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Thank You for Oversharing

For her latest book, A Really Good Day, literary provocateur Ayelet Waldman tries self-medicating—with acid.


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Waldman defending her infamous 2005 New York Times Modern Love essay on The Oprah Winfrey Show, in front of a panel of enraged moms.

Photo: Via YouTube

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For Ayelet Waldman, a woman prone to catastrophizing and being easily rankled, a bit reckless, and highly anxious, election week was truly hell. Every few phone calls she made on behalf of Hillary Clinton, she’d inhale another half of a Doughnut Dolly doughnut. And in the days before November 8, she was buying them by the dozen. Now, as she, her Pulitzer Prize–winning husband, Michael Chabon, and their two youngest kids are headed to New York to meet up with their two college-age kids for Thanksgiving, she can just barely squeeze her five-foot frame into a single pair of her jeans.

When we meet, Waldman is telling me about the eight pounds of election weight she put on and about the wrench they threw into her shopping trip for new clothes the day prior. She always brings along Chabon on such errands as both fashion cop and moral support, and thank God he was along, she says, because if not for his haranguing at the dressing-room door, Waldman might well have disappeared into one of her patented bouts of self-loathing, never to return. “I’m standing there looking at my stomach, like, ‘You disgusting fat pig,’” she says. “And he says, ‘I know what you’re doing...come out here! Those jeans make your ass look hot. Buy them.’” 

I’m zero-bit surprised that Waldman is dishing with such wild, uncensored abandon. Or that she’s humblebragging about her husband. Both activities fall squarely into her signature bad-mom writing oeuvre, the latest entry of which, A Really Good Day (Penguin Random House, January), documents her lifelong bouts of mental illness and her latest experiments in curtailing them: by microdosing on acid. A former public defender and adjunct law professor at UC Berkeley, Waldman turned to writing in 1997 to vent about losing her mind as a stay-at-home mom. (She had one child then.) Since then, her MO has been to roil up the Internet trolls: In her 2005 New York Times Modern Love essay, “Truly, Madly, Guiltily,” she defiantly stated that “I love my husband more than I love my children.” She then doubled down on the message by going on The Oprah Winfrey Show to defend herself. “I had no idea she’d have a dozen moms there who all hated me. Her producers sandbagged me—totally,” Waldman says.

She has also let loose about her second-term abortion; bragged about how the party drug MDMA keeps her and Chabon’s marital fire lit; posted photos of her mouth, mid-dental visit; and tweeted that she has HPV. (Waldman later tweeted an apology for speculating on who gave it to her.)

Waldman survives by provoking. “It is like the joy of scratching an itch until it bleeds,” she writes in A Really Good Day. “The pain is the point. It erases the irritation. For a moment. But then the itch returns, worse than before, and soon you’re wearing long pants in August because you’ve got scabby legs.” 

By her count, Waldman, 52, suffers from, in addition to poor body image, depression; possibly bipolar II disorder or perhaps PMDD, an intense variety of premenstrual distress; a tightening chest over her 13-year-old son’s not eating a proper breakfast; a crude mouth; and, of course, the compulsive oversharing, which often involves being publicly gaga about Chabon and all the great sex they have. Today she’s telling me all of this over a pot of white tea in her very Berkeley, dark-paneled craftsman living room, wearing furry slippers and a shapeless sweater over a black “Nasty Woman” T-shirt, hair hanging wet and loose except for five rogue curls she has pinned up at her forehead to tame. Apparently she was a bit of a misfit growing up, and it occurs to me that maybe the sexual boasting is a fixation on proving that she’s finally getting some.

Both Waldman and Chabon are in the midst of promoting new books (Chabon’s Moonglow is already a New York Times bestseller), which is adding yet another layer of chaos on top of Waldman’s apparently baseline constant frenzy. They’re also housebreaking their new labradoodle, Agnes, and hand-wringing over the political apocalypse. (At one point, she bashes Bernie Sanders for giving Trump a “blow job” for pushing a $10-an-hour minimum wage.)

Despite all that mishegoss, Waldman is telling me about the one thing that brings calm, that makes her productive, patient, nice. Over her life, she’s been prescribed a cabinet’s worth of medications (including—deep breath—Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac, Cymbalta, Zoloft, Effexor XR, Topamax, Wellbutrin, Lamictal, Adderall, Ritalin, Strattera, Xanax, Lunesta, and Seroquel), but this one isn’t for sale at the local pharmacy.

Of course, it’s also patently illegal. But she overlooked that for a one-month experiment, carefully following the protocol of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide author James Fadiman by, every three days, taking two drops of lysergic acid diethylamide—good old LSD—a “microdose” one-tenth the quantity of a “trip” dose. Worst case, her lawyer told her, she’d get eight months in jail for her troubles. (“I could get a lot of reading done,” she says with a laugh.)

It was a really bad
year that led Waldman to LSD and A Really Good Day, a tell-all memoir about the psychedelic mini-adventure of a neurotic writer, wife, and Jewish mother. Her day-by-day account of the month-long experiment, recording mood, conflicts, sleep, pain, physical sensations, and random musings, by no means reveals a gal floating merrily through life’s twists. She still gets irritable in these pages. She still “lobbed a passive-aggressive salvo” at Chabon through the bathroom door and suffers from a “severe nut-noise allergy,” meaning she gets apoplectic at the sound of her husband chewing almonds nearby. But placebo effect or no, she acknowledges, her acid trips included no obvious side effects. Her table is not breathing, and she rejoices in feeling “normal.” “I have had many days at the end of which I looked back and thought, ‘That was a really good day,’” she sums up.

Despite the illicit nature of the subject, Waldman’s trip wasn’t quite as out-there as she might let on. A spate of recent articles have all but declared LSD to be Silicon Valley’s latest performance enhancer, and Michael Pollan, back in 2015, wrote a New Yorker feature on the psychedelics trend, “The Trip Treatment.” Acid isn’t even the only psychedelic getting a second look by academics: In November, the FDA approved Phase III trials of Ecstasy (MDMA) for treating PTSD. Studies with psilocybin—active in “magic mushrooms”—for treating depression and anxiety in cancer patients have been completed at UCLA, NYU, and Johns Hopkins.

Waldman was gifted her acid stash by a friend of a friend of a Berkeley professor, who delivered it to her mailbox in a package return-addressed to Lewis Carroll. However, using LSD routinely means breaking the law, which didn’t sit right with Waldman, an otherwise rule-abiding, Ivy League–pedigreed lawyer—a former Harvard Law classmate of Barack Obama. (“I’m the type that if you give me too much change in the grocery, I give it back,” she says.) Election Day didn’t help; she’s now got “paranoid ideas that [attorney general nominee Jeff] Sessions will get ahold of my anti-Trump tweets and come after me,” she says. Waldman understands more than she probably wants to about street drugs, having made the issue the focus of her five-year legal career. At Berkeley, she taught a course on the implications of the war on drugs. Her fifth of 13 books, the novel Daughter’s Keeper (Sourcebooks, 2004), is the fictionalized story of a distant mother struggling to deal with her pregnant daughter, who gets busted for taking part in a drug deal. 

Waldman’s caution about buying drugs means she can be a little fuzzy on when, exactly, her really bad year was. There’s a statute of limitations on possession, she explains, “so there’s a disclaimer in the book that everything is true except dates and times.” Whenever it was, Waldman says she was “this angry, raging bitch.” She was fighting constantly with Chabon (and presumably having less great sex), fearful her marriage might end. One day, driving home over the Richmond Bridge, she had a fleeting thought of turning the wheel hard right into the water. “I counted pills,” she says casually. “I would literally tell Michael, ‘I need you to tell me that it’s worse for the children for me to be dead than alive.’” Her mood and coping mechanisms went haywire when perimenopause hit, which made it impossible to beat back her hormone-keyed swings with her normal pharmaceutical regimen: a week of SSRI antidepressants right before her period and an occasional anti-anxiety pill timed to ovulation. 

When she first floated the LSD idea to Chabon, “He was like, ‘Dude, you should take a real dose,’” she recounts. Chabon, Waldman says, has dropped acid five or six times, with great success. But Waldman knew she’d be a different story: “If there’s anyone in this world that’s going to have a bad trip, it’s me,” she says. The tiny amounts in a micro-dose, though, convinced her that the effects would be manageable. It’s “not so much going on an acid trip, as going on an acid errand,” she rationalizes in the book. For reassurance, she tested her supply using a kit she bought on Amazon. She told her four kids only that she was trying a new medication. Later, after she had started turning her experiment journal into a book, she confessed to them over dinner.

For the kids of a writer who has staked her literary identity on being the baddest mom on the block—“Queen of the Maternal Damned,” she deems herself—a little LSD memoir from Mom isn’t necessarily as extreme as it might seem. Waldman maintains that her children, ages 13, 16, 19, and 22, are fine with everything she’s published. “For everything you see [in print], there are two or three things where they said no,” she assures me. I ask about her most famous provocation—that she loves her husband more than her kids.

“They understand it’s hyperbole for the sake of making a point,” she says. Waldman ultimately rode the outcry over the essay into a 10th book, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace (Doubleday, 2009). Being the punching bag, she explains, is an honor. The essay “was one of the first things that popped this lunatic bubble,” she says, and helped trigger “the evolution of how people think about motherhood.” 

Time hasn’t changed that sentiment. “I absolutely stand by it,” she said in a return Oprah appearance in 2014. “Now that I have a child who is off at college, my husband and I are realizing that, in the end, this house is going to be empty but for the two of us, and thank God we still love each other and love making love to each other.” 

Waldman’s stance isn’t without merit, though, and her attacks on motherhood don’t come from some place of unfeeling. Though she often rails against the good-mother ideal that turns smart women into kid-centric, judgmental, undersexed cupcake police, she, too, logs on to PowerSchool to keep tabs on her kids’ school transcripts; she brings in tutors; she overdotes. She doesn’t claim to be impervious. “I’m not just a helicopter,” she says. “I’m like in curling, where you polish every inch of ice so when they come down it’s perfectly smooth.” 

Her missing filter and self-flogging may rankle some readers, but it’s hard not to like someone who so willingly airs her laundry, letting a mushroom cloud of stank fill the room. She gets hysterical, but she acts.

These days, to fight depression, she’s meditating, going for hikes, and putting cold packs on her neck, a technique of dialectical behavior therapy. (“You dunk your face in a bucket of ice water, but the problem is I have curls, so this is the curly-girl method.”) She’s still bullish on the prospects of LSD as an antidepressant, though for now she’s going the typical route, which lately includes using the hormone patch.

Even Waldman’s return from the fringe, though, invariably leads back to her oversharing comfort zone: “I hate fucking doing [the hormone patch], because I’m afraid I’m going to get uterine cancer,” she says. “I thought about getting a hysterectomy, but then I googled that and read about people that don’t want to have sex afterwards.”

This, of course, was a nonstarter. “I don’t want to give up my sex life,” she says. “Because I really like my sex life.”

Originally published in the January issue of
San Francisco

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