Maria Bamford Didn't Wait For It To Be Perfect
Hey—I want to let you know that in this episode with comedian Maria Bamford, we talk about when she’s contemplated suicide and how she got help when she needed it. If you or someone you love is at risk of suicide, please go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org to find resources and someone to talk to. There’s a link in our show notes too.
MARIA BAMFORD: My mom said when I—I, I played the violin starting when I was three years old—and she said as soon as I got up on stage, I lit up. And, um, and I think that's always been the case for me, that I feel good um in front of people. Uh, and I think it is the perceived sense of control. Of course there is no control at all. Uh, but the idea that I might, with a microphone and a, and a light bulb on - in my face, um seemed very attractive to me. And still does.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
...and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
Maria Bamford is turning 50 this year. She started doing standup back in her early 20s—in public. But she was working on bits much earlier, when she was growing up in Minnesota.
MB: I was a shy kid. Um, my mom and my sister are kind of the bigger personalities in our family. My dad would give me a, a timed set at dinner time to talk. He would set a timer and I'd get three minutes. [Laughs]
AS: Oh, that, starting like when, how how old were you?
MB: I don't - I think maybe 7 or 8. I remember the feeling of like, you got, you gotta say something really good right now. Like you got to say something like killer, like, "Okay, um there are these... Okay, Ms. Labadee, fifth grade, she told me about these bodies in Amsterdam that were found beneath the bogs, fully formed human beings with skin on and they're still there but they're from the 1400s. That's my time. Thank you very much." Like it had to be good. "Okay. A volcano um covered an entire village full of people and they’re, you can see them running in the ash. Anyways okay. That's my time. Good night everybody." It was also like, yeah, a lot of death. I think I was always sharing some horrible story.
Maria has since made a career out of excavating dark material, a lot of it from her own history with mental illness She’s dealt with intrusive thoughts, mania, depression, and suicidal ideation…
CLIP: I have done very well with mental health shtick and I was, uh [laughs]. But I've been feeling so good, the past several years, I don’t have any new material about it. And I thought, 'Uh, oh, maybe I should worry about that.' But then, I remembered that I’m on anti-psychotics and it’s no longer possible for me to worry.
This is from her new special, called Weakness is the Brand. And it turns out there is a bit of mental health schtick. And a lot about money.
CLIP: I may be mental, but I’m also a millionaire.
AS: You have a line in your new special where you say, "I may be mental but I'm a millionaire."
MB: A million, yeah a millionaire. Yeah, uh -
AS: Uh, and and what have you found that are your priorities when it comes to how you give your money and how you spend it?
MB: Um, well boy, uh yeah, I'm - I'm not, I'm not the greatest person. Like, um, I spend a lot on clothes and food. Yeah, I definitely, I think we spend around 1500 to 2000 a month on, on food and dining, dining out, which I think is uh above av, average.
AS: Are you a person who, like, spreadsheets month to month what's happening with your money?
MB: Yeah, well, here's the deal. I, I, you can't say that you're in 12 step programs publicly because, um, apparently there's, it's a cult [laughs]. But I've been in those groups for about 30 years and then one of them I've been in is money-oriented. Um, there are two that are called, um, there's one called Underearners Anonymous and one called Debtors Anonymous. And that, it, part of the sobriety in those programs are to, yeah, just be conscious of what, uh, you're spending, not, not in a judgmental way. It's sort of like either, you know, just so that you have, uh, some choices.
AS: At what point in your life did you realize that that going to a group, a support group around money management, was something you needed to do?
MB: Uh well, it was part when I didn't have a place to live. I couldn't afford the rent I was in and I had hocked everything that I had at the time. So, yeah. I didn't want to ask anybody for money anymore. And I didn't have an answer. And I was in another 12 step program and uh, they said, 'Hey, there's this other thing, uh, that you can get help emotionally about how to, how to figure out how to live.'
Maria was 24 at the time, living in LA and trying to make it as a comedian. But she struggled to cover rent and food.
MB: Although I had a college degree, I just did not know how to um get and keep a full time job, much less a part time job. I worked mostly in restaurants. Which, when I moved to Los Angeles, became problematic because people are restaurant professionals there. You cannot be bad at it and uh keep the job. And the great thing about 12 step groups that I love so much, they can't kick anybody out 12 step groups. Um, that is one of their rules. Uh, so you can go sit there with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a Big Mac and uh yell out expletives. Um, they'll probably tell you to go to the back of the room. But, uh yeah, I did, you don't have to believe in any of the stuff. And the one thing I do believe in is though, is that groups cognitively - with science, you know, scientifically - help each other. Um, when we get together and there, and there's a lack of shame, you know, uh, peop, I got support of how to have, keep a job, what I might be good at. I ended up getting a temping and then be, getting a full time secretarial job. Um, and then yeah, how to show up and um pay bills and the one thing—which is so totally common sense, but it's the kind of thing that you need somebody to tell you when you're in a crisis—they said call everybody you know to try to find uh a couch to sleep on. And I just, I mean, just didn't even come to mind. And so I did that and I found a place uh temporarily and she, um, she said I could pay her uh rent in payments over, cause I just had no money. And, um, yeah. And obviously I just want to say I acknowledge that I am uh uh, was raised a upper middle class white lady, uh, with, yeah, every single benefit. Uh, yeah. So silver spoon in my mouth, and somehow still had difficulties figuring it out.
AS: It's interesting to me that part of what you learned in group was just guidance on how to ask for help. Um -
MB: Yeah, no, that was the main thing. 'Cause I didn’t, even with secretarial jobs I'd go, "So if I don't know how to do it, you just ask?" And they're like, "Yeah." Like I just, I thought you should intuitively, if you are smart, you should intuitively know how to answer all the calls on a switchboard. Yeah, it - bizarre. But that is, it, that's what I thought. That is what I thought.
Having unsteady work meant Maria was uninsured, which led to about $6000 in medical debt after an allergic reaction to antibiotics sent her to the hospital.
She said that took her about ten years to pay off. She finally got health insurance through the Screen Actors Guild when she started picking up voiceover work.
MB: I began getting voiceover work because I was working as a secretary at an animation studio. I had got my first voiceover job and, um, that -
AS: That’s how it happened?
MB: Yes yes.
AS: It wasn't through like your agent lining you up?
MB: No. No. I - I think it's most, things mostly happen through proximity of like, "Oh this person's over here. Why don’t we, why don’t we give them a shot?" Like I, that's what I always tell people. Just get near it, get near whatever you want to be.
AS: What has that meant in terms of your mental health care to just to have reliable health insurance? What's changed in terms of like the kinds of care that you get and what it's like?
MB: It's unbelievable. I mean, it's the only reason I think I would be alive today is that I had no qualms about, uh, you know, going to the hospital when I was felt uh at danger of hurting myself uh right away. You know like, I knew that there was, I had mental health coverage. Which through my union you have to earn to get, which is so, [laughs] that is so bizarre. You've got to earn over a certain amount to deserve the mental health coverage. What? Um, so, but, yeah, I'm extremely grateful. Yeah, the whole thing. I believe I was hospitalized twice under my insurance and that was, um, around 30 to 30, 30-grand uh a pop. Um, and uh Glendale Venice medical center. Shout out to the Adventists.
AS: Uh huh.
MB: And then once I went to the wrong hospital, uh, went to Las Encinas hospital and they did not take my insurance. Which is, was so funny because I I was kinda, I was desperate, so I just said, "Okay well I guess I'll just stay." And they said, "Well, in order to stay, you have to write us a check for three grand to cover your 72 hours here." Which is so funny just because a sign of mania is spending an enormous amount of money -
MB: For impractical reasons. And, uh, it just seemed, uh, very much on point for the whole situation.
AS: Did you do that? Did you write the check?
MB: Uh, yes. I certainly did. Oh my God. Yeah. Just cause I was scared and I thought, I don't, I don't want to chance um me not being willing to go someplace else. Um so, yeah, it's kind of amazing to get there to the hospital and then, yeah. So it just felt like, uh, yeah, it was kinda - also, I was a bit out of it, you know? Uh, not in my best mental health. So, uh, perhaps I would have made a better decision had I felt, felt better. Um, but in retrospect, I do have some good, some great memories of of um people who came to visit. And my parents came to visit me when I was, uh, in the hospital, or my mom did. My dad did not. My dad, uh, I think I have, I've never talked to him about it, but I have a feeling it was uh too upsetting. I'm not sure what was going on. My mom has, uh has been hospitalized as well for uh mania. So she was, she was a great visitor. She was very mellow. She's like, "Well let's just go sit by the cigarette bucket and page through this Oprah. Is the food any good? Oh God."
AS: That must have been so comforting to have somebody with you who understood.
MB: Yeah, it was, it was comfort. I mean, I was super mental, not, I was feeling terrible, so nothing, uh, nothing was good, uh anything good is only in retrospect. If you've ever had a - a breakdown or a psychosis or mental - it's, uh, it's not good. It's not good uh, the whole time. And that's why you want to kill yourself is cause, uh, it's unbearable. Um, but I'm so grateful that people came to visit me 'cause, uh, you remember that for the rest of your life. I mean, I re, I remember those friends who were able to do that.
AS: How old were you when your mother was hospitalized?
MB: Um, it was around the same time. My mom had a hospitalization probably a year before I did.
AS: Do, did you visit her?
MB: Uh, well that is the sad thing. I didn't. Um, yeah, I didn't, uh, there's nothing more to be said than that, except that I didn't. And that's, I feel uh ashamed for that now. Um, I hope, I hope that I've changed as a person 'cause, and at, at the time, I, you know, I - I wasn't totally doing that great either, but yeah. Uh, yeah, I guess I try to have compassion to people who who can't make it to the hospital either. That, it's, it can be not only inconvenient, but also super, uh, uncomfortable. And I think I was afraid. My mom in her mania was pretty uh angry and uh it was frightening. So, uh uh, as, as it can be, uh sometimes. I'm sure I was frightening too. So I'm grateful that people came to visit me when I was frightening.
Maria’s hospitalizations were back in 2011. Coming up, Maria talks about ways she takes care of herself these days...including being disciplined about taking two days off a week.
MB: It's funny how hard it, you know, even as the head of one's own business to say, "Oh, I, yeah, I'm going to take the day, uh days off." And it's especially ridiculous when it's show business and there are somehow show business emergencies. Like... that is so... (laughs).
Last week, we told you about a new money-related project we’re working on. And we asked you to help us out with it by sharing the big financial uncertainties you’re dealing with right now.
One listener, named Maya, sent in a voice memo from the UK about how her budget feels tight even though she’s in a high paying industry.
MAYA: It's a lot of pressure because everyone thinks I have a law degree and that means I'm earning a lot of money. But, at the moment I'm drained financially. I'm drained of energy and I just have to keep going.
Between paying her bills, finishing up her legal training, and sending money to family members back home, Maya said the stress is getting unbearable.
MAYA: I'm in two mindsets. The first being there's nothing you can do. You're working two jobs, you're studying, you're doing everything you can. But the other part, I just can't sleep because this lack of control. There's constant pressure, phone calls from the bank. It's just getting overwhelming, so I don't know what to do.
We want to hear from you, too. Maybe you’re a young adult struggling with financial independence or you’re going through a big transition like a job loss, a medical diagnosis, or starting a family. Or maybe you and your partner just can’t figure out how to make money work together.
Keep sending us your questions about feeling financially stuck. Record a voice memo or send an email to us at email@example.com.
On the next episode, I talk with a listener who’s getting divorced now, about all the ways he rationalized cheating on his wife with sex workers he hired on the internet.
ETHAN: It was a transaction to a certain extent. You know, one of my justifications was, you know, I had, I had a therapist, you know, that I went and talked to, I had a massage therapist, you know, and I, and I paid these people, you know, to interact with me in a certain way. Um. The fact that it was transactional made it easier to compartmentalize and say like, "This is, this is cheating, but in a different kind of way."
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
AS: You have a joke in your, in your latest special about online therapy.
MB: Oh yeah.
AS: Um -
MB: Are you an advertiser for betterhelp.com? Oh no, I'm so sorry.
CLIP: I’ve been paying this one woman, online therapy 200 bucks a month. She just texted me, "Christine, of course you’re stressed. You just had a baby." (Laughs) AND IT WAS HELPFUL!
MB: Well I signed up for it 'cause I thought I'm on the road so much and it is, I - I have to drive to go see my therapist in LA who I love, but she's also uh $175 bucks a pop, which is well deserved. Everyone deserves to get paid, get that money. Um, and I thought, but I thought, oh I'll do a cost savings. So I signed up and then she texted me, "Christine, of course you're stressed, you just had a baby." And -
AS: So that really happened.
MB: Of course. Of course it really happened.
AS: I think when you shout on stage, "And it was helpful!" I just, because that's so, it's so true. Like it would have been help, like, like therapy we think is so much about getting in our own heads and have somebody like alongside our own heads. But having somebody say, "Christine is also stressed out 'cause she’s having a baby."
MB: Yeah, "Guess what? Guess what? Guess what? You selfish hobo." Um, "You know, what about Christine and her baby?" Um, you know, that's totally, totally true. I mean, and I do believe that that going for help, even if you get super shitty help, can be buoying. I - you just got to keep asking for, for help though, that that that, um, finding help is like, uh, is not unlike dating where you just, yeah, just gotta wait for the good match, um, or find somebody who’s just sort of good. Sort of, who's geographically close to you. Uh, and takes insurance.
AS: Speaking of dating, I want to ask you about marriage. Um, and I'm curious, you, you have noted that, that before you married your husband, Scott, both of you had had a lot of relationships, none of which had lasted tremendously long.
MB: Oh yeah.
AS: Um, when you first met him, did he seem like somebody that was - that you might spend a long time with?
MB: Well, I met so many people. Um, I think the thing that was different was me, uh you know, that um I had met lots of, uh, people. But I definitely hadn't had that willingness of like, "If somebody is willing to work it out, let's do this." Like that um, I, that was the thing that really cemented us together was both saying, "Come on, well you can, we can succeed at this."
AS: Keep trying.
MB: Yeah yeah! 'Cause I really connected with him on, on that experience. I mean, of course he's a hot, handsome hunk of uh wonderful love. And -
AS: He’s right there in the control room. You can, you can see him.
MB: And he's right there in the control room. I can see him. So sweet. And he had experiences where he was okay with not only me being a comedian, which sometimes people have a hard time with, uh, for whatever reason. He didn't have any problem with me having any mental health issues. And also—this was after having a breakdown—I felt like, oh, I need to be perfect in some way or be at my best to be in a relationship. And then seeing people who were in the psych ward with me who were married and had loving spouses, and I was like, "Oh yeah, no, I don't have to, don't wait for it. Don't wait for it to be perfect."
AS: So seeing fellow patients helped you shift about what you could, what you could expect and deserve
MB: Yeah. I think also I don't know if that's a thing in New York or in the rest of the country, but LA definitely has like, "When you really, when you really get yourself, I mean, you get to your core and you get your core issues done and then you go to a remote uh camping yurt in Big Sur. That's kind of when you're gonna be ready." I mean, it's all these added things that you have to have in place before you're going to be loved, to be lovable. Um, and to find out, um, that is not true.
Maria met her husband Scott through online dating in 2013. They married in 2015, when they were both over 40. And Maria’s open in her act about how learning how to be in a relationship, and dealing with conflict, takes some adjusting when you’re both bringing a lot of history into it.
CLIP: “So, uh, my husband, won’t speak to his experience, just that he grew up in a big family in Philadelphia. There's no food because someone was drinking it all. And though he had a place to live, he would oftentimes, for safety, sleep in the woods. Forty years later, we’re trying to decide where to put the new TV...”
Maria says they’ve learned the importance of taking a break when a fight really gets really going.
MB: There is a point where you’ve got to, you've got to stop. Take 20 minutes, distract yourself in any way you can, because otherwise you will say or do something that you regret. That it's kind of like an animal instinct, once you get flooded with too much, uh, whatever it is, anger, fear, uh, stuff. And that was really helpful to be compassionate to each other, to say, "Okay, let's let's stop uh right now. And, you know, uh, I'll go in this room." I mean, not, it didn't happen cleanly at all. I’m not saying—it was, um, very messy. But I'm proud, you know, we've done a lot of uh, uh, work to, and to, to become better at at having conflict, that it's okay to have conflict.
AS: What was messy about like calling the timeout?
MB: Um, because there's so many feelings involved with it. Like my go-to in how I grew up, uh, or my way of managing emotions would be to, I get overwhelmed and I'd go and contemplate my own death. Uh, I've done that since I was eight, eight years old. So that's my go to. I like to isolate myself and then go weep uncontrollably into a cracked mirror and think about how, uh, I, uh, I'm a terrible person and nobody loves me and um, I want to die. So uh that could be disturbing for someone to watch who's in a fight with you. Uh, Scott has his own way of, uh, dealing with things. Um, he likes, he goes on a long walk uh sometimes. And uh, which at first he wouldn't tell me where he was going. Which of course, that's the purpose of the walk. Is to get away from, get away from the person. Um, so -
AS: But then you're worrying or feeling abandoned or something?
MB: Then you’re worrying, I mean, yeah.
MB: It's just an, and also it's the same thing. What am I doing? I'm like, "Maria, you can't go contemplating your own suicide, like what are you doing?" These are not ways to handle conflict. So, um, but uh I think we've, we've both, uh, learned to uh try things a little differently. Like having that heartbeat of a second to go, "Okay, this is the thought that I'm having, do I really need to go into this uh weeping uncontrollably?" Like, uh, could I do something slightly different than what I usually do? Um, yeah, that has given, uh, I think us both some space to do things, uh, differently. But yeah, not, it's, I think that's the thing or, I found really shameful that it was harder for me to talk about was like, that we weren't having, um, attractive fights. You know like, or -
MB: Something where it's like, you could see that on a sitcom. "Well you do this, well you do that? Boo." You know, and that's like, that was part of the reason I think I probably didn't have uh uh any long-term intimate relationships because once feelings get out of control, I didn't know how to manage them. So, and I think my, my husband had a a very different, but similar, experience of like not knowing what to do once things get to a certain point. Um, the both of us, our main solution was, "Oh, you just leave, you just leave."
AS: Yeah. That's interesting to me because in my arguments in my marriage, it's the like stopping the arguing because we're both like trying to convince the other one...
AS: ...That would be really hard with the timeout.
AS: But it sounds like for you all the like coming back together after you take a break was -
MB: Yeah, and some things aren't ever going to be solved. Like, uh, at least that's, I know that's true in friendships. I know that’s true in my family relationships. Also the the the romance of like if if it's meant to be, if it's meant to be, you should never, you know, like, or it's always supposed to feel good. And I've never had that, not only in any romantic relationship, but definitely with friendships and family. Like, I've never felt like, you know, me and my sister were meant to be. My sister drives me bananas. Um, though I love her dearly. Like, you know like, like that's, that's always happened. It's going to keep happening. There are issues that will never be solved.
That’s comedian Maria Bamford. Her new special is called Weakness Is the Brand. It’s streaming a lot places, including Amazon, iTunes and Google Play.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, California. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
Our intern is Ayo Osobamiro.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
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Maria told me one of her favorite go-to marriage advice sources are the Gottmans, two husband and wife psychologists. We’ve linked to a classic This American Life episode about them in our show notes. Part of what the Gottmans warn about, as Maria knows, are the four horsemen of relationship communication:
MB: It's uh criticism: 'You, that's a stupid sailboat.' Contempt: 'You and your fucking sailboats.' Defensiveness: 'What, what sailboat?' And uh, stonewalling: 'I’m never gonna talk about sailboats with you again.'
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.