Terrible, Thanks for Asking

Update: Chelsea from Forever Alone? - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled “Update: Chelsea From ‘Forever Alone?’” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.


I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”

If you haven’t yet listened to the two episodes called “FOREVER ALONE?” stop right now. This episode is filled with spoilers. You’re going to have to scroll back. When we were numbering episodes, they were episodes 15 and 16. 

But if you HAVE listened to those episodes, I know you’ve been wondering, I know you’ve possibly even messaged about this on Instagram. What happened? What happened with Brian and Chelsea? How is Chelsea? 

Truly, aside from being asked about my lip color, that is the question that people I believe ask me the most online.

We’ve been making this show for several years now, and we haven’t made update episodes about past guests. Not because we don’t want to. We barely have the capacity to make the episodes that we make, let alone go back, follow up with people. 

So it’s partially a capacity issue, and then also partially that it’s just a lot to ask someone. To be like, “Hey, you already did this deeply emotional and truly vulnerable thing.” (That word, vulnerable, I sort of struggle with it, cuz I’m like, it’s kind of like one of those words where if you use it, I don’t think you are it.) Anyways, it’s like, you’ve done this incredibly sort of tender thing and now do you wanna do it again?

It’s just a lot. But Chelsea’s my friend, so I was okay doing it. Although it took me a long time. 

A little context about the “Forever Alone?” episodes. It was going to be one episode, telling the story of my friend Chelsea, because, like many women who have straight female friends, I have a LOT of amazing single female friends. Friends where you’re like, “What? Why is she SINGLE?!” Truly, 100% of my husbands, two out of two, have been like, “Chelsea’s great. She’s amazing. She’s the best. She’s cute. She’s smart. She’s funny.” And I’m like okay... relax, you already made your choice. You already made this bed, ya gotta lay in it. 

But that’s how I felt about Chelsea. That’s how I always felt about her. I met her when I was in my mid-20s, she’s a couple years younger than me. And the last long-term relationship that she’d had was in her teenage years. And throughout our friendship, she’d go on a couple dates, and it’d fizzle out. Or she’d be really excited about someone, they’d be really into her, and then all of the sudden THUD, it’s over.

And I hated that. Because I love her. I want her to get whatever she wants. I wanted to do an episode about that feeling that so many of us have had before, that there’s just nobody out there for you, and what that does to a person. 

So, we do this interview. And maybe in the back of my mind, because I am a meddler, I secretly hoped someone would hear it and be like WAIT I LOVE CHELSEA! And I would be the podcast matchmaker of nobody’s dreams.

So we start making the first episode.

And then... I do meddle.

I meddle. I had somewhat recently been partnered up again. I met Matthew, my current husband. And he came with a whole new group of people that included single men, but decent single men, for the first time in a long time. Kind of a lot of them. So I’m surveying his friends, and they were all hot and interesting. And one of them was named Brian, and he was in a band with Matthew, and that band played in our basement every Sunday. So one Sunday, I just casually invite Chelsea over when I know the band is playing, and then I casually am making a great dinner, which I never do, and then I casually invite only Chelsea and Brian to stay for dinner, and then, BAM! They are dating! They are together! I am the matchmaker of nobody’s dreams. 

Brian was, at the time, recovering from alcohol addiction. And he had been sober for a while. And then he was not sober. And the alcohol turned their relationship into a throuple. And as much as I wanted to be the world’s best matchmaker, it just wasn’t working. And it was really hard on both of them, because they loved each other… but it was also so hard. It was agonizing.

This is tape from the end of that second episode.

Chelsea: I mean, I think it’s hard, because I hear a lot of people will say, “I just don’t have time for that. I just wouldn’t have any patience for that.” That does seem to put the addiction into a category of it being a rational behavior on the addict’s part.

Nora: By that you mean a rational.

Chelsea Yeah, a rational, not irrational. Yeah. Because it is completely irrational. And I think that’s why people that don’t suffer from addiction get so frustrated, because we see... whether it’s an alcoholic, in my case, or anyone with any sort of addiction... like, how do you get yourself all the way to the liquor store and get the bottle and get home and still think it’s a good idea? But it’s just… it goes completely beyond reason. And it’s so frustrating to not be able to... as an extremely rational person, I would say...

Nora: Oh, you’re very rational.

Chelsea: … to like, rationalize this.

Nora: And to be like, “Well just don’t. The key is that you don’t drink.”

Chelsea: Right, the key is...

Nora: Like, if it were that easy, then no one would have any problems with addiction...

Chelsea: Right, right.

Nora: … if the key was just “don’t do it.”

Chelsea: Right, like and it just seems like some sort of self control issue, but it really seems to go beyond that in a way that I will just never be able to comprehend.

Nora: What are… like, what are you going to do?

Chelsea: I think that’s like the million dollar question, and that’s what makes the situation so hard. Because there’s really just no right or wrong answer. Like people say, “Do whatever makes you feel good, follow whatever is going to make you feel good.” None of the decisions are going to make me feel good. I just feel like I’m stuck in this damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Nora: What are your options right now?

Chelsea: I think my options are to just keep going and not change anything. And just keep hoping every day that it happens that it’s the last time. Or I… leave him and… [crying] or something like in between.

Nora (2017 Narration): It’s always something in between. Our choices in life and love are just never as clear as we need them to be. Not when they’re in the moment. Right now, Brian and Chelsea have broken up. Some of you are cheering, some of you are booing. Some of you are the personification of the emoticon shrug guy. Or the emoji grimace smile, which I believe was modeled after me. Because this is such an impossible situation in so many ways. Because under all of this is just pain. Chelsea is hurting. Brian is hurting. And because of that, everyone who loves them is hurting Almost a week later, Brian is two days sober when I call him for a final update before we publish this episode.

Brian: It’s very confusing to be in a situation where she tells me that she loves me and she wants to be with me, and she broke the pattern of how she was dating, and that when we started dating I did everything right to make her feel cared for and deserving of a relationship… and the one thing that I got wrong was being an alcoholic, but it wasn’t a conscious decision. And I’m trying everything I can to fix it. And it’s kind of a lot, to deal with both things at the same time. And I want this to have a happy ending, too.

That is full-on agony. We recorded that in my house. I was sitting on the floor. I was bawling. They were bawling. It was so… you can hear that they love each other. You can hear that they’re both suffering. And we left the episode there, because sometimes that’s where life is. It’s just sort of hanging in the balance. And we recorded that episode, we produced it, it comes out, and then... they did break up. They broke up for good. And they were sort of in touch and then they weren’t. And the relationship was just over, over, fully over. 

And I fully understand why people have wanted an update on this episode, because it was as ambiguous as real life, which is deeply unsatisfying! And because so many of us know what it feels like to feel that love is just not going to happen for us. And because so many of us have found love and not had it work, or have watched someone we love struggle with addiction. And because honestly we just want to know what happened.

So I told you they broke up. They did. And I do not have a relationship with Brian anymore, either, but I do still have one with Chelsea. So after the break, you’ll hear me call her.

We’re back. And this is me calling my friend Chelsea. For the podcast. This is not a regular phone call. This is a podcast phone call. She and I talk on a regular basis, but it sounds less formal.

Nora: So it's been two years since that episode. But a lot of people listen to it, like, they're new to the podcast. They go back and they listen to all the old episodes. They hear this. They're like, “What?” It was a bit of an ambiguous ending because the situation was so ambiguous. I mean, behind the scenes, behind the podcast, you had broken up and you also, like, really still cared about each other and really loved each other. 

Chelsea: Yeah, it was. It was, like, really traumatic in its own way. And I still certainly do care about him. But yeah, I mean, when the second episode of the podcast first aired was really like pretty much the end of our relationship. And we did keep in touch a little bit, but it was very rocky, and it was just a spiral of... just things getting quite out of control. And it was really sad. It was really sad and hard, but it was ultimately the best thing for us to go our separate ways. 

And I've always kind of been the dumpee in my life. So, like, it just was very a new feeling too, for me, to like, have someone there that was finally like, “I want to be with you,” but like we could not be together because of circumstances that were sort of beyond almost either of our controls. Because, you know, the addiction that he was going through was so, so intense. 

Nora: Yeah, I think that's a really good point. It’s like it's… you could not be with him, because like you cannot have a relationship with his addiction. And so, like that kind thing for both of you and the healthy thing for both of you was to like do a very, very painful thing for both of you. 

Chelsea: Yeah, absolutely. And I think… I don't know. It was. It was extremely painful, and it was hard to feel good about too, you know, because I felt like, “Oh, if I love this person, I should stick with this. I should stick this out.” But there was just really no sort of solution in sight of, like, how to make things better. And like I sort of found myself in this place of like caretaking, where I really just had to make sure every day that, you know, he was alive and, like, literally got to that point, you know, where I would go to work and come home and not, you know, not be sure if he was even going to be alive. But then it got even worse after we broke up, because then, you know, he was in a downward place and I still cared about him a lot, you know, but I couldn't take on that role anymore. And I had to just trust that he would get better for himself and not be trying to get better for somebody else. Being again, a person that's not like a pro in addiction, I think that that's something that the only way to move through addiction is to really, really find that like self-worth piece. And just know you deserve to be better and feel better and not just be trying to do it to appease somebody else.

Nora: I mean, how relevant for everybody, because self-worth is also something that everyone has struggled with. And you struggled with, too. 

Chelsea: Yeah. It’s kind of a great segue, right? And even looking back on that podcast, the first episode, and how, you know, just like grandly insecure I was. And I was kind of, you know, just like desperate for someone at some point, you know, to just, like, tell me that I was enough, you know, and that I didn't have to… I don't know. I just was, I was just so desperate to, I think, feel like I fit in. I remember just always feeling like I wanted people to accept me, you know. And that comes from again, like, having the privilege of having been in therapy for a long time. You know, that's something that pops up at a really early age from, you know, just life experiences and kind of going through, you know, situations of, you know, things that happen early on in your childhood. And… yeah.

Nora: So did you get deeply into therapy after this breakup? 

Chelsea: Not for a little bit. It took a little while for me to fully get back into therapy. And then I did. And I committed to going once every other week, so twice a month, and I've been doing that consistently for almost two years now, and it's been like a marked difference, because I've had relationships with therapists over the years and, you know, you kind of start/stop and you're like, “Oh, OK, I feel a little better, you know?”

Nora: Or, “I'm out of money. Guess I’m fine now.”

Chelsea: Or I’m out of money! Yes. Like, oh, I can't make this a priority. And it's like whether you do or don't actually have the money for it. You know, I mean, truly, like I've learned, especially this summer through other circumstances, just like really understanding more closely, like how privileged I am to be able to work through trauma in this way, because it's just like so many people go through so many terrible things and don't have that kind of access. So I'm glad that we have, you know, more of that. But I think there's a long road to go to, like, having people just be able to have that at their disposal regardless of, you know, being able to pay, you know, one hundred dollars or one hundred and fifty dollars or two hundred dollars a session.

I don't want to give any advice, because any of the advice I would want to give or say is all the shit I just never wanted to hear, you know? Oh, God, you know, my wiring is just sort of like, when's everything going to fall apart a little bit. You know? But I do think, of course, you know, it gets better. Of course, like, just even… like, just even, what's the point of external validation, you know? Just like somebody telling you, like, “OK, no, you are worthy.” So much of it just ends up having to be looking inward and focusing energy inward. 

But people always would tell me that so much that I would just get frustrated with it. I was like what does that even mean? You know? I'm even in therapy, and I can't be like, figure out what I'm supposed to do here to make this better. 

And then I found a therapist that, like, just clicked with my brain so much and we've talked so much, and this is going to get like real scientific for a second to which…

Nora: I can’t wait.

Chelsea: And yeah, and you know, just the idea that our brains are programmed since we're like tiny children. You know, that we go through these traumatic experiences as like tiny kids and all the way up through adulthood that really inform how we process the world. And we should get a therapist to actually talk about what this exact terminology is like. [laughs] You build neural pathways, you know, from one part of the brain to the other. And that's how you process things. But you can rebuild these bridges, you know, from one spot to the other. 

You hear more lately about generational trauma and, like, breaking generational trauma. So even conversations I've had with my mom, it’s like it’s not even you. We're not blaming you. You're a product of how you grew up. My dad's a product of how he grew up, and it goes back and back and back. Right. But so essentially, it's just this idea of being able to step back and be like, “OK. I can now see that there are a lot of things that went on in my brain for my whole 30 years of life,” and now I'm about to turn 35, you know. And so that's a long time for your brain to be operating on a certain wavelength and to retrain it is possible, but it takes a lot of work. 

So it's like not really like grand or easy. There's no real… and I think that's one thing that I kind of struggle with, with advice, you know, stuff in the media and whatnot. Like people always want to just put it in a little box of like, “Oh, here, just do this, you know, and then you're good.” Or here is like this one tiny piece of advice that’s  going to just change your whole outlook on life. But I think, like, truly, it’s like these tiny, tiny baby steps and then, you know, a couple years later, you look back and you're like, “Whoa!”

Okay but people want to know. DID CHELSEA FIND SOMEONE?!?! IS SHE GOING TO BE FOREVER ALONE?!?! 

The answer is she will not be forever alone, because she is not alone. She is with somebody, and they just bought a house together. 

Nora: I also like.. one of the things that I’ve always, like, as your friend, and as anybody's friend, or even a stranger, whatever, I don’t want to be a part of, like, perpetuating this thing that's like the only thing that matters is whether you find a person. 

Chelsea: Oh, right.

Nora: You know, or like… that will be the thing that fixes everything or you know. Because I can tell you it doesn't.

Chelsea: I found a partner that we both are, you know, in our own separate therapy and trying to bring our best selves to our relationship. But it's also complicated, you know, like we've taken a very nontraditional approach to our relationship. Having it, you know, like me being sort of new to owning my queerness is that, you know, inevitably, you know, something that just like... is something I'm learning and still figuring out about myself.

Chelsea’s partner is named Ashley, which is a name that suits any gender, but just to be clear, Ashley is a woman.

Chelsea: And, you know, she's got her own, her own things, just like we all do, and just kind of committing to just doing a relationship in our own way and letting it feel good and not sort of succumbing to pressures of just like societal norms and whatnot. 

Nora: I really respected that, like and really like... been like a little bit envious of it, too, because, like, I think I have been always, like historically a person who's like, “OK, well then like, what's the next milestone we hit and how quickly do we do it?” And it's, I don't know. I've really admired the way that you've let your relationship move at the pace that is, like, right for you and really, like, let it unfold very naturally vs. you know, like, “Oh, at one year, like, you know, what should we be doing now?”

Chelsea: Right. Yeah, no, I appreciate that. And that's what I think is just like... I wish we could all just talk about more. And it's just like... there's just no one right way to operate and maneuver through this world. You just have to, like, find that calm within yourself and like that trust in yourself to just start navigating it in a way that feels comfortable to you. And if you don't even know what feels comfortable to you, because I certainly have not, for most of my life, even known. When people are like, just trust your gut. I'm like, I literally can't. I don't even know what that means.

Nora: 100 percent. Yeah I’m like what? I'm sorry. Where? What? 

Chelsea: Yeah. Like, trust your gut. I'm like, I just, I... that's beyond me, you know. So it's just like being able to tap into that gut, you know, and and talking, you know, about your true authentic self and what your honest, true morals are and just normalizing. I mean, there's so many... 10 million things we just need to normalize. But normalizing that there's no normal. 

Nora: Let’s normalize the abnormal! 

Chelsea: Yeah! And that like, as long as you're not out to be harming people, and you're actively bettering yourself and better understanding the world and the people around you, like, who cares what people think? I don't know. It's just so hard. 

There’s so much noise. There’s so much noise! And relationships are hard enough, period. We’re all just a nice little emotional smoothie made of all of our previous relationships and anxieties and insecurities and then our parents’ traumas and ours and then we just blend them all together with somebody else’s. THIS METAPHOR can just stop right now! The point is that it’s just difficult. We’re all just complicated people. 

But I’m just so happy to see Chelsea happy. I am so happy to see her be loved and adored by a person who is so kind, so funny, so smart, and because I’m shallow, Ashley is also very beautiful. Before COVID happened, we went to see Dashboard Confessional, and we were all singing along, and I loved watching Ashley look at Chelsea. Just that explosion in your chest you get when you see someone you love being loved. I’ve always, for Chelsea, I’ve always wanted her to be happy and loved and safe. And to have a refuge in herself and in a partner. I’m so, so glad she has that. And they just bought a house together, and it’s going to be the best designed house you’ve ever seen because they’re both designers. It’s almost unfair.

Since making these episodes with Chelsea, we’ve done episodes on generational trauma and childhood trauma, and I’ve personally learned things that would have made these episodes different — as an interviewer and as Chelsea’s friend. 

One of the things that stands out as a podcaster and as Chelsea’s friend is that those first two episodes about her, there was hardly any talk about how SHE was being supported, how SHE was being taken care of in this relationship. It's something that, looking back, feels like a big miss… and it also feels reflective of both our understanding of addiction at the time.

And because we’ve learned a lot in the past few years, and because we’re all always learning, after the break I’m bringing on my friend Dr. Nzinga Harrison to talk more about how to build a support system when the person you love is experiencing addiction.

We’re back, and I’m calling my friend Nzinga Harrison — DOCTOR Nzinga Harrison — to get some insights on how to make sure you’re getting support in a relationship with a person experiencing addiction.

Nora: Dr. Nzinga Harrison. At this point in time, this will be your second appearance on our show. So welcome back!

Nzinga: Thank you. Excited to be coming back. 

So we tend to think about illness in another person like they're the person that has that illness. And this is not just for addiction. But they're the person that has the illness and therefore they are the person who is struggling. And therefore, I have to be strong and be in the support role. And I can't struggle. Or I have to be in the care role. So that means I can't struggle. And so not even creating the opportunity to take that first step, which is, “I am also struggling.” Because once we take that first step, which is “I am also struggling,” then it's easier to say, “And so therefore I need help for me. Not only do I need a boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever friend to get connected to support, I need to get connected to support because I am struggling. Even separately from their struggle, I'm having my own experience of struggle.

Nora: What is the question after, “Am I safe?” 

Nzinga: I don't want the next to be a question. I want the next to be a statement. And even... I'll make it even stronger than that. I'm thinking of this on the fly. You, like, have my wheels turning. 

Nora: Oh, yes. 

Nzinga: I want the next to be a commitment to yourself. And so the question is, “Am I safe?” And if the answer is no, then the commitment is, “I will set the boundaries that will make this relationship safe for me.” Whatever those boundaries end up being. Because the next step after that is then like, “OK. So now I have to figure out those boundaries.” And that's where you need help. That's where you need a professional, or that's where you need a support group of other people who have been through the same, that can say, like, “These are the infinite number of boundaries that walked me towards safety.” And you can find the ones that apply to you. But first, “Am I safe?” If no, I make the commitment to myself to figure out how to get safe. 

Number three, “Let me find help that will guide me in figuring that out.

If we try to line this up, understanding what real life actually looks like, recognizing codependence, so if you ask yourself that question, “Am I safe?” Codependence is when you honestly answer that for yourself and the answer is no. Codependence is making decisions that accept that answer as no. It's a circle. “Am I safe?” No. But that other person. So I accept not being safe. That's codependence.

And so what we're trying to do is open up that second arrow. So am I safe? You get that curved arrow to no. And then what we're trying to do is draw a straight arrow to compassionate boundaries, which then draws a straight arrow to safe. So we get like a little Nike swoosh. 

A lot of the work that I do with partners and family members of people who have addiction is honestly teaching you how to set a compassionate boundary. So I think it may have been you and I who were talking, and if it wasn't, I'm sorry about that. But when I said, “Sometimes you have an adult child with addiction that for your emotional safety cannot live in your house.” And there is a way to set that boundary like the generations and generations and generations before us did, which is, “This is my house. Get out.” That's mean. And there is a way to set that boundary, that is, "I'm your mother and I love you and I will always love you. But for my emotional safety, you cannot live in this house." 

And also part of it is wanting to be so compassionate and wanting to be so perfect and so good like that other kind of layer and dimension of codependence is like, “In some ways, I am failing if I can not fix this for you,” or even the next level, “If I can't fix you... I'm failing.And so that drives me,when we go back to that circle. Am I safe? No. But it's because I have failed at fixing this. And so I don't make the commitment to get safe. I just make the commitment to not fail. 

Dr. Nzinga Harrison is one of my favorite voices in the addiction, psychology and general life space. Like all of us, I cannot say this enough, I am in the process of learning and re-learning and unlearning all kinds of things about life. And the idea of compassionate boundaries is one that I am still learning, one that would have been PRETTY GREAT to have in my 20s or my teen years. The idea of making sure YOU have support, not when you are addiction-adjacent but always? Mind-blowing. The idea of prioritizing your own health and safety? WE LOVE IT!

Because that is something we all deserve. That safety, in our relationships and within ourselves.

The question isn’t, “Why haven’t I found someone to love me!” But… “Do I love me?” The question isn’t, “Am I doing the right thing in this relationship?” It’s, “Am I okay? Am I safe? Do I have the support I need?” 

It is hard to want love and not have it. It is hard to have love and have it not work. I guess what I’m saying is that it is all really hard. We all need support and I wish you all that love and safety. I wish that for you.

If there are any other episodes that you’re itching for an update on, let us know! This was a delight for me to make, and it’s nice to look back on our work and see it through different eyes, honestly. 

This is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I’m Nora McInerny. We’re a production of American Public Media.

Who works on this podcast? So glad you asked. Our production team is Marcel Malekebu, Jordan Turgeon, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Hannah Meacock Ross and Phyllis Fletcher. You’re gonna wanna know that last name. Phyllis Fletcher. She is our editor. She asks the tough questions. She asks the right questions. If I can make her laugh, I feel like I’ve done my job for the day. Even though my job is making a podcast so GET BACK TO WORK, NORA.

Um, what else is going on? We’ve got merch, which we’re really excited about. TTFAmerch.com. Thank you. Honestly thank you for listening to our podcast. There are so many ways to support a podcast and you’re doing it. One of them. Right now. You listened to it. Cool. If you have a big to-do list that is really just chock full today and you’re like “I didn’t get anything done.” You listened to a podcast. That was good. Write it down. Check it off. Okay, well! Bye!