One thing every person alive will share, if we’re blessed with enough years, at some point, sometimes a number of times over, we will face profound adversity, struggle, and the potential for loss on the biggest scale. How we move through these moments, how we step into and are changed by them, and how we emerge from the experience is a big part of how we experience life. Even in the darkest hours, can we find access to some level of connection, grounding, maybe even lightness and salvation? That’s where we’re headed in today’s powerful conversation with Steph Catudal.
When Steph husband Rivs was admitted to the hospital with COVID-19-like symptoms, doctors soon discovered it was actually NKT cell lymphoma of his lungs – the same rare type of cancer Steph’s own father had suffered from years earlier. Rivs, a stunningly fit endurance athlete, was immediately placed on a ventilator in an induced coma as his condition deteriorated, and doctors warned Steph the odds of survival were slim.Yet something inside Steph told her “this is not how he dies.”
Steph found herself confronting grief, loss and hope all over again – this time with her young daughters by her side. As Rivs battled lung cancer on life support for 84 days during the early days of the COVID pandemic, Steph searched for meaning within her family’s profound disruption. She turned to writing and spirituality, connecting with others through her vulnerability even as she struggled to be real with her own kids about their father’s bleak prognosis.
She shares her story in her New York Times bestseller Everything All At Once. In this moving and vulnerable conversation, we explore Steph’s devotion, action, and faith that propelled her to help save Rivs’ life, the role suffering can play in opening us up to love, how navigating loss with children forces us to confront reality in a profoundly honest way and how to open to kindness and intuition along the way.
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Steph Catudal (00:00:00) – Sitting next to him and confronting the possibility that he might die. It just shattered all of the walls that I had built up and just allowed me to just love like I felt more love for humanity and from humanity during that time than ever in my life. I think pain can do that to us. But beyond that, I feel there was a spiritual component to whatever closeness I felt to my husband at that time. I felt in some ways we were able to commune while he was sedated. And I think when you connect with someone on that level, it’s just soul deep and energetic and it creates this just pure love without all of the confusion of the day to day things that partners go through. And just to fully see him. I saw him completely during that time and it was very, very beautiful and very terrible and painful at the same time.
Jonathan Fields (00:00:58) – So one thing every person will share if we’re blessed with enough years at some point, sometimes a number of times over, we will face profound adversity, struggle and the potential for loss on the biggest scale.
Jonathan Fields (00:01:13) – How we move through these moments, how we step into and are changed by them and how we emerge from the experience. It’s a big part of how we experience our lives and make it good. Even in the darkest hours. Can we find access to some level of connection, grounding, maybe even lightness and salvation? That’s where we’re headed in today’s powerful conversation with Steph Casteel. So when Steph’s husband was admitted to the hospital with what seemed like Covid 19 like symptoms, doctors soon discovered it was actually NKT cell lymphoma of his lungs, the same rare type of cancer that Steph’s own father had suffered from years earlier. Her husband, Riz, was a stunningly fit ultra endurance athlete, but he was immediately placed on a ventilator and an induced coma as his condition deteriorated and doctors warned Steph the odds of survival were slim. Yet something inside of her told her this is not how he dies. And Steph found herself confronting grief and loss and hope all over again, this time with her young daughters by her side as her husband battled lung cancer on life support for 84 days during the early days of the Covid pandemic.
Jonathan Fields (00:02:31) – Steph search for meaning within her family’s profound disruption. And she turned to writing and spirituality, connecting with others through her vulnerability and sharing, even as she struggled to be real with her own kids about their father’s bleak prognosis. And she shares her story in her powerful New York Times bestseller, Everything All at Once. In this moving and vulnerable conversation, we explore Steph’s devotion, her action and faith that propelled her to help save lives. Life. We look at the role that suffering can play in opening us to love. How navigating loss with children forces you to confront reality in a profoundly honest way, and how opening to kindness and intuition along the way can be a stunning difference maker. So grateful to be able to share this moving conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project. As we have this conversation, I feel like the whole world has had a series of years where it’s just been shaken, turned upside down. Everyone had to confront groundless witness uncertainty and at times their own wellbeing and mortality.
Jonathan Fields (00:03:44) – In the middle of all of this, you’ve had to do that in the context of your family, but not just for the reasons that everybody else has, but for some much more intense reasons. I want to dive into all of that with you. But before we get there, before we get to what Bruce Feiler calls it, a life quake in your life. Tell me about the Before Times.
Steph Catudal (00:04:05) – Life was kind of crazy for us before. My husband was a full time athlete and endurance athlete, which requires a tremendous amount of training. And we were raising three little girls at the time. And so, yeah, there was a lot of balancing and juggling and in some ways a lot of misaligned priorities before he got sick. I guess it just life was kind of wild but also good. And you know, we were both students and we got married really, really young at about 20. I was 21 when we got married. And so we just kind of had to figure out the messiness of life together.
Steph Catudal (00:04:44) – And that’s kind of where we were at when when he did get sick.
Jonathan Fields (00:04:48) – Yeah. I mean, also you mentioned he was an endurance athlete, which is it’s interesting, right, Because and it sounds like you were very much both in love with with the outdoors, with movement, with pushing yourselves to the edge to a certain extent, maybe him more than you. But it seems like you were like you were side by side for a lot of different things. And that’s it’s a certain mindset that sort of like it says, let’s let’s push to the edges of life and see what it’s all about. At least from the outside looking in. It seems like that was a bit of your shared ethos.
Steph Catudal (00:05:19) – Yeah. And you know, it’s interesting because he was the endurance athlete, you know, sponsored and professional, but we always joke that we were both doing these endurance feats because while he was out there in the trails for 5 or 6 hours a day, you know, I was home with the kids and, you know, balancing all of that.
Steph Catudal (00:05:36) – And and we didn’t ever talk about defined separated roles, but we really just found a way to to balance it so that we were both able to do what we wanted to do. But it was definitely an act of endurance a lot of times, you know, and just kind of grinding through and a lot of mental fortitude as well. And I think it’s like that with when you’re supporting or with anyone who’s pursuing a kind of like a lofty dream. And athletics is like that a lot of times.
Jonathan Fields (00:06:05) – So yeah. What was his lofty dream like? What was the ultimate aspiration on his side?
Steph Catudal (00:06:10) – Well, for him just to be a great runner, he really, since he was a kid, what he wanted to do was was run. And it was really his way of of, you know, metabolizing all of his, you know, feelings and emotions and without running. He really had a hard time just with the day to day. And running was really just his way to clear his mind and center himself and ground himself.
Steph Catudal (00:06:34) – So he was lucky enough that he had both the talent and the work ethic to make that dream into a career.
Jonathan Fields (00:06:42) – Yeah. Which not many people do.
Steph Catudal (00:06:44) – Yeah.
Jonathan Fields (00:06:45) – What about you on your side? How did you make meaning of the world? What was your processing sensibility? Because clearly at some point writing drops into your orbit. But I’m curious, was that an early part of your experience or did that come later?
Steph Catudal (00:06:57) – Yeah, Writing has always been my means of making sense of the world. I remember being my mom kind of brought this up when I when I started writing my book that I would be six years old and I’d take out this encyclopedia of animals that we had back before the Internet. So it was a big, giant book, and I would just flip open a page and choose an animal and write a short story about an animal. And that’s kind of I’ve always had a passion for for writing. And then when my dad got sick, writing poetry when I was 14 years old, poetry was kind of my way of making sense of of the pain I was feeling.
Steph Catudal (00:07:35) – And eventually I did go to school for writing. I went to grad school for media peace and conflict studies. I wanted to be a a war journalist before I had kids. And so, yeah, writing has just always been really the only true passion that I’ve had in terms of a sustainable career.
Jonathan Fields (00:07:53) – You mentioned when your dad got sick, when you’re, I guess, about 13 years old, your dad ends up with lung cancer. And it sounds like also you were brought up in a household where faith was was a central part of it. And moments like these, no matter what age you are, can have you questioning everything. And it sounds like for you, that’s exactly what happened. Like this sort of like threw a level of questioning into you. And especially as what sounds like you were sort of like an introspective, creative, expressive kid. It seems like you really just started exploring and saying, like, what’s real, what’s not real, what’s right, what’s true and what’s false.
Steph Catudal (00:08:30) – Yeah, definitely.
Steph Catudal (00:08:31) – So I was raised in the LDS religion, So as a mormon, I was raised to believe in, you know, faith and miracles and prayer in a very literal sense. And my dad was diagnosed when I was 13, and I kind of had believed that if I prayed hard enough that my father would be healed as though it was an equation X, Y, Z. And then, you know, you get the blessing. And when that didn’t happen, when my dad did pass away when I was 14, I kind of decided that none of it was true. If this little group of, you know, truths weren’t weren’t reality, then nothing really was. And so I kind of threw it all away. Spirituality, God, any notion of anything universal, really. And I existed like that for about 20 years. And I’d come to peace with life having no meaning. And you know, that we were all just biological specimens walking the earth. I had come to a peace. But that that all changed when my husband got sick.
Jonathan Fields (00:09:35) – I’m curious also, because it’s not unusual for a kid brought up in a household where there’s a strong faith based tradition to sort of like, okay, so this is part of my life. And then when they leave high school, when they leave the house, that becomes the moment where so often people start to ask all the big questions and rebelled to a certain extent for you. There’s this moment that happens in your early teens that basically leads you to this place, but you’re still living in a house with people that you love who have really a very defined set of beliefs. Do you have a sense for when you were younger, like as you’re going through a questioning process, but also, I would imagine still really wanted to be part of a family and to fit in and a community. How you danced with that tension.
Steph Catudal (00:10:18) – That’s a great question. I think it’s two part one. I was so mired in my own grief at that age that I really didn’t think much about other people. And that’s one of the I wouldn’t call it a regret that I have, but I in my grief, I became quite insular and selfish.
Steph Catudal (00:10:35) – So that being said, I also wanted to kind of help my mom. I felt terrible for my mom because she had lost, of course, her husband and my father. And so I did try. I tried to go to church for her. I tried to, you know, put on the dress and go to Sunday school. But it never really resonated with me. But my mom did a wonderful thing, which was she just allowed she allowed me to be how I needed to be in that moment without making me feel guilty or making me feel shame for not choosing the path that she had hoped for me. And I really do feel like in that freedom that she offered me, I was able to find my own way and know that I was loved throughout it. And I really do look at that as a huge gift that she gave me. I think what an impossible task. A mother raising four children, you know, in grief. And we were all probably just, you know, flailing around.
Steph Catudal (00:11:36) – But in my perspective, she did the greatest thing for me, which was just accept me exactly how I was during that time.
Jonathan Fields (00:11:43) – Do you have a sense for you actually having that true understanding back then, or do you feel like it’s more sort of like in hindsight reflecting back, you’re like, Oh, now I kind of have like a better understanding of what was really going on and how I felt and how unique it was that I actually felt loved in that moment.
Steph Catudal (00:11:59) – Oh yeah, definitely hindsight. That’s I mean, what is it? One of the biggest epiphanies of, you know, the past few years was just all my mother did for me and really how difficult I had been for her during the hardest time of her life. And again, going back to that selfishness of my grief, I never truly communed with the fact that she had lost her husband. I’d never really considered all the ways that she was hurting because I was so absorbed with my own pain. It wasn’t until my husband got sick and I was put in the same position that she had been in when I was a kid, you know, with a sick husband, that I realized what an impossible task it is to be the mother of grieving children.
Steph Catudal (00:12:45) – And then it was just kind of these series of epiphanies, of recognition of all that she had done for me and how through it all, all she did was offer me love. And that love really just no matter how far I got, no how reckless I got in my teen years, I do feel like looking back, it was her love that always just kept me from going over the edge. It always reined me in, even though I pushed the limits. Her acceptance and her love just just kind of grounded me just a little bit. Just enough to survive, really. But again, only in hindsight do I see all of that. Only in the last you know, I’m 30, almost 38. I that was probably a 36 year old recognition.
Jonathan Fields (00:13:28) – Have you had a chance? An opportunity? You just sit down with her and sort of like share your thoughts about that moment in time and how much you’ve also realized what was really happening that was never expressed back then, probably in both directions.
Steph Catudal (00:13:41) – Well, you know, the interesting thing is my mom is she is I call her the British stoic. She’s just a keep calm, carry on kind of woman. And so true emotional conversations were never very common. But when she saw me going through my husband’s illness, I think that kind of kind of eroded the walls, whatever emotional walls might have been between us. And I think we were able to fully see each other and really see that in our lives. We were the only ones that understood what each other was going through, which is a very unique situation for a daughter and a mother to have gone through basically the exact same, you know, trauma. And so my hope is that when she reads the book will be the moment that she sees my recognition of all that she did for me. And the interesting thing is, I didn’t set out at all writing the book thinking that that was even going to be a theme. And it turned out to be. One of the major themes of the book was the reconciliation of my relationship with my mother and the gratitude that I have for her.
Steph Catudal (00:14:49) – And it was only through writing that I kind of was able to, you know, compartmentalize and just kind of like bring it all together and and recognize it all. And that was one, again, one of the greatest gifts of writing that book was was that recognition of my mother’s love.
Jonathan Fields (00:15:05) – I’m sure the process of writing and just journaling and turning it into something helped process so much. And at the same time, a lot of the book is about, as you’ve described, the season around what happens to your husband and in turn to you, to your family, to your kids, your relationship with your mom. So let’s jump into that. You’re building a family. He’s out there building a career as an endurance athlete. You’re traveling around and then a couple of years back, things go a little bit off the rails, maybe more than a little bit off the rails.
Steph Catudal (00:15:35) – Yeah. Yeah. So he was training. He was trying to make the Olympic trials for the 2020 Olympic trials for the marathon full training mode.
Steph Catudal (00:15:45) – He was doing three times a week going to the Grand Canyon to to run, you know, about 44 miles across the Grand Canyon a few days a week. He was in tip top shape. And then one night during a canyon run, he gets to the bottom of the canyon and he feels like he can’t breathe. He thought he had heatstroke. He thought he was going to, you know, maybe die at the bottom of the canyon. And it took all his strength to make it out, Took him about ten hours to get out of the canyon, and it usually takes him to less than two. So looking back, just recognizing the sheer mental strength that it took probably to climb 5000ft out of the literal Grand Canyon when you’re breathless like that. So after that, we assumed he had Covid because he just kind of get kept getting more fatigued and he couldn’t really get out of bed. And he developed a cough and eventually, you know, three weeks later, find out that he has an T cell lymphoma of his lungs.
Steph Catudal (00:16:45) – So lung cancer and again, a non smoking related cancer, just like my father had had a non smoking related cancer. So the cruel irony. So yeah, and then he went into lung failure and that’s when he was sedated, put on a ventilator and sedated.
Jonathan Fields (00:17:02) – When this is starting to happen to him. And I know also this was you know, the diagnosis was not given immediately because this happened to happen at a time where a lot of people were getting Covid and a lot of people were struggling and getting a lot of the symptoms in their lungs, in their body, That would have been a lot of what he was feeling. And also a lot of a lot of the country was shut down. It was not easy to get access to doctors and medical help. So you’re sort of like moving through this moment at a really, really challenging time in history with a lot of uncertainty when he finally gets to diagnosis. And as you said, this was essentially the same diagnosis that your dad had gotten when you were 13 years old.
Jonathan Fields (00:17:46) – I can’t even imagine what was going through your mind, but of the different threads that were sort of like spinning through what was dropping in and what were the different things that were were just sort of like spinning?
Steph Catudal (00:17:57) – Yeah, there was definitely a lot of conflicting emotions because for three weeks they were treating him as though he had Covid because nothing else made sense. He had all the symptoms of Covid and he was just declining and all the tests were coming back negative. And and so feeling that he might die at the hands of an unknown disease just felt like torture. It just felt like I just wanted a diagnosis so that at least there could be a possibility of treatment or at least we could know. And. It was looking like there was not going to be a diagnosis. I remember one of the ICU pulmonologist telling me that some people just have undefined lung disease or lung injury and they never figure out what that is. And I couldn’t accept that. And so when he was finally finally diagnosed, which actually was a week after he was sedated, so he didn’t know his diagnosis until he eventually was brought out of his coma, I felt a strange sense of relief that at least we know on one hand.
Steph Catudal (00:19:02) – And secondly, cancer felt familiar to me. And I know that’s a strange thing to feel, but I did feel a sense of I’ve done this before. I’d also my little brother had leukemia when I was six years old. And so my little brother and then my father and now my husband. And it almost felt like I had been trained my whole life to be in this position. And, you know, I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. I truly don’t. But I do think we can look back on the hard things that have happened to us and assign them meaning in retrospect. And I was able to do that for my father’s passing and my little brother’s illness, saying, you know, I don’t think they got sick for a reason. But through their sickness and passing of my father, I was able to better understand and deal with what was happening to my husband. And in some strange way, I could almost be grateful for having gone through something similar before. So it was just this this relief and of course this sorrow and feeling all of it at the same time.
Steph Catudal (00:20:14) – But at least we had a way forward. I think that was the the ultimate feeling was, okay, at least we have a way forward.
Jonathan Fields (00:20:21) – Yeah. I mean, and as you described, the diagnosis didn’t actually come until about a week after he had been sedated. What led him to the place where you made the decision to say, okay, it’s time for an induced coma? At this point.
Steph Catudal (00:20:35) – That was yeah, not my decision. We were hoping that that wouldn’t it wouldn’t come to that because especially with Covid, there was a lot of talk of, you know, once you’re on the ventilator, it’s hard to come off or once you’re sedated, you don’t wake up. That was kind of the narrative going around. And so just the words ventilator, we’re just, you know, so just heavy. Of course they always are. But at that time, you’re just hearing them all over the place. And so we were really hoping it wouldn’t come to that. But it was about midnight when I got the call.
Steph Catudal (00:21:06) – The ICU doctor called and said, you know, we can’t wait any longer. He’s because he’s an athlete and because he’s incredibly fit. He’s able to he’s been able to survive with very minimal oxygen levels like his oxygen was in the 70s and he was still trying to do push ups by his ICU bed, you know, and he would take off his little oxygen monitor so we can do some push ups. And they were like, he’s superhuman. But there’s a limit to everyone. You know, everyone’s mortal at the end. And so so they called me and said, you know, he’s in lung failure now. There’s he we need to intubate him. But he still called me right before they put him on a ventilator. He called me and tried to reassure me that he was going to be okay. And he was still very coherent. The minutes before he was he was sedated.
Jonathan Fields (00:21:53) – Yeah. And at that point, he’s still thinking this is either some identified thing or this is just Covid, but it’s not coming up and testing or something like that.
Steph Catudal (00:22:00) – Yeah, Covid was really what we truly believed and that’s what he, you know, we call it fall asleep. That’s what he fell asleep believing that he had it really took months after he woke up to fully understand his real diagnosis.
Jonathan Fields (00:22:16) – I mean, I know you described what happened with your dad and your teens in hindsight and really understanding that this actually in many ways prepared you for this moment. It wasn’t unfamiliar in the best of ways. In the worst of ways. I mean, when something like that happens to your dad, especially at a young age when you’re like just really forming, it can it can be deeply traumatic. And without integrating or processing that trauma, it basically stays with you. We tend to stay stuck in time whenever the trauma happens, you know, unless and until we integrate it at some point. So years later or decades later, actually, when this happens to your husband, beyond the fact that, yes, in some way, your earlier experience prepared you for it. Was there a sense of of re trauma because it was so similar in some ways also?
Steph Catudal (00:23:04) – Yeah.
Steph Catudal (00:23:05) – I mean, absolutely. There was trauma just hearing the way he was breathing, hearing his cough, all of those things triggered a lot of unresolved trauma and emotion. But I think in some way it helped me to confront and accept those things that I had kind of been suppressing. I had done a really good job of dissociating from my emotions for 20 years. I had I had built a wall between myself and my grief and my father, and I was comfortable there and being retraumatized by my husband’s illness. I think it was extremely painful, but I think it was really helpful in me kind of embarking on the path of healing that I hadn’t yet been on. I hadn’t healed from my father’s death, and I don’t think there’s an end point. I don’t think you’re ever done healing, of course, But I was definitely stuck in some ways as a 14 year old, you know, angry that her father had died. And in some strange way that I still don’t understand, sitting next to my husband in the hospital allowed me to accept and heal from my father’s death.
Steph Catudal (00:24:18) – And and again, I still don’t know how, but there was a sense of allowance and peace that I found in just recognizing that I could still have a relationship with my father even though he was gone. Because here I was sitting next to a sedated husband and I felt closer to him than I ever had before. And so in that way, I had to accept and recognize that there was probably more to existence than just our bodies and just the empirical and just the scientific. And I hadn’t ever believed that in the past two decades before.
Jonathan Fields (00:24:55) – Yeah, I mean, it sounds like it not only brought you back to a place where you were able to start to integrate what happened with your dad, but it also it brought you back to some sense of spirituality, whether it’s a notion of of God or however you might define it. Like after 20 years of stepping away from the tradition that your early life was, was steeped in this, it sounds like this was calling you back, but differently.
Steph Catudal (00:25:22) – Yeah, differently without the, you know, the stigma or the dogma or the the hard set rules that I had been brought up to believe in.
Steph Catudal (00:25:31) – What it did was allow me to recognize that anything’s possible. I think I had been so burned by religion and spirituality, or at least I thought I had been, that I was completely closed off to any possibility of anything other than the logical and the rational. And but what was happening with my husband was I felt like I was connecting with him on a different level. And I, again, still don’t know if that’s soul energy. Whatever it was, it was undeniable. And so it just allowed me to understand that anything’s possible and that I had been mired by my own pain into one, you know, belief system. And I felt so liberated in recognizing that there’s so many possibilities in so many realities around us. And one of those is a spiritual, energetic, you know, aspect to life that I am now open to.
Jonathan Fields (00:26:31) – Yeah. I mean, when you described it as compartmentalizing a lot of things for 20 years, this experience clearly just tears open the compartment.
Steph Catudal (00:26:40) – Yeah.
Jonathan Fields (00:26:41) – And it sounds like it pours everything that had been accumulating over 20 years into the moment, which and that moment itself is the context is just profound trauma also.
Jonathan Fields (00:26:51) – So it’s almost like those moments I feel like they push you and they either destroy you or they push you to question everything and reimagine who you are, what your place in in the world is the nature and depth of your relationships with everyone, including yourself in some sense of anything bigger than you. If that’s part of your belief system. And it sounds like that’s really what happened with you. I’m fascinated also by. This notion of the way you describe feeling closer to him than you had ever felt before, Like, tell me how that shows up. What like, what are your cues during that? What are the feelings that are making you feel that? Because it’s kind of a profound statement saying like, you’ve been married since you were kids, basically you’ve got a family. And in this moment when he’s in a medically induced coma, you feel just profoundly closer than you had in years.
Steph Catudal (00:27:40) – Yeah, I think a lot of things play into that. One is what I realized in my life is that pain really open broke me open to the love that I think I had been safeguarding myself against because I had been so hurt, you know, as a child by the loss of my father.
Steph Catudal (00:27:59) – And so I think I had been always one step behind in feeling both positive and negative things and love being one of those. And so confronting pain and allowing it rather than pushing it away, I think opened me up to just the full breadth of the love that we shared because we really, really, really always at the bottom line, loved each other very, very much. But I think that I was holding myself back because I was afraid of being hurt and sitting next to him and then confronting the possibility that he might die and almost in some way accepting that possibility. I think it just shattered all of the walls that I had built up and just allowed me to just love like I felt more love for humanity and from humanity during that time than ever in my life. And I think pain can do that to us. It can open us up to empathy and to recognizing other’s humanity. But beyond that, I feel there was a spiritual component to whatever closeness I felt to my husband at that time. I felt in some ways we were able to.
Steph Catudal (00:29:12) – I don’t even know how to describe it other than commune. While he was sedated that when I was close to him, I felt that I knew he was there. I knew he was fighting. I knew that he was trying to in some way show or tell me that he was he was wanting to fight. And conversely, when my father was in a coma the last few days of his life, I remember sitting next to him and feeling nothing, feeling like he was already gone. And it was a very different feeling sitting next to my husband. And I think when you connect with someone on that level, it’s just soul deep and energetic and it’s it creates this just pure love without all of the confusion of, you know, the day to day things that married couples or partners go through, you know, And just to fully see him, I saw him completely during that time. And it was very, very beautiful and very terrible and painful at the same time.
Jonathan Fields (00:30:14) – Yeah. I mean, when you’re basically stripped bare and the relationship like everything between you stripped bare and you know, and this is some of what you write about you really during this season there was a lot of reflecting on just not just who you are individually, but who you are in relation to each other and almost like the history of your relationship, of your marriage together and as anyone has been together, like there are moments where you feel deeply connected and sometimes isolated, and there’s often a sadness that kind of comes and goes.
Jonathan Fields (00:30:44) – One of the lines that you wrote that I thought was really powerful is sadness itself is never held, only the space for it. Tell me more about what you mean by that.
Steph Catudal (00:30:52) – Well, I think what I meant by that was how recognizing how in relation to my mother, it’s almost as though I was trying to squeeze sadness and try to contain it and try to control it because I was so afraid of it. I was so afraid of of sadness that I just wanted to smother it. And in holding it open with open palms and just allowing it, I realized how much healthier it was and how much healthier was for me and for others as well to just allow. And I think allowing all emotions is one of the biggest things that I was able to do or learned to do, which I had never done before. And that’s anger and that’s fear and joy and happiness. All of these emotions I came to realize aren’t good or bad. They just are. And they’re necessary in the human experience. They’re equally necessary.
Steph Catudal (00:31:57) – And rather than trying to stifle or control my anger or my fear or my sadness, I just held space for it in my own self and allowed it to move through me. And in doing that for myself, I feel like I was able to do that better for other people. For my mother, for my husband. But it really started with myself and just learning to accept that all emotions, they just are. And I think I had spent so long kind of cursing my anger and the rage I had felt in my teenage years and feeling kind of ashamed of the course that it had put me on and the recklessness and the selfishness. But looking back, I was able to see that that anger actually kept me alive. When my sadness would have drowned me, I was too young to feel that sadness and that sorrow and and that anger kind of burned through me and pushed me forward until I was able to accept the sadness. And so in that way, I was able to accept all of it.
Jonathan Fields (00:33:05) – Yeah.
Jonathan Fields (00:33:06) – I mean, around that time. And you write of your mom and the way that you started to really rethink your relationship and the history that you’ve had between her that while trying to carry your mother sadness, you came to this realization that you had also been contributing to it. That’s a tough thing.
Steph Catudal (00:33:22) – Yeah, that’s a tough thing to realize 20 years later that, you know, I was trying to make her happy and what all she probably needed was for someone to tell her it’s okay to be sad. And I don’t think anyone ever told her it’s okay to be sad. And she had to just put on the brave face and, you know, keep calm, carry on. But all she needed was someone to say, Hey, it’s okay. Sadness is okay. And then at the same time, during that time, I was just a crazy teenager. I was horrible for her and probably kept her up at night. And while she was mourning her husband and I mean just accepting that I had been that way for her during those years was a really hard thing to to reckon with.
Steph Catudal (00:34:07) – But again, it’s just that was my path and her and our relationship is better than ever. So, you know, sometimes things things follow the path that they should, you know, the way that they should.
Jonathan Fields (00:34:19) – Yeah. So as you’re in this monthslong season of just like, profound disruption and sadness and grappling and I’m sure fear is a part of that as well. You’re also a mom like you’ve got kids looking to you to try and show them how to be when their dad is in induced coma. And you have no idea when like what’s going to happen in the end if you’re open to exploring that. And I’m always super protective of kids just exploring. So like how you were experiencing that as a mom and as a partner who didn’t have their partner to help figure out the moment with you because they were the moment. I can’t even imagine wrapping my head around like how you show up and handle your own emotions and your own grief and then look to your kids and figure out what is the appropriate way to be with them and what’s the appropriate message to send to them right now.
Jonathan Fields (00:35:12) – Like how do we how do we make them okay on a moment to moment basis, knowing that none of us are actually okay and we may not be okay?
Steph Catudal (00:35:19) – Yeah, that was by far the hardest part of all of this, was trying to figure out how to talk to my kids about what was happening to their father, how to offer hope without it being false hope. Because I feel like I had been burned by false hope as a teenager, and that caused me so much anger. But when I was faced with the same situation as a mother, I did the same thing. I offered them hope because I didn’t know how to do anything else. I didn’t know how to tell them that their father was probably going to die. I didn’t know how to say those words. I actually think it’s an impossible task. I think you could read every book there is, and I don’t think that there’s a right answer. And I think that it’s also individual to your children’s needs, because I had my three daughters were at such different stages.
Steph Catudal (00:36:12) – I had, you know, an 11 year old and a six year old and a four year old. And so those conversations are going to be very different. But it’s just an absolutely impossible task. And I think everyone’s just kind of, you know, flailing their way through it. But I think one thing that I made sure to do was to be as honest as I could with them. And I think that you could be honest without having to disclose every piece of information. My oldest daughter was she knew the most and she actually was able to visit my husband in the hospital when he was very, very skinny, very sick looking. And I. I wasn’t sure if that was the right answer to allow her to see him that way. And she just went right up to him and gave him a big hug and crawled into his bed with him. And it was her dad, you know, and realizing that kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for and probably can handle a lot more, but.
Steph Catudal (00:37:15) – At the time, it was too hard for me to tell them the truth, which was that he probably wasn’t going to live. I couldn’t do it. I don’t know if it was the right call, but I just couldn’t do it.
Jonathan Fields (00:37:24) – Yeah, I mean, you have to imagine there’s no right or wrong there. There’s just you do the best you can in the moment because you’re going through your own thing. And and there’s so much playing into how you step into this experience, too, because of your history and because of the moment. Remember, a couple of years back we had a conversation with Kate Camillo, who writes these beautiful, beautiful books, but she’s also known as writing books that are really honest and where sometimes there’s tragedy in them and for young kids. And I was asking her about that balance and she’s like, you know, her motto is basically always tell the truth, but leave them with hope. And it sounds like that was a little bit of the dance that you were doing.
Jonathan Fields (00:38:03) – Like, how do I do that? And how honest do I get? And because you had this history of feeling burned by hope, like you’re doing that dance as well, it sounds like as you’re trying to navigate all of this, there’s a moment that happens. Something just there’s something inside of you that says this is not how he dies. Take me to that, to that awakening.
Steph Catudal (00:38:27) – I feel like because I had spent so many years disconnected from myself in a lot of ways, I wasn’t in tune with my intuition or whatever you want to call it, inspiration. And it was about two weeks after Reeves started getting sick, but he was still at home. He was quarantining in the basement because we thought he had Covid. So and my sister in law had come out with her kids to kind of quarantine with us during Covid, and we had decided to go for a picnic. And so I you know, I told Reeves he was kind of sleeping and I told him we were going to go out for a couple hours.
Steph Catudal (00:39:04) – We’d be back soon. And we were about halfway to the picnic. And I just was overcome with this. It was not even like a voice. It was just a knowing. It was just this deep intrinsic, knowing that said, go home and check on ribs. And so that was the first time that I felt this voice or this intuition speaking to me. And I got home and he was passed out on the floor and he needed to be rushed to the hospital. And after that moment, I was open to more open to these moments of inspiration. And so when this is not how he dies came to me in the middle of the night soon after he was put on a ventilator, when the doctors were telling me there was nothing else they could do. And I almost awoke in a start and it was almost like a battle cry saying, This is not how he dies. You need to fight. You need to have a voice. You can’t be passive. You can’t be disconnected from yourself anymore.
Steph Catudal (00:40:04) – You need to fight because this is not how he dies. And that’s when the next day I think it was. The next day I got him out of the hospital. He was in, got him transferred, put on the ECMO machine, which is basically what saved his life. And it was just in listening to myself and trusting in myself that I was able to, I mean, have those moments, those deep realizations.
Jonathan Fields (00:40:29) – Do you feel like that moment or moments like that were in some way connection with something bigger coming back to you?
Steph Catudal (00:40:39) – Yes. And my sister and I talk about this a lot because she firmly believes that that was my father talking to me. And I say, you know, I don’t know. I can’t go that far. But I do believe that that something someone or myself was connected enough with whatever universal power, energy, love is out there that I was able to connect with myself in order to be open to receiving that kind of intuition, that kind of inspiration. And I kind of leave it vague in my book as well as to what exactly that voice or that knowing where it’s coming from.
Steph Catudal (00:41:19) – Because I think a big theme of my book, too, is, I don’t know. And that’s okay not to know. It’s okay not to have the answers and but just be open and allow it.
Jonathan Fields (00:41:30) – Yeah. While all this is going on. And this is one of the things that you write about, and I would imagine anyone who’s been in a circumstance that extends for more than a couple of days, sometimes weeks, months, sometimes even years where there’s just just a profound alteration of reality and life and death. Stakes are just really, really high stakes. It does something to the notion of time also. It’s not like everything is just like, oh, one day in the next day and the next day it’s almost like time. I think you actually use this language something. It was you wrote something like Time folds into itself or collapses onto itself. Tell me more about how that was, how you were experiencing that in the context of what ended up going on for months?
Steph Catudal (00:42:16) – Yeah, time was so interesting during during that period.
Steph Catudal (00:42:20) – Every I think every moment was so critical, for sometimes he was his life was minute to minute. They weren’t sure if he was going to, you know, last hours or and so every moment I remember feeling like would last an eternity. Every moment held everything. And when I was sitting next to him, you know, every inhale felt like a triumph. And those are the things we take for granted all the time, you know, just breathing. And at the same time, the days just dragged on. The days just felt like they were dragging. And I remember a couple times sitting beside him in the hospital and just putting my head down and trying to connect or commune or whatever, just trying to feel him. And I’d lift up my head and the nurses would say that I had been my head down for four hours. And it felt like in those four hours I had lived lifetimes. I had gone on, you know, trips with him around the world. And we had been communing and talking and talking about the kids.
Steph Catudal (00:43:25) – And it was just so it’s just very, very interesting, this notion of of time. And it did collapse and it did expand at the same time. And now it’s what I take from that now is that every single moment contains everything. Every moment contains the everything of existence. And I try to hang on to that, that feeling and that gratitude for, you know, every moment that we get to have together, in every moment that I get to be here, which I think happens to a lot of people when they when they have to confront the death of a loved one. Yeah.
Jonathan Fields (00:44:00) – It takes you right back to the Annie Dillard line. How you live each day is how you live your life. And you describe actually I mean, you write so beautifully that that this notion of what you know from the outside looking in just seems like a horrific circumstance. You describe the experience of actually sort of stepping into the room with him as passing from the mundane to the sacred and like within this space of the sacred.
Jonathan Fields (00:44:22) – So often that’s when time fugues or morphs into something that is just like completely different than it is outside of that sacred space.
Steph Catudal (00:44:30) – Yeah. And that was that was the very interesting part of, of this was when I stepped into his hospital room. It was like stepping into a holy place. And it was because there was so much love in that room. I mean, there was that trauma and there was that fear and the sadness, but the nurses were just caring for him with so much love, and the doctors had so much love for him and for our family. And and then there was so much love from just the world coming in to us, from people we didn’t know, sending cards and letters and just well-wishes. And and I felt like I, I entered his room every day armed with that love and brought it into that space. And it truly transformed that space into from, you know, this scary ICU room to just this really beautiful, terrible place of of love and communion. It was you can’t recreate that.
Steph Catudal (00:45:26) – You know, when I even try to put myself back in that feeling, I can’t quite get there. It’s it’s, you know, it stands alone. But I do try to recall it because it was very, very special.
Jonathan Fields (00:45:37) – At a certain point, you also make a really interesting decision, which was you’re going through this. This is your deeply personal private experience. It’s you and your immediate family, but you make a decision to share. You make a decision to basically say, okay, so maybe I’m processing this on my own, maybe I’m processing this through my writing, but I also want to share this experience beyond just what’s happening with me. And you actually start to share it with an online community. I’m curious about that decision and I’m curious what it was like when you actually start doing it and people start responding to what you’re sharing.
Steph Catudal (00:46:16) – Yeah, it’s interesting because even though, you know, my husband has an online presence being an athlete and he’s a very private person, and so I knew I didn’t want to share any details about what was going on, but I did want to share what was happening to me because.
Steph Catudal (00:46:32) – Has when I started to share what was happening and the feelings and the fear and the hope that I was going through, so many people reached out and said, I connect with you. I see you. I’m feeling this way too. Or I felt this way too. And in such a lonely time during Covid, everyone’s quarantining. You know, I. I couldn’t see any of my friends during that time because I couldn’t risk bringing any illness to him. I felt connected to humanity through my writing. I was able to connect with other people and it was such a gift to be able to do that because it just made me feel so much less alone in such a lonely time. And I think it’s because pain is personal. It’s also universal. Everyone goes through pain, everyone suffers. And so it didn’t matter what circumstances I was going through. Everyone could, you know, connect to that feeling of helplessness and fear, but also hope and love. And and I was just so grateful to to be able to connect with with people during that time, because I really think in a lot of ways that that saved me from feeling just really alone and isolated.
Jonathan Fields (00:47:46) – When you decide for the first time, I’m going to share something and then you write that first entry and then you basically hit post and you know that any number of people may or may see this, may read it, may share it around the moment after you make it public. Do you recall the feeling?
Steph Catudal (00:48:08) – I remember feeling free in some way because, again, after so long of feeling, I had never written like that before. I had always been a like a lifestyle writer or, you know, kind of a comical writer and quirky writer. I had never written about emotions before because I wasn’t allowing myself to access those emotions. And when I sat to write that first time and those emotions just poured through me without even thinking, really, it felt like they were just coming out of me, like through me without much forethought. And I don’t remember thinking much about posting it. I just sent it out to the world. And then I remember thinking, Oh, I’m free. I can express myself.
Steph Catudal (00:48:53) – And it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks because that’s how I feel. And there was so much liberation in, in just, just expressing myself. And then just to have people respond with so much love was again such a gift. I wasn’t expecting that, to be honest. I just wanted to, to share. This is how I feel. And it’s okay to feel because I haven’t felt for 20 years and now I’m finally feeling.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:17) – So here’s another question around that then, is so what you shared and what you continue to share? I mean, if somebody follows you on Instagram and they look at the captions, it’s not just sort of stream of consciousness. This is how I feel. It’s gorgeously written prose, often poetic and that was happening at the time that you’re serving. From the first day that you started sharing this, like what you were writing was raw. It was vulnerable, it was real, and it was also literary. It was just really, really beautiful from a writer standpoint. Thank you.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:49) – I’m stunned because so often it’s difficult to not just express our feelings, but actually bring our art into the expression of our feelings. When we in the moment of pain, oftentimes we can circle back and express it in a much more artful way when we’re reflecting or processing after. But you’re doing this in real time. I’m kind of mesmerized at the ability to do that because it’s. Do you realize that, like, that was really unusual to be able to actually do that and to write in a way where, I mean, if you read some of those entries from those times, you know, it will move you to tears, but at the same time, break your heart open in the best, most expressive ways, like the greatest artists do.
Steph Catudal (00:50:36) – Well, Well, first of all, thank you so much. I mean, that is the greatest compliment. I really, really appreciate that because it is it’s hard to put yourself out there, you know, to be that vulnerable. So thank you for saying that.
Steph Catudal (00:50:49) – I honestly could have to say that I only can write when I’m feeling that pain. I have a hard time writing in an artistic way when I’m not feeling the depths of myself and and connecting with my true, genuine, authentic self. And I was more me during that time than I’ve ever been. And I’ve slowly kind of slowly closed myself up a little bit because it’s almost impossible to live broken open like that, feeling everything, feeling the world and the weight of the world and the beauty and it’s too much. And so I’ve had to make myself close up a bit. But to be honest, when I would sit to write, it felt. Like in some ways an out-of-body experience. It felt like I was almost not even thinking about what I was writing and it was just pouring out of me and in conversation. I’m actually not a very emotive person. I don’t like to talk about my emotions that much in person. I’m kind of shy and guarded and when I sit to write, it just all came out during that time and it was like my catharsis And like many other things, it was one of the things that saved me during that time to in real time process my my hurt, but also my gratitude.
Steph Catudal (00:52:07) – And the fact that it came out in a intelligible way is really great because I didn’t even care what it sounded like. It was just me expressing myself.
Jonathan Fields (00:52:19) – When you reflect back on it and we should also we should close the loop a little bit and say at the end of the day, there’s actually a lot of beauty and there’s there’s good news at the end of this story.
Steph Catudal (00:52:29) – Yeah, Yeah. Yes. Let’s say please.
Jonathan Fields (00:52:31) – Yeah, let’s say the river was known as effectively like a medical miracle and and actually makes it through, comes back, goes through multiple rounds of chemo and it sounds like, you know, like as we have this conversation is is relatively healthy and out there and active and involved in the family. Again, when you then go back and say, okay, so I’ve been writing publicly through all of this and now I actually I’m compelled to turn this to actually tell the full story in the form of a book. When the deep pain is, it’s really close in your horizon, but you’re kind of through it.
Jonathan Fields (00:53:08) – How is that for you to say, I’m going to step back into this in the name of telling the entire story?
Steph Catudal (00:53:16) – It was harder than I thought it would be. It took about a year for me to write that portion of the story, and it was. I don’t think anyone liked to be around me during that year. I really had to in order to do it justice. I had to put myself back in that feeling, in that kind of that duality of fear and hope and anger and gratitude. And I had to I had to live there a lot of times, which is really hard to do when you’re raising kids and, you know, with your husband who’s been in a coma for four months. But I knew that if I didn’t do it soon, that I wouldn’t be able to access those those feelings and put myself back in that room. Because even now, you know, a year after finishing my manuscript, I have a hard time remembering the feeling, recalling the feelings and the full breadth of of everything.
Steph Catudal (00:54:15) – And so I just knew I had to do it. But I did. I went through a several months of of depression during that time. I think I was dealing with some PTSD, but also in some way, like you said, retraumatizing myself from having to relive the hardest moments of my life. And at the same time, it was therapy. It was truly a beautiful thing to do because I was able to see how everything tied together in a way that I wasn’t able to see in real time. Like I mentioned with my mother and the love that she offered me, not only then, but she lived with me for the full nine months of treatment and she took care of my kids when I was in the hospital every day, along with my husband’s mom, which is another beautiful full circle thing for my mother to be caring for my children, you know, while my husband’s sick with cancer. And so it was a necessary thing for me to do. I think even if it hadn’t been published, I would have written it anyway, because that’s the only way I was able to fully understand everything that had happened and to kind of just process it all.
Jonathan Fields (00:55:21) – Now, as we’re having this conversation, it’s sort of on the eve of the book moving out into the world as we lead up to that moment. You know, as you said, you’ve been a writer from the time you identified as a writer from time you were a little kid. Now, as you head into your late 30s, you’re like, now you’re putting a full length book work out into the world. And it’s not just a book about something that’s interesting to you. This is a book about you and the deepest parts of you in the story. When you think about that book moving out into the world, what’s going through your head? Sort of like as like literally we’re days away from this potentially having a huge audience interacting with it.
Steph Catudal (00:56:00) – It’s terrifying. It is. It is. It’s I read somewhere that you know. Right. Right. Your book is that no one’s going to read it. And then that’s that way you can be, you know, honest and authentic. And I oh, I did that.
Steph Catudal (00:56:13) – I didn’t really hold back in any way. And when people started to read it, I was kind of hit with this realization that, oh my goodness, everyone’s going to know everything about my life. And not only that, but my insecurities and my fears and my regrets. But I do hope that putting my book out there, if nothing else, will make people feel like they’re doing okay. You know that I want to think of my book as a hug to be like, you know, no matter where you are right now, just accept yourself because you know, you can’t see down the road and what’s coming and why all of these things are happening. But more than likely, they’re equipping you for, you know, whatever’s going to come to pass in the future. And so even though my book can be hard to read sometimes because, you know, sad things happen, I hope in the end it feels positive and the message is just love. And if nothing else, if you know people don’t like it or if it gets torn apart by critics, I just hope that whoever does read it, that it resonates with them and just feeling some form of self acceptance.
Steph Catudal (00:57:21) – And then I just have to let go because there’s nothing else you can do. And also, I told my mom, don’t read chapter four. It’s like, don’t just don’t.
Jonathan Fields (00:57:32) – It’s like asking your publisher, Can you print one copy without saying to my mom?
Steph Catudal (00:57:38) – She already promised she wouldn’t read it. So and I trust she won’t.
Jonathan Fields (00:57:44) – So I would love to as we start to sort of like wrap our conversation, you continue to share just really beautiful thoughts and words and stories publicly. Actually, on your Instagram feed. There’s something that you shared on November 3rd, which feels like a lifetime ago, but it’s really just a couple of months ago. I’d love to invite you to share it. It’s the post that begins. There is no poetry and heroism.
Steph Catudal (00:58:09) – There is no poetry in heroism. It is all. I can’t. But I try. I can’t. But I try. I can’t. But I try. And I’m scared and I can’t. Over and over until it becomes. I couldn’t.
Steph Catudal (00:58:23) – But I did. There is no poetry here. Just fear and hope. Defeat and persistence. Vinyl truths. Finding each other. Two trails that learn. They had always been a circular path, bending towards each other. Folding in on one another. Shaking hands and saying I needed you all along.
Jonathan Fields (00:58:43) – Was there something that happened that led you to write that on that day?
Steph Catudal (00:58:48) – Well, it was actually, if I remember correctly, my husband preparing to run the New York Marathon. And only a year earlier, he could hardly walk. He was relearning to take his first steps and watching someone who made a career out of running miles and miles, now being brave enough to walk a marathon in probably seven hours and being one of the last ones through, to me, that was the greatest act of heroism I had ever seen and the greatest bravery that I had ever witnessed. And seeing how his humility made him brave, I think made me recognize the truth of of strength. And that is just being completely broken and still making it to the to the finish line or even to the starting line and just moving forward, no matter how broken we are.
Steph Catudal (00:59:49) – And so I wrote that for him, just wanting him to know that I saw him as stronger now than ever before. And it had nothing to do with how fast he was going to run or if he was even going to finish. It was just getting there.
Jonathan Fields (01:00:03) – Yeah. So beautiful. Thank you. It feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation as well. So in this container of Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
Steph Catudal (01:00:14) – Oh, to live a good life is just appreciating what’s in front of us. To not be blinded by just the rat race of what we get caught up in, but just how waking up and having coffee with my husband in the morning is a gift that I hope to never take for granted again. Or the fact that, you know, he can drop the girls off at school in the morning. And it’s not about the big things. It’s not about the accolades. It’s just about appreciating the little things that make life beautiful.
Steph Catudal (01:00:46) – That’s been so important for me to learn in the last few years.
Jonathan Fields (01:00:51) – Thank you.
Steph Catudal (01:00:52) – Thank you.
Jonathan Fields (01:00:54) – Hey, before you leave, if you’d love this episode, safe bet you’ll also love the conversation that we had with Mark Nepo about moving through tender moments in life. You’ll find a link to Mark’s episode in the show notes. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven second favor, and share it maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person. Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered.
Jonathan Fields (01:01:42) – Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action. That’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.