Chief meteorologist for ABC News, Ginger Zee, describes herself as a “Natural Disaster” because of her experiences living with borderline personality disorder and other mental health challenges.
In this compelling and candid interview, we learn what she does to stay well and what she believes triggered her mental illness in the first place.
Ginger Zee is the chief meteorologist at ABC News, reporting on the nation’s weather for “Good Morning America” and across ABC News broadcasts and digital platforms. Since joining ABC News, Zee has covered almost every major weather event and dozens of historic storms. Zee, who has storm chased since college, has a genuine passion for the atmosphere and a dedication to getting young people interested in science. She’s the author of New York Times bestseller “Natural Disaster. I Cover Them. I Am One,” and the young adult trilogy “Chasing Helicity.” Her new book “A Little Closer to Home” is available now.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Calling into the show today, we have Ginger Zee. Ms. Zee is the chief meteorologist at ABC News, reporting on the nation’s weather for Good Morning America and across ABC News broadcasts and digital platforms. Her new book, A Little Closer to Home,” is available now. Ms. Zee, welcome to the show!
Ginger Zee: Great to be here, thank you for having me.
Gabe Howard: There was a very cool quote in your book that resonated with me a lot when asked what advice you would give your younger self. You say it really doesn’t matter and nobody cares now. That really resonated with me. And if you would have said that and that alone, I wouldn’t have really had a question. But you go on to say, I know this sounds like a horrible thing for someone who has attempted suicide twice to say, but it’s actually the most powerful way to live. Why is it the most powerful way to live?
Ginger Zee: Because for me, it’s not negative. It really doesn’t matter refers to everything, I’m always concerned about sharing stories or secrets from my past. What I’m frustrated with at work. Almost everything doesn’t really matter. I mean, think about the last time that you were struggling to fall asleep because you were so anxious about something the next day. Can you remember what that thing is? Real question for you?
Gabe Howard: I can’t. I can’t at all.
Ginger Zee: Right.
Gabe Howard: I was trying to think of it, I wanted to sound smart on the interview. I was like, I can think of it. No,
Ginger Zee: Yeah, right,
Gabe Howard: No,
Ginger Zee: Like, no, I’ve got it.
Gabe Howard: No, I didn’t have it.
Ginger Zee: Yeah, it that’s because it didn’t matter. That’s why it didn’t matter. What matters is you right now, your loved ones right now, the things around you right now, it the other stuff doesn’t really matter. And I do that checklist all the time where I’m like, Well, this matter a year from now, and if I can say yes, truthfully, I allow myself to put a bunch of energy toward it and be sad and feel frustrated and angry. And that’s OK. You’re supposed to allow emotion. Emotion is great when it’s worth it. We give emotion and energy to things that do not deserve them, and that wastes a lot of who we are. I think so. It really doesn’t matter. Keeps me in a great place. Nobody cares. Also sounds terrible because of course they do. My mom cares. My husband cares. My kids care. People care. I’m talking about the stuff that we tell ourselves. Beyond that immediate group, right? The people who you think at work are being manipulative and coming for you. Almost never. We all live in our own little silos so much. To me, it’s almost worse that nobody cares because they’re like thoughtless. You know, they’re just thinking about themselves. They’re worried about themselves. I wish that that could have been instilled in me earlier, and that’s why I always use that now as my advice for my younger self, because it takes explanation, for sure. But the other thing, too, that nobody cares. And I added at the end of that chapter, and I am still working really hard on nobody cares unless you make them care and you have to write that for them, you have to be very clear. It’s to teach myself to be a better squeaky wheel when you need to actually be a squeaky wheel because you can’t just be the kid in the front of the class doing your quiz and getting one hundred, you know what I’m saying? You have to advocate for yourself when you need it, when you want people to see it because they’re so deep in their own stuff.
Gabe Howard: On your media kit for your new book, it says and I quote, she spent most of her life shielding her vulnerabilities from the world, all while being a professional people pleaser. Her stormy childhood, her ongoing struggles with crippling depression, her suicide attempts and many other life experiences. And I’m trailing off right there. This book is truly, truly a deep dive into your personal past struggles with mental health issues, and as someone who lives with bipolar disorder myself, it resonated with me a lot that people pleaser was discussed before suicide attempts. Stormy, childhood, I mean, just depression, right? Did people pleasing cause you a lot of struggle and pain in your life?
Ginger Zee: No question. And I think that I am or was at the executive level of people pleasing and you only get there through certain environmental things, but you also have it inherently. I can see that part of who I am is me, you know, and that’s not something that was caused by my parents or caused by my traumas, but they certainly count in the environmental amplification. And what a people pleaser inherently will do, I think, makes you a better candidate for a lot of these other things. At least for me, that’s been my experience. And so, yes, I think it’s a really important part of the story.
Gabe Howard: I think many people don’t realize that part of people pleasing is a protective factor, right? It’s keeping ourselves safe from trauma,
Ginger Zee: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: It’s keeping ourselves safe from anxiety. It’s when people like us, we feel better. And as somebody who, you know, suffers from depression, I want to feel better all the time. Is that how it felt for you, that you were just rushing out there saying, Hey, I need to feel good and I’m going to avoid badness at all costs no matter what I have to do.
Ginger Zee: Because badness brought on confrontation and confrontation was a place that I did not feel comfortable because I was not given the tools to have emotional regulation. I lived in a home that was volatile and explosive, and I didn’t always know when it was going to happen or when it was going to be a peaceful day. And I think that not understanding as a child that I had no control over my mother’s illness, that she was trying to get help and there just wasn’t help out there. I didn’t realize how much that impacted the formation of the people pleaser. But at the end of the day, what I’ve learned now is it didn’t matter what I did, it would be like saying I could do something different and she wouldn’t get cancer. That’s not how it works. And that’s the unfair part of where we were societally, and I think we’re getting much better, but we have so far to go.
Gabe Howard: When people talk about a stormy childhood, people automatically think physical abuse, they don’t think illness, they don’t think emotional abuse, they think, Oh, OK, child abuse. And it’s a very physical thing now, at least in the book, you don’t describe physical abuse. It was emotional abuse. And can you explain why that was so damaging for you? For listeners who only feel that child abuse comes in one form?
Ginger Zee: We’ve had this talk recently, my mom, my sister and I, because that word abuse is really negative. You know, it’s hard for me to use that word in describing what I lived in because I know that there are varying levels of abuse, but it doesn’t make it any different. And I, the last time I talked to my mom about that, I said, I understand why you would not want me to say my mom was emotionally abusive because it wasn’t pointed at me. It wasn’t. It was around me. And then I explained to her because I happened to be on a work trip in Lake Tahoe, and I’m overlooking this beautiful lake and speaking to my mom, a woman who I admire so greatly, I love more than anything. I love her. I owe her so much. But I needed her to live in this transparent, honest world where I said, Mom, if you went in Lake Tahoe right now and you took a big bottle of gas, a big, you know, container full of gasoline and you dumped it into the lake, you didn’t dump it on the fish, but the fish lives in the lake. That was the toxicity that was surrounding the environment that we grew up in.
Ginger Zee: And even if it wasn’t directed toward us, we weren’t protected from it. We didn’t have a way to have another adult protect us. And that’s not your fault. It’s not something to feel guilty about, but I do think it’s really important for all of our stories to say, Okay, that’s what happened. Here’s what we’ve learned, and here’s how we make sure that we don’t do that going forward so that we can actually make a stop in the cycle.
Gabe Howard: There’s a lot of talk right now about mental health and one of the things that I think is that we don’t understand that there is a difference between a mental health issue and mental health crisis and mental illness. And I very, very, very much struggled on how to word this next question. But you have a legit mental illness.
Ginger Zee: Yeah.
Ginger Zee: It’s not a mental health issue. It’s not momentary. It’s mental illness. You’ve had two suicide attempts; you’ve been hospitalized twice and I believe you were diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. You’ve been through a lot. Can you talk about that a little bit, just how you were diagnosed and what’s that been like for you?
Ginger Zee: For a decade or more of therapists, I never had a diagnosis beyond depression because it’s hard right and I lied to therapists a lot. Kind of a calling card by the way of borderline personality disorder. And when I finally went to the hospital, I was then fully assessed, diagnosed correctly and given access to a person, a doctor who specializes in what I was diagnosed with. That is not the structure of how mental health is always treated, and it should be. But I was so grateful because it was the first time that I finally had someone who was the right fit for me because I had plenty of therapists. I just hadn’t made any progress. And part of that was on me. But part of it was because it wasn’t the right fit. It’s like having a personal trainer that doesn’t have the same goals as you. How are they going to get you there even if they have the education? And so this was the right fit. And then as I went through this and he revealed to me and I say revealed because I didn’t even know that that was my diagnosis in the hospital. He revealed to me this diagnosis, and he said, what’s beautiful about having borderline personality disorder is that you in your identity fusion, getting away from identity diffusion are growing away from it. It doesn’t stay forever. You have to maintain it, you have to work really hard. But that gave me such excitement and hope to know that, you know, in depression, we always say that it’s not something that just, Oh, I’m better. It can be long standing chronic. And part of who we are accepting all of that as part of my identity helped me move away from having the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. Just like when you go to the gym for a long time, I’ve been at the mental gym for almost a decade and I am seeing the results.
Gabe Howard: You describe in the book that you have moderate borderline personality disorder, people with borderline personality disorder feel that it’s a very stigmatized illness, even in the mental health community.So I want to give you a moment to talk on that because you take it very seriously and you openly discuss it. But I sort of hear like the back of the room saying why she got to describe it as moderate?
Ginger Zee: Yeah. Yeah, I think because I always go back to the physical health connection, it would be like saying in a, you know, heart health, cholesterol, blood pressure situation, someone that has extremely high numbers has a lot further to go. Someone who’s a moderately high blood pressure has less to go and whether that takes medication and exercise and diet, or it just takes exercise and diet, that is another great parallel to what I think that I’ve been doing with the mental gym and working as hard as I can. And on the really, it sounds so basic and cliché and kind of like, duh, but I don’t think it gets enough attention. The sleep and the nutrition. Huge, huge parts of the foundation that everybody kind of let go by the wayside. And they’re like, Hey, I’m doing that. No, you’re not. You’re not, actually. And if you do those things, how much easier the gym will be. And that’s what I found with my mental health.
Sponsor Break: 13:12 – 13:14
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Gabe Howard: We’re back with the author of “A Little Closer to Home,” chief meteorologist for Good Morning America, Ginger Zee.Mental health is becoming more widely accepted, and you are quoted as saying therapy and the use of medication have become more widespread and accepted. However, the moment that you mentioned your hospitalization, though, people’s ears perk up and their eyes widen, and that action still has stigma. You’re a public figure. It’s not just
Ginger Zee: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: A small group in your workplace or your social circle or even your family. You’re really talking about America. How do you handle that?
Ginger Zee: The night before I went to print for my first book, which is where I say I checked myself into the psych ward and it’s the first line of the book, I had a kind of that moment I looked at my husband. I said, Oh, I might have made a huge mistake. I feel like I should stop them. This is not going to be good. My career is going to be over. People are going to judge me. And then he stopped me and told me what I had told him is that I didn’t want this to be like everybody else’s book where it’s nice you got to pastel sweater on, you’re on the front, your arms are crossed and it’s a nice story about a nice girl. That’s not it. This was finally me letting go of the people pleaser. It was finally me saying, Here’s who I am, and if you don’t like it, I guess I don’t care because I like it. I know what this is going to do for other people. And it was one of the most confidence building transparencies, which is what I always speak about honesty with yourself and then honesty with others. That gives me such joy and allows me to live in sunshine instead of storminess because I’m not shrouded in clouds and secrets and all of these things, I’m out there.
Gabe Howard: How is that for you and your children? Have you had to give them the mental health or the mental illness talk at very, very young ages?
Ginger Zee: Well, they’re only five and three right now. And so the conversations have started because during the pandemic, there was one particular morning that I woke up and I say feeling gray. I used to say feeling black because I used to not want to live regularly. Now I said gray because I always have some sliver of light. But that morning, I couldn’t explain it. I immediately went to my team, my mom, my husband, my therapist, and started getting a little lighter. But it wasn’t going away. That’s not how depression works. It doesn’t just, you know, Oh, I used my team good for you all better. So I started employing all of the tactics. But by that evening, my children saw me crying on the deck, just uncontrollable crying, and my five year old was like, What’s wrong, mommy? And I said, I’m sick because I am, you know, and that’s OK. And Mommy doesn’t feel well right now. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to be, well, forever, but right now I’m not doing well and I’m just really transparent with the illness part so that they know that that’s illness just like any other illness. And the nice part is because he’s five and because he doesn’t really have that societal norm that we all do. He just went with it and he said, I hope you feel better tomorrow. I’m like, I hope I do, too. Isn’t that it? Isn’t that how basic and simple it is? And then when he gets older, maybe it’s what can we do to support each other? So when those moments of not feeling well come up, what can we do to get us to the next day? And this is what I didn’t have the ability to do prior to having my tools. My world always stopped in that moment. There was nothing else I couldn’t even see tomorrow. And so if we can say the very simple, this too shall pass. You know, that doesn’t always happen with illness, but it certainly ebbs and flows. And I think remembering that is incredibly important when you’re talking to young kids about mental health.
Gabe Howard: This is your second autobiography, so it’s the it’s the second time that you’ve delved into your life and the first book was called Natural Disaster. Very well received. Obviously got a sequel, but you’ve now described Natural Disaster as ginger light and A Little Closer to home as being more of a deeper dove. And I, I will say it definitely covers a lot more of the things that you went through. And in this book, you discuss having had an abortion and anorexia.
Ginger Zee: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: These are big, big, big concepts. I know that you were scared because you said so at the release of your first book, which you now describe as the light version.
Ginger Zee: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: What were you like at the release of this book?
Ginger Zee: I mean, I would not be human if I didn’t feel some trepidation, but I would say far less concerned than I was in the first book because I saw what it could do and what it meant to other people. And so these topics are heavier. Yeah, but they are part of my trauma. They’re part of my story. And when I was going to do a second book, I didn’t really know what I was going to do it on until the morning of the Christine Blasey Ford testimony happened. I was at Good Morning America, ready to do my job. So I’m sitting down on the set with my producer, Samantha, who’s my really best friend. And the beginning of our show plays this 60 seconds of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about her sexual assault and the Brett Kavanaugh case. And I had kind of heard rumblings of it the day before when it happened, but this was the first time I listened to it.
Ginger Zee: And I started crying uncontrollably. I, too, am a sexual assault survivor, and no matter what happened with that case, the point was is that it evokes something in me that I hadn’t uncovered in a very long time and something that then went on to, I think, traumatized me in almost every part of my life and subsequent trauma that I didn’t pay attention to. So it wasn’t even that I didn’t include it in the first book because I wasn’t ready necessarily, but I wasn’t. But it’s also that I didn’t include it because I didn’t know how much of my story it had really been responsible for. And so that’s when things started to get real, and I went back to more intense therapy because and I’m like, Wait a minute, I have a lot of more work to do. So this book covers me as I go through the pain of the hard work that it takes every day to uncover a trauma like sexual assault, like the deep parts of anorexia, and then say, I’m ready to clean up that nasty scar that I left and covered with dirt. I’m ready to dove in there. It sucks. It’s going to hurt even worse, because I didn’t tend to it, but I’m ready.
Gabe Howard: In your book, you write, I am a person who is hardwired for depression and environmental traumas were my triggers.
Ginger Zee: Yes. I do think and this is where the science of it. I know I’ve been speaking to different doctors and researchers, everything from the use of psychedelics to people who work solely on the foundation of sleep, nutrition all the way to people who are actually mapping the brain activity in different disorders so that we can finally put data or hard science, which is what often it requires for society to approve of things into mental health and. I think there will be something that tells us some day that there are certain DNA or certain people who are more prone to depression or anxiety or whatever it is just in our physicality and who we are. Because again, I see it with my two sons. I see the two different people. It’s the type of connections they have with the rest of the world, and it’s the type of connection they have with themselves just from the moment they come out without any of us doing anything. And I know that that’s going to be true. And so I think it helps me to know, OK, I am a person who I think is hardwired to be depressive. The depression part then can be amplified by experiences and trauma and the lack of support, the lack of financial ability to find support. And what a privilege I have to be able to be the person who has had all of that and the luck and grace of God and whomever else has been watching out for me to make it through some of these situations, because now it’s my responsibility to do this. Now it’s my responsibility to talk freely because I get to live, you know, and I wake up every day now and I want to. I want other people who felt like I did to know that you can feel like this someday. I really believe you can.
Gabe Howard: You also wrote, Although I no longer live in constant fear that I could be a danger to myself, I still wake up every day wondering if my depression might ever take me down the rabbit hole again. What is living in that constant fear like?
Ginger Zee: Now, here’s where I think that I started to touch on anxiety, because if a global pandemic doesn’t teach someone what anxiety is, I don’t know what will. Fear of something means that there is a healthy level of that. It’s that you have a connection to yourself and to the ones that you love that you don’t want to lose them. So fear isn’t bad. It’s how you manage the fear, right? So I do wake up in that fear, but I’m starting to learn how to manage that fear to say, Okay, say it comes back. Here’s what I do with it. And here’s. So it’s more about the planning, you know, before storm. The people who weather storms the best and survive and do the best with their property are the people who know what to do, whether it’s out of experience or listening to people that do have the experience. And I’m hoping that’s who I can be. I can be the person who says, Listen, I’ve made it through Katrina, Sandy, Hurricane Michael, the last cat five our country has seen and the first one since 1992. I really do know what I’m talking about. You know, people talk about imposter syndrome a lot right now. It was mental health. I think I might have felt a little bit like that at the beginning. Like, who am I to talk and give advice on this? But then I realized that my whole career was taking my passion for the atmosphere. Becoming a scientist of the atmosphere and then learning the best way to communicate the science of the atmosphere. I have taken those lessons and my ability to communicate science to the communication of science and psychology, and I think that is part of what I would like to leave as a legacy. I think that’s part of why I’m here.
Gabe Howard: This next statement and this next question has nothing to do with mental health, it’s just Gabe Howard being curious.
Ginger Zee: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: The first thing that I want to tell all of our listeners is that you were named after ginger from Gilligan’s Island. Is that correct?
Ginger Zee: Yes. Yes. I sure was.
Gabe Howard: I think that is absolutely incredible. And I also learned that the title Closer to Home is making a reference to your catch phrase. And I would love to hear that story.
Ginger Zee: When I, when I got the job at ABC, it was while I was in an abusive relationship and in my most probably closest to one of the deepest holes I’d been in mentally. And my career was something that had always buoyed me. It had always been something that would give me that glimmer of light, even if it didn’t seem possible. And I knew since I got that job that I would need to come up with something because I’d watched, I watched NBC mostly and worked at most NBC. So I watched Al Roker forever say in your neck of the woods, and then it would go to me or whoever was on in that city. So I knew how important that having something like that was that became your thing. And so for me, I worked really hard on what does it sound like coming out of my mouth? What sounds like me? What would I really say? And I say, that’s the big picture. Let’s get a check a little closer to home. Without knowing that I would ever write a book about any of this, because I, at that point, would have never shared any of these stories with you because I was way too afraid of never succeeding because of it. I was talking to my husband, and he said, Why don’t you do A Little Closer to Home? It’s what you say, like four times a day every day, and I’m like, Wow, you’re right. And this is, I mean, it’s a lot closer to home, but it fits and it fits me just like Natural Disaster did. Both of them were the easiest titles to write because they are who I am.
Gabe Howard: Ms. Zee, thank you so much for being here. We really appreciate having you now. Your book, A Little Closer to Home, is probably available on Amazon, and where all fine books are sold. Do you have a website that people can visit to learn more about you?
Ginger Zee: Yeah, I have a website, Ginger-Zee.com. And you can find all the books and all the things on there. I do a lot with climate change and environment, another one of my huge passions and science. Science for kids and getting them because that’s the other thing I’m so lucky I had in my life and I don’t know that everybody does is the ability to know I could become a scientist. I want all young people to know that they can if that’s something that they’re really interested in. So that’s another one that I would love to show people, and that’s why I wrote books for that middle grade. Not the same content, but the beginnings of it.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much for being here and to all of our listeners, thank you for being here as well. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” and I’m also an award-winning public speaker who is available for your next event. My book is also on Amazon, or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me over at gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It’s absolutely free and recommend the show to your friends. Send them an email, post it on social media. Word of mouth is absolutely still a thing. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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