Steven LEVITT: Today’s episode is a little different. My two guests today are my oldest daughters, Amanda and Lily, and while they haven’t yet won a Nobel Prize, like my other illustrious guests, I think they’ll have something interesting to say. They’re thoughtful 21-year-olds trying to figure out their place in the world, which isn’t always easy.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: I suspect you will see a very different side of me today. We’ve talked a lot about parenting on this podcast, but today you get to actually see me in action as a parent and there can be little doubt that I am way better at being an economist than I am at being a parent. So let’s see how it goes.
LEVITT: I’m guessing you’re not that excited to be here today, talking with me, Amanda. Is that true?
AMANDA: I’m not feeling that nervous right now, but yeah, I’m not a fan of interviews and being recorded.
LEVITT: My daughter Amanda tends to be shy and soft-spoken. She sometimes struggles to find the right words when she speaks. She prefers to express herself through music, photography and writing. Lily, on the other hand, typically has a lot to say and has always had very strong opinions.
LEVITT: So Lily, you go to Vassar College. What are you going to major in?
LILY: I’m majoring in psych and minoring in econ.
LEVITT: Now, I have to say it surprises me a little bit you’re minoring econ because at least when you were young, you did not seem to be a budding economist. So we were a household where, as you might imagine, since I’m an economist, there were a lot of incentives used. Positive and sometimes negative to try to get people to do things. And all your sisters and brother would jump at incentives. Oh, if you’ll clean up your room, we’ll go get ice cream. And everyone else would do what normal people do, which is to respond to incentives. And you violently opposed. And you would say, “I will not be bribed. You cannot bribe me.”
LEVITT: Amanda and Lily were born four months apart. How, you may ask, is that possible? Well, Amanda is adopted from China and Lily is my biological daughter. Despite having very different personalities, they’ve always gotten along well with one another. Now, I know as a parent, you are never, ever supposed to say this, but the truth is that when the two girls were little, my bond with Amanda, my adopted daughter, was actually much stronger.
LEVITT: So, Amanda, let’s go back to the beginning. So you were adopted from China and you know the story, but I’ll tell it again for everybody else. The rules are of the Chinese government that when you get adopted a parent has to go over to China and spend two weeks with you. And for complicated reasons, it ended up being me who went to go pick you up. And I have to say, I’ve never dreaded anything in my entire life as much as I dreaded those two weeks. I was working so hard and the thought that I would just put everything aside and have to go take care of this child, this stranger for two weeks — it just felt like it would be awful. And the craziest thing happened — you were nine months old, and you had never had a mother and I had never been a mother. A mother is the front line — and the father’s in the background and picks up around the edges. And we had the most amazing two weeks. I didn’t have a schedule or anything. I just strapped you on my body and we would just play or do whatever. And then you would fall asleep after a while. And then I would just put a pillow down on the ground next to you. And I would lie next to you and when you woke up, you’d be staring at me and we developed this incredible bond. And even two or three days after I had met you, your caretakers came back to see how you were doing. These were people who had taken care of you for nine months and you already had just decided that I was the mom and you had nothing to do with them — you wouldn’t even acknowledge their existence. In a crazy way, it turned out to be the two happiest weeks of my entire life. And by the time it was over, I had never bonded with a human being the way I had bonded with you. It sounds impossible that an entire lifetime of loving and knowing people, I had never really loved until I met you, this helpless little baby. For years after you had been with us in the U.S., you used to say to people, “My sister Lily came out of mommy’s belly and I came out of daddy’s belly.” And that’s kind of true. That’s how we lived. But how do you feel about adoption in general? How does it affect your life?
AMANDA: Strangely, it doesn’t affect my life that much. Because I’m so close with everyone in the family that I just forget. I only remember when I’m in public and we’ll be sitting at a restaurant or we’ll be in line at the grocery store and people will think that we’re not together. But that’s pretty much the only time when I’m really consciously reminded of it.
LEVITT: I remember when we went back to China, when you were maybe 10? And we went to your orphanage and to your hometown, and after a day of being shown around, the guide turned to you and said, “How does it feel to be home?”
AMANDA: I remember you telling me the story, and you said that I said, “This isn’t my home.”
LEVITT: Yeah. You looked around completely incredulous. “This is not my home. This is just where I was born.” And it was really interesting, which was the opposite of your younger sister, Sophie, who was also adopted, who really latched onto her Chinese experience. You studied Chinese, but it seems like you want nothing to do with the Chinese language. Is that fair to say?
AMANDA: Yeah, I don’t know exactly where it comes from. I don’t think that there was a specific experience or person that influenced my view of Chinese culture, but I, still now, don’t want to associate myself with any part of it. It’s strange because I feel much more connected to Germany, which is where my stepmom was from. I have a much stronger interest in learning the German language and living there for a year than I would consider going to China.
LEVITT: Lily, has something changed over time that’s opened you up to the power and importance of incentives in life?
LILY: I think me minoring in econ is a reflection on how I’ve changed my outlook on incentives. Because really, my biggest incentive in life is other people’s approval and feeling smart and feeling capable. So any opportunity that I had in my life to impress you, that was a huge incentive. When I realized that majoring in psych probably wasn’t hugely impressive to you. I was like, “Let’s do something else.”
LEVITT: Wait, this is — I didn’t know you wanted to impress me. That’s so — I didn’t think that you had any interest in impressing me.
LILY: No, absolutely. I — I do want to impress you.
LEVITT: Okay. So let me just say, if that’s the reason you’re doing econ, you should please stop because I do not — first of all, it doesn’t impress me. Secondly, I don’t need to be impressed by you. So that’s a terrible reason that is literally the —
LILY: It probably is a terrible reason, but it is the truth.
LEVITT: Wow. That is the worst reason I’ve heard for majoring in econ, I have to say, and I’ve heard some pretty bad ones.
LILY: I’m not majoring — not majoring in it.
LEVITT: Okay, so minoring.
LILY: Well, no, so it started as probably, a way to impress you. But I actually genuinely did become interested in it. I also found that when I took an advanced econ course in my senior year of high school — and I was sitting right next to Amanda the whole time — it became very clear to me that I had some sort of analytical ability that she didn’t have, and that most people in the class didn’t have. And so I would be speaking to my teacher and I would argue with him about basically everything he said. At every single turn, I would bicker and I would say, “Is that actually true? Let’s look at the facts.” And I’m sure everyone in the class was fed up with me, but I was having the time of my life just constantly arguing. And I think that econ and psych, especially combined, really gives me an avenue to bicker with people and get to the root of problems. Psych you can’t really do that. People are really sensitive in psych. Economists have no sort of empathy, no morality whatsoever. So I think combining the two, that could get me into behavioral econ, which is what is really interesting to me. So yeah, it started definitely as a way to impress you. But when I realized that I might have some sort of aptitude for it, instantly that was like, maybe I can impress people like this. Let’s see if I’m any good.
LEVITT: So, Amanda, how old were you when you started playing the guitar?
LEVITT: You were always remarkably good at playing the guitar, but you would sing along with it. And honestly, you were an awful singer. I really worried for you because in general, I worried about you a lot. You were quiet and you were little. And amazingly, you just worked really hard and you became a fantastic singer. But then you said, “At school there’s an open mic for people to perform and I’d like to perform.” And I was so worried. I thought, “Oh no, this is going to be terrible.” Do you remember anything about that night when you first went on stage?
AMANDA: So I was working with a choir teacher and she was the one who was preparing me for it. The show was just about to start. And she said, “You’re up. Now.” And I assumed that I was going last or that I was going later on and I had no time to prepare or time to stress about performing. It was instant panic for half a second and then I just went.
LEVITT: Okay. So you climbed on stage. you sat in the chair and you tuned your guitar for what was to me an amount of time that was interminable. I was more nervous for you being up there than I’ve ever been for myself about anything. And you sat there and you tuned your guitar and I’m like, what is she doing? She’s totally lost it. But I think it was the opposite. I think somehow you were totally calm and you were in a very workman-like way preparing to sing.
AMANDA: I remember seeing a bunch of my friends in the front row, so I was mostly just focused on the audience and it ended up being an amazing experience.
LEVITT: So I really was waiting for the worst because at that time you were painfully shy and the craziest thing happened because you started to sing and almost immediately you engaged with the audience. You’re 12 years old, you’re onstage, and you were smiling at individual people and I couldn’t believe the transformation that happened to you on stage. It was as if you had lived your whole life on the stage.
AMANDA: That was an exception to how I usually feel, because usually I have a lot of stage fright and I get a lot of anxiety.
LEVITT: You don’t really play music or perform anymore. Do you know why you lost interest?
AMANDA: It was shortly after graduating from high school. When I started writing my book. I became so obsessed with that, that I guess that just replaced playing guitar and singing.
LEVITT: So Lily, since incentives didn’t work on you, I worried about what would happen, but it turned out that it didn’t really matter. And there’s a story I still remember so vividly, it must’ve been midnight and you couldn’t have been any older than 11 or 12 years old. And I still saw a light on and I came into your room and you were completely bleary-eyed. I said, “Lily, what are you doing? It’s after midnight.” And you said, “I’m doing my Chinese homework.” And I said, “Lily, you’re in sixth grade, no one cares about your homework. No one cares about Chinese. You need to sleep.” And you said, “Dad! There’s nothing more important than Chinese homework. I have to do my homework.” And I go, “Okay, whatever.” And it was really interesting because at that time we were actually running something we called a parent academy and what we were doing with some other professors is we were bringing in parents of kids who were in nursery school. And we were trying to teach them how to be parents. And our whole curriculum was around how to teach kids math or how to teach kids to read and actually to make the parent like a teacher. And I realized that something crazy had happened with you is that you had internalized the idea that there was nothing more important than homework. And having internalized that idea, I literally never had to try to incentivize you or badger you or ask after you in your entire life. And it was an epiphany for me. And I actually went to our people who did the curriculum and I said, “Wait a second. I want to totally rethink our curriculum for the parent academy.” And we moved our focus away from teaching the specifics of what’s the best way to teach kids how to add, to creating a mentality where parents simply tried to convey to their children the importance of learning.
LILY: Wow, I had no idea about that. You definitely instilled a love of learning somehow. And I think I have been a hard worker, but I’m only a hard worker up until the point of achieving good results. Like in high school I was dancing like 30 hours a week, would have 10-plus hours after that where I just put in extra work. So I didn’t have much time for homework. If I was good in that class, if I had some sort of natural talent, I wouldn’t work particularly hard. So either you instilled the value of hard work and learning, or you instilled the value of success, whichever one led to the same result.
LEVITT: I never consciously tried to do that, but I’m so happy that it got through some other way because I think it’s not natural for people to be internally driven to get things done.
LILY: I don’t want to give you all the credit though. The high school that we went to, I mean, we went to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. We were there like our whole life, and that was just, looking back on it, that was just a crazy place. Every child there was a child of a professor or some sort of intellect. So we were surrounded by really smart, curious kids. If you weren’t smart and curious, you were left behind. So that was a huge incentive in and of itself, to work and to think.
LEVITT: Both girls graduated from high school, and as we talked about, Lily went on to Vassar. But despite being a straight-A student, Amanda decided she didn’t want to go to college. And I don’t mean she opted for a gap year. I mean, she decided she was not interested in college ever. I can’t say that would have been my preferred path for her, but one thing I’ve learned is that when Amanda makes up her mind, she really makes up her mind.
LEVITT: So, Amanda, we’ve talked about your social anxiety, and one of the causes of social anxiety is that you care how other people think about you. And yet here you are, you have a graduating class of 160 kids. You are literally the only kid who’s not going to college. Wasn’t that anxiety provoking? Where do you get the confidence to be willing to do that?
AMANDA: Strangely, I was very proud of it. The last week of school was spirit week. And one of the days we had to wear our college t-shirts and I had created my own t-shirt with a quote on it or something. I remember there were a few teachers who would come up to me and said, “Are you okay?” And I was like, “Yeah, never better.” I had no idea why they looked down on me or pitied me. But, I never remember feeling any sort of shame for it.
LEVITT: You knew you didn’t want to go to college and you’ve ended up spending an amazing amount of time writing a book.
AMANDA: The book is titled Can I Ask You a Question? It’s for anyone with social anxiety or anyone who is very introverted and has a difficult time getting to know other people. It’s a book composed of 149 questions designed to deepen new and existing relationships. I wrote it for anyone who sits at their dinner table and doesn’t say a single word to the rest of their family, the people that they care the most about. I wrote it for people who want to get to know someone but don’t know exactly how or they’re trying to talk to their crush and they get really nervous and they don’t know what to say and they want to get to know them in a more interesting way. Introverts don’t like small talk and I’d always found it pretty difficult to connect with people or to move past the more surface level conversations. And having this book of questions gave me a gateway or like an excuse into asking the things that I wanted to talk about.
LEVITT: So I have to admit that when you started working on this book, I was pretty skeptical. But the thing that happened was over dinner a couple of times we just said, “Hey, Amanda, give us a question out of your book.” And it would engage the dinner table for 20 or 30 minutes. And everyone would be involved. Even your younger sister, Sophie, who never says anything at the dinner table. And I really was a convert because I think the questions you come up with are powerful. What it really is about is interesting conversations.
AMANDA: Do you think my name suits me? If so, why? If not, what name could I pull off? If your life were a story, what would be the biggest plot twist? When you were young, did you imagine you would be where you are today? Share one prediction that came true and one that was way off. Tell me about a time you felt invincible. What is a lesson in your life that keeps repeating itself? Has a compliment ever changed the way you thought about yourself?
AMANDA: Growing up, I always had very low self-esteem. If you had asked me at the age of 10, at the age of 15, what’s something that I would never want to change about myself? Or what’s something that I’ve always liked about myself? I don’t think I would be able to give you an answer. Pretty much everything good that I think about myself now — the perception of myself that is positive, I’ve only gotten from other people. So when I was at the writer’s center the teacher said something like, I’ve seen dozens of papers about this topic. But there was something about the paper that stood out to him. And he said, “You’re a thinker,” which I’d never really thought of myself as smart before.
LEVITT: But you got straight A’s in high school. How do you think you could carry around so much negative self perception in stark contrast to the facts, which is that you did well at school?
AMANDA: I did well at working hard and completing homework, but compared to everyone else, I definitely felt like one of the dumbest people there. Everyone else was just, they were much more eloquent in speech when they were giving presentations, much more confident and just socially, as well. I felt like I had to work so much harder than everyone else and other people could just get away with doing the bare minimum, but still like acing their tests.
LEVITT: Let’s hear another example of a question from the book.
AMANDA: What is something so far out of your comfort zone you wouldn’t even consider trying it?
LEVITT: Oh God. Scuba diving. I have such an intense fear of water and drowning that if you had me scuba dive in a pool, I would panic so deeply. It would be so viral on the internet if there was a picture of me trying to scuba dive that I know I would never, ever touch that. How about you? What are you afraid of?
LEVITT: Dancing in front of people?
AMANDA: Yeah. At all. And it’s such a weird fear to have, cause everyone looks stupid when they dance. No one cares. No one’s watching you. I think it’s also a self fulfilling prophecy, maybe someone pointed out that I wasn’t very good or like I felt awkward when I did it at one of the first school dances and then I just got really in my head about it. But yeah, I will never — the thought of that terrifies me.
LEVITT: So here’s what’s interesting. I’ve obviously known you your entire life, and we’ve never talked about your fear of dancing. We’ve probably never talked about my fear of scuba diving, but what I love about your book is that there’s something about the cues that the questions you’ve developed create, that get people talking in a way that we otherwise wouldn’t. It’s a huge success in that regard.
LEVITT: After this short break, I’ll be back with my daughters, Lily and Amanda, to talk about some of the biggest challenges they faced in their young lives.
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LEVITT: Morgan, what kind of surprises do you have on tap today?
Morgan LEVEY: Hey, Steve. I thought we’d try something a little different today. I thought I’d take some questions from Amanda’s book.
LEVITT: Oh, fantastic. I love that idea. That is great.
LEVEY: So the first question is are there any strangers you still remember?
LEVITT: Actually there is one who really comes to mind, but I need to tell you the backstory first. So my teenage kids and I, we take escape rooms very seriously. So that’s when you know, they lock you in a room and you have to solve the puzzles and we take enormous pride in our ability to do those.
LEVEY: This does not surprise me at all.
LEVITT: And so we were in Princeton, New Jersey — Lily and Amanda, and my other two teenagers and my wife — and we were going to do an escape room and we didn’t have enough people to fill the whole room and sure enough, two other people have taken the last two slots. And we were so upset because we do this with such a vigor, and the idea of having two slackers in the room slowing us down really upset it. And they weren’t just regular people. It was a young woman. And she looked like a cross between one of the Kardashians and very goth and she had blue hair and she had piercings. Anyway, we looked at each other, and we’re like God, this is serious business. This is going to be such a drag when she’s messing everything up. So her name is Mona. And we go into the escape room. And Mona is some kind of a genius. Mona is figuring out puzzles like you wouldn’t believe. And what was so interesting is we had all prejudged her completely. And all of us at the end are like “Mona is a hero.” We still talk about Mona in reverential terms. Every time we go to an escape room, we’re like, “If only Mona were here, we would have gotten out.” Mona has no idea the impact she’s had on my family. But, Mona, if you’re out there, congratulations, and you should get in touch because we want to do more escape rooms with you.
LEVEY: Okay. Here’s another question. What is the biggest lesson you’ve had to unlearn?
LEVITT: Oh, God. Unlearning is not my forte. One comes right to mind. I am completely and utterly unable to ask for things that I need or want like from a server at a restaurant, or in a relationship. It’s really weird. Somehow I was raised that you should never complain — you should never open your mouth. I’m being a little untrue in this answer because the question was about something I’ve unlearned and I have only about 2 percent unlearned this.
LEVEY: It’s funny because I’m also from the Midwest and this is such a Midwestern value —.
LEVITT: Oh, god yeah.
LEVEY: That you shouldn’t complain or you should always just be polite out in the world. I notice that if I’m walking down the street and someone runs into me, I’m the first one that says, “Sorry.”
LEVITT: Absolutely. You know how deep this runs in my family? I was with my grandma who was in her eighties and we were on a family vacation. This was when I was a child and she broke her arm and she didn’t say anything. She didn’t want anyone to be inconvenienced. So she walked around with a broken arm for four days before they finally took her to the hospital.
LEVITT: So that’s the kind of lessons I learned when I was a child that I’ve had a hard time unlearning. It is interesting because Amanda’s questions seem innocent enough, but you and I just had a weird discussion, like we’ve never had before. So it was fun. I’m so glad that you use that as our intermission, that was super fun.
LEVEY: Yeah, it was really fun. Next week we will be back to answering listener questions. So please write us. Our email address is email@example.com. It’s an acronym for our show and we look forward to reading your comments and questions. Thanks.
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LEVITT: So the tone of this conversation so far has been pretty light, but there’s also something really serious I want to talk about. Lily has struggled with an eating disorder and I have her permission to bring it up today. I suspect the conversation will be graphic and painful to listen to. So for the first time and probably the last time ever on this podcast, I’m offering a trigger warning. But I do think it’s important to talk about her eating disorder because hearing her story might help some people — people struggling with food or maybe parents whose children are struggling.
LEVITT: Lily, your biggest struggle has been with food. When did you first start to recognize that you had a difficult relationship with food?
LILY: So right off the bat, I want to correct that. I don’t think that my biggest struggle was with food whatsoever. It was really just a deep-seated self hatred. It made no sense — I was just a kid. My issues started to crop up around 12. I had done nothing to hate myself to the degree that I did. But food was an outlet to numb all that shame and self hatred. And it was much easier for me to think, “Oh my gosh, my body is despicable and it needs to change,” rather than to think, “I am despicable and I need to change.” So it was a lot more like palatable, which is an ironic word, but it was an easier thing to grasp for a 12 year old.
LEVITT: Yeah. So at 12 you started thinking a lot about food and restricting?
LILY: I actually remember the first time that I had this sort of visceral reaction to my body and to food. We were out with your mom and dad, GanGan and Poppy. And we were at that breakfast place that we’d always go to. I remember the exact sweater that I was wearing. I went into the bathroom and just looked at myself in the mirror and saw, like, my stomach peaking out. And this was before the meal had started and I took off that sweater, I tried to rip it up, couldn’t and so I just threw it in the trash. And I remember taking like paper towel out and covering the sweater as if it was this shameful thing. As if it was something that could not be found, it needed to be completely hidden. And I went out of the bathroom and sat down at the table, and I remember looking through the menu and I was just like paralyzed for the first time. It clicked with me that what I put in my body could affect how my body looked. Suddenly everything shifted. Like I could list exactly what I had for that meal. Which was cinnamon raisin toast with butter. I didn’t understand calories at the time, but I remember thinking, “Should I just eat this plain? Is butter too much?” And then I ordered orange juice. And I remember, like, after the meal thinking, “Wait, that orange juice could have just been water.” And from that moment on really, until I was around 20, food, calories, my body were just hugely ingrained in my thought processes.
LEVITT: So around that time you got really engaged with ballet.
LILY: Yeah. So I was playing soccer at that time. And then I kind of lost my passion by the time I was a freshman in high school. And so I quit soccer and I said, “I’m gonna start ballet.” I was 14 years old. And I was starting at the very bottom. So I was with literal nine-year-olds. I was truly double their size. And there are mirrors everywhere in these dance studios. They’re often warped, just hugely unflattering, you’re in a leotard and tights. I was next to all these prepubescent children. And so everything that could have been bad about the situation was bad. And really, it was the breeding ground to my eating disorder for sure.
LEVITT: Do you think that at some level, consciously or subconsciously, you picked ballet because it was the worst possible thing someone like you could have picked?
LILY: I think I have a long streak of self-sabotage, so it definitely could be.
LEVITT: So your eating disorder got worse and worse, or at least became more and more apparent. And so by your senior year, we put you into what’s called family behavioral therapy. And in addition to therapy, it meant that every single meal that you had was prepared by your parents and that I would sit down next to you. And as long as it took you to eat it, you would eat it. And we would essentially force feed you something like 3,000 calories a day. How do you think that worked? Was that an effective approach for you?
LILY: Clearly it wasn’t effective because I never actually recovered from that method. I mean, I gained enough weight to get you guys off my back the tiniest bit. And then immediately when I was out of your sights and in college, I starved myself to fruition. But it did teach me a lot. It taught me a lot of things that didn’t work, but those are equally important as things that do. I regret shattering some plates and hiding some food and stuff. But, for the most part, I think it was good that I went through it.
LEVITT: So we weren’t stupid. We sensed that maybe you weren’t fully recovered. So we did put in a requirement that you would be weighed by a nurse at Vassar once a week, and that weight would be reported back to us.
LILY: I mean, I haven’t had lots of in-depth conversations with you about my eating disorder, but you were right to be nervous about how I would continue my recovery in school, because over the summer, before I started my freshman year, I was actively relapsing.
LEVITT: So you went to Vassar and you basically decided not to eat. How many calories were you getting a day when you were at Vassar?
LILY: I mean, a lot of days were probably in the negatives. I would be eating so little and then exercising so much.
LEVITT: So you literally starved yourself.
LILY: Yeah. But I had already been starving myself for the whole summer.
LILY: So it was a really intense relapse. I knew as soon as my family saw me, it’d be very clear that I was unwell. So basically, I was like, “I’m on a timeline here. My eating disorder has a timeline. I know as soon as they see me, I’m gonna be forced into treatment.” So really that was enough of an incentive for myself is that, “I don’t have much time to do this. Like, I gotta get her done.” A lot of anorexics think of it as a lifelong dedication. But I knew, “This isn’t going to last forever. I’m going to recover, but I need to feel sick enough before I do.” I’ve always lived in the extremes, black and white. And so at that time I was very much, “I need to get as sick as I possibly can and once I get there, it’ll be monumentally easier to choose recovery when I feel like I’m deserving of it.” For so long in my eating disorder, I felt like I hadn’t succeeded in it. I felt like I was a pseudo-anorexic in a way. When I went to my first therapist, she diagnosed me with early stage anorexia. And by that time I was 16 and I’m like, “I’ve been struggling with this for four years and I’m still early stage?” And so, at that point I was kind of like, “This is my new mission in life. I need to do it and I need to do it well.”
LEVITT: I think that people hearing this perspective for the first time, it will be really shocking to them. The idea that like you really, you had to be a good anorexic to deserve to recover is so distorted, right? Even as everything unraveled for you. So eventually, your blood pressure got so low and you were like barely functional and the nurse got wise, finally, to it and we were told you were being sent home. Even at that point, you wanted more time, you needed to finish the job — just, “Everything’s fine,” you would say, as you steadily killed yourself, and we should just sit back because you needed to get the job done.
LILY: I knew that, yeah, it’s going to be awful to watch me in my demise but I’m telling you guys there is no way that I would choose recovery, unless I feel like I deserved it. And anyone who is listening, who is struggling with an eating disorder, most people will never reach that point where they feel like they’re ready to recover. My dad is the reason why I decided to go into treatment to begin with. And I still don’t remember that conversation. But most people are never going to have a point where they’re like, “I’m ready to do this.” And somehow I had the self-awareness to know — “I know it’s strange, but I really do think that I’m going to choose recovery when I’m ready.” It was so hard to lie to you guys, but I knew if you don’t just let me get sicker, I’m going to be sick for the rest of my life. And so I was willing to let myself get sick enough to choose it. If that makes sense.
LEVITT: So you got brought back to Chicago and you were in an awful place. You were in the hospital, the doctor involuntarily put you in the I.C.U. You had feeding in your nose. And I have to say something interesting. It’s something I’ve talked about on the podcast on a different episode is the idea of giving up control. And after your older brother, Andrew died, I found the only way I could live was by accepting that I didn’t have control. And with you, you were an adult for starters, we couldn’t make you do anything. And I just accepted that it was your choice to live or to die, and you were seemingly choosing death. So we had, we ended up having this conversation and I know your memory is fuzzy and mine is fuzzy.
LILY: Fuzzy doesn’t even cover it. It was completely blank — that whole time my memory is blurred.
LILY: But especially from that one conversation that actually did it and made me decide to go to treatment. I have zero recollection of it.
LEVITT: So it was early December and you were in the I.C.U., you had a feeding tube in your nose, and for some reason, I was very much at peace that morning and we were talking. And unlike my usual sense, I’m always trying to advise people and to have the answers and to try to manipulate situations in my own best interests. Whatever reason, I just went in that morning and I was able to just listen and we talked. And one of the things that was on the table was going to an inpatient center in Denver. And I asked you, did you think you wanted to do that? Okay. I knew the answer was no. I mean, it was clear you were not ready. And you said, “I think I will go, but only after the holidays, I want to be home for Christmas. I want to be with the family.” And I just listened to what you said. And I knew what the truth was. And without thinking about it, I just said it — I said, “Lily, you don’t care about anybody else. You don’t want to be home for the holidays. You don’t care about Christmas. That’s the last thing you want to be is with the family. Presents? Family meals? That sounds awful doesn’t it?” And then there was this long silence and, completely inexplicably, you said, “Yeah, you’re right. I don’t care about any of that. I think I need to go to treatment.”
LILY: I had totally forgotten that.
LEVITT: And I walked out of there and we told the doctor, we started making the arrangements. And I just started sobbing in the cafeteria of the hospital. It’s like one of the most intense emotional experiences. And — and it’s nice — it’s nice that your memory gives me credit for that, but I didn’t do anything actually. All I did was just listen and somehow — somehow you heard yourself talking and you’re able to do it. So the preparations were made to whisk you off to Denver as quickly as possible before you came back to your senses. And I have to give your mom a whole lot of credit because she and I have a very different emotional makeup. She just looked at the situation and she said to me, “I don’t know what you did, but I am not going to say a word until Lily is institutionalized in Denver.” I give her so much credit, she just receded in the background. And I think you and I haven’t been that close our whole lives, but for one day it was just you and me, and wheeling you through the airport in a wheelchair, cause you were too weak to do it. In the airplane, just sitting next to you. And it was funny because like your mom was sending me texts like “You have to make Lily eat. You need to make her eat.” I’m just thinking, “She hasn’t eaten in three months. One more day is not going to matter. All we’re going to do is get Lily to Denver and we’re just going to hope for the best.” And boy, you’ve done a lot of hard work in the ensuing years and somehow or another you chose life, you managed to beat this thing.
LEVITT: I’m delighted to report that these are happier times in the Levitt household. Lily’s doing well at Vassar, despite minoring in economics for all the wrong reasons. And while I never would have chosen this path for Amanda, having watched her over the last three years, it sure seems like she made the right choice skipping college.
LEVITT: So, Amanda, to your credit, you have worked incredibly hard, not just to write a book, but to self publish it — to work with companies in China to have the book printed and delivered, doing all the marketing. Do you feel like this has been an education in and of itself?
AMANDA: Definitely. And I learned that I don’t identify as much as an author as I do an entrepreneur. I remember you would come to me — you would notice that I’d be sitting in the same place working for six hours straight, and I’d just be doing my taxes or something, or trying to learn more about building a website or other elements of business. And never, for a second, do I remember thinking, “I want to quit,” or “This is boring,” or “I hate this.” Even during the most mundane parts of it.
LEVITT: It turns out it’s not that easy to sell books. You’ve discovered that, right?
AMANDA: I think with this book, it’s a little bit different just because it’s not the type of book that you just sit down and read, it’s something that people who never read would enjoy. And I’m not marketing it 24/7. I’ve been experimenting with lots of different forms of marketing. The times when I have tried to sell it, it’s done well. So I think that’s given me hope.
LEVITT: So, Lily, along the way in your recovery, you started an Instagram account, something you call a recovery account, what is the recovery account and what did you write about?
LILY: Really, I started this account when I was around 15, probably. It’s Recoveryandiscovery — one “D.” So even though I wasn’t actively trying to recover, I thought maybe this account would hold me accountable. And when I went to treatment and I decided that I really wanted this for myself, my content started to shift and I started inspiring people to recover. And I started inspiring myself to recover, too, like, it’s been special that I’ve been able to capture all of it and help other people through it and have this sort of journal going back years. Scrolling through my account these days is so jarring because I read through the captions of when I was sick — all the triggering ones are archived. But I’m just stunned by how much I’ve grown and really how unbelievably stunted I was. Obviously physically, but emotionally, mentally. A lot of people when they really just aren’t eating their brain stops working. I was able to function in my day-to-day life well enough that people assumed I was fine but looking back on it now and seeing who I am and how much — just how much life I have in me. It’s truly incredible how different I am and how different my life is.
LEVITT: Were people interested in what you had to say? Did your numbers start to grow? What happened?
LILY: They really started to take off when I was fresh out of treatment. I remember I was getting like a thousand followers a month. At least 50 direct messages a day, specifically people asking for my help. And then I started also writing advice. Basically it was like an advice column. And other people, other sufferers, found some relief in that as well.
LEVITT: Do you have advice for parents who are starting to see that their teen is maybe spiraling out of control? What should parents do?
LILY: I think the most important thing is to talk to them. What was so helpful about the conversation that got me to go to treatment was that you were listening to me, and really hear what I was saying. Because a lot of times what parents and friends will think is that the eating disorder has taken over every inch of their mind. I never believe that’s true. There’s always a bit of humanity left inside the person. So you just need to speak to that part of them, because that’s how they’ll hear you. And listen to what they’re saying and why they’re doing what they’re doing, because there almost always is a reason. It is a need that it is fulfilling. So when you figure out what that need is within your child or within your friend you can try and see if there are other ways to fulfill that need, because often, there are. I remember saying to you guys, over and over again, you and mom, we were at some cafe across the street — you guys were trying to get me to eat. Both of you probably knew it was hopeless, but I just kept saying, “You let the wrong kid die,” like referencing Andrew, who passed away when he was a baby. I never got to meet him. I wanted to find the one thing that could hurt the most for both of you and I thought that was it. And I thought maybe if I just hurt you both enough and made you realize that I was hopeless, that you would let me just continue to starve myself. It probably broke both of your hearts, but when even that didn’t get you to let up on me, I knew, okay. I don’t think anything will get you guys to give up on me.
LEVITT: Yeah. And do you have any advice — what about for a teen or young adult who’s starting to feel the struggle with food?
LILY: To those people who are just beginning to struggle with an eating disorder, I would just tell you, you have nothing to prove to anyone. You don’t need to lose any more weight to be deserving of recovery. And you know, if you’ve been struggling for a year, it’s going to take you at least double that to get out of it. Those six months that I was actively relapsing, it took me two years to come out of that. So just imagine six years, 10 years from now struggling with food, and then imagine the next 20 years that you’d be having to get yourself out of that hole. Do not waste the next 10 years of your life on this. Get out now while you can. Prove to yourself that you can get out of the spiral before it gets too bad.
LEVITT: Amanda, what was I like as a dad?
AMANDA: You would ask us very interesting questions. Just very, thought provoking questions as like a seven year old or an eight year old. I don’t remember that much. I think just because you were working so much and golfing a lot that you weren’t around a lot.
LEVITT: And so I have an unusual chance to be a dad a second time around because I got remarried and I have two little girls. Do you have any advice for me about how to do a better job than I did the first time around?
AMANDA: I think you are doing a much better job than you were the first time around. And you’re taking care of them, like you have the whole night shift and everything. You’re a lot more present and active in their lives. I think you’re doing a pretty good job.
LEVITT: Thank you, Amanda.
LEVITT: Well, Amanda says I’m doing a better job at parenting this time around. I wonder whether my daughter Anna would actually agree with that.
LEVITT: What’s your full name?
ANNA: Anna Alexa.
LEVITT: And how old are you, Anna?
LEVITT: So Anna, am I a good daddy?
LEVITT: And what makes me a good daddy?
ANNA: When I cry, you make everything better.
LEVITT: Oh, that’s so nice. How do I make it better?
ANNA: With a bandaid.
LEVITT: I imagined these conversations with my daughters going in various directions, but one thing I did not expect was that we would talk about so many things we’ve never talked about before — things like Amanda’s mortal fear of dancing or Lily studying economics to impress me. It’s kind of sad that it took a taped podcast to have a real conversation. If there’s one thing I will take away from this episode it’s that I want to talk a lot more with my adult kids — off tape.
To buy Amanda’s book, visit canIaskyouaquestion.com, that’s canIaskyouaquestion.com. You can find Lily’s recovery account on Instagram at RecoveryanDiscovery. We removed some of the specifics of Lily’s story to avoid her actions serving as a model to others. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorders Association can provide support, resources, and treatment options. The number for their helpline is 1-800-931-2237. Thanks so much for listening.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. This show is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Theme music composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
AMANDA: How would you feel if someone told you, “You’re just like your parents?”
LEVITT: How would you feel if someone told you you’re just like your parents?
AMANDA: It depends on which parent.
LEVITT: You better stop there. That’s only going to get ugly.