203 Abby Wambach
“I didn’t feel like, oh, I need to call my lawyer or anything like that. I felt like I was totally with it. And then I did the breathalyzer and I can’t remember exactly what number I blew, but it was like, I think, two times the legal limit. And I thought, this machine is broken.”
When Abby retired from professional soccer in 2015, she was a two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup champion, and the all-time leader in goal scoring for the U.S. Women’s National Team. Today, she is also known for her speaking, activism, and writing.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW): Dale Douglass was the first man I ever had as a Sunday school teacher. I was 12 at the time and Dale was soft spoken and funny and parted his full head of thick, sandy-blonde hair so far to the side that it looked like an unnecessary comb-over.
It took just three weeks for him to have a special meeting with my parents, at which he informed them they would have to do something about me. I was answering the Bible trivia questions too quickly and it was keeping the boys in the class from having a chance.
There’s a reason, by the way, that we all suddenly had a male Sunday school teacher the year we turned 12 when before we’d always had women –because in the Church of Christ of my childhood, women were not supposed to have any authority over men, we could not preach or pray out loud or even be ushers at church. Which means, grown women could no longer teach Sunday School once the boys were a certain age.
As a smart and smart ass girl I eventually rejected this idea of female inferiority. I left the church and my parents behind because I will raise my hand when I know the fucking answer thank you very much. I even, at the age of 27, finally heard a woman pray out loud in a different denomination’s church service. I even got a degree in religion. I even got a Masters in theology. I even became an ordained Lutheran pastor. I even wear a clergy collar and vestments as my professional garb. I even write books about life and theology and while I may not be allowed to preach in most churches of Christ I do preach in churches and cathedrals all over the world. And still….STILL there are times when I see a woman in a clergy collar and I am deeply ashamed of this, but before I can even stop the thought I’ll think “what the hell does she think she’s pretending at? That’s disgusting.”
Sometimes the messages from our childhood – especially messages that were given to us in God’s name and with our parent’s endorsement embed in us far below the surface and are still there long after we stop believing them to be true. Which is just so embarrassing.
My name is Nadia Bolz-Weber, and you’ve stepped into the Confessional. It’s like a car wash for our shame and secrets. You might know my guest today as an Olympic gold medalist, a world cup champion and a hall of famer, but Abby Wambach has to detangle the same kind of difficult shit we all do. And in the end, none of it is easy but all of it is worth it. Stay with us.
For listeners joining me in The Confessional for the first time, stay tuned after the interview for a blessing I’ve written just for my guest, but maybe also for you.
NBW: Joining me in The Confessional today is Abby Wambach. Abby, welcome. I am curious what brings you into the Confessional today?
Abby Wambach (AW): [00:23: So in 2008, five days before we were supposed to go to the Olympics in Beijing, in China, I got into a tackle, and I broke my leg. Now, that was emotionally, obviously physically, brutal. My Olympic hopes were dashed. So I had this crazy surgery and, you know, part of the healing process from that is, you know, they give you pain medication because it was really severe traumatic physical event that I would need I would need some help with.
NBW: Yeah, Of course.
AW: It was the first time my body didn’t stand up for me, and it was the first time I felt mortal. I know that that sounds crazy, but, you know, I was always the biggest, strongest player on the field, that I was immortal. I was invincible on some crazy level. And as a pro athlete, you have to have that mindset on some level to be able to survive. And so there I went into my recovery from this leg break and that the seeds kind of started to get set, the mindsets of, oh, I have a pain, there is something that I can take for that. Oh, I can’t sleep, I can have an Ambien for that. Oh, I have Achilles tendinitis, and now I know all the doctors, right? So whatever it was going to take to get me out on the field at 100 percent is what I was willing to give. And that, unfortunately, was what I thought was required of me
NBW: But what did it cost you?
AW: So as a pro athlete. It’s a very isolating journey because you’ve, in many ways, I was like a zoo animal. Let’s just take a specific moment. You have a game and you’re on the field and you’ve just scored the game-winning goal. You’ve just won the World Cup. You just won an Olympic gold medal. Right? And you’ve spent a considerable amount of your life for that one moment and the cost of that is immeasurable, the relationships lost, the birthdays missed, the proms. I mean, the personal development that I completely bypassed and the selfishness that was required to be able to do that.
NBW: Say more about the personal development that you ended up bypassing. What do you mean by that?
AW: What I’m saying is that soccer was so all consuming that I couldn’t develop parts of my personality, parts of being a human being, like a person that knows what limits are and knows how to say no and knows how to cook for yourself. Or, you know, there are things that I’ve been literally learning how to become a person over the last four or five years of my retirement. So that’s kind of what I mean.
NBW: So if your body didn’t stand up for you and right when you were about to go to Beijing you broke your leg and the recovery from that was brutal and you couldn’t participate in the only thing you’ve been training to do your whole life. And you’re in pain. And they prescribed you pain meds, which is what they’re for, right? Was it a sort of like, hey, this also can help me check out from this existential problem I’m having about the fact that my body is broken and I’m at the end of a career and I’ve only done one thing my whole life and who the fuck am I if I’m not doing this?
AW: Hundred percent. I mean, you know, I think that I probably needed the pain meds for a week and then I could have chucked them, but I didn’t have the bandwidth or the emotional intelligence to be able to sit still and to figure out what this moment was meaning and what meaning I can find in the moment. All I could do was drink, pop some pills, and forget about what was happening. And I guess I was feeling like the biggest fraud in the entire world because I was struggling with an alcohol abuse problem and an addiction. And I was abusing pain medication. And then, this one night, I was with my friends and decided to make the poor decision to get into the driver’s seat of a car. And I had been golfing all morning and I had had some drinks on the golf course, but I did not think for one second that I was over the limit. And even still, I was in it, I felt like I was an invincible person that I could, you know, I could be fine. Like all of us have gotten behind the wheel of a car when we were like, I’ll be fine, you know? And I mean, I want to speak for everybody, every person. But I do know that all addicts or alcoholics have probably gotten behind the wheel of a car.
NBW: Oh, my God. I have no idea how I escaped getting a DUI. The number of times that I drove when I was intoxicated, oh, my God. Are you serious?
AW: Yeah. So, I got into my car. And evidently I blow through a red light or stop sign. And all a sudden, boom, lights are in my rearview mirror and I’m like, alright, it’s going to take a few seconds. Evidently, the cop smelled some alcohol on my breath. They determined that I’m intoxicated and they sent me to jail. I’m just like I’m like, I’m going to be out of here in a few minutes once I blow. I’m doing the math, right. Like, this is hours ago that I’ve been drinking. I’m going to be fine. I didn’t feel like, oh, I need to call my lawyer or anything like that. I felt like I was totally with it. And then. I did the breathalyzer and I can’t remember exactly what was the number that I blew, but it was like I think two times the legal limit. And I thought, this machine is broken.
NBW: Oh, my God.
AW: I was so out of it, right? I was so beyond that I was like, this machine is broken. Like, how do I know this machine is not broken? That was the, that was what was happening.
NBW: It really was the same sort of invincibility that you had only to be able to do your weird job.
AW: Totally. And so the moment that I think is the best moment that happened to me in that jail, you know, when when you get checked in a jail, they take your shoelaces, so they, so you don’t use it to harm yourself or somebody else. But I was wearing Birkenstocks that night.
NBW: [laughs] Sorry.
AW: Ok, I know, a Portland lesbian. Let’s go.
AW: I also had a flannel on. And so here I was, I was watching these women walking around, sliding their feet, and I thought, I am not them, right? And as the time went on. I got more sober, more sober and more sober and more scared and more more upset. And I actually ended up taking my shoes, the Birkenstocks, off. And I just looked at my feet and I looked at these women who I was othering so hard core the entire time that I spent in jail and I just had to have a moment with myself, like, no, you you actually deserve to be here.
AW: You are them. And what’s worse is you think you still think that you don’t have shoelaces in your Birkenstocks and that makes you different. But in fact, like, you’re worse because you think you’re different.
NBW: So what ended up happening after you spent that night in jail?
AW: What ended up happening is the world found out, right? The world found out that Abby Wambach, captain of the women’s national team, got drunk and drove. Not many people know like the real depth of what was going on in my life and that’s kind of what I wanted to talk about with you.
NBW: Yeah, for sure. Let’s talk about that. Also, I’m just really curious to hear more about that time between when you broke your leg and when you got the DUI. What was going on at that time?
AW: For me, those eight years, it was just it was just kind of this recipe for disaster, almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, because I think, as my life kind of took a turn towards the rock bottom that I was headed towards. You know, these feelings of deep shame about who I was started to surface that were kind of implanted in me as a really young gay kid sitting in the pew in the Catholic Church.
NBW: Oh shit, OK, draw the line for me between those two things.
AW: Yeah. I grew up in a Irish Catholic family, youngest of seven. And around 15 or 16 years old, I knew that I was um I was a little different. And it wasn’t because of sports. I knew that I was going to probably live a gay life and sitting in those pews for pretty much the whole of my existence knowing what this Catholic Church thought of, felt about gay people. It was the most traumatic, I think, and terrifying times of my life. And then it really set me up in many ways to kind of really run for the hills from from that church — for decades quite honestly.
NBW: I actually, I remember you said something directly to me that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. When I asked you about your religious upbringing, you, the words you said were, I knew fairly young that I had to choose between my religion and myself.
AW: Yeah yeah, I was basically choosing between God and my mom.
NBW: Oh, wow.
AW: And myself.
AW: I think that, you know. My marriage, my first marriage was really on the rocks, and the thing that was driving me so crazy is, the failure of my marriage in some ways meant to me on a deep level, but maybe my mom was right. That maybe I am an abomination.
NBW: Oh shit.
AW: That maybe this was all a part of God’s plan.
NBW: So it wasn’t just the normal human look, lot of relationships have an end point to them, right? Like straight, gay, whatever you like. Totally not uncommon. Not actually a failure. Totally normal. And instead of it being that, something in your being was wired a certain way to where that was the conclusion you kind of came to? Or like subconsciously? Fuck.
AW: Subconsciously, yeah, I couldn’t bring words to it until literally yesterday when I was like, I think that I, I have, this is what I want to talk about, because I think that trauma and shame that happened to me at such a young age. But I tell you what this like God thing was just like it was like a weight that was like holding onto me. And the irony is, I knew that I was struggling with my drinking. I knew that I needed to quit. I knew that I needed to, like, start a new life. I just didn’t know how to do it. And so the irony of getting into this DUI, which at the time was like the worst moment of my life, I thought it was all over. But in fact, it was actually the thing that brought me back to life.
NBW: Oh my God. What do you know about yourself now that you that you didn’t know before you got sober?
AW: Ooooh This is a good one. So there is that belief, like, okay, well, I’m an adult now. And the longer I keep suffering with the same problem, at what point is it my responsibility? At what point have I just been delaying inevitable learnings or teachings or forgiving? That I would, I could have had much earlier on in my life because I sure as hell don’t want to be pissed off at God or or by my mom for the rest of my life. I want to just be free of it. I want to be free of the sadness and the pain that and the fear that it kind of instilled in me. And then there’s the other side of the coin where it’s like, holy shit. Look at what I was able to create from all that.
NBW: Yeah, I know. I saw a meme on Facebook yesterday. It said, did you have a happy childhood or are you funny?
AW: That’s hilarious.
NBW: It’s just like, ouch. But same. I mean, I don’t know that that’s the hard sort of paradox, isn’t it? That there was so much created by the invincibility and the suppression and the earning, and the making yourself worthy and all of this was accomplished, and then now you get to just be a woman. You know?
AW: Yeah. It’s not a life that a person should ever be in a long term relationship with another person. I mean, and and and truly like this is this is a confession. I was wishing that I could be the kind of person that could have been married, but I was married to my job. I was married to the identity as a soccer player and I brought somebody else along because I was lonely in it.
NBW: Oh shit.
AW: And I think that I think that’s a confession absolutely. Like, you know, and that’s not fair. Wasn’t fair to her. And, you know, I was drunk for for a lot of the end of our relationship. And I think that there’s responsibility in that. So, yeah I, I…
NBW: I would like to hear you talk more about the connection for you between that messaging you got in your upbringing. You know, your mom and church and that night in jail.
AW: I have this childhood that’s molded in the deep desire for wanting my mom’s attention.
NBW: Oh sure.
AW: And also love and also admiration.
NBW: And acceptance.
AW: And because of all of that and then being stuck inside of this like institution of the Catholic Church, I just always felt like, God, I don’t belong here. I know that something is different about me. But I didn’t have words yet. And I think my mom knew it all along, too, but she just wasn’t willing to admit it because she had this perception of what her family would look like. And so I just put all of my attention and mind and body and heart into this craft of soccer. And it worked out, right? Did well. I was successful. I got to represent my country. There were so many beautiful things about this sort of rebellion away from my parents that helped me, that made me who I am. But it also created this loneliness inside of me, and I think that if I were to get really honest with myself, not only was I playing to earn this love from my mom, to earn a respect that I never thought would be possible without the win, without the gold, without the championship, that I too could have a normal quote unquote life like that I wouldn’t be sent to hell. And so I think that the DUI is a representation of a breaking free of this desire to want to please my mom and ironically, my mom was the person that I called right?
AW: I woke her up. It was 4:00 in the morning, and she, she said beautiful things to me. She didn’t shame me. She said, you know, I know your heart and I know that you always make things right, even if you mess up. And I know you’re going to do that this time. And I, I just, you know, I cried so hard. I cried so hard when she said that. And I think that from that moment, I, because I’ve chosen to get sober and to leave that narrative of fighting for my mom’s love behind, I think has created new space for me and my mom, and like all of it is so intertwined and so cozy.
NBW: God, Abby. It just dawns on me that you kept describing the incredible length that you went to in terms of your professional athletic career, all of your successes on some level thinking maybe I can earn the love and acceptance of my mom. And the moment that you got it was when you fucked up the most.
AW: It’s beautiful.
NBW: Oh my gosh.
AW: Yeah, it’s beautiful.
NBW: Oh, wow.
AW: And these are the kind of conversations that are really important to have because, you know, up until an hour and fifteen minutes ago, I wasn’t planning on talking so much about my mother. I wasn’t drawing all of these lines. And I I’m sure Glennon is sitting on the other side of the door going, I knew it.
NBW: That’s incredible. That, oh shit. Man, when our parents can surprise us. I’ve been healed by that. I mean, I was terrified to tell my parents that Matthew and I were getting a divorce because, you know, they’re conservative Christian folks and they had counseled people to try and help them stay married. You know, my parents have gone through so much in their marriage and stayed together. All this. I mean, it’s such a strong commitment. And I felt like such a failure. And like, I did not, I just didn’t, I didn’t want to tell them, but I had to and I was sitting in the basement of their house and telling them, I’m so lonely in this marriage and there’s just no intimacy. And he’s a good man. But I can’t do it anymore. And so afraid of the reaction. And my mom, she goes, oh, baby. I’ve seen it and it’s made me so sad.
NBW: And I just…
AW: Chills, like I have chills everywhere.
NBW: I just broke down crying because sometimes some embedded shit from our childhood that’s attached to our parents and church and all that stuff, it becomes how we see our parents and sometimes that’s true. But sometimes it’s unfair. Like maybe they have changed or I don’t know. There have been times that my parents have surprised me. And you know what? That’s about me.
AW: Yes, totally. It’s almost like that night in jail, I had to like I finally, like, gave myself permission to grow up and not need my mommy anymore, you know? And I think that, I think that she on that phone call proved to me, okay, she loves me. And I don’t have to prove, I don’t have to prove it to her. You know, I’m here on the rock bottom and my mom is telling me that I am a good person and it’s gonna be okay.
NBW: Also, like the thing that we keep wanting from our mom, like, eventually we realize we can kind of give to ourselves. You know what I mean?
AW: Yes. Yes.
NBW: Like, it’s like so unfair to keep going, well, why didn’t you say this in this situation when I was 10 or, you know, like all this shit. Oh, my gosh. OK. All right. So shit. Abby, thank you so much for having this conversation. It’s been. I didn’t. I got super emotional there.
NBW: Oh, shit.
AW: Yeah. I mean, I love it. I think that that’s that’s what this is all about. You know?
NBW: But also like our worst moment is so often our origin story for who we became.
AW: Sister, this was so fun. Thank you for having me.
NBW: Oh my gosh, thank you so much. I’m really, really grateful. You’re amazing.
AW: You too, take care.
NBW: A blessing for Abby.
Abby, You said that when you got hurt, your body let you down and you felt mortal for the first time.
I get that “mortal” refers to being subject to death. But there’s another definition I really love which is “belonging to this world.”
So for you, Abby, I offer a blessing of that belonging.
I bless the young queer girl who felt she did not belong in in the pews of a church that told her she was an abomination. Because the real abomination is an imaginary hell created by anxious men, unconvinced of their own belonging. But you? You belong here.
I bless the athlete, who did superhuman things on the field, who collected more goals and trophies and titles and wins than anyone else. When you tried to buy your belonging with excellence, that deep loneliness you felt was proof that you really are so much like the rest of us.
And you? You belong here.
I bless your divorce, which is no more a curse than marriage is a reward.
I bless the pain that you tried to medicate away.
I bless you for holding so tight to what you thought made you lovable.
I bless that moment in jail when you sobered up enough to realize that no, the breathalyzer wasn’t broken, and you were just a very drunk, very dangerous woman.
Which means even when it sucks, you still belong here.
So I offer you a blessing of belonging, Abby.
May you luxuriate in your ordinary humanity, I’m so glad that you are here with us in it.
So May you wake up each morning, stretch your mortal body and hear love whisper, “you belong.” Amen.
NBW: Next time on The Confessional…
Kasey: I truly believed that we had gotten Bruce Springsteen to commit to this benefit compilation. And so when I went to present that to the group, I went back through my emails and there was no such communication.
NBW: The Confessional is produced by House of Pod and Shameless Media, with spiritual guidance and support from The Moth and PRX. Our original music is produced by Antwan Banks Williams.