Monica Seles On 'Getting A Grip' After Tragedy
NEAL CONAN, host:
At the age of 19, Monica Seles was on top of the world - the best player in women's tennis, with good reason to believe she might become one of the very best ever.
Then, one sunny April day, resting courtside during a match, she was stabbed in the back by a deranged fan of a rival player. Physical recovery was difficult. Emotional recovery, even harder.
Though she came back to win another Grand Slam title, she never regained her previous success. In the new memoir called "Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self," she explains her struggles with depression and binge eating.
If you'd like to talk with her, our phone number is 800-989-8255, e-mail us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Monica Seles joins us from NPR's bureau in New York.
And welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. MONICA SELES (Author, "Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self"): Thanks for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And when did you begin to lose control of yourself? Was it that day you were stabbed?
Ms. SELES: No, that's where I think it started. Obviously, you know, my stabbing was one of the biggest contributors. I was 19 years old, and then I didn't come back for - to professional tennis for about two years. And in that time, I gained over 20 pounds.
And then my father, about a year later, was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which have eventually took his life away. And I put on another 10 to 15 pounds. Eventually, I was playing with about extra 35 pounds on my frame. And I don't know how much you follow tennis, but that's a lot of extra luggage to carry around.
CONAN: I try to run very, very slowly, and that would be a lot of luggage for me to carry around.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SELES: Well, that was really one of the main reasons why I decided to write my book, "Getting a Grip," was because I wanted to share with women across the country my personal journey.
And I've been giving talks for the past 10 years to women, and I realized how many other women share the problem that I had - overeating or not eating. But at the end of the day, the issues are the same.
It's emotionally what's happening in our lives and it's just - food is a masking agent. And I did a very good job of that for nine years. I was masking my emotional issues with it, and it sure enough manifested itself in my tremendous weight gain.
CONAN: And as you look back on it, sure, the trigger was the day you were stabbed and the tremendous unfairness of all of that, and the loss of your great career. Nevertheless, was there an underlying psychological condition that contributed to it, that was there all along?
Ms. SELES: Oh, no, not at all. No, I've never had really any problems with weight beforehand. And here I was at 19, you know, sitting courtside at a tennis match, going about my business. And the tennis court is my home. This is what I love to do, and this was my safe environment, and something terrible like that happened. Then physically, I couldn't play for about eight to nine months and then emotionally, I just wasn't ready to return.
So, altogether, I was away from the sport two and a half years where I really didn't do much, so I came back with extra weight. Then, on top of that, I learned very soon my father was diagnosed with cancer.
So, emotionally - my father was, really, my best friend. He was my tennis coach, someone I was very close to growing up. I owe my career, really, to him. And so, with that, I gained even more weight.
Ms. SELES: And then obviously, you know, you're in the public eye, the comments get to be really tough, so, you know, you get more and more self-defensive. I retreated into my own shell since I'm naturally a shy person.
And the weight just - the number just kept going higher and higher and, unfortunately, hurt my career. I mean, one of the reasons why I had to retire at an early age of 30 because of a foot injury I had, and I truly believe that one of the reasons why I had it at such a young age was because I carried all that extra weight around for over nine years.
CONAN: I was interested to read in your book - because, you know, this was obviously a terrible thing that happened, but that it must have been awfully frustrating, all of us thought, for you to then go see the player - she had nothing to do with it - Steffi Graf.
The man was a fan of hers. He was crazy. He stabbed you because, well, you were the number one in the world preventing her, he thought, from her rightful place.
You know, but nevertheless, to see her lifting trophies that you might have won, and how frustrating that was for you.
Ms. SELES: It was definitely a very difficult period in my life. And it - as you can imagine, I think when you look in my book "Getting a Grip," I chronicled that part of it in pictures. And you can see the unhappiness that I had in how much weight I gained, and how much more I was eating, myself.
But my goal and - which I hope comes through in that book - is that I overcame that. Once at age 21, I decided to return to playing tennis. I realized that I didn't want anybody to - I didn't want to give that power to somebody to take the sport away from me that I loved. Then, I said, okay, I have to move on. And that's what I did.
And, you know, my career was never the same as it was beforehand but, you know, I viewed the sport differently, but my love for the sport never changed. But at the end of the day, you know, everybody viewed me as a tough competitor, mentally so strong. But yet, underneath it all, I was just like every other woman out there, battling, in my case, overeating, and really battling my own self-image and how, you know, how much it affected me, and the emotional highs and lows, in general, of life - which all of us have and, you know, I'll keep having them for the rest of my life, but I dealt with them in not the best way, countereffectively.
CONAN: Our guest, of course, is Monica Seles. Her new book is called "Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, Myself." 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And let's start with David(ph). David, calling from Jacksonville, Florida.
Ms. SELES: Hi, David.
CONAN: Hi, David. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVID: Hi, guys. How's everyone?
Ms. SELES: Oh, very good. How about yourself?
DAVID: I'm doing great, Monica. Big, big fan of yours. Wanted to know if you see yourself getting back into professional tennis at the higher levels? We'd love to see you back. And just a quick comment, by the way, I saw you on the Internet in a couple of images I looked at. You look great these days.
Ms. SELES: Thank you so much. Unfortunately, returning to professional tennis to the level I would be happy at, I had to rule out last year, about a year ago, because of my foot. I tried for about four years before I announced my retirement, because I wanted to be absolutely sure that I've given it my best. And my foot, my left foot, has just not recovered, so I really can't run for long periods of time or any strenuous exercise like professional tennis.
So I'm left to watch it, you know, like any other fan. And I enjoy watching it now. I do play recreationally, for fun, but nothing like the good, old days when I would play five, six hours a day - six weeks. And, you know, the way I look now, it took me a long time to come into who I think I am right now.
But I hope - and what I want to share with the women out there who are going through the similar issues that I was, would that be overeating or not eating, and the struggles - because I lived this for nine years. That was really the main reason why I wanted to write this book, because it's such a personal thing, and I kept it hidden for such a long period of time, that to know that there is a way out of this darkness.
And I'm a living proof of that. I mean, if you interviewed me six years ago and you would have told me, when you retire and when you stop working out five, six hours a day, that's when you're going to start losing weight, I would have told you, Neal, what are you talking about? And that's what happened to me exactly.
CONAN: David, thanks very much.
DAVID: Thank you, guys.
Ms. SELES: Thanks, David. Bye.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now - this is Chris(ph). Chris, with us from Columbus, Ohio.
Ms. SELES: Hi, Chris.
CHRIS: Hi, Monica. It's an honor to speak with you.
Ms. SELES: Oh, thank you. How sweet of you.
CHRIS: Very excited to read about you and about the book that you wrote. I'm a recovering binge eater myself, and I was wanting to ask you if you are working a 12-step program?
Ms. SELES: I never did a 12-step program, and I really don't know much about it. For me, I did have to do a lot of - I call it inside work. In my case, I worked, obviously, after my stabbing. The therapist, I felt - I kind of knew what was bothering me and why I was overeating, you know, the uncontrollable amount.
And once I saw that this is just not the way that I want to live my life - and for me, that came at age 30, when my career was at a questionable point. You know, my entire life, my identity has been in tennis. And as you know, in tennis, age - turning 30 is kind of ancient because you're competing against 16- to 18-year-old, young ladies. And I was 35 pounds overweight, and my doctor said, you're going to be - your foot in a cast for four months.
So right away, my first thought was not my career. It was, oh, my God, I'm going to gain another 30 pounds. This is just terrible. That, for me, was, I guess, my big wow moment. And after that, my work started by gradually losing the weight and shifting my thought process, because for me it was all happening in my head, and I had to get out of my head.
CHRIS: Mm-hmm. Well, I - what I appreciated about you is - what helped me was finally realizing that depravation always led to a binge.
Ms. SELES: Thank you. Exactly the same…
CHRIS: When I stopped dieting…
Ms. SELES: Thank you.
CHRIS: …I stopped binging.
Ms. SELES: I am with you on that. And if any of the listeners that are struggling with it and going through what sounds like you went through, I went through, that's, I think, the first step, and allowing yourself to really have all foods that you want to have, and figuring out - and no restrictions.
I lived with restrictions for nine years and look where it led me - not just in terms of all the extra weight, but emotionally I would beat myself up over it because I felt a simple thing like food, I can't control it. It's controlling me. And I felt like a weak person until I realized that, you know what, the only person - I have the control and I have that power. I hold - and I can't give that to anybody else.
CONAN: Chris, how are you doing?
CHRIS: Oh, I'm doing fine. I've been maintaining a 44-pound weight loss for...
Ms. SELES: Wow.
CHRIS: I'm in my fifth year.
Ms. SELES: Congratulations. So - you and I are about the same. I'm also in my fifth year. And I think it's important to - I don't know in your case. But in my case, you know, you have some days that are easier than others, and that's normal. And I think it's okay.
CHRIS: And I - you know, I do go to Overeaters Anonymous, which was the 12-step program. And I do have to rely on prayer. I mean, there are times that I do have to, you know - it's bigger than me. You know, I can't always - it's tough, you know?
It's sometimes hard for people to comprehend food as an addiction but, you know, there are…
CONAN: Oh, it is. It - seriously, it can be very, very serious, and of course, there are other manifestations of the same kinds of behavior, but people who -anorexic, anorexia or bulimia.
Ms. SELES: And with food, what's so difficult is that you have to have it. It's not like something that, okay, I just won't be around it. Unfortunately, we have to nourish our bodies. And for whatever reason, for women, we have such a strong emotional connection with food and how we're feeling. And that manifests itself in our food intake.
CHRIS: Can I just share one thought?
Ms. SELES: Yes.
CHRIS: In AA, they say they slay the dragon, but in OA, we take it out and pet it three times a day.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Chris, thanks very much and continued good luck to you.
Ms. SELES: And congratulations.
CHRIS: You too. Bye-bye.
Ms. SELES: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Our guest, Monica Seles. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's get Tom(ph) on the line. Tom with us from Morehead City, North Carolina.
TOM (Caller): Hello, Monica. I'd like to say to you you're a real trouper.
Ms. SELES: Hi, Tom. Thank you, sir.
TOM: You're welcome. Sounds like you've been through a lot. And I just - I'm not sure, but I think the trial was held in Germany, and the sentence came down. It was pretty light, or at least according to my memory.
Ms. SELES: Yes. Correct. Well, the gentleman never spent a night in jail for what he did to me, so definitely it was on the lighter side.
TOM: He didn't.
CONAN: Not one.
Ms. SELES: Yes. Correct. Yes.
TOM: Oh, my God. That's horrible. Do you - is he around now?
Ms. SELES: I don't know, you know? I haven't chosen to go back to play in Germany, so for the moment I really don't know. I mean, once I decided that I wanted to take control of my life and not give that person that much power, that was really it.
TOM: Yes. Okay. Wow. Well, congratulations to you and good luck.
Ms. SELES: Thanks, Tom. Thank you and same to you.
Ms. SELES: Bye.
CONAN: You talk about a regimen that has required tremendous discipline, yet binge eating was also accompanied by depression. And it's difficult to maintain that kind of discipline when you are depressed.
Ms. SELES: Oh, definitely. And I look back, sometimes I wondered how did I even play at such a top level. I was really never out of top five in my entire tennis career, and I was overweight and battling all these different things going on in my head.
But you know, looking back at it, I've struggled for the past nine years tremendously with this but at the same time, I look at the bright side of it now that I've been able to win this battle.
When people ask me, who is your biggest opponent on the tennis court, they always assume it will be the Steffi Grafs, Martina Navratilovas or the Williams sisters, and it's not. It was my addiction to food and the battle that kept going on, the inner dialogue in my head, and the feeling of not having any control when I was such a controlled person on the tennis court. Yet, off of the court, when it came to food, food controlled me.
And in my case, it helped even when someone as famous, as well-known Oprah Winfrey, talked about it. I said, you know what, maybe I'm not alone in this. And that was one of the main reasons why I said in this - why I wanted this book to go out there and be very open and very frank about sharing my emotions, because I really lived in such darkness that if there's somebody that's going through that right now at this moment, please know that there's light at the end of the tunnel.
It won't be an easy journey there, but once you make that step - and I recommend starting with a small step, and decide that you're going to be incorporating these small steps into part of your life, it's going to be a lifestyle, I think you're on your way to recovery.
CONAN: Another thing that - I wonder if retirement - difficult. You've identified yourself as a tennis player your whole life; that's who you are, it's what you do. Yet, as you mentioned, at 30 you're ancient. However, you retire and you realize you're a young woman.
Ms. SELES: Yes, and a whole life ahead of me. And that's, you know, I knew that I needed to get a grip of it. That's why I loved the title of it, "Getting the Grip," because for me it was so much about it, that I just knew the life that I led beforehand was not a happy one, and I didn't want to continue this.
I could have written diet books. I work with some of the best trainers, nutritionists, so in some ways, I was my own expert but in other ways, I couldn't control it. And I had to come to grips of what it was - what was eating me, because it really wasn't food, it was emotions.
And until I realized that and made that shift, I was just in the vicious cycle of losing weight, gaining it back, that yo-yo dieting, which is not only terrible for our bodies, but even worse for our emotions.
CONAN: And finally, you had a great career. Despite what happened, you had a great career. Do you ever sit up at night and wonder what might have been?
Ms. SELES: Oh, not at all. I don't like living in the past or the future. I love living in the present. I'm so excited about my life now. It took a lot of hard work. I mean, I look back in my life, I've been - I had some great highs and I had some, you know, great lows. They're just part of who I am today and what, you know, talking to you here.
What could've been, you know, it could've gone - if the knife stabbed me just a little bit over to the right, I could be paralyzed today. And if it never stabbed me, then I might have had more Grand Slams. Who knows? Those are all what-ifs. The only thing I know is, it did happen, it, you know, changed the course of my career, but I did end up coming back to the sport that I love. And that has given me so much in my life.
CONAN: Monica Seles, thanks very much for being with us, and continued good luck to you.
Ms. SELES: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Monica Seles, author of "Getting a Grip: On My Body, My Mind, My Self." With us today from our bureau in New York. You can read an excerpt from the book about the first time she picked up a tennis racket, her family noticed she had freakishly strong wrists - and the rest is tennis history. That's at our Web site at npr.org.
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