104 Theresa Thames
Dean of the Chapel, Princeton University
“On the playground, people would be singing this song, Yo Mama’s on Crack Rock. … And I love that song because I love chanting it and everything. And I also loathe that song because it was my truth. I grew up in the height of crack cocaine in poverty, and my mother was on crack rock.”
Theresa lives in Princeton, NY with her beloved, Kenny and their insane dog. Having a Doctorate, a Masters and a faculty position at Princeton is cool and everything, but Theresa believes there should be more curvy Black women leading yoga classes and as such, has just completed her Yoga teacher training.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW): I’ve never admitted this publicly, but if I’m going to have a podcast called The Confessional, maybe I should go first.
When I was married, I had what I now consider to be an emotional affair with a friend. It lasted a couple of months and it ended before it turned sexual, so to speak, but the intensity of my desire for this person emotionally and physically was real. And it was torture. I’d wake up every morning and do that self-talk thing because I knew it was dangerous, and so every morning I would swear off the relationship. And I’d say to myself like, today, I will not text them, I will not call them, I will not hang out with them. But then, inevitably, the temptation was too much and my resolve was not enough and I would send them a text or stop by their place because when I did I felt good. Until of course, I felt bad all over again. I’d only ever had that experience of powerlessness, where my will was not strong enough to keep me from doing something destructive with exactly one other thing in my life—and that thing was alcohol. And it was then I realized, I think that all addiction is chemical in some way because there are these chemicals that wash over our brains when we indulge in our addictions or compulsions. And then, those neurochemicals start dipping down when we feel bad about having indulged ourselves again, and when they hit such a low that we feel like shit about ourselves and our lives, and we start to think, you know what would make me feel good again? And then the whole goddamn thing starts over.
I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber and you’ve stepped into The Confessional. It’s like a carwash for our shame and secrets. Today, I’m speaking with someone who survived growing up during the crack epidemic and whose life is still marked by it in some humbling ways.
NBW: My guest today is Theresa Thames, an extraordinary woman who went from a childhood of poverty in Mississippi to the halls of Princeton University where she now serves as dean of the chapel. Theresa, welcome. Tell me what brings you into The Confessional today?
Theresa Thames (TT): So I grew up in the 90s, I am a 80s and 90s kid. And in around mid-early 90s they had a song that was popular called “Yo Mama’s on Crack Rock,” and it was by this group called The Dogs. And on the playground around school, people would be singing this song, “Yo Mama’s on Crack Rock.” And there’s a refrain where this little girl in the song says, “Uh uh, not my mama.” And we would sing that song, this was the height of the Say No to Drugs, we all had our D.A.R.E. T-shirts, we’d made our pledges and Ronald Reagan was doing his thing. And I love that song because I love chanting it and everything. And I also loathe that song because it was my truth.
I grew up in the height of crack cocaine in poverty, and my mother was on crack rock. And her addiction, it troubled me, it was such a part of my foundation of growing up. There was this disappearing act that would happen because my mama was on crack rock, that I would get a new shiny toy. One year I got a Nintendo and getting a Nintendo, a Super Nintendo station, was amazing, and I would stay up hours playing Mario Brothers just to get to the next level. Every day I come home from school, I would rush home and I would do my homework really fast because of the promise of being able to master every round of Nintendo.
One day I rushed home from school and in our den was our TV area and I walked in and my Nintendo was gone. Not only was my Nintendo gone, but our television set was gone. And I knew what had happened, but I didn’t want to know so I just stood in the room looking around, and my mom walked in and she said, “Oh, it needed to get fixed.”
And that’s how the next few years just sort of went, that things would disappear, that they would get pawned off, our microwave, our deep freezer, anything that was worth any type of value. And she would just blatantly lie to me. And I judged her. I judged her addiction. I judged what it meant that she put this thing, this drug, this substance before me in so many ways.
And I grew up with this disdain for anything that was drug related and I had this judgment about people who were addicted to things, and one day she was chiding me about doing my homework and I said, “don’t talk to me, like, all you do is lie. You’re nothing but a liar.” And she was startled by my talking back, because I was not allowed, but I could see the pain in her face.
NBW: You know, it’s interesting that, that you could see, at twelve, you could see the truth of a situation enough to dare to speak it out loud and yet how hard it is for us to see the truth of our own situation sometimes.
TT: And it’s the whole thing of I’d fought so hard not to become that thing, like seeing the lies and thinking that, you know, she just wasn’t disciplined enough. And even as she struggled to get clean and sober, I had this way of chiding her and that I was better than her. And this back and forth way of how she would lie, I also became a professional liar when it came to the issue of food.
TT: I was in this place in my life where everything was falling apart. I was in the middle of a divorce and eating had become my thing. I wasn’t in therapy or anything consistently at the time, and so I would have a stressful day and just buy loads of food and it was really decadent, like gelatos and these cakes and chips and not just cheap stuff like really nice, good tasting food.
One day I was at the grocery store checkout line and I put all this food on the conveyor belt and the cashier said to me, “Oh, it looks like you’re having a party.” And without skipping a beat, I said, “Yes, I am. I’m having a party.” And I knew that I was lying to her and that lie came out effortlessly.
I became the same thing that I hated that I saw my mom being able to flatfoot stand in front of me and lie without skipping a beat. I was able to lie to this cashier and that’s what I did. I would just eat and hide food and lie to myself and lie to other people. When I think about unwinding myself and untangling myself from addiction and what it meant, it actually meant to look back at my mother with compassion of what it means that when something is dominating your life and you feel out of control and that the place of honesty is the beginning of healing.
NBW: At what point were you able to use that word for yourself—addiction—when it came to food? Do you remember?
TT: I do. I remember my church had, this was when I was in my 20s after grad school, my church had AA groups and then they had OA groups. And I didn’t know, I knew what AA was, I’d seen my mom go to rehab and we had the big book at our house. But I didn’t know that there was a thing called OA.
NBW: What does that stand for?
TT: Overeaters Anonymous. One day I was setting up the space, making sure that the space was ready at the church. And I just went to one of the meetings and I was like, oh, shit, I’m an addict.
NBW: I remember when I was, when I was drinking that, I would do this self talk every single morning, every morning of my life I’d be like, alright, today is gonna be different.
NBW: Like this is it. I’m not going to, you know, I’m not going to pick up a drink today. And you know where that goes, that sort of daily resolve to have, like you said, enough self-control. Right?
And then by that afternoon, boom. You know, drinking again and so that that idea of powerlessness is so humbling, especially when you’re somebody who has the ability to exert your will and to be a powerful person in other ways, it makes it even more humbling that there’s something that we are powerless over.
So when you realized that you were powerless over this addiction to overeating, did it change the way you saw your mom’s powerlessness over crack?
TT: It did, but I have to say, not right away. I was angry. I was angry because I realized that this would be my work for the rest of my life. And that just, that makes me, that that made me angry then of, you know, why can’t I get something else that I need to work on for the rest of my life.
NBW: Like, what would you have chosen, like if you had to? Like, I’m too tidy?
TT: Yeah. All the ways of winning and being more effective in life. You know.
So, I was angry and I was in denial because all of my life I had won or I had succeeded or I’d made it out of the hood or made it out of a hard situation because of my discipline. And this wasn’t something that I could just discipline away or that I could just pray away that it would change overnight. And that’s when I started having grace for my mother in this way of, even when you want to do right, that the desire to doing right isn’t enough.
NBW: One of the things I’m just so interested in right now is having compassion for people who do cause harm and how do we navigate that? How do we negotiate that, and what does it mean? And so while it’s a gift for you to be able for you to be able to go, oh shit, like I also have a powerlessness over an addiction and maybe that gives you a little bit of compassion for your mom. Having a food addiction does not create the chaos and harm in other people’s lives that having a crack addiction does, right?
NBW: So I’m just always trying to go, like how do we separate the harm of somebody’s behavior from that person’s humanity?
TT: Umm my addiction, the harm that I did was to myself. I did harm to my body, my well-being and, as much grace and love that I have with my mother, like there was real harm that was done to her, to me, to our family. And it’s not the same.
So I don’t know, Nadia. I honestly… it’s hard.
NBW: Well, because to forgive something doesn’t mean that it sort of erases the harm. Right? It doesn’t. It just doesn’t erase the harm and that’s why I think it’s just so tricky for us.
So the thing I’m always wondering about is how do we speak the truth about the harm? Like how do we call a thing what it is, name it, and still go, Okay, this can be true and I can find some freedom in forgiveness as well.
TT: And that’s what I’ve had to do to not be victimized by all of this. Is that from my mother’s addiction to my own addiction to holding it. How do I own the truth of this and make a decision about how I want to move on to the next thing? And that will forever be my life work.
NBW: Yeah, that’s for real. And it, it really is countercultural, this idea that that you’re powerless and that there’s a power that’s greater than you, like everything is so about, like, manifestation and manifesting stuff and the power of positive thinking and taking the reins and I mean like…
TT: The Secret of Attraction…
NBW: All of it! The Prayer of Jabez, you know, the, you know, the purpose driven drivel. Haha. I mean, there’s all of it. You know, our culture is obsessed with this idea.
And the tricky thing is there are things that you can do in your life. There are actions you can take to improve some things. I mean, there are aspects to that that are true. But it is not the deepest truth, because there will always be things that you don’t have any power over whatsoever.
NBW: And and so to constantly feel like a failure because you’re not controlling something that’s not in your control feels optional.
TT: Also it’s very, it’s very inhuman, being like it’s inhumane but also its like as humans we are vulnerable, like, we are needy. We need each other, we need community, we will make mistakes. That’s part of how we are made and created. And we have this false narrative of, you know, you just get your shit together and move on, of this independence and isolation. That’s dangerous.
NBW: You know, I’m tempted to write an anti self-help book called “You’re Not Enough.”
NBW: Like, It’s okay, there is enough. But, oh my gosh. It doesn’t have to be you. It doesn’t have to come from you, just to sort of let everyone relax.
TT: Yes. Yes! I was 497lbs and now I am 220s, 230s and you know, Nadia, the humbling thing is that it’s not even about the weight on the scale anymore, it’s that I can go back to addictive behavior so quickly. Sometimes people think that it is all about the weight. And one addiction can turn into another addiction, and so being mindful and being present more than anything it’s being present, being honest with myself of when I am engaging in addictive behaviors and when I’m not taking care of myself and when I’m not being present to myself. And this will be the work, like I keep saying, for the rest of my life.
NBW: Well, I’m so glad that you were willing to share this story with me and to just like talk honestly about, I mean, the humbling thing of going, my mom had an addiction and it harmed me in a lot of ways and really, like, look at what happened. That’s just mature, grown up, did your work stuff.
TT: And I think all of us have something, we, all of us have something that we’ve gotten from a parent, whether it’s people pleasing, or overcompensating, or rage and anger issues, like we’ve all gotten something. You know, we’ve come from people who’ve given us things, whether we like it or not. And how do we reconcile what we are and who we are and then how do we choose? How do we choose to show up into the world? And it’s taken me a long time to be able to get here and I’m so, so thankful for being able to look back with some grace and compassion, not only for her, but for myself.
NBW: Thank you so much for being on this, this show with me and sharing this story with the listeners. I really am so grateful. Thank you.
NBW: A note to listeners, four days after recording this conversation, Theresa’s mother passed away.
A Blessing for Theresa.
I see you as a young girl standing breathlessly in your living room, looking at the empty spaces where your Nintendo should be and where your TV once was and where the deep freeze is supposed to sit. And standing over all of it, is the woman that should have mothered you, but all of it is gone up in smoke. And I want to whisper in that girl’s ear that she is worth more than empty spaces.
Theresa, I see you, a young woman, capable, accomplished, focused, standing in your apartment in your nearly 500 pound body trying to fill the empty spaces. And I want to speak gently to that woman and say that she already has everything she needs. And I wish she knew that she is about to undergo a love-fueled liberation from the extra layers that have offered her both softness and armor. Because there are new powers in her now that can make her warm and keep her safe.
I see you, Theresa, as a 40-year-old woman, Ivy League faculty, half of what you were in size and double what you were in spirit, standing tall in your apartment, full of love, answering your phone four days after we recorded this and hearing that she had passed, early on Christmas Eve. And I want to speak to your heart. You honored her, but you deserved better. And as you grieve the mother you had and the mother you never had, I pray that the compassion you found for her find its way back to you. I pray that the empty spaces of your girlhood be perhaps not filled in but at least healed by the love of God and the family you forged as a young woman.
NBW: Next time on The Confessional I speak with someone who had a relationship problem he dealt with in ways he’s not proud of.
R Eric Thomas: So I started Googling “how to tell if your boyfriend is a Satan worshiper,” and oddly enough, nothing came up that was useful.
NBW: In the meantime, enjoy this confession from a listener in a segment I like to call Shit I’m Not Proud Of.
Jillian: Hi Nadia, this is Jillian from St. Paul, Minnesota. Something I guess I’m not very proud of is that sometimes a little bit of spit works better than some hairspray. Thanks, bye bye.
NBW: Do you have Some Shit You’re Not Proud Of, call 618-CONFESS and leave me a message and I might play it on the show.
The Confessional is produced by House of Pod and Shameless Media, with support and spiritual guidance from The Moth and PRX. Our original music is composed by Antwan Banks Williams.