Lisa Whelchel opens up about divorce, 'Survivor' breakdown and Abi's bullying

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lisa-whelchel-cry-survivor.jpgWith three returning players and two celebrities, "Survivor: Philippines" audiences have seen a lot of familiar faces this season.

And whether you recognize Lisa Whelchel or not, the "Facts of Life" star has captured the hearts of the audience this season. If she doesn't win the million-dollar prize, she has earned the title of "Survivor" sweetheart.

After the taping for Wednesday's (Dec. 12) "Survivor"-themed episode of "The Jeff Probst Show," the former child star opened up to Zap2it about her recent struggles and turmoil on TV's toughest reality show.

Tell us about the moment you collapsed in your brother's arms during the loved-ones visit last week.
Lisa: Oh my goodness. I think it was so much even bigger than "Survivor." I think that what Survivor did was strip me of all my coping mechanisms -- of even the fact that I had just gotten divorced before I came out there. So at that point, not only 33 days of the emotional conflict of "Survivor," but years of this leading up to the divorce, and I had nothing left of the dam to hold it in. And yet, I couldn't let it out; there was no safe place to let it out. So as soon as I saw my brother it was like a safe receptacle for all of this that's killing me if I don't get it out.

Do you wish you'd done Survivor at a different point in your life? Or did this season help you through the transition?
You know, that's such a great question, and I'll have to say that I asked for this. I said I want to get out of my head and into my gut. I want to not care so much and I want to be authentic. [But] all I knew was what had worked for me in the past. It had worked to keep me safe, but I was willing to not be safe anymore and to be real. And so, even with my eyes wide open, went into "Survivor." I had lunch with Irwin McManus, who wrote "The Barbarian Way," and I said, "How do I live the barbarian way?" Which is from your center. And he said, "Put yourself in situations where you're not in control and it'll happen." So I said, well, "Survivor" sounds like a perfect way to do that. And it was a high, high cost. But it was equally worth it.

So what was it like being on the island with somebody like Abi during this time?
It just didn't faze me. I don't know why I was able to kind of just go, "Oh, that Abi. Oh, that's so Abi."

It's so funny you say that, because her bullying seemed to rally the audience behind you.
That's also part of my own background -- I've got a history of people taking out their anger on me, and so it feels normal. It's just part of my issues that actually was very helpful now in watching it, to go, "Why did you put up with that? Come on, you should tell her to back off or something!" And thinking, "Come on Lisa, you are totally a doormat!" Who gets a perspective to watch themselves like that, and learn? So that was another thing I learned.

What has it been like for you coming back and just being adored by the public again?
That's so funny that you say that, because there is an equal number of real, true "Survivor" fans that are just lashing me up one side and down the other. Because they say I'm wishy-washy, or I don't deserve to be out there if I don't play the game, or now that like last episode I prayed -- and I purposely was not going to pray on the show, because it never translates well -- but my brother, who's a pastor, said, "Let's pray about this." And I'm not going to say to my brother, "No! Shhh, we're on TV, we can't pray." So now it's the whole, "She's such a Jesus freak." And of course then it just catapults from that to, "Oh, and she's antigay." It's like where does that come from? Just because I'm a Christian does not mean I'm antigay. So then you get this whole lash of hate from that side; it's just like, Oh my goodness, why did I sign up for this?

You're right -- the group prayers can be a real turnoff for viewers, but unlike other contestants, you seem to accept the fact that God might have other things to worry about than deciding football games and reality competition winners.
Yeah -- and there's subtleties to it, too. You know, I don't think God cares who wins "Survivor," but he cares about each person individually. And if that person, part of their journey that he has is to win "Survivor," then He cares. So it's kind of one of those paradoxical things; it's not either or."

"Survivor's" final regular episode airs tonight at 8 p.m. on CBS. The two-hour finale and live reunion show air Sunday night beginning at 8 p.m. (delayed to 8:30 on the East Coast).
Photo/Video credit: CBS