Welcome to this week’s episode of the One Away Show featuring Tara Schuster!
Content Warning: The following article discusses topics that may be triggering for people experiencing mental health struggles, including suicidal ideation, self-harm, and substance abuse. If you’re in crisis, please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor. Both the national suicide prevention hotline and crisis text line are free, confidential, and available 24/7.
Author, playwright, and accomplished entertainment executive Tara Schuster is the vice president of talent and development at Comedy Central. She might also look familiar from our recent resilience stories series! Even though her job is making people laugh, her life has never been all levity and jokes. This episode tackles some of the most serious topics we’ve encountered so far on the One Away Show, but it’s also filled with empowerment and hope for the future.
Tara Schuster’s One Away Moment
Tara’s One Away moment was disclosing her suicidal ideation and self harm urges to her therapist in a voicemail while blackout drunk on the night of her 25th birthday.
“After I had told her all these hopeless and desperate thoughts about how I was never going to get better or be happy and stable, one of the voicemails she left me in response said, “There is a healthy part of you. That’s who reached out to me and left that voicemail. That part of me wanted help, and knew I wasn’t hopeless. I had a survivor in me.”
After that night, Tara set her life on an entirely new trajectory. She committed to doing the hard work it takes to not only survive, but also excel.
Tara Schuster acknowledged an unhealthy relationship with substance abuse and committed to finding new ways to live well, self-soothe, and find comfort. Finding her path hasn’t been easy, but she knows without a doubt that she’s now on a much better track.
Most importantly, she realized she was worth it; worth the struggle, worthy of respect, and worth loving, especially by herself. This experience was her rock bottom, but the realizations and resilience that came with it became the foundation upon which she built a new life around mental wellness, with more compassion for herself, and for humanity.
“My empathy, the ability to be vulnerable with other people and their experiences is one of my greatest strengths.”
Resilience, Resolve, Resonating and Empathy
As I reflected on our conversation, first and foremost I found it therapeutic. I also took some lessons to heart. Tara Schuster’s ability to be resilient, vulnerable and open gives her a greater ability to build strong, genuine relationships and accelerate emotionally complex and sincere bonds with people who come into her life.
Speaking with Tara also inspired me to start really questioning my own biases and assumptions about people based on what their life looks like on the outside. As Tara said,
“I always looked like everything should be fine: straight A student, scholarship and grants to go to an Ivy League college, did every extracurricular. On the surface, I looked like I had everything together, but these were all desperate attempts for external validation because I had no internal validation.”
Even if a person seems to have it all, with the perfect resume and ideal career and relationships, everyone I meet could be struggling with a challenge I couldn’t even imagine overcoming. I’m inspired to continue to grow in empathy and stay aware of everyone’s unique struggles, needs, and ultimately strengths.
5 Takeaways From Tara Schuster
1. You deserve to be here, no matter what. Your life is worth living. There is always hope. If you’re struggling with thoughts or urges about suicide or self-harm, please tell someone immediately. If you’re in crisis, please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor. Both the national suicide prevention hotline and crisis text line are free, confidential, and available 24/7.
You are not alone, even if it feels like it. You don’t have to suffer in silence or shame. If that doesn’t convince you, here’s a qualitative approach:
- 1 in 5 adults in America experience a mental illness. Nearly 1 in 25 (10 million) adults in America live with a serious mental illness. –NAMI
- Worldwide, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health issue in any given year
- A Johns Hopkins School of Public Health study shows even a few sessions with a therapist can lower the risk of suicide among at-risk patients
- An estimated quarter million people each year become suicide survivors –SAVE
2. Addiction doesn’t have to be forever. You don’t have to numb out to cope. Whether it’s substance abuse or escaping into trash TV, negative coping mechanisms create more harm than help, even if they offer a temporary sense of relief.
No matter how hard or painful the feelings that come along with mental health, trauma, and addiction might be, there are so many other options to heal and begin to live and be well.
Professional therapy is the best place to start, but barriers like social stigma, cost, and accessibility don’t make this important step easy. Talk to your doctor about any mental or behavioral health concerns, research mental health resources, consider online therapy, and check out TWLOHA’s directory of free and affordable treatment in your area.
3. Self-care is more than a facial. It’s serious work that starts with valuing and respecting yourself. While this phrase has taken on a fluffier connotation in the Instagram world, caring for ourselves is a triumph, especially at our lowest:
“Today, people often brush aside this idea that they need to take themselves seriously. They joke about self-care like it’s some luxury vacation or a facial. It’s actually a revolutionary act of saying, “I am worthwhile. I actually take care of myself. I take my soul seriously.”
4. Surviving trauma gives us the power to help others through. Trauma doesn’t take away our power or mean we’re broken. Overcoming adversity, especially in our youth, is never something anyone deserves. We can find strength in this struggle, and give it to those who need it the most, by embracing the empathy that shared experiences enable. Tara Schuster considers empathy one of her greatest strengths.
5. No matter how we grew up, we can always give ourselves the love we deserve. Tara Schuster calls this concept “reparenting ourselves.” After growing up in an unstable environment, she made the conscious decision to reroute her life and refuse to end up where she started. External validation only goes so far; it must come from within.
Building a new Life With Intentionality
Today, Tara is the executive in charge of Lights Out with David Spade, following her executive leadership in numerous other shows including Emmy and Peabody award-winning Key and Peele, Emmy award-winning Midnight, Another Period, Detroiters, and Hood Adjacent.
Just this past February 2020, she published her first book, Buy Yourself the Fucking Lilies: And Other Rituals to Fix Your Life from Someone Who has Been There, which debuted at #1 in the New Releases and Self Help categories on Amazon Kindle. Since then, it has been covered by People’s Magazine, Forbes, the Hollywood Reporter, and Newsweek.
I can’t recommend reading anything and everything by Tara Schuster enough, but don’t just take my word for it; this is the woman Jordan Peele called “ahead of her time.”
BRYAN WISH: Hello, Tara welcome to the One Away show. It’s wonderful to connect further after the article we did together. Tell us about your One Away moment. It sounds like a really defining experience for you.
TARA SCHUSTER: Yeah, sure! So, I had grown up in a really neglectful, chaotic household where I really didn’t have examples of how to take care of myself or really parents. It was a place where things came to die. The pets, like Cocoa, the Himalayan cat, was a goner when a coyote took her away. The plants. Everything was neglected and chaotic. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I was this mess, wreck, disaster of a person. I was self-medicating with weed to sort of numb out of my life because I figured it was easier to take no responsibility and be high than it was to be awake.
I had gone to good schools, however, and I was really good at work. I had always had this double life of being good at work but bad at life. This might have kept going had I not hit rock bottom and had my One Away moment, which was on the night of my 25th birthday, when I drunk dialed my therapist threatening to hurt myself.
The next morning, it was such a shameful realization as I played back her voicemails that she had left me trying to find me. As I heard the worry in her voice, I felt worried for myself for the first time. I felt exhausted in my guts. I felt that I was miserable, and didn’t know how to move forward.
In one of the voicemails my therapist left in response when she was trying to find me, after I had told her all these hopeless and desperate thoughts about how I was never going to get better or be happy and stable, she said, “There is a healthy part of you. That’s who reached out to me and left that voicemail.” That part of me wanted help and knew I wasn’t hopeless. I had a survivor in me.
That was definitely my One Away moment. It was the first time that somebody reflected back to me, “You actually have a very healthy part of you inside that wants to grow and get better. You can move forward. It’s going to take a lot of work, but there is a way. You just need to start taking care of yourself.”
BRYAN WISH: Being young, it’s so hard to put yourself first and it’s so hard to say, “I’m worthy and I have a place in this world.” Can you take us to that moment when you called the therapist?
TARA SCHUSTER: I was blackout drunk at the time, but what would you like to know about it?
BRYAN WISH: What made you call her? Did you subconsciously know something was wrong inside?
TARA SCHUSTER: Yeah. I wanted to hurt myself. I was thinking of ending my life. I had grown up thinking that life was a series of crises to be endured. At 25, I felt hopeless, that life offered me nothing, and that I would never get out of the gloom and doom spiral that I had been born into.
CONTENT WARNING: Suicidal ideation and self harm. You deserve to be here, no matter what. If you’re struggling with thoughts about suicide or self-harm, you’re not alone. There is always hope. If you’re in crisis, please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor. Both the national suicide prevention hotline and crisis text line are free, confidential, and available 24/7.
The way that my mind patterned things was always for a worst-case scenario. If this, then disaster. I had been using work as an escape. I was extremely ambitious with work and schooling.
When I was in college, I went to Brown for playwriting. One of my mentors, Paula Vogel, who is an incredible playwriter and incredibly connected woman; just so thoughtful. She said to me, “Take yourself seriously.” I had no friggen clue what that meant.
When I heard that, it went in one year and out the other. The only thing I blessedly did was write it down because I thought her words didn’t land on me at all to the extent that it was confusing. At some other point, I’m going to need to know how to unpack these words, “Take yourself seriously” but I don’t have the tools. I can’t even process these words.
It was after that drunk dial, after that feeling of hopelessness that I was finally able to process those words and realize because I am here on planet earth; for the simple reason that I was born, I deserve to take myself seriously.
Taking myself seriously means taking care of myself, taking responsibility for my life, taking responsibility for my attitude and how I react to things. While I had no power over the external circumstances I was born into, I have all the power in the world to shift and reframe. The phrase I use in my book is “reparent myself” which is to give myself the nurturing I never had.
Today, people often brush aside this idea that they need to take themselves seriously. They joke about self-care like it’s some luxury vacation or a facial. It’s actually a revolutionary act of saying, “I am worthwhile. I actually take care of myself. I don’t numb out with reality TV or alcohol or consumerism. I take my soul seriously.”
BRYAN WISH: When you grew up and everything was neglected, that leads me to believe that you and the other children were neglected in certain ways without even knowing it. Could you go into the specifics of what it was like to grow up? What was the parenting structure like? What do you wish was different?
TARA SCHUSTER: I was incredibly unsafe. It was a feeling that danger was lurking around the corner. My parents were like me, everything should have been fine. My mom is a successful doctor. My dad is a successful lawyer. We lived in the “right” part of town in a big, fancy house, but they were so chaotic. They had so little idea of who they were themselves. They led life like they were being dragged through it. They didn’t have the capacity to take care of me or my little sister.
What that looked like is unbrushed hair and screaming and social services coming to check in on me at school because there are so many reports of the yelling coming out of our house.
Mostly, it was a feeling. It was a feeling that something violent was going to happen and there weren’t really adults around. I’d have babysitters who my mom would be spinning conspiracy theories about how the babysitters were out to get us. They’d be fired. They’re busy at work and then they’re rotating lists of people who are in and out of the house. Bad things are happening because strangers are around. It was completely destabilized. That’s what it felt like to grow up there.
To your second question of what I wish would have been different, the answer is quite honestly, nothing. There’s no world in which I would be leading a life that I choose to this extent had it not been for that experience of seeing what happens when you don’t make the right choices, lead a thoughtless life, don’t decide your values and principles, and get all of your validation from external sources, here is where you end up.
When I was 25, I really made the decision to I see where I could go and refuse to lead that life. It’s given me greater empathy to be able to talk to people not only who had traumatic childhoods but who have been through anything.
My empathy, the ability to be vulnerable with other people and their experiences is one of my greatest strengths. Would I have liked to have had a different childhood? Maybe that would have been nice. I’d like to have a relationship with my mom, but do I wish it has been different? No, not really. I’m grateful for what I learned.
BRYAN WISH: I had a similar rock bottom moment when I was 22. My self-discovery process happened at a younger age; where most people hit that wall/crisis when they’re 35, 40 year moments. I started going to a ton of therapy and digging up the roots from my past. I didn’t realize how my past really made me super ambitious with work in college. I didn’t realize how it was affecting me and ultimately led to poor health in a rock bottom moment.
When I was going through those periods in high school and the beginning of college, I didn’t maybe realize why I was doing the things I was doing or how the past chapters of my life were pushing me to take the action in ways that were self-destructive in the long-term. When you were going through this as a child, were you self-aware of the destruction that was happening or did it all compound in your mid-20s that the way you grew up wasn’t right?
TARA SCHUSTER: It was two things at the same time. I was aware and yet I had to survive. So, I just pushed it to the back of my mind. I started smoking weed in high school. I had this personality as the girl who can smoke weed at night but get straight A’s. I took such pride in how little I could take care of myself and still be the best and still get the best grades and win all the awards while outwardly neglecting myself by taking drugs.
In some respects, I knew it was weird and not normal because I would see my friends’ families and their experiences were so wildly different from my own. In other respects, I just needed to survive and get the hell out of there. I’d compartmentalize and repress anything that would make me feel. Feelings were not allowed until I was in my mid-20s. If I felt it, I had to deal with it and I just needed to survive. There was no space and not time to deal with those feelings.
BRYAN WISH: I think a mandatory class we should take is an introspection into the self. Getting in touch with who we are as people. I think it’d save so much money and hardship later in life if we could just figure out how to navigate our emotions and figure things out. It’s so much easier to push things aside because it’s all we’re taught and it’s all we know. I think it’s very cool that you say you don’t wish it was different because it’s given you the awareness and ability to be who you are today. Thank you for being so vulnerable.
You made that call. You started taking yourself seriously and putting your life together. What happened next?
TARA SCHUSTER: The next morning, after that drunk dial, decided I have to be my own parent. If I’ve been neglected, I’m not going to neglect myself anymore. I don’t know what being my own parent means but I’ve got to start doing the work. I didn’t worry about what it would look like in the end. I just intuitively knew it was time to take care of myself.
Because school had always been how I escaped and survived, I thought, “What if I treated this like a school project? What if I started a Google Doc and called it a curriculum of reparenting myself?” I just started writing down the questions I had:
- What are values?
- What are principles?
- What are vegetables? Genuinely, what are they and which ones should I be eating?
Food is still up for debate. I took it seriously. I took finding these answers. I read every memoir of any adult who I admired. I went to my friends’ parents houses and watched how they interacted. I doubled down on therapy even when I couldn’t really afford it because I knew that it was more important to go to therapy than it was to eat out because I wasn’t going to survive. My life was at stake.
I did this for five years; this intense introspection, journaling, and noting of what nurture I needed. At the end of five years, I turned around and I was almost a completely different person. I was stable, which was a word I never thought was going to apply to me. I was content. I felt worthwhile like my life mattered. I had a reason to be here.
That’s when I realized I had a story to share and that because I had broken everything down into little habits to change my life. In the Google Doc when I’m asking, “What are vegetables?” It’s not some high-minded, “How do I change nutrition and optimize my body so that I have the perfect waistline?” It’s really, “How do I nourish myself? What would be the baseline of healthful foods?”
Even something as simple as that, I realized people don’t often ask these basic questions because they don’t often build their life from the ground up. That’s not a common experience where you take a pause and say, “I need to tear everything down and start over,” but I had done this. That’s when I realized I had a story to share and something that could hopefully help people.
BRYAN WISH: When you look at those five years, do you have any moments that you look back on that were very insignificant, maybe at the time of therapy, but phrases or experiences that led to things that really were built on?
TARA SCHUSTER: Yeah, too many to even talk about. I take my seriously. A lot of the things I write about are in the moment. They felt like either a crisis or even something stupid or a small breakup or a whatever. If I was willing to learn from it, if I was willing to let it teach me something, if I was open to it, then I learned a lot. As I’m continuing down this path, I never stopped journaling. I never stopped going to therapy.
We’re in this pandemic moment, I ask of every moment, “What does life want of me? What am I being asked to do here? What am I being called to do? What am I supposed to be learning from this?” I’m open to hearing the answers and I’m paying attention.
I think many people do not pay attention to the lives that they’re leading. They let their life lead them. They end up in a career and they’re getting a paycheck. Things seem pretty good and on auto pilot until something like a layoff happens, until there’s a death, until there’s a forced reckoning like you must deal. I think why it’s so hard to deal with those moments and why they can strike people down is because they haven’t done the introspection.
To your point, you said if we could build some emotional intelligence earlier in our lives, that would really benefit us. Some people just don’t have the tools. They don’t have the tools process a moment in a way where it’s not completely personal.
Even me, now I’ve been doing this for 10 years, I definitely have moments in my life where I’m like, “Oh my God, my boss hates me. Everything is ruined.” And I fall back on some story about how the way other people perceive me is deeply personal and what a disaster I’m in. I’m going to have to pause and reframe the story and realize that’s not really what’s happening.
BRYAN WISH: You’re in charge of helping other people’s stories come to life. Now you have to take those skills and do that for yourself. Do you think you would have had an easier time because you were so used to constructing these stories and building things out? How did those skills transition into your own recovery?
TARA SCHUSTER: It’s funny because most people don’t become executives and then write memoirs in entertainment. It’s not a very typical path. There aren’t many people doing that. Typically, if you wanted to be a writer, you’d just go be a writer. For me the practice of being able to identify other people’s authentic points of view, which is what my job is – like my job at Comedy Central is to know who all the comedians are, who are the writers, who are the directors, what is their unique point of view, what’s their take?
I’m so trained looking for a take and an authenticity that I was really able to, in my own writing, hold myself to a high standard of what’s honest, what’s authentic, what’s my take, what’s my angle, what makes this unique?
We all have similar stories. We all go through really similar experience. Even if you didn’t have as traumatic of a childhood as mine, most people can relate to feelings of loneliness, feeling like you’re not good enough, feeling like you’re just not enough to begin with.
What really matters is how the artist responds, frames it, talks about that experience. I don’t think I’d be as capable of a writer if I hadn’t worked at Comedy Central for so long, surrounded by artists like Key & Peele or Jon Stewart or Amy Schumer. I’m just soaking up what they’re teaching and then trying to apply it to my own writing.
BRYAN WISH: Let’s dive in your book and what you wrote about. It seems you took everything you learned and you said, “Here’s my story. Here’s my memoir.” Why don’t you tell us the name of the book, an overview of it, and then we can go into it a bit.
TARA SCHUSTER: The title of the book is Buy the Yourself Fucking Lilies and Other Rituals to Fix Your Life from Someone Who Has Been There. It basically charts my self-care journey from that rock bottom drunk dialing my therapist moment to all the ways I reparented myself like learning that exercise relieves anxiety, that journaling gives me self-awareness. They were all small habits that I took really seriously and incorporated into the fabric of my life until I was a stable, gleeful adult.
That’s where the book kind of ends in a victory lap of self-care in Paris. It’s my offering. The reason I wrote it was because I felt like I had a chance to make other people feel less alone in their lives the way the books of David Sedaris, Cheryl Strayed, Nora Ephron, and Maya Angelou all made me feel less alone. They did that by being super specific about their lives.
It’s funny, but in comedy and writing, the more specific you are, the more universal it is and the more people can relate. I think it’s because when we’re specific about our take, when it feels and is actually authentic, people can hook into that because they know what it feels like to have a very specific experience.
The book, I hope, is a friend to people. That’s the feedback I most often get is that it feels like you’re talking to a friend. I hope it’s funny and comforting and has some good self-care tips; like very practical things.
BRYAN WISH: You’re giving such a specific angle, authentic lens into your life through the book. It’s allowing you to connect with other people because of it. Since you’ve put yourself out there in a really meaningful way and taking a different path, what’s happened as a result?
TARA SCHUSTER: It’s been really interesting because the reaction from readers has been overwhelmingly amazing. People reach out to me pretty constantly. The comment I get the most is, “Reading your book is like somebody was in my brain,” and wrote the book I would have written.
As an author, it’s absolutely the highest compliment you could get that people relate that strongly. I try not to think about how do people in my own industry see this. I think it would drive me crazy because it is really vulnerable and “not what you’re supposed to do” as an executive. Executives are supposed to be strong. They don’t show any cracks and aren’t fragile.
What I hope is that artists and other people see the strength in my vulnerability. I’m strong enough to share these things. I’m not really that concerned about what other people think about me anymore. I used to be. Now I don’t give a fuck. Like honestly, if somebody were to judge me in a business setting for being vulnerable, why would I want to work with them?
There’s no interesting art or comedy that’s going to come from that place where vulnerability isn’t valued. Why the fuck would I want to work with that person? I’ve had to insulate myself a little bit from thinking about how this will make me look. I’ve had to abandon that.
BRYAN WISH: It seems like for you, it’s like a bridge and you fully walked across the bridge and you stepped into who you were. Because of that, the person before you went over the bridge, there’s the people behind you and you were scared and nervous about what they would think. You walked to the other side, you look back, and you’re like, “So what. It’s just who I am.”
TARA SCHUSTER: It wasn’t that bad. I think we’re afraid of what will happen and what will people think of us if we take the step we know we need to take. When you get to the other side, I’m like, what’s the worst that’s going to happen? I’m fine.
Often we’re so afraid of what other people will think about us and we let that dictate the decision we’ll make, but on the other side of deciding to be myself, it really just wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t as painful as I anticipated.
BRYAN WISH: You’re right. You don’t see famous athletes or entertainment stars or people behind the scenes at those companies really step out. I think you’ve done something different and have broken a mold. When it’s all said and done and it’s on your tombstone, what’s the legacy look like?
BRYAN WISH: Where can we find your work? How can we connect with you?
TARA SCHUSTER: If you go to my website, Taraschuster.com, you can subscribe to my newsletter where I give one, not so cheesy, you’ll throw up in your mouth, self-care tip every week. My book is available anywhere books are sold. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target. It’s on all the platforms. The Kindle, the audible. Also on Instagram, I’m Tara Schuster where I also try to give self-care tips in a way that’s not horrible and cheesy. Sometimes I’m a little cheesy, but I try not to be.
BRYAN WISH: You’re just yourself and that’s okay. That’s what the world wants.