Touring the Struggle Depot: An Interview with Katharine Heller and Sally Tamarkin (hosts of "The Struggle Bus")


Devon Bowers | Society & Culture | Interview | April 24th, 2018



Below is the transcript of a recent email interview I had with Katharine Heller and Sally Tamarkin, hosts of the podcast The Struggle Bus , where we discuss the creation of the podcast and mental health.




What made you want to create The Struggle Bus?

Sally: We started TSB kind of on a whim. Katharine and I had recently met and become fast friends. A lot of our conversations in the beginning of our friendship were about how we were doing with Life, mental health, etc. So when Katharine, who already hosted a great podcast called Tell The Bartender, suggest we start an advice show, it seemed like the perfect way to hang out together and do what we do best-talk about mental health and share our feelings and opinions!

Katharine: I was so excited when I met Sally and wanted an excuse to hang out with her. We talked about doing a podcast together, monthly, just for fun. At some point she used the term "Struggle Bus" and I'd never heard it, and thought that it would be a good name for a podcast.


How do you go about giving advice? Is it off the cuff or do you plan and research beforehand?

Sally: For me it's kind of a mix of both. The way I prep is: I read the questions we're answering that week a few times. I make some notes in my Notes app of things that the listener's email made me think about and I come up with a few points that I think I want to make. I also spend some time trying to determine what, if anything, I am projecting onto the questioner because one thing I've noticed is that it's VERY easy to give advice from a me-centric point of view and I have to make a conscious effort to not put too much of myself and my experiences into the way I respond, because then I think it just becomes Here's What Sally Would Do In This Situation Or Has Done In Similar Situations, which does not center the person who's asking us for advice at all. Once I have spent some time with the questions in my head and making notes, I stop thinking about them because I know that once I hear how Katharine responds, it will make me think about the email in a new way and I'll have new/different things to say. My objective is to be prepared but not to be scripted because I think a lot of the best advice we give comes from Katharine and I sort of collaborating as we respond.

Katharine: I read the emails ahead of time, and if there's anything I need to know, I do some research. For example, if I don't know an acronym for a medical condition, I'll look that up. There have been times when I wanted to ask a professional to be sure we handled something sensitive in the right way. An example of this is when we got an email from a sexual molestation survivor who had rape fantasies, but would never act on harming a child. I know from personal experience that it was totally normal, but since we're NOT professionals, I wanted to be sure I had more information before talking about it. Other than that, I don't plan anything because based on my improv background, I feel that honest, in the moment conversations are the best and Sally makes that easy.


The fact that the two of you seem to have fostered an atmosphere of genuine concern and caring from the podcast to online and even real life spaces (ie Struggle Bus Live) is quite interesting. Does this help you to recharge on a personal level?

Sally: Trying to maintain an atmosphere of caring and concern on the podcast, in our FB group, and in live shows has been important to my mental health, especially recently. It's helped me realize that spaces that feel truly caring and open, where people can feel safe being vulnerable, are pretty rare. To try to create and maintain a space like that, particularly since the 2016 election has felt like pretty important work to me, and that, in turn, is recharging. Before TSB I don't think I was consciously aware of how many spaces we occupy day in and day out that are about performing OK-ness and hiding vulnerability. The community around TSB (whether it's Katharine, or people who write in, or buddies in the FB group, or guests and audience at the live show) inspires people to think about vulnerability and boundaries kind of simultaneously and it's definitely a kind of feedback loop because what Katharine and I put out there we get back tenfold from listeners, social media followers, and FB group members. I really feel like we're all stewards of this dope ass community.

Katharine: This podcast has helped me in so many ways. For me, helping people makes me feel good, and I legitimately feel compassion for every person who writes in. I feel less "alone" with my mental health problems, and I like knowing other listeners help each other as well. I'll sometimes go on the FB group when I'm feeling down because it's a good reminder that it's ok to be sad/mad/scared. Plus, people post the best animal photos and gifs. The weeks when I've been unable to record are very sad for me, because I love doing this show. AND it makes me check in with myself about my own self care.


In what ways do you care for your own mental health as you help others tackle their own problems?

Sally: I have learned that doing a segment every week called A Thing We Did (For Self-Care) makes you hyper aware of that fact that if I don't take time for myself every week and pay close attention to my mental health, I won't have anything to say into the mic. So, I make sure to do all my regular stuff-I go to therapy every week, I journal for about 2 minutes each night, I work out, sometimes I meditate. Another thing I try to be very aware of during the podcast recording and prep is what certain emails might be bringing up for me. So many of our experiences are universal or at least relatable and there are times that someone writes something in that really activates me; it pushes on a bruise I have or reminds me of something shitty I've gone through, etc. In those moments I try to think through what's happening with me, breathe, and think about how I can ask Katharine to support me through the part of the show when we address that email. I might ask her to be the one to read the email or allow me to be the one to read it. I might ask to stop recording so I can breathe and think and organize my thoughts, etc. That is very specific to the time we're recording, but it's a big part of my self-care.

Katharine: While I love therapy and recommend it to everyone, there are some weeks when I just don't want to go. So then I remember that I need to practice what I preach, and that gives me motivation to keep going. Also, I have learned I have limits and it's ok to vocalize that. If an email is upsetting to me, I'll as that Sally read it. Ultimately, I know I have to take care of myself first because if I can't, there would be no show. So it's helped me maintain my mental health work. The segment A Thing We Did For Self Care has been surprisingly important to me, and I'm grateful I have a show/space where I'm consistently reminded that I have to do the personal work.


Do you think now is the time for a podcast such as yours since mental health has become semi prevalent in the media?

Sally: I couldn't be more in favor of the fact that mental health is more and more present in mainstream conversations. I think it's always the time for more openness about the fact that life is hard, being a person is difficult, and relationships take a lot of work. I feel like I grew up thinking that there was something majorly wrong with me or my experience of the world, because I was always so worried and anxious and full of dread, even as a kid. Yet what I was seeing and learning through pop culture and what adults were modeling is that Life Is Just Fine. Growing up and realizing that basically everyone (at least in my world/experience) is having or has had a rough time to get through, survive, recover from, etc. has made me feel like a secret of the universe has been revealed to me. In conclusion, yes, but also I feel like it was always the time.

Katharine: Pre podcast/internet, one of the most popular categories of books was self help, so I think since the history of time people have sought out help to understand themselves and those surrounding them. I feel podcasting allows that conversation to continue, and I'm so happy this kind of content can be offered for free. It's wonderful to see so many great mental health podcasts, and that hopefully, the stigmas are fading. I never see another mental health podcast as "competition", I am filled with joy that so many exist.


What apps or programs would you recommend to working people who may not be able to afford therapy?

Sally: I'm hesitant to recommend any apps because I haven't personally tried any. I've heard some great things and some mixed things about some of the services out there. I think one great resource is the crisis text, chat, and phone lines that various places have. For example, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24-7, as is The Trevor Project, which is a hotline for LGBTQ people who are in crisis or feeling suicidal. The National Eating Disorders Association has a similar service. These are obviously for acute intervention in times of crisis, but the fact that they're there and free and can provide help in a crisis and direct you towards longterm resources is great. The other thing I'd recommend is doing some research to see if there's a community clinic or university in your area offers free or very low-fee therapy. I don't know if people realize that although there is DEFINITELY not enough affordable, accessible, culturally competent mental healthcare available out there, there's more stuff out there than just those $350/hour therapists who don't take insurance.

Katharine: I recommend looking into a school with a PHD program for therapists because they need to accrue a certain number of hours and offer low-fee sessions. Also group therapy, in person or online, is usually available and inexpensive. It's not the same as talk therapy, but it's a good option until you can make therapy happen. Online support groups during crisis are helpful, for example RAINN has a chat room with a counselor 24-7.


How can people support your work?

Sally: People can listen to TSB and tell their friends about us! Also, write us a review on iTunes! Also write in to us-ask us for advice, tell us what we should do more of, etc.

Katharine:

Rate and review on iTunes, tell your friends, encourage major publications to run a story about us, become a Bonus Member, or just donate money to us!