Repairing Ruptures: An Interview With Stephanie Foo

The writer talks workaholism, navigating diagnosis, collective healing, and more.

Written by Esther Fernandez

Repairing Ruptures: An Interview With Stephanie Foo

01 Stephanie Foo is an NYC based writer and radio/audio producer, who has worked on shows like This American Life.

02 She sat down with copywriter Esther Fernandez to chat about her book, What My Bones Know, a memoir about healing from complex PTSD.

03 Portrait by Bryan Derballa.

Thanks for joining us today. I'm super excited to chat! So to give some background,  I have OCD, which I talk about a lot with Made of Millions. But I also have complex PTSD and derealization. When I decided to research books about these topics beyond just "The Body Keeps The Score", your book kept coming up. 

So I read it, and it was honestly life changing. I keep preaching to everyone I know that they need to read this, because I've never read anything like this. It combines a lot of clinical language, but it's also super realistic. There's so many moments where you're just cussing while explaining what all these complex treatments are, and I was like, "Wow. I've never seen such an accurate portrayal of recovery." Why did you format this book in the way that you did?

I think that I’m a storyteller. I told other people's stories for ten years of my career, and I know how important first-person storytelling is, especially when you see stories like yours represented. You can contextualize yourself in the stories of others and realize you’re not alone.

That is what I hungered for when I was first diagnosed with Complex PTSD: could I live a happy life and have this condition? I could not find that story anywhere, and of course that was really isolating and made me feel like I was broken in some way. So I told myself, if I ever learn how to heal from Complex PTSD, it’s really important that I tell my story.

I wanted to create a trail map for anyone who was just diagnosed. Scientifically, in terms of studies and potential avenues of healing. But also, telling it through my own story, so it's not totally boring. I feel like a lot of books about Complex PTSD are very clinical and not really meant for the average reader. They're mostly for other psychologists. So I wanted to make something that was really accessible. 

I really couldn't ask for anything more in terms of the way it's been received. I've gotten hundreds of comments saying, "You got it right. This is how it is." Which makes me feel like I did my due diligence. But it also makes me feel less alone. My Instagram page for example has become this really wonderful community of mostly Complex PTSD survivors on there, talking each other up. It's just a really healthy internet space that I love.

I wanted to create a trail map for anyone who was just diagnosed.

I'm definitely one of those people who felt seen. Specifically, when you talk about the coping mechanisms you had that allowed you to be "high functioning". Stuff like overworking and dissociation, those can be a big Catch 22. You're like, "Yay! No one knows that I'm suffering! But also, no one knows that I'm suffering.” 

If you could go back to that overworked version of yourself, what do you think you would say to her? Do you feel like if you had different coping skills, or weren't as successful professionally, that you would have been as open to recovery? 

I'm really privileged that I had the coping mechanisms that I do. I was a workaholic and not a drug addict. I know a lot of people who turn to addiction for the same reasons. My coping mechanisms just led me to becoming successful. It didn't mean that they were always healthy. In fact, they led me to neglect my health. One of the more dangerous parts about workaholism and being so high functioning is that it delayed me from getting real, significant help. 

So it's a mixed bag, just like Complex PTSD. It's nuanced. I owe everything to it. I owe my career to it. I owe my amazing abilities of dissociation and derealization to it. But at the same time, it has taken so much from me. And what could I have been if I didn't have Complex PTSD? Would I be like, an astrophysicist? I don't know. 

And what I would say to the younger version of myself... I've wondered a lot about that. On one hand, I'm grateful for her to have gotten me to where I am. So I would want to thank her. Thank you, super hard working Stephanie. But on the other hand, I really wish that someone had been there to watch out for her and protect her. I would say, look. This will get you far fast, but it's not sustainable. You'll burn out. If you want to be in newsrooms like this and do this job for decades, this is not the way to do it.

Instagram Live with Stephanie Foo and Jacob Ham

Another moment in the book I want to discuss is when you're in a therapy session with Dr. Ham. You're explaining how you were in an upsetting situation, but you managed to self-regulate. You were like, "Yay, I did the thing I'm supposed to do! Everyone taught me this!" And then he's like, "Actually, self-regulation is not enough."

I feel like that moment just completely strays from what you hear in the mental health space. The medical model says, "Fix yourself. Mask. Be high functioning. As long as you are able to contribute to society, you're healed." But that doesn't actually address the root problem. So to hear Dr. Ham say, instead of trying to mask your reaction, why are you even having this reaction in the first place? That was kind of a light bulb moment for me.

How important is this mindset shift for you? To look at the source instead of just the symptoms?

I think it's even deeper than getting to the source. I think that moment in the book, when he told me it's not enough to self-soothe, he wanted me to understand that you also have to connect with others. I think that in our society, which is so capitalistic, it's all about fixing yourself. We prescribe you this medicine, with this treatment, and you sit there by yourself to do deep breathing, and then you’ll get better! And all of that is your responsibility, because you're the broken one. 

That's not really how healing works. Especially because you didn't become this shattered person alone. It was somebody who did this to you. A society did this to you. You're not going to be able to get better alone — you have to get better with other people. 

I think that moment where he said, "You self-soothe, but that's not enough." At the time, I was really pissed off. I was like, "What do you mean not good enough? I worked really hard to do this." But in retrospect, I do feel like he gave me an additional mission, which was to reconnect with the person I had a rupture with. He also let me off the hook a little bit when he said that not all of it was my burden to carry. This is a burden you carry with other people who love and care for you.

You're not going to be able to get better alone — you have to get better with other people.

That makes a lot of sense. And this is such a layered problem when you have CPTSD. There's this habit of shutting down and tending to yourself. Then, you're placed in a society that reinforces that behavior. Which is probably on purpose, so people can sell products that "fix you". In reality, we have to help one another.

As we're coming off of Valentine's Day, I want to talk more about the importance of relationships. You send a very different message from, love yourself before other people love you. There's a really cute moment where your partner sits you down and asks, why are you the way that you are? Then after you explain, he's like, okay. Even if you have all of these things going on, it's still good enough. And I just love all of these little moments that completely change the way that you see relationships and how people can respond to someone struggling with mental health. 

Like I said, healing should be collective. We should learn to navigate the ways that we fail each other, and then come back and be there for each other again. I think that's really hard for people with Complex PTSD, because we're always like, "Oh my God. I fucked up and you're going to abandon me forever. I'm going to run away or shut down or apologize profusely, and not have my needs met ever."

I think the only way to heal from Complex PTSD is to practice asking for your needs to be met. You have to practice fucking up and having other people get mad at you, then apologizing. Or, having other people fuck up, and instead of running away, being like, hey can we fix this? The only way that you can heal from a relational condition is through relationships. 

I did write about my husband, Joey, and how wonderful he was. But I would also say that just as important to my healing was my friendships. I have friendships that have lasted since I was nine years old with other kids who had to suffer various traumas like mine. The very reason that I'm able to have a relationship with Joey is because of the friendships that I’ve had where we’ve helped heal each other. All of these relationships  — romantic, platonic, familial  — are just as important. 

The only way that you can heal from a relational condition is through relationships.

That is the way my healing process most frequently manifests today, is trying to make repairs with Joey and friends. From "Hey you used all the yogurt in the fridge. Can you buy more?" to "You seem really jealous of me, and that's awkward. So let's work that out." Having all of these tough conversations is not something that we often learn about in therapy. I mean couples therapy is a thing, but you don't really go to therapy with friends or your mom. So I think that's a big failure with our mental health care system. We should put relational therapy at the forefront, instead of teaching us to go meditate in a hole by ourselves. 

There's one part in the book that I feel captures a lot of these lessons we're talking about, which is when you decide to go no-contact with your parents. It wasn't a, "Woohoo! Suddenly I'm healed!" moment. It's more, "This wasn't fun, but it was necessary." Mental health recovery often feels that way. There are no definitive cures. 

That was a big shift for me as well. I had to come to the realization that this is something I have to carry and manage every day, which is hard to hear. What would you say to other people who are just learning this? Or people who still have an unrealistic expectation of healing? 

I try to tell people all the time that it gets so much better. There are moments where it hurts a lot, but overall, it comes in waves. One of the most important aspects of healing has been learning how to chase healthy love, and leaving behind love that is one-sided or not deserving of attention. When you leave behind all the toxic stuff, you suddenly have so much space and time in your life to chase wholesome love that affirms you. 

Also, Complex PTSD is such a rare diagnosis right now because it's not in the DSM. I think one of the ways that I was really self-loathing when I was first diagnosed was having this belief that I am weirder or more broken than everyone else. But Dr. Ham helped me see that everyone in this life is going through a really hard time. One helpful thing about writing this book was that people of all different backgrounds said it was really relatable to them  —  both people with Complex PTSD and without. That made me realize that we're all kind of struggling with the same shit. Feeling a little less freakish allowed me to do the work with less stigma. 

As we're talking about diagnosis and the role it plays, I want to address how that journey of figuring stuff out can be super difficult. 

For example, there's a moment in the book where you talk about researching your condition for the first time. You go to Google and you have to sift through medical pages and forums and dead links. This moment seems kind of small, but to me, I'm like, isn't it kind of weird that the first place you go to when figuring out life-changing information, is the internet? And it's just this big clusterfuck? Who even knows how to navigate this digital garbage pile?

On top of that, even when you do have a good understanding of these concepts, there's still so many other barriers: insurance, waitlists, lack of culturally competent care. There's no simple answer to these systemic problems, but where do you hope mental health will be 20 years from now? What do you wish the 12-year-old version of you had? 

First, that Complex PTSD is added to the DSM. Second, I would love for insurance companies to increase the amount that they pay therapists, because those rates have not increased in decades. That's the reason why most therapists don't take insurance, which is also wild. Third, making therapy more accessible to people of color, or people who don't have a lot of money. And scholarships for people who want to go to school to be a psychologist or therapist. 

Lastly, better training outside of just typical Western therapy. We need decolonized and culturally responsive therapy that incorporates ideas outside of the mental health industrial Complex — stuff like EMDR, somatic healing, mushrooms, the mind-body connection, and other traditional healing techniques. Overall, the therapy space just needs to become much more open ended and nuanced. 

In terms of 12-year-old me, I think that if mental healthcare was destigmatized and culturally accessible to my parents, then they might have learned how to parent me without severely abusing and neglecting me. I might not be in the position that I’m in today with Complex PTSD. I might have had parents who learned to love and care for me more than they cared about their own respective mental illnesses. 

That type of treatment is starting to happen more and more, but it's still so rare and difficult to find. 

The therapy space just needs to become much more open ended and nuanced.

I feel like I've seen more people talk about this recently, and I think it's important to even just make people aware of it. I still have a lot of friends who come to me and say they're looking to start therapy, but they only look at CBT and pick the first available therapist. I have to explain to them, “Listen. The way this is packaged to you is not right. There are more effective treatments.”

There's more options than just texting your robot therapist. 

It's so awful! 

I'm curious to know, since you were diagnosed a few years back, what is your relationship with CPTSD now? I know you've used a lot of different language for it. Sometimes you see it as a superpower, or as a shapeshifter. Do you feel like you still approach it or describe it the same way you did when you wrote the book? 

I think I mostly feel the same way about my CPTSD. Sometimes it can be a superpower — I think sometimes it does actually make me a better parent. But also, it really sucks, and I wish I didn't have it. I would trade a lot of those superpowers for not feeling afraid all of the time. 

It's something to navigate every day, but I feel like I have more of a grasp on it than I ever did before. It forces me to work on a lot of things that I think people without Complex PTSD just ignore. 

Like, I have to think a lot about how I'm going to parent my kid and the language that I use. The other day I caught myself saying, "Why did mama do that? Mama is so dumb!" I mean, it's not that big of a deal. But because of all the therapy I've done and TikToks I've watched, I really catch those moments. I'm like, wait. I don't want to model this for you. So I've really been working on being like, “Mama made a mistake, and she'll do better next time!”

It's something to navigate every day, but I feel like I have more of a grasp on it than I ever did before.

To wrap up, how has motherhood been? After so much therapy — practicing more conceptual exercises like taking care of your child self — you are now, quite literally, raising a child. How does it feel to tangibly apply all of these lessons now?

Everything they say about parenting is true: nothing prepares you for how it is. I read so many books and studied so much and talked to so many friends. I went to all the therapies and tried to fix myself before having a child. And then I had one, and it all goes out the window. You're just like, “Well, I've got to survive now.” But I'm glad that I did it, because as it turns out, a lot of that sort of became second nature. They say it's the hardest thing you'll ever do, and also the best thing that you'll ever do. And it's true. 

Thank you so much for spending some time with me. Like I said, this book quite literally changed my life. I feel like I see myself a lot in you. So thank you for your honesty. Even though a lot of it was probably done in a dissociative, "I can't even register the impact this has" kind of way. Which, again, relatable. But it really does mean a lot.

Thanks for the kind words. I really appreciate it. 


You can find Stephanie at

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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