kate: I see.

Emi: And like the shower, pretty soon it was filled with stuff. It was like, you know, my mom would do like. Towel baths? Is that what you call it? Where you do, like, I think people say, like, bits, pits, and another word that rhymes with that. And that was like the way that we–

Kate: I like how we both paused because we both knew what people normally call it.

Emi: Exactly! Yeah. Yeah, and we had mice, like, the mice were fearless. They were just like, run across the room and they knew we couldn’t stop them. And I got really sick, like I had a hacking cough. And I was I think I had a pretty good attitude, like, for being a pissy, like, ten-year-old who didn’t want to be with my mom. I think I had a pretty good, like, level head about the situation. When the house was going badly, and when, you know, I was having conflicts with my mom, she was like, “You’re not okay.” Like, you are traumatized by your dad. Like, we have to take you to therapy. And that was really when the big problems started for me. Like everybody always talks about therapy like it’s the solution and like it’s always a good thing. But like, I went to therapy and that was, like, my funeral. As a child. Like, that was when things were going to get really bad.

Kate: Oh hon, say more about that. That is such a perfectly devastating thing to say.

Emi: A few months after I moved in with my mom, she brought me to family therapy. And I remember. I sat down, she sat down and she told this psychologist, I think my daughter has ADD. And my mom had ADD, she thought that my brother had ADD, even though he was never diagnosed. He was 12 years older than me and so was like, you know, out of the house. And she’s like, Emi is disorganized and chronically late, and when she reads, she gets hyper-focused, which is like a sure sign of ADD. and the doctor didn’t say, like, okay, how can an 11-year-old be chronically late? How is that possible?

Kate: Yes, yes, yes, tell us how she gets places? How would that work?

Emi: Yeah? Or like, how is she disorganized, right? Especially living in a home where, like, you can’t use the oven. Like, you know, why isn’t her organization transcending that? But, you know, I really believe my mom was trying to help me. And she thought, you know, she couldn’t do everything she wished she had for my brother, and she looked around our living situation and she was like, okay, this is this happened when Emi moved in with me, like, this must be Emi.

Kate: I see.

Emi: Yeah. And so, you know, this psychologist, he gave me a form, I filled out like a little checklist, my mom filled out a checklist, and my teacher filled out a checklist. And then the next session, we come back and he’s like, Emi, you should be medicated. I got the diagnosis of ADD, I was referred to a psychiatrist. And after I saw the psychiatrist, once, I went to a physician’s assistant and I got Concerta and then Adderall. And spoiler, I did not have ADD. And those drugs, they can feel great, like I’ve taken them a little later in life, like off-label. But, back then, it was terrifying, like to be to be a child who’s like, never even had coffee before and then get prescription speed. I had like a panic attack. I freaked out, and I like the first day on the drugs. I hit a kid over the head with a textbook. Like I had never been violent. I had never done anything like that. And like, granted, he was, he was, like, acting badly towards a classmate. Like, we both got detention. But I was so scared because I was like, that’s not like me. And I was like, what has happened to me? And it seems like an irreversible thing. And like, once I had kind of seen that darkness, it was like, I don’t think I can ever go back. Like, I think I’m just broken now. And the doctors kind of treated it that way, too. Like I got Xanax right away, which made me feel better.

Kate: Because they’re just like flipping back road on your chart all of a sudden and before, there was nothing. And then all of a sudden there’s just like, case history. Case history. Case history.

Emi: Yeah. And then once you have one diagnosis, yeah, everything is like in reference to that diagnosis. And so they were like, okay, well, the ADD meds don’t work. We’re going to try Prozac. Like, you must be depressed if Ritalin doesn’t help you. And from there, it just started the cycle where I went through a dozen drugs.

Kate: It’s like a waterslide, it sounds, like.

Emi: Yeah, absolutely. It’s like once you get on that train, like you can’t get off. And, and like. And it was the early 2000s. Like people didn’t think about like, there’s withdrawal that happens there’s side effects, you know,d and obviously these meds they can be really helpful to people when they’re used in the right way and also a lot of people get them and then struggle in similar ways that I did.

Kate: Listening to your story, it reminds me of something that Tara Westover said about, like, binaries of people want to say, you know, like parents are either all good or all bad or, you know, in this case, professionals are either all good or all bad and we should be grateful. And she said about her parents, “Well, yeah, my parents were doing their best and their best was devastating.” And I really liked the idea that, like, even like, even if we’re locked into something, like, it doesn’t, we don’t just–it doesn’t explain away the cost of it just to say, “people were doing their job.” It doesn’t. It doesn’t explain away that cost.

Emi: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I don’t think anybody had bad intentions at all. But I think it’s a really systemic problem with particularly when children who are in vulnerable situations are getting treated. How we have, you know, this, this therapeutic model where we have diagnoses and labels and that’s like the primary way we’re thinking about things. And where the primary treatments are like individualized therapy and medication. It does a really bad job of finding, like the systemic problems or even just like the slightly larger, like, the family problem or the community problem. And then it just ends up being put on to like an individual young person. And in America, we’re all about the individual. We’re like, that’s the only thing that matters.

Kate: Oh my gosh, it’s the worst! Just like, even coming back to like, “This 11-year-old is chronically late” is like a perfect little microcosm of, like, the rest of the years that followed for you, where it’s like, yes, you are seeing things in my life that are that like are not setting me up for success. Like why? But like I am in, I am an actor in that scene. What else is in the scene? Like, you’re naming a kind of like theory of agency, a theory of whether or not we have the ability to act that we don’t, like, we don’t have enough language for in our culture. We really don’t. We will say everything is possible or we will say nothing is possible. And either iteration is, is just frankly not true.

Emi: Yeah. Wow. I love that theory.

Kate: We’ll be right back.

Kate: Especially your teenage years. It’s like just watching you try to figure out what your options are. Every time, like you’re like you’re in so many different kinds of worlds trying to figure out the framework of choice. It’s a bit, it’s bit, like, theoretical, but like, that’s totally how I see your beautiful brain at work. You had to leave your mom’s home and then, like, what happened next?

Emi: Yeah. So when I was 13 and 14, I was hospitalized a number of times. I loved the hospital. There was clean showers, like good food, air, no mice. And then when I was 14, I finally got sent to this locked treatment facility. And it was like a place from the movies with the cinder block walls, bars over the windows, soundproof glass. And we were basically not let outside for the first month. And then it was like, if you were good, you got to go outside for like 2 hours a day. And then the rest of the time you’re in this facility, you go to school there, little classroom on site. And this whole time I was being told by adults this message of like, you messed up, like you’re here because you had bad behavior. And you, you not only need to fix your behavior, but if you ever want to be happy, you’re going to need to accept your circumstances. And I was like, I don’t see a life worth living when I’m looking around me, right? When I’m thinking about spending the rest of my life on these anti-psychotics that I was on. Like the outcomes for people coming out of there were, like, you know, really crappy jobs, like, really living like subsistence lives. And so I was like, okay, if you’re going to force me to stay alive and be on this hellhole planet, I’m going to find–I need to find a way to have a life that I’m happy with. And for me, like I was a little bookworm. And so I was like, I really want to go to college. And ideally, I want to go to Columbia University in the city of New York because it’s in New York City. And you know, who doesn’t want to go there? And so that was, so I started, you know, studying from these ACT books from the library. And that was how I found, like, the meaning in my life.

Kate: Yes. But then what? Like every time somebody tried to manage you by setting low expectations, it sounded like that was a very painful kind of certainty. Like just saying, I don’t know, because I just find that in the worst moments of my life, like, I can’t stay. I can’t stay locked in the present I–like, that’s why our brains mercifully toggle back and forth between like lovely moments in the past. You can pull in to that second or like hopes for the future that you can somehow conjure up. But like the idea that you would then have to sort of have a low, low expectation was almost that must have felt like either almost certain failure or just like an inability, then, to, to dream a different reality.

Emi: Yeah, absolutely. I, I was surrounded by these people who said that hope just makes you depressed. And that seemed to blame the depression. These kids, you know, most of whom who had been neglected and abused, that it was because of their over-optimism. And that like if you just really had an attitude adjustment downward of what life should be like, then everything would be hunky dory. And, you know, as an adult, I understand the statistics a lot better about how rare it really is to go to college and graduate college and, and have stability. At the same time. Like, you can’t just tell me to live without giving me something to live for.

Kate: Oof, yeah, yes, yes.

Emi: Yeah. And it seems like, it seems like such a missed opportunity. Because, like, I was, I was 14 and I was not willing to do a single thing to get better. Like, I did not want to get over my eating disorder. I didn’t want to stop self-harming. I had been abusing leftover Adderall. I certainly did not want to stop doing that, but I was willing to do anything to achieve my dreams. And I think most. Many, if most teenagers are like that. And even if that dream is kind of unrealistic or something, that’s not, maybe not going to happen. It just it’s like, why could people have not used that as like, okay, you want to go to college? Like, here’s what it takes to go to college, right? And you’re not going to be able to go to the place you want to go if you are not eating and you’re hospitalized for starvation. Right? Like, that’s not going to be an outcome. And I feel so lucky. Okay. We’re not supposed to say that on the show. But the thing that I feel like, yeah–

Kate: Yeah, I like it how we do it.

Emi: But the thing that I feel lucky about is that I’m the kind of person who, who doesn’t like being told I can’t do something.

Kate: Yeah, that’s right. You don’t. I love, I really, I feel that, like, sliver of iron in you know, and it’s just wonderful.

Emi: Thank you. I mean, cause I was at this treatment center. I was studying for the ACT. I was reading Joan Didion and Annie Dillard, and I was, like, happier than I had been in, like, years, even though I was eating, like, industrial chicken a la king and, like, hot dish and couldn’t go outside. But then they, they took away my books because they were like, these books are a distraction. Like, you need to not think about the future. You need to focus on being a kid, on healing–whatever that means–to heal. And I, I think so many people would have been broken by that. And people are always saying like, “Oh, I wasn’t broken because I’m like this special person or I have this magic trick.” And I’m just like, no, I was just mad and I’m so glad that I was mad. And then I was like, you know, screw you, I’m going to prove you all wrong.

Kate: Yes. Yes, totally. That’s so funny, because it’s true. Sometimes there’s these wonderful little glitches in our programming, where it saves us. And it was just there all along. And like, yeah, I mean, me being angry at the right time has…it saved my life. And it, you know, had it not been, had I not needed anger to validate the part of me that felt totally disposable, you know, then I just wouldn’t have thought there’s anything worth saving. So.

Emi: Man. I feel like we need to cultivate anger. We need like, an anger practice, especially for people who are like young, young women and girls, like, you know, they need they need to get on like a bike in New York City, right. And then, and navigate through traffic.

Emi: Oh my gosh, one of the funniest little you know, those little like, like name tag plaques you can get for your, for your desk or something? One of my friends got me one that just said, “stay angry,” cause they were like, actually, this is working for you, vigilance.

Emi: I love that. I want one now!

Kate: I will make you a “stay angry” one.

Kate: We’ll be right back.

Kate: Your dream, though, for higher education had this like, wonderful validating piece, like your mom always was, like, you’re so smart, like, saw something really beautiful in you. And yet it was also coupled with this like, sort of “world made of helium” feeling where you’re like, how does this even work? Like, thank you. But like, who would, who would pay for this? How does one get there? What are applications? I mean, you had this massive obstacle course to even try to imagine in getting from, like, the most desperate circumstances to like, this dream world.

Emi: Yeah, because I had a, I was, I had a mom who was like, you know, you’re a genius, you’re brilliant. And I was like, Shut up, Mom. Like, you’re getting into trouble. Because the doctors would hear her say that, and they’d be like, Okay, her mom is delusional and Emi is like feeding off of her mom’s delusion. And, yeah, I mean, in hindsight, I do think a lot of my mom’s faith in me was delusional. Like it was not fully based in reality, it was more of like a feeling, but she’s my mom, than a reality, than fact. But it really did. It made a huge difference in thinking like, okay, that’s something that’s an option for me. And so I ended up being discharged from this locked facility and going to foster care. And I, luckily lived in a home that was in an amazing school district where I had teachers who cared a lot about me. And one teacher who really encouraged me to apply to summer camp. And this is something that people in foster care almost never get to do. And there were so many different factors that played into it. But a big part of it was like my mom’s support. And so I went to this beautiful, idyllic place in the woods with all these other 16-year-olds. It was for photography camp, and I got to photograph other teenage girls looking cute. And at the end at the time, my teacher was like, “You should apply to boarding school. There’s like a boarding school that the camp runs and you can go there.” And I was so scared because I was like, if I go to boarding school, then the pressure is really on to try to get into an elite school. And I went and… Interlochen, my high school, it’s like a feeder school, but for orchestras. And like, conservatories. And so there was not like the counseling infrastructure there to help me get into Harvard or Yale or Columbia. And so I was like, and I was like, I have this background that I’m going to need to explain, right? Like my freshman year, my freshman grades are like, from three different schools, one of which was a locked classroom. And I knew that I needed, like, serious help. And I got, um, I basically begged a private college counselor to take me on for free. And she did. And so she was like my guide through this, at that point. But it was still just like, you know, a totally different world than the one that I had come from and one where I needed to like, present my, my best self, all my best angles. When I had been so used to being forced to like, okay, take responsibility, blame yourself, like, if you don’t do that, like you’re a problem. It was like 180 to see like, okay, in this world you’re going to pretend that you’re perfect, you’re the successful overcomer and you have never had a mental health problem in your life. Like you went through all this stuff, but you’re just stronger for it.

Kate: You had this, like. amazing insight that they didn’t–it wasn’t enough for you just to have survived like you had to overcome. Did it feel like telling a lie about yourself when you’re like “I have overcome”? Or were there moments where it felt true?

Emi: It absolutely felt like a lie. Because it was a lie. I was not an overcomer. Right, and in some ways, you know, I was still like, alive. I had gone to boarding school, but I remember the summer before my senior year, I was 16 and I had couch-surfed with, like staying with like ten different friends until I ran out of friends. No more friends left. So I was sleeping in the back seat of this 1992 Corolla. And I remember going into the library and being like, okay, it’s time for me to write my essay of Triumph. And it was just like such a farce to be like, okay, I’m writing this essay about how I’m stronger because I slept in my car and like, tonight I’m probably going to sleep in my car again. And like, if I don’t sleep in my car, it’s because I go to a shelter and sleep at a shelter. And so it was it it felt like a huge lie.

Kate: Yes. You’ve got this, you’ve got like the two frameworks side by side where people usually just have one. They either have like the hyper-individualism, which is like, what can I do? What am I responsible for? What are the side doors to like, help me get where I need to go? And then the structural thinking, which is what the hell? Why was who’s to need side doors? Like why can’t this room just be normal and safe and have like, basic amenities at it? So you’re like, you’re, yeah, your structural brain is kind of–it must have been so hard to always be trying to figure out then, like, who’s responsible for me? Am I alone in all of this or is there anybody else that’s gonna, is anyone else going to help me keep all the walls of this house up?

Emi: Yeah. And I think I felt just completely responsible for everything for so long, like throughout my whole, like, high school time, honestly, into my mid-twenties. And if you had asked me, like, okay, what were the systemic things that were affecting you, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything, nothing at all. And it was really like, I had to go back and like, read stuff and talk to a bunch of people, like tell a bunch of people my story and be like, “What do you think this means?” Like I, to me, it’s just like a series of events. Right. And then to go back and reconstruct like, okay, this is like what’s happening. And this is a thing that happens for a lot of people because I think that the experience of, you know, being one of these overcomers who like goes through these institutions and then like, spoiler alert, gets into Harvard, it’s fundamentally such an isolating experience. And I think it’s isolating by design, often, where like I won the scholarship from the Horatio Alger Association, but they literally had this–104 deserving scholars in the balcony of this ballroom. Like there was a real bald eagle who flew across, the national anthem.

Kate: It was a real eagle.

Emi: It was real. It was real. His name is Challenger. You can Google him. I did. He’s terrifying. It’s really.

Kate: I’ve seen an eagle, I’ve seen an eagle released inside of a megachurch one time, it was really stressful.

Emi: The spirit was with you.

Kate: Well, he like hit one of the windows. And it was. It was a dark time. It was, it was metaphorically rich, but it was…. But even like, I mean, Horatio Alger, of course, like the. Yeah. 19th century, like, rags to riches, dime novels that say that every scrappy–actually, and also the real Horatio Alger stories, like, there’s a million it’s just like a zillion orphans, right. And they’re deserving, obviously. Otherwise, they don’t get. But they’re always saved by a wealthy relative. Like, none of the actual Horatio Alger stories have people bootstrapping. They all just get like some stroke of luck comes to a virtuous person, which is like totally different than the way we think about, like, the rat making its way through the maze of capitalism.

Emi: Absolutely. Yeah. But I mean, it’s less that’s less of a convenient story. Like it’s much more convenient to be like, okay, little, little ragged Dick got there because of his sheer force of will and his, like, cuteness. Because we were we were there. And I started to realize I was like, I think that this is a conservative organization. And they told us, they were like, 50,000 students applied for these 104 scholarships. Yeah. And it’s like .02 percent. And then they looked out at us and they were like, “You are proof that anyone can do it in the free enterprise system.” And we don’t need government handouts.

Kate: Oh, Emi.

Emi: Yeah, I was like, I was like looking like, like my hands were folded in my lap as I’d been taught and I was like looking side by side and being like, Is anybody else think that this is bizarre?

Kate: Oh my gosh. And meanwhile, you probably would have been like, “Actually, I would like very well-funded supports for foster care homes and, and, educational benefits. And I would really appreciate more social services for teenagers who, who might need to emancipate themselves at an early age, just like all kinds of structural things would have made your life completely different. Instead of the hanging-by-a-thread feeling all the time.

Emi: Yeah. Yeah. Maybe just a dentist, right? It became my number one life goal. Dental insurance.

Kate: Yes, totally. I wonder, I wonder what you think it means to survive something. Because as part of writing this absolutely gorgeous book, you did so much looking back, and so much fact-checking, and so much looking into medical records, and like, trying to piece together all the bits of your story. And I imagine kind of locking it into a framework of like, what did I experience? But then also what happened to me. And so I don’t know, when I, when I hear your story and you’ve survived so much and you had to piece together what happened to you. I wonder how you think about survival and its cost.

Emi: After I got into Harvard and it totally changed my life, I started to really buy into this idea that getting something that very few people get, like admissions to an elite university, that it was kind of this debt that I was going to carry with me for the rest of my life. Where I had to be this person that I promised I was in my applications, where I was this smiling, grateful, happy overcomer and that everything that contradicted that had to be like, pushed down. Yeah. Like when I started having nightmares and being unable to sleep through the night and just like screaming when people came up behind me that it was, like, my duty and obligation to be this like, paragon of like a happy, smiling person. Because that response, it, it restores a kind of order in the world, right, of like, okay, people go through hard things and they survive it. And then like, look how amazing they are at the end. In my mid-twenties, that pressure really became overwhelming and it did coincide with, like–I was writing this book. I knew I wanted to write it and I felt like I needed to have a very happy ending. And I literally went through my life and I would tell people I’m happy-ing ending. Like everything that I do is that I can have a happy ending for this book and I’m going to like, heal my relationship with my mom and I’m going to be like, so healthy. I’m going to be able to run fast marathons and like be this perfect, shiny person. And that expectation was actually worse than the actual aftermath of what happened when I was a child and a teenager. Because it’s like, that expectation was not something that I could ever like, move on from because it dictated my whole entire future.

Kate: You’re like a survivor forever.

Emi: Exactly.

Kate: You’re like, paying back a debt. The truth is, you were in debt at the time.

Emi: Yeah, exactly. And I really hate–hated–that word survivor, because it was like there were certain people who I felt like their struggles were okay and where they were like, you know, I’m proud…or not proud, but they were like people who were public survivors and whose lives had told them that it was okay to talk about what happened to them, and like okay to be angry and okay to say, “my experience means something.” And that was a really hard part of going to college at Harvard, because you see all these, you know, the charity founders, people passing bills. And I’m like, I don’t feel like what happened to me matters. Like, and I don’t feel like I’m allowed to be angry about it or that it means anything. And so I, I ended up going–I had to go into this place of like deep negativity. And I think negativity can be really undervalued in our culture.

Kate: You are singing my sweet, sweet song, Emi. I will listen to you say that all day. Tell me why negativity helped you.

Emi: I…what happened to me was so messed up. And it was not just me. It’s millions of young people are, are being, like, messed up in the same ways. And I had to just be like, I’m going to be upset. And if I’m going to be upset about this every day for the rest of my life, like, that is okay. And that is my prerogative. And it doesn’t mean I’m going to be nasty to people because of it, but like, I don’t owe anybody my happiness. And I think it was also like recognizing, okay, if I had been born like into like one of these upper-middle-class families, like some of the stuff that happened would be a tragedy and people would be mourning it. And there’s no reason that I don’t deserve that just because I was not born into those circumstances. And I, I mean, I was working on the book and I wrote, like, the most depressing ending that like, I can even imagine, right where I was, like ending my memoir. And I was like, every day, like basically I think about suicide, but I’m not going to do it because I owe Harvard. And like, that was literally an ending. But I had to go there and I had to let myself go there in order to realize that, like that idea that we’re made stronger by everything that happens to us, that is messed up. Like, some people, I’m sure, are made stronger by everything that happens to them. Like, good for them, I don’t want to be your friend, you’re not a healthy person for me to be around. But for me, that’s not true. Like, I’m a different person. I’m changed by what happened to me, but that is okay. And I think the idea that it’s not okay to be affected by tragedy is a big lie. It’s a big lie. And it’s used to uphold the status quo and to say like, okay, nothing needs to change. Everything is fine. And you’re the problem.

Kate: Yes, Emi! As we would say in religious circles, that’ll preach. That’s so good. Oh, my gosh, that’s so good Emi. I wish I’d read you five years ago. So good. That, that feeling where it’s…where you just need a minute to actually, like, be honest about the cost. There is this, I was writing about the, I was looking at all the charts of all the the people who didn’t make it in these clinical trials and under what conditions they would give them the drug or not give them the drug. And how you make these casual evaluations about whose life is worth being sad about, what people deserve, these really, really like bald and terrible ways. And I think I said something like, “There is no accounting for the things we’ve done, for the things done to us.” And like, it was that just kind of like…sometimes it just like, just breaks your heart to be… to feel like the actual cost of what nobody can undo now. But dear God, aren’t people still running around supporting the same systems

Emi: Yeah, yeah. It’s–I think that that’s one of the joys of being able to write a memoir is that it’s so hard to understand what a million people means, but we all know one person.

Kate: Yeah. Emi, let’s do this any time. I’ll keep you. Also, just, I’m so, I’m so grateful for this conversation, honestly. Thank you so much.

Emi: I’m so grateful to Thank you so much for having me.

Kate: I think one of the great gifts that Emi has is that she really helps people feel believable as they say something that really runs against the grain of the story that we would all prefer that we tell. Where there’s no cost to what we’ve been through, that we’re so lucky that nothing is lost, that zero systems are working against us, that we can all just become the person we wanted to be through hard work and determination. That we are the sum of our grit and our mental fortitude. And nothing is impossible if we just believe. Emi gently reminds us that there are things you can change and work toward, and it is truly amazing what people can survive. But it is okay to count the cost. So if you’re listening to this and you feel the weight of your own survival on your shoulders, bless you. This is a blessing for you.

Kate: Blessed are you who are tired of feeling grateful all the time, who feel more comfortable with moments of rage and negativity and venting all that you lost. Blessed are you when you say hand on your heart that there are truths you wish you could unlearn, riches you wish you could get back. The innocence, hope, the sweet fearlessness of never having lost. You are resilient, but I wish you never had to be. Your survival cost you. And it’s okay to name it. To be grateful AND outraged. You might never get the apologies you’re owed, and we long to hear them say it: I’m sorry. I should have believed you. I should have sheltered you. This never should have happened. The almost truths are difficult to swallow. Yes. We learned so much. Yes, we overcame, we grew. But this perspective, we would give it back in a heartbeat. Bless us, God, in our gratitude, in our anger, in our survival. And may you, my dear, be met today with gentleness and stillness and peace, energy, momentum, and rest. Whatever it takes to carry the weight of all this resilience. Bless you, my dears.

Kate: Okay. This is the part where I get to say thank you. Thank you, thank you. Thank you. Because really, thanks. Thank you to my incredible partners. This whole thing has been made possible by the amazing people at the Lilly Endowment and the Duke Endowment, who wanted to support storytelling about faith and life. And I just cherish them for it. Thank you. Thank you also to my academic home, Duke Divinity School, and to our new podcast network. Lemonada, where their slogan is, “When life gives you lemons, listen to Lemonada.” Hilarious. I love it. And of course, a huge shout out to my unbelievable team who always makes everything happen. They are the everything happens at Everything Happens. Jessica Richie, Harriet Putnam, Keith Weston, Gwen Heginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Hope Anderson, Kristen Balzer, Jeb Burt and Katherine Smith. And hey, we have some really fun stuff coming this fall and I don’t want you to miss any of it. So if you head over to and if you sign up for my free weekly email, it’s got all kinds of news, video clips from episodes like this one, discussion questions, must-read books, free printables, all kinds of things. And my dear listener, it would be the most helpful thing in the whole entire world if you left us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. It is weirdly the most important thing when other people are like, Hey, do people listen to this podcasts? And then they look at that. It only takes a few minutes and it makes a huge difference to our ability to do this. And while you’re there, if you click on the subscribe button, then you won’t miss any of our new episodes that air every Tuesday. We love hearing your voice. Leave us a voicemail and we might even use it on the air. Call us at 919-322-8731. All right, lovelies. We’ll talk to you next week. I’m going to be talking with Angela Williams. She is the head of a wonderful organization called the United Way. I am sure you’ve heard of it. And she has some straight wisdom for us about how to sustain our lives of service. And in the meantime, come find me online, @katecbowler. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.

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