I’m on vacation in Puerto Rico for two weeks. I’ve been looking forward to this respite from the East Coast and the grinding pressure of life in semi-post COVID for MONTHS. And now that I’m here, I have to put away the bad habits that prevent meaningful experience.
We got off to a bumpy start when our rental property lost its running water and a hotel stay became necessary. And it’s been far more difficult detoxing from technology than I expected: I find myself pulling out the phone on the beach, on walks, by the pool and during down time. The most relaxed I’ve been was when I gave it to a hotel staffer to charge, while I remained poolside. It was as if the surrounding air, water and patter of small children became brighter and softer. As these velvety sensations landed, I was reminded of the final scene in 2021’s Oscar nominated film, The Sound of Metal. Ruben, a young recovering addict and musician, has lost most of his hearing. He resorts to cochlear implants to reengage with the world audibly. The implants wildly distort sounds and give off constant shrill reverberations. Sitting on a Paris bench one afternoon, he unplugs the device. In perfect silence, we gaze at the startling beauty of a tree rustling in the wind. It looks like God or Transcendence or Resurrection. His eyes fill with tears and the screen fades to black.
It’s a wonderful metaphor for turning both inward and outward simultaneously. Travel presents the same opportunity. Around me life’s treasures make gracious offerings–enchantment, human connection; the sea water’s cool. By observing the external beauty, I find memories and feelings inside myself. It’s in these moments of synergy that I crash into life.
The main point: Gifts are always abundant. The difficulty lies in receiving them.
When I was in middle school, friendship was everything. I spent all my time with four guys. We were still too scared to hang out with girls one-on-one, so the few planned hangouts we had with girls were done as a unit. Mostly, we preferred ourselves. There wasn’t much to think about; friendship came easily and we weren’t really assholes yet.
I switched to a different school for high school, and it took time to find a new crew. By senior year, I found myself frustrated by the concept of a “best friend.” I had friends, no doubt, but it was hard to name the top dog. What’s more, I found that among my closest 2-3 friends, none of them offered the complete package I hoped for in a best friend. One buddy was a great listener, knew me better than I knew myself, and could guide me through the turbulent waters of young life. But he was lightspeed boring to hang out with. My God were his Friday nights uninspired. Nothing against the poor guy, but he was the overnight oats of social liaisons. The sweetest, dullest person I ever met, and the world is better for having him.
Then I had another buddy who was the electric, unpredictable, and magnetic—a whirlwind of teeth and arms and dares both pitched, and accepted, by himself. This dude made me laugh until the cows came home, but I’ll be damned if I could ever confide in him about heartbreak, major life decisions, or the general crush and tension of high school. He left stains on mom’s favorite carpet when he came for a sleepover. He was barely—barely—welcome. But he sure was fun.
I liked people all over the place: teammates, nerds, the kids I did theater with (who were always a bit TOO quick to name you a best friend). I guess subconsciously I was aware that I wouldn’t be bringing too many of these friendships along with me to college. After all, this was Maine and the world was small. By 18, I was ready to go.
College. Wow. A feast of new friends. People from all over the place! New jokes, new drinking games, new ways of talking, all against the corrosive ladders of social-climbing, status-measuring, achievement-gathering. Most of my friends in college were sort of pre-baked and pre-assembled. I played sports and my teammates became my roommates became my study-buddies, drinking-buddies, grab-a-bite-buddies, etc. It wasn’t until my senior year that I finally thought to see what else I could find among the 6,960ish students the admissions committee had chosen for my sampling. But by then, it was mostly too late.
Then it was on to New York and a new career. Here, I did carry over a few of my friends from college. But many of them have since faded off into their own lives, following different interests, moving to different cities after a few years, working crazy hours. Still, a couple of my college friends have remained my closest friends to this day—my ten-year friends. We’ve bridged the biggest checkpoints of our lives together, and I am grateful for them. These are the people I want to sync up our kids with, meaning I want them to wait to have kids until we have kids so they’re all roughly the same age and can play pickup basketball without some monster oldest brother knocking the much-younger kids around.
Professionally, I’ve been able to make friends through the different jobs I tried, and I’ve ultimately built a good stable of pals in comedy. I’m always a little wary of these friendships, given the preposterously competitive and cutthroat nature of New York comedy. But I still love to shoot the shit (read: talk some shit) with them in a booth at some greasy breakfast spot on the road in Texas for a festival.
I know that friendship is a two-way street. Thus far, I’ve written from a totally self-serving perspective, as though I chose my friends, like I’m evaluating them based on their service to me. Ha. I know. Who in the fucking fuckery do I think I am? Truth is, I suspect and hope they’ve done the same in appraising me as their friend.
We all wear different hats to our friends. To someone else, you might be the friend who is always good for a laugh. Or you’re the friend who arrives with a good joint and a pint of Häagen-Dazs when they get fired, again. Or you’re the friend who can explain the blockchain to them like they’re seven, without making them feel like they’re stupid. The point is, it’s perfectly fine to let friends be only what they are. Let them play their role in the tapestry of friendship you’ve woven from the various stages of your life. Where they fall short, allow another friend to fill in.
For so long, I would get frustrated when a friend sucked at texting, or was an asshole to me and others, or disappeared into one girlfriend after another, or couldn’t get his shit together and keep up. It took a long time for me to accept that nobody is perfect in every category. Friends are like those NBA 2K players you create yourself: you give them a 99 in speed, you’re going to sacrifice on ball-handling. Or you give them full marks in loyalty, you may find them lacking in Friday night fun.
This is a strange piece, I know. I’ve been reflecting on a lifetime of friendships. I’m appreciative of all my friends that have come and stayed, or gone. I’ve said it before, but if there’s one thing I’m grateful for in regards to this Patreon, it’s that I’m getting to know so many of you too.
Francis is a comedian, actor, and writer. He hosts Oops the Podcast, alongside Giulio Gallarotti—a podcast between friends. He has written for Barstool Sports, where he hosted the popular Sirius XM morning radio show Barstool Breakfast with Willie Colon and Large. In 2021, Francis featured at the Moontower Comedy Festival. He is known for his musical comedy, as seen with his Game of Thrones songs. In May 2019, Francis filmed his first standup special Bad Guy, which is available on Barstool Gold. He performs most nights in New York and has also performed in China, Australia, Sweden, British Columbia, and across the United States. Support Francis on Patreon here!!!
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I loved the novel Passing by Nella Larsen so I gave the new Netflix adaptation a look last night. The film is worth watching but didn’t fully express the psychological complexity so effectively explored by Larsen in her 1929 novel. Reflecting on why the book made such an impact on me in college, I realized how relevant the thematic content is for depression sufferers. Like most people with depression, I engage in performative deception when I’m out in the world.
I don’t walk around with my head in my hands on the bad days. The only time you’ll find me in a physical posture of despair is on the subway and I’m in good company there.
Instead, I get out of bed early every morning, get dressed, and talk like a person unfamiliar with the shadowy valleys of clinical depression.
I came across a study recently that found 1 in 5 people diagnosed with depression are flourishing a decade after diagnosis (10%). I want strangers to think I am one of those lucky few.
But in the confines of home, I am prone to succumbing to the numbness and fear I spent the day concealing. And despite the complete comfort I have with transparency online, you’ll never catch me staring into space in a restaurant or at a party because that could get me caught.
I’ve often wished with the purest sincerity that I could be more open about my moods. What would the benefit of such transparency be to me personally? I don’t really know. It’s not that I want sympathy but I would like to feel a mutual understanding exists between me and the world.
I’ve started this community to make private pain more public. It’s both altruistic and selfish because I view this platform like a runway on which I’m building up enough speed to get air born.
Realizing my dream of cultural acceptance, or at least understanding, requires others to join me. A great many others. Start here and end soaring.
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“God gave Noah the Rainbow sign, no more water – fire next time…”-Mary Don’t You Weep
Happy Easter to those of you who celebrate. I have honored the day my whole life, from having no choice in the matter, to participating out of obligation, to opting in with my whole personhood. Young girlhood’s Easters were about my dress and whether the late Boston Spring would ruin the effect by necessitating a parka.
Do any children under ten possess the spiritual sophistication to perceive, even slightly, what kind of rainbow we celebrate, in all it’s blinding glory, this day?
Maybe those dresses were my first hint.
Reverend Phil preached his virtual sermon today amid floral arrangements beautiful enough to compete with the choir. Phil Jackson (who shares the name and mythical stature of the legendary Laker’s coach), was coming off a Good Friday sermon that has been my personal raison d’etre for the last 48 hours.
Could today’s message compete, I wondered.
Just kidding. This man was made for back to back championships.
He spoke of how at a certain age everything begins to remind you of something that came before. For him, hearing the Carter Family’s ‘God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign’ tune recalled stumbling upon a James Baldwin celebration in college, in which the man himself was there! Reverend Phil crossed the literal and proverbial threshold to hear Baldwin bless the crowd with his knowledge pearls.
Listening to a hymn often sung by the congregation of the parish where he interned as a young Seminarian recalls God’s palpable presence in the room all those years ago.
We all have a salvation story made up of moments like these, Reverend Phil says.
As soon as I heard his “Amen”, I began jotting mine down.
I have a tattoo on my back of a pair of footprints that I got around the time my faith was coming into full bloom. People always ask if they are my child’s and I say no.
It’s a Jesus thing I say, and that usually shuts the conversation down.
If you’ve ever been depressed, the poem “Footprints” may resonate with you as well, though I advise against getting a tattoo.
In it, we hear of a dream in which Christ shows the dreamer proof of His abiding presence along life’s journey, displayed as a walk in the sand indicating two sets of footprints. Asked why there are passages showing the walker solo, Jesus simply says, that’s when I was carrying you.
Not abandoned in our darkness but cradled. Not dead, but alive.
That’s the treasure represented by Easter’s rainbow.
Despair is a Liar. It always was, always is, and always will be.
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Day in and day out, we’re told by journalists and public health authorities that 2020 and now 2021’s events are inflicting collective trauma on the general public. There’s no question that they’re right.
So how do we continue to live through uncertainty, death and isolation? How will we treat the trauma that will cast long shadows over the future? I’d like to see more discussions around these questions as we approach a return to communal living.
A talk with my friend Eric West is a good place to start. If you’re not familiar with Mr. West’s work, here are some of the greatest hits.
“An actor, singer, songwriter, dancer, model and record label owner. Eric West is considered one of film and television’s fastest rising stars in Hollywood, with a wealth and variety of performances to his credit. Named “Hottest Actor of 2013” by Cosmopolitan. West also drew major attention in the fashion world being named by the publishers of GQ and Vogue a Style Icon and Innovator. West was awarded the “Next Award” by Vibe Magazine and nominated for the Best Actor Shorty Award for this role as Garrett in USA Network’s hit “Satisfaction”. West also won the NJ Webfest Award for Best Ensemble Cast in a Comedy for the hit web-series “Labeled”. West has also appeared on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and danced with Rihanna on the MTV Video Music Awards”.
We met in 2014 and I was instantly struck by his capacity for joy and generosity in places characterized by despair. Eric is a person who could maintain a happy mood at the DMV: it’s easy to picture him sitting in a windowless room smiling while children’s screams bounce off his Gucci sweatshirt like raindrops.
Back then I longed to understand his ability to walk through life’s inevitable pain with unshakable faith in the basic goodness of people. That core belief seemed to inform his perspective on the abundance of opportunity for growth and connection as well. I’d become a deeply cynical New Yorker by 2014, embattled from morning to night in the struggle to live with dignity in a city where affordable housing, basic transportation, employment, and authentic connection were in short supply.
Those complaints seem almost trivial after the past year, which finds us starting 2021 in a state of crisis. During yesterday’s inaugural speech, President Joe Biden mentioned his solidarity in grieving for the 400,000 American families who’ve lost a loved one to COVID. He also acknowledged that we may be moving into the most deadly phase of the pandemic.
Longing has become necessity when it comes to identifying techniques to survive this chapter. So I asked Eric some questions and he was kind enough to answer.
Elsie: The first thing that struck me about you was your joy. Believe me, it stood out in sharp contrast to so many of us who were drowning in New York’s non-stop friction. Would you say it’s easy to be happy?
Eric: “Thank you. I appreciate that…
…for me, it’s very easy to stay happy and joyful. I remember a friend of mine once saying to me “whenever you’re down, you always play inspiring music, nothing sad”. I never realized I did that until he pointed it out. Life has so many layers, up, down, even further down, up again and down again. Being aware that not every day, every moment, every hour will always be great is what keeps me together. It reminds me that even if I have a bad week, the next week might be my best. I don’t focus on the negative too much because we are responsible for figuring out life; not external negative forces.
Elsie: What’s it like to have a platform to influence people’s opinions on important matters such as voting and what we need to do to heal as a country? You’ve gone beyond the apolitical realm of fashion and style in the past year or two. What made you take that step?
Eric: “Living in a Donald Trump world was such an eye-opener for me. From the moment he came down that elevator to announce he was running, I knew things were never going to be the same. I was right. There are no sides here. I don’t care about being a republican or a democrat. There was so much hate and division in the world, a lot of it was hidden until Donald Trump gave it a voice.
I never thought I’d become so passionate about it. We are in the world together as humans to share this space on this planet. To think that it became okay to hate because of race or sexual orientation or anything else that was happening under the last president, was a red line for me.
My hope is that we can unite as a people. Love each other more. Stop living in fear. That’s what matters.
Elsie: Fast forward to the present chaos, fear and trauma of America’s political climate, a pandemic that’s claimed so many lives around the globe, and a response that has left many financially insecure. Once again, you strike me as a beacon of light. How do you continue to access hope? I know you exercise a lot. Is that important for you? What else keeps you positive?
Eric: “The pandemic has been hard on a lot of people. I am aware of that. In my case, it was the reset I needed to reconnect with my humanity. I shut down working in the entertainment world, which is a 24/7 job. At times that life isn’t healthy for your spirit. I mentally needed a pause.
I took the downtime to focus on things that make me happy. That singular focus on joy was an important part of coming back to life. I connected with many of my friends and family during all this downtown”.
Elsie: Please leave us with a last word that we can hold in our minds going forward.
Eric: I hope people remember that this won’t be forever, but it will make us stronger. We are living in challenging times. We can look back in a few years and say remember when we had to wear a mask 24/7? Unfortunately, we lost too many lives in the process, but things will get better. We just need to have a little faith. Remember, not every day will be the best day. We went through almost a year of it, but there is a light in the end on the other side of these times. On those days when you’re feeling low, throw on a movie that makes you laugh, listen to a song that makes you dance or a look at a photo that makes me smile about good times. Teach yourself there will be more good days than bad… if you just believe.
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Hello! My name is Daniel and my sobriety date is 9.10.2014.
Life in full, active addiction was governed by fear, anxiety, despair, and desperation.
It didn’t start this way.
In the beginning, oh, it was a thrilling adventure.
The trouble is that the fatality of this disease came disguised as relief and fun.
Drinking began at fourteen years old, and now in sobriety, it’s clear that I drank alcoholically straightaway. Coming to consciousness as a young person in the 1980s, I gained awareness about my sexuality at an early age. Having been raised in the Catholic church, I relished the concept and love of God, songs, stories, ceremonies, and the pageantry of the faith. I even enjoyed CCD and Confirmation classes – and loved posing philosophical questions and exploring topics with our priests. Despite this childhood happiness in the church, it soon became clear that a future life as a gay man was NOT going to go well; most notably, it guaranteed an eternity in Hell. I was a quick study and understood that even expressing a concern about MAYBE liking boys would be self-sabotage. Desperate, I began seeking successful gay role models…and couldn’t find anyone. This was before the internet (!), and gay characters on television seemed to be around purely for comic relief or were easily dismissed and ridiculed. There were no LGBTQ+ characters in the books on my shelf (though later learning that many of the authors of favorite childhood books were in fact gay, was a delight). What’s more, I would have DIED before walking up to a librarian or bookseller to ask, “Do you have any captivating books with dreamy, righteous, superpowered gay guys that possess an incredible, unshakable love of the Universe?”. My parent’s Encyclopedia Britannica collection yielded little explanation. I recall looking up the term “homosexual” after I’d heard it on an episode of 20/20 one Friday night. I was hoping to discover a source of scientific knowledge and was instantly crushed when all that was found in the ‘H” volume was something like ” Homosexual – of, or pertaining to, the same sex.” It’s quite amusing now. It certainly was NOT then! How times have changed.
My parents were (are) endlessly supportive, but early on I recognized that their life paths were vastly different and I simply did not have the skill set to broach such serious subject matter. Amidst these internal struggles, the AIDS crisis began to unfold its terrible fury onto the world and was being labeled as “The Gay Cancer.” The disease was everywhere – on the news, in the newspapers, the tabloids, the conversations of my relatives, the chatter at school, and for a while, there was a great fear that it was transmittable by mosquito bites. Going outside to play meant exposing myself to insects and risking death. Overwhelmed by the enormity of this all, fear and uncertainty became deeply rooted and I was in anguish for my mortal life and eternal soul. This fate seemed inescapable: Before entering into an Eternity of Damnation, I was destined for a dark, desolate life, during which I would inevitably become incurably ill and physically ghastly, eventually perishing from a disease that was customized for gay people for our inherent immorality.
I was about twelve years old.
At this age, “the actor” whom we in recovery sometimes refer to, began to appear. Much of life’s energy went into masking the unspeakable torment just beneath the skin’s surface. It takes an incredible amount of effort to appear “normal” and I couldn’t share what I was feeling as it would reveal my true self, and thus, the inevitable horrid life of dejection and alienation I’d imagined would begin right away. Already the creative sort, I threw myself into drawing, painting, and reading. I drew, painted, and read, over and over again. I devoured books and lost myself in the fantastic adventures of the wonderful, complex, and sensitive characters inside. I could see these people – they were my friends – and their magical adventures were as real to me as brushing my teeth, school, and chores. Every straight-A report card, birthday, and Christmas, my wonderful Mom would drive me to the bookstore (my Wonderland), where I would proceed to spend hours painstakingly selecting new lifelong friends. Surely, somewhere in these pages were people like me! My parents encouraged creativity and reading. My father, the Athletic Director for our school district, before leaving for whatever game we were going to, would always ask with a smile and a jingle of his keys, “Do you have all of your books?” Many pictures of childhood reveal me peering out from under a book or holding a stack. Equipped with a flashlight, I read late at night waaay past bedtime and was forever getting busted by my Mom. I can still hear her voice: “Danny!” she would gasp, “You need to go to SLEEP!”
To this day, my parents are highly social people. They are not drinkers and aside from literally one or two occasions that I recall, never have been. Ironically, they often received bottles of premium alcohol for various special occasions from friends and colleagues. As a result, a full bar was a presence in our home, filled with all types of mysterious spirits, many of which were years old.
When I was fourteen, while Mom and Dad were away for a weekend, in an effort to impress peers, I impulsively snuck out about half a bottle of vodka and drank it at an unchaperoned neighborhood party. The suffocating fear and anxiety that had become part of everyday life just VANISHED. My tightly wound shoulders dropped, surprising me with the realization that they were usually up to my ears with tension. I remember laughing and laughing that night. I was filled with tremendous relief and felt that the Golden Ticket had just been discovered – like Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. Newfound freedom had presented itself and it was wholeheartedly embraced. I’d found a way to live! And not only would fear be eliminated, but life was also going to be FUN. Never mind the fact that I was horribly sick later that night and the next morning – it was easily worth it. I would do better next time. And the next time. And the time after that. Right then, I secretly vowed to drink forever; after all, it was the only way and seemed easy enough. You just pick-up something with alcohol and drink…I could do that blindfolded.
My substance use disorder ebbed and flowed for the next twenty-six years. I got a scholarship to college to study art and architecture. That first semester of school, I found an LGBT student group and happily became socially active, excited to be comfortable and safe among people like me. I made good grades, found excellent friends, studied fascinating things, and even had the opportunity to study abroad. It was a good life, filled with love, learning, and opportunity. And also filled with drinking. Unbeknownst to many people, my internal world was a battleground. I struggled to maintain the goodness in life, and for a while, it seemed to work.
In the year 2000, still suffering from high anxiety, no doubt made worse from drinking, I was prescribed Xanax by a doctor and was casually told to “be careful” with them because they were addictive.
“Yeah, yeah,” I thought. “You’re prescribing the pills, how dangerous can they be? You’re a doctor!” Naively, I had just unknowingly become a statistic in what would later be referred to as “The Opioid Crisis”.
Years passed in this internal war – my body, mind, and soul were the battleground. Thankfully love from family and friends was steadfast. I silently struggled and shared nothing of my condition – I had it “under control.” At a loss for what to do after graduation, I took an exciting job one semester before completing my courses at school – with the intent of returning “after a year of working and figuring out the next real move.” The actor reigned on, while my truer self bore witness, attempting to instill the love present in life. More time passed and various levels of professional success and money were experienced, all absent from sustainable personal fulfillment. (NOTE: The fact that I worked with some wonderful folks and engaged with lovely clients was a godsend, and I remain grateful for that to this day.) I hungered for the return to the worlds of art, photography, and contributing to creative teams; meanwhile, the emotional cost of not having finished school ate away at me daily. The life and identity I’d created were exhausting to maintain, and the fear was always still at hand. Self-worth and self-esteem were constantly in question. I tried to balance out the darkness with healthy practices like eating cleanly, running, swimming, and volunteering. By most accounts, I generally appeared healthy. Of course, drinking and pill popping were influencing my trajectory and had consequences. In my twenties, I went to jail three times – all alcohol related. Under their influence, I was quick witted and brazenly sharp tongued, lost a couple of good jobs, forgot things, behaved recklessly, broke commitments, made unwise choices with personal relationships (romantic and otherwise), and at my worst, was full of shame, rageful, inconsolably depressed, confused, and helplessly LOST. Eventually, a long relationship ended, collapsing after years of dysfunction. I entered an out-patient rehab program for the wrong reasons – to get out of work. At this point, I didn’t want to die, but I wasn’t keen on living either. I hadn’t yet hit my bottom, but I was close.
Despite myself, I grew very curious about the information presented to us in the out-patient program, finding much of it fascinating. The more information presented about the science of substance use disorder, the more my life began to make sense. This wasn’t a moral failure. It made sense that there was no safe way to consume poison, no matter how fancy the glass or how expensive it was. Prescribed medicine could be dangerous (this sounds so naïve now). I learned that “passing out” – something that had been happening almost every night for years – was the body’s defense mechanism to prevent any more toxins from entering the body; that is, the body was rendering itself unconscious in order to survive. I was AMAZED. Additionally, countless themes within the stories we shared as patients were compelling – and so very familiar. I enjoyed the sessions and marveled how in some ways, they were like taking a college class, only in this case, with urine tests.
I drank and took pills for almost two more years – at as heavy as before the program, though the most miserable in many ways, and necessary to reach bottom and receive “the gift of desperation.”
The circumstances that led to my recovery were many. After the time as an outpatient, changes in people, places, and things began taking place. I had begun to reexamine many aspects of life and live from a place of gratitude. Newly single, I began branching out, doing things like joining a book club, volunteering with personally meaningful causes, becoming active in healthy, socially conscious communities. These groups were filled with sincere, caring, mature, and joyful people. Healthy, fun, smart folks. They did cool things and followed through on their word. It was a welcome, far cry from bar life. I eventually started attending 12 step group meetings and making friends there. My days were brighter. Nights grew quieter. The high, feverish pitch of a painful life was slowly cooling. I was still using, but the pull was weakening. I understood so much more about the disorder and the possibilities of a healthy life. At one point in 2014, I began seeing a handsome English friend who’d had six years sober. I learned more about his journey and was moved by his perseverance. He knew about my struggles/recent life developments and was supportive, patient, and understanding. One Saturday night, he suggested that we attend a “Birthday Night” at Lambda Center Houston – a beautiful center established for the support of the LGBTQ+ community either in, or seeking, recovery. By now, I was already in love with Lambda and quickly agreed to go. Birthday Night is a brilliant custom that involves people celebrating annual milestones (“birthdays”) in recovery within a particular month. Upon the announcement of their sober-birthday date, the celebrant gets up, goes to the podium, receives a hug and a sobriety chip, and usually shares a little about their journey thus far. It was my first Birthday Night and it was a BLAST. So funny, incredibly touching, sincere, and heartfelt. In many cases, I felt that I had already known these people for a long time – and that they knew me. The things that these people shared were incredible, in some cases, even unbelievable. The strength within their stories reminded me of the heroic, fantastic journeys from the books of my childhood and adolescence. I was spellbound. At one point in the evening, a person celebrating their first year of sobriety got up to the front and shared. I identified with everything that she said, from the second she started to the moment she ended. Right then and there, I wholeheartedly resolved to begin the journey into a healthy, sober life. A short time later, I reached out to some new friends and family. In a heartbeat, my dad drove into town, and I re-enrolled in another out-patient program – this time to end the use, address past and present pain and issues, get sober, and reclaim my body, life and soul. One moment at a time, one day at a time.
My life has changed in fundamental ways in sobriety. Recently, I read a quote by Joseph Campbell that read “I don’t believe that people are looking for the meaning of life so much as the feeling of being alive.” I am alive in ways that are simply not possible without recovery and community! The feelings and acts of connectedness and gratitude have been foundational in my daily program. These things manifest in myriad ways, one of the first being that I no longer feel sentenced to another day of life in sickness and helplessness. Mostly, days are joyful, and when they are not, that’s okay too. Life can be enjoyed as it presents itself in real time. Once enslaved by substances, I am not a slave to my emotions either. I developed and tuned skills to right-size challenges and reach out when in need of perspective and support. Today, life is filled with good council and populated with people that have my best interests in heart. Unmistakably, I am here for them too – as a better son, brother, friend, partner, team member, and even pet daddy! Once fearful that being sober would hinder my creativity, today I produce artwork with a zeal and gusto that hadn’t appeared in years. Notably, in the fourth year of sobriety, I re-enrolled in school at Texas A&M University – College Station and finally completed my undergraduate Global Art and Design degree. Turns out, I’m a MUCH better student with good health and experience! I became immersed in the studies and pursued my passion for Interdisciplinary Media, Art, and Photography (in my case, digital illustration combined with original photography). I got 4.0! Additionally, during the year back at school, I became one of the founding officers for the Aggie Recovery Community – a student organization for Aggies either in or seeking recovery. It was a privilege to work alongside such capable students, faculty, and even addiction scientists. We worked with other estimable organizations and attended sober student conferences – I had NO IDEA of the magnitude of the sober student culture across US college campuses and it was wholly inspiring. This opportunity to live shamelessly and visibly in order to offer support and information was a tremendous blessing. Had such resources been available in my previous time as a student, my life’s trajectory may have been forever changed, and it was our mission to actively and positively represent a sober student community. The Aggie Recovery Community even held the first ever Sober Tailgate at the University and it was wildly successful – our motto summed it up: “Good. Clean. Fun.”
Another hallmark of today’s healthy life was a recent trip to Big Bend with my adventurous, supportive, and nature-loving boyfriend. Together, we hiked the Outer Mountain Loop trail – a 33 mile journey that took us a few days. In the throes of illness, just something like getting a glass of water or answering the phone seemed very difficult, or at least, inconvenient. And yet, there in Big Bend, under the Sci-Fi skies, I found myself carrying a 40lbs backpack for miles over challenging terrain, very dusty and happily chomping on fruit leathers. Exhausted, we fell asleep under violet blankets of stars. It was exhilarating, something that NEVER would have happened without recovery.
This shared mission of bright sobriety continues to live on in me in all aspects of life as I walk this path with dedication, sincerity, compassion, and integrity. I was honored to be asked to contribute some of the story of my experience, strength, and hope with the Bigger Than Depression community. And I’m forever grateful to be sober today! Wishes of health and happiness for us all.
It’s 1:13 am. The heat in the house had been automatically lowered a few hours previously to accommodate sleep time, but I was not sleeping.
It’s the dead of winter in Minnesota. The seasonal depression has been in full effect for weeks now. I’m lying on the couch scrolling through Facebook, comparing my life with others.
I bet Mr. X actually enjoys his job. He posts entertaining images with his co-workers who banter back and forth in the comments. They seem really close.
Another person posts about their weekend with the kids. The son has learned to ride his bike without training wheels–boastful content about happy family life.
The old feelings of depression and anxiety surface.
I don’t know how I’m going to deal with work tomorrow. Here I am depriving myself of sleep because I don’t want today to end so I won’t have to face it.
This isn’t the first night I’ve had this feeling of paralysis, characterized by a parade of imaginary horribles.
Is it rational? Absolutely not.
But depression and anxiety don’t care about rationality. The “what could” wins out. It took me 37 years to finally put my foot down and say, “ENOUGH!”
Once I did, my life took a 180 degree turn, and as I like to say, I haven’t looked back since.
Hi, my name is Ben Romberg.
I have clinical depression and anxiety, but today it doesn’t define me. I’m an active advocate for mental health with dreams of becoming a professional speaker.
We all look back to our childhoods to try and find the source of our pain. Several defining moments provide some clues to mine.
Growing up as an only child, I had one best friend. I remember playing in his family’s backyard pool with his little brother and sometimes another neighborhood kid. Those carefree summer days were wonderful. I was a very shy child, but not when I was with him. My friendship with Ryan meant everything.
When I was almost 10, we moved to Minnesota because my father got a new job. At that age, kids often don’t keep in contact once geography separates them. It was 1990, 11 years before I would get a cell phone.
Ryan and I kept in touch the old school way, writing letters for a year or two. It wasn’t the same and the loss marked me in ways I didn’t realize at the time.
I was very imaginative and found solace in creating neighborhood street designs on paper, my bed cover, or the carpet. As I got older, I became a critic of what I saw as poor city street designs. I took an introductory college course on Urban Planning but when I found out that politics and money was often a barrier to improvement, I lost interest. Looking back, the interest in designing neighborhoods seems linked to the isolation I felt.
I didn’t have much interaction with others until I got to be a senior in high school. That didn’t diminish my capacity for caring; if anything I cared too strongly. I can vividly recall a handful of situations growing up where I was personally affected by what I saw. Other people’s pain always deeply moved me.
In 4th grade right after the move, I saw some kids picking on a boy who had a developmental disability in the hallway. I remember thinking to myself this is wrong but I can’t do anything. I was about 65-70 lbs at that time and don’t think I would have intimidated anyone.
At home I was the same way–hyper attuned to my parent’s feelings. I will forever remember the shrieking sound my mother had made a year earlier when she heard that her father had passed away.
Have you ever heard of someone being called an Empath? That’s me.
Then came the middle school years and my early teens. The acne, the braces, the interest in girls.
As frustrating as those things were, something more serious was lurking. A much more sinister problem than head gear and braces. So what was this bubbling thing lurking? I didn’t know at the time. All I knew was that I was slowly becoming more disconnected from life. I hadn’t had a solid friendship in 4 years.
This paralyzing fear of talking to people, joining in activities and the resulting isolation mounted. (COVID brings it all back so vividly!)
There were also some bright spots.
I ran track in the 7th and 8th grades. While I normally participated in individual events, I also did some team ones. I continued to carry on with it all the way through senior year. It was truly enjoyable and got me out of my head.
My parents decided to send me to a small parochial school for my high school years, hoping I’d have an easier time making friends.
My mom sent me to the first day not in the proper uniform. It wasn’t a great start!
Here I show up all snazzy in a dress shirt and shoes, and khakis. I look over by the corner of the building and see only t-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes.
It wasn’t all bad: one of the most memorable experiences was going to my junior year prom…by myself. I believe I turned down a couple of girls that had asked me out.
I had fallen into the “appearance is everything” viewpoint so common in teenagers. I was voted most likely to “have a comedy club” in the Yukon. That may or may not have been sarcasm.
After graduation, I went to a technical college for a major I didn’t care for but that seemed practical. I basically flunked out of the spring semester and enrolled the next fall at the local 4 year university.
During this time, I had started to develop a solid friendship with a co-worker. I started to realize that in order to try and get out of my shell I needed to be around extroverted types.
I spent the next 6 years being with outgoing people. I just wanted to feel normal. I even had a long-term relationship that was going well.
But it was still there. That THING lurking inside. By now, I knew it was depression but I had no clue how to handle it.
There I was, 26 years old with a stable job, great girlfriend, friends, and an apartment. I had a MENTAL BREAKDOWN.
I quit my job and ended my relationship. Just like that, all gone. My depression and anxiety had taken over.
I got no treatment even though I knew I needed it.
I became addicted to anything related to self-help as a way of coping. I would spend hours a day reading information on the internet. I was mad at myself and at life. I was tired of Minnesota so I ran off to California for a few months. I tried bringing faith into my life to help figure out who I was. I soon ran out of money and headed back home to live with my parents.
I wouldn’t move back out on my own until I was almost 32.
I was that guy in his 30s living in his parents basement.
My eyelids have started to get heavy by now. It’s past 4 am and I will need to be up for work in the next few hours.
The dread of the next day still lingered in my mind. I guess I’d better try to get a little sleep I think.
I turn off all the lights in the living room and slowly wander to the bedroom. A perfect time to open the door and wake my partner up since she’s a very light sleeper. I always feel guilty when I do this but I can’t HELP it. Sometimes I end up choosing just to sleep on the couch instead.
During this time, I saw a couple of counselors/therapists to help me navigate my emotions. I had made the effort to seek out help with the encouragement of my partner.
I had also started to find a career, helping people with various disabilities become empowered to make contributions to society but I needed to work on myself as well.
No amount of exercise, decent job satisfaction, or having a loved one could eliminate the growing strength of my depression, anxiety, and rumination. It was making life very difficult to navigate.
It reminds me of the 80’s cartoon He-Man. I was tired of Skeletor telling me, “ I help no one but myself.” I needed my “magic sword” like He-Man so I could say, “ I have the power!”
Something had to be done. But what?
“Let’s explore your options about medication,” my partner said.
I was ready. About as ready as one could be.
It’s late 2017 and I go to the doctor. We discuss options and choose a medication to start with.
I took my first dose of medication on January 2, 2018 and as I mentioned in the beginning, I haven’t looked back since.
I’m now cured for life and everyday is like an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood! Well, not quite…but I have a shot now.
I have an opportunity each day to use that magic sword to move forward with my dreams and passions. I have a chance to live in the moment, the now. And how sweet it is!
I now see doors opening at times, with light shining from in, instead of complete darkness surrounding me. A mind that is no longer constantly ruminating about every little thing that could go wrong.
The only darkness I like nowadays is dark chocolate. That’s pretty good stuff.
The last 3 years have been the most productive of my life. It’s truly amazing what medication and support can do for one, no matter the diagnosis.
It’s important to know that mental illness is a chemical imbalance in the brain. You can NOT WILL it away.
“You Are Not Alone. Together, We Are Stronger!”
Today I listened to a message about ego. The Reverend Phil asked a congregation worshipping virtually — many likely disheveled and still in pajamas — ”what is the source of your righteousness”?
Is it the clothes you wear?
The restaurants where you (used) to eat?
Your political affiliation?
Your preferred streaming platform?
That last one I made up. Just seeing if you’re paying attention.
This is a question deserving of serious reflection.
Don’t we all set ourselves apart from the “maddening crowd” to justify our existence? It’s a psychological necessity — an instinct of self preservation.
In crisis, we dig our heels in even further.
Think of the righteously self-congratulatory act of wearing a mask. Or not wearing a mask — there’s a vocal human constituency for you.
This week I’ll refrain from fluffing my feathers. We’re all weary and emotionally dehydrated. The sand is scorching our feet and the sun is beating down — don’t we all need water to survive?
And what makes us more than just bodies? Our spirit. Our “little light”. The one that God lit on the day we were born.
That stubborn flicker is the source of all magic.
It lies in our belonging to the Almighty.
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I have finally arrived at the point in my life in which I will no longer be able to allow doubt and fear to crowd my judgement.
Not my work colleagues’ doubt and fear
Not my supervisors’ doubt and fear
Not my friends’. Not my families’.
Not my ancestors’ karmic fears and doubts.
And certainly not my own, which have been heavier than any of the aforementioned.
I simply do not have any room in my life for it.
What I want for this world is so big
And so beautiful
And so ABUNDANT (already abundant).
That it has crowded out all the noise.
Please expect the world from me.
I no longer believe that I am owed anything by this great big world.
It’s a great big world we owe to each other and I came here to give it to you.
Hello, my name is Abby Powell, and I’d like to sing THAT aria for you today.