After two years off birth control, Megan hadn’t gotten pregnant. She had made an appointment with a fertility specialist, but she was considering canceling it. She dreaded the process of fertility treatments, and besides, she felt ambivalent about having a child. She urgently needed advice.
So she turned to an unlikely source: a podcast. From her home in Melbourne, Australia, Megan emailed Slate’s How To! with Charles Duhigg. “Can you just live a comfortable life and get a dog and travel and not regret when you’re in the nursing home and have no one to visit you?” she wrote. “Or will I wake up … and be devastated that I didn’t do everything I could to be a mother?”
How To! launched a year ago, with the premise What if “Dear Abby” was an investigative reporter? People write to Duhigg—a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Power of Habit—with their problems, and he tracks down an expert to give them advice. (I’ve been working as a production assistant on the show since October 2019.)
Some of the people who write in are struggling with weighty issues: a woman unable to forgive her dead mother, a grieving man crippled by anxiety attacks, a therapist who hasn’t slept a full night in over a decade. Others, like the pastor who wants to make his sermons funnier, or the dental student who wants to write songs, are just hoping to level up. Either way, every episode of How To! starts with an ordinary person who needs help.
So what happens to those ordinary people after they’ve received expert advice on the podcast? Do they find relief for a few days? Or do they actually change their lives?
Early one morning, speaking quietly from her office, Megan admitted everything to author Cheryl Strayed. Strayed told Megan she had felt the same way about having children. Then she proposed a new way to think about big decisions: Imagine, she said, you are standing on a shore, deciding between two ships. Regret is the baggage you carry with you, regardless of which vessel you board. Ambivalence is part of the journey, rather than a problem to work through.
When the recording session ended, Megan called her husband to tell him: They had to admit that loss was inherent in each decision, and to decide which ghost ship would leave without them.
A few weeks later, Megan and her husband listened, separately, to the podcast. “It was after listening to the podcast that we really made the decision,” she said recently. They would keep the appointment with the fertility specialist and try for a child.
Jason wanted to know how to change other people’s minds. He had fought drug addiction for 15 years, and he knew that everyone in his small Illinois town had written him off as a meth addict. Now, eight months sober, he wanted to show them he had changed and regain custody of his two sons. Christmas was coming, and Jason had been saving his $9-an-hour paycheck from the local gas station for presents. He would be granted just two hours to visit with them the day after Christmas.
When Jason described his struggles on the podcast, psychologist Fred Muench spoke of his own recovery from heroin addiction. You can change, Fred said, and it will still take everyone a long time to believe it’s real, but you have to keep showing them.
People in Jason’s town listened to the episode, and that was helpful, he told us. “It got some people to hear my side of things where they wouldn’t have otherwise.” Jason’s 13-year-old son sent the episode to his teachers and principal. And his wife told us she hadn’t realized how much the community’s rejection gnawed at Jason. “He tells me all the time it doesn’t matter what other people think,” she said. “It made me realize my husband’s human, too.”
Perhaps most importantly, Jason’s stepfather—who had told him, “Once an addict, always an addict”—listened, and was moved to apologize. He added: “Prove me wrong.”
Jason knows a podcast episode isn’t a long-term fix. “I’m going to be an addict until the day I die. It’s something I have to accept,” he said. The past few months have been particularly difficult. He still doesn’t have custody of his kids, friends and family members have died, the pandemic has cost him and his wife their jobs, and isolating at home has pushed his rehab to Zoom. But Jason hasn’t relapsed—a success he credits in part to Fred Muench, who Jason now video-chats with every week.
Hema immigrated to Chicago from India in her late 20s, and finally admitted to herself that she was gay. Her mother called being gay “an American thing,” and refused to discuss it at all. Hema wrote to the show to ask how to persuade her mother to accept her.
In an episode from this spring, Hema was introduced to another Indian immigrant and lesbian, Sonali Gulati, a filmmaker who never had the chance to come out to her own mother. Together, they developed a plan for Hema to reach her mom and the rest of her family.
“I was emboldened by it. I wasn’t afraid to talk about it anymore,” Hema said recently. She sent the episode to her mom and her cousins, and her mom texted back: “I understand. Don’t worry.”
Each episode of How To! spurs responses from listeners. In response to “How To Find Your First Kiss at 38,” a 46-year-old man wrote in to the show: “I have never been kissed either. We all get nervous.” After “How To Lose 155 Pounds Happily,” one woman offered to be a weight loss partner for our listener Ashley. “I’ve had many of the same experiences,” she wrote. “I would love to have fellow post surgery friends to bounce struggles, resources, and support among each other.” And dozens of listeners emailed after “How To Walk Away From an Impossible Parent.” “I’m 54 years of age & have been estranged from my dad for the last 23 years,” one wrote. “It was a little comforting to read that I am not alone in this type of a relationship,” another admitted. A handful asked if they could get in touch with that episode’s guest—having once wrestled with the same problem, they wondered if they now could be in the position of advice-giver. “I really wanted to reach out. I really wish someone had done this for me in my 20’s,” wrote one woman.
Sometimes, with our guest’s permission, we connect these listeners. Other times, they come on the show themselves. In Pennsylvania, a woman named Karin heard Hema’s episode and began to cry. For over a year, she had been struggling to accept her child’s nonbinary gender identity—and to convince her husband to support them. She wrote to the show and was connected with Lisa DelCol, a PFLAG activist who is herself the mother of a nonbinary child. Together, they crafted a script for Karin to use with her husband—and after they talked, he agreed to start using their child’s proper name.
For many like Karin, the knowledge that someone else shares their problem is in itself helpful. As Matt, who suffered from anxiety attacks until he came on the show, said, “It’s so weird because you have a conversation and then no more anxiety attacks. It’s not really how therapy works. But something clicked in my head. … You guys hearing it and then saying, ‘That’s OK. You’re doing that because you’ve been through a lot.’ … It’s really been life-changing.”
Soon after Megan’s first appointment with the fertility specialist, she got pregnant naturally. “I’m not the sort of person who believes in fate or anything like that,” Megan said. But, she explained, “it felt like my body waited until I was mentally and emotionally in, and had made that real decision, before it kicked into gear.” Megan spoke quietly so as not to wake her 5-week-old daughter, Dorothy, who was sleeping on her lap. She says she doesn’t regret parenthood as she feared she might, and that she’s happy on her ship. “It seems like a weird thing to say,” Megan said, “but this little podcast and the wisdom that was shared by it—partly as a result of that, there’s a new person in the world.”