“To become equal to the dream sewn within us, our heart must break open and usually must break more than once. That’s why they say that the only heart worth having is a broken heart. For only in breaking can it open fully and reveal what is hidden within.”
Rebel Health Tribe kicked off in early 2015. Since then, many of you in our community have become more than webinar attendees, clients, or social media followers. You’re my friends, my extended digital (and occasionally “real life”) world.
Not everyone reading this, however, has been around since then – and might not have any idea who I am… so I’m going to share the story of my life in a way I’ve not done anywhere before.
From entering the world unwanted and alone almost 40 years ago to the recent loss of my best friend and companion of 13 years, which is still fresh in my memory and heavy on my heart, I’m going to lay it all out.
I’ll share openly about my lifelong struggles with depression, anxiety, self-loathing, suicidal tendencies, the many unhealthy ways I found to cope, soothe, mask, and escape… as well as what I’ve done to heal, grow, and improve my health on every level.
You’ll find out what my first careers were, how I wound up in the health industry, and how Rebel Health Tribe came to exist.
Covid-19, the global crisis, which is ongoing at the time of this writing, presents us all with unprecedented uncertainty. I’ll share my thoughts around the virus, our response to it, and what I see a post-covid world potentially looking like.
I’ll discuss my own personal struggles around my wife’s health challenges these last few years, and what we’ve been through with that. Hopefully hearing our experience can help others in similar situations.
This started out as an idea to write a rather simple post about the non-stop crisis our life has been for the last 9 months, a cathartic exercise to help me navigate the grief I’m currently swimming in due to the loss of Marley, and a way to share my thoughts about the future of Rebel Health Tribe in the larger context of my own personal life/future.
But when I started writing, it became something much more.
I’ve never shared all of this in one place – and some of it, I’ve never talked about publicly.
Recently, I attended a virtual conference where an amazing speaker and Navajo medicine woman, said something that stuck with me… which sums up how I feel about sharing my story:
“My greatest gift to humanity is sharing my journey of going back home, finding my way home” – Pat McCabe
The challenges of the last few years have almost killed me. My heart has been broken open again, and again, and again. I’ve experienced shame, guilt, fear, loss, and a relentless barrage of non-stop crises.
This has led me down a new path. A journey of the heart. A return home.
Our memories are actually quite inaccurate, especially in those with early life trauma, chronically-activated stress responses, and/or any kind of brain injury (I check all 3 boxes) so this is more like a “based on actual events” movie.
Also, I want to acknowledge that while some aspects or events in my life have been difficult, traumatic, challenging, etc… I have, overall, lived a very easy, privileged life compared to the experience of many in our society and in the greater world and I’m very aware of this fact. My home was always physically safe. Nobody in my home was an addict or alcoholic. We only moved once. I always knew there was food and shelter for me. I had a Nintendo, Air Jordan’s, a backyard swimming pool, and many other luxuries of growing up a white kid in suburbia. My life was never threatened because of the color of my skin, and I’ve never been kept from any opportunities because of how I look.
Part 1: Fear & Loathing in American Suburbia
I was born in Waukegan, Illinois on June 28th 1980 – about 35 miles north of Chicago. At 10:06am, for any of my astrologer friends who’d like to astrologize (?) me.
From the limited knowledge of the situation I possess, my biological parents had been married, and I have an older brother. Apparently, their marriage fell apart when she was pregnant with me, and she didn’t want to/didn’t feel she could raise two kids as a single mom. I also have several half-siblings – all whom I’ve never met.
I was born into stress and chaos, alone, unwanted, not belonging – something that has a huge impact on nervous system development and other energetic and physiological systems in the body. (More on this later.)
I will get into this more later, but I’d like to say here that I have no resentment or ill-will towards my biological mother. I know she did what she felt was best for me – and that it was the most difficult decision she’s ever made. I also know it’s been a heavy weight on her for her whole life… likely resulting in much suffering.
It is my belief that I chose to be born into this life, at this time, in this body.
After spending my first 3 weeks on this planet under the care of the Cradle Society, an adoption agency outside of Chicago, I was adopted by my parents – Jim & Diana. (Thank you, mom & dad!) We lived in a big brick home in East Dundee, Illinois – which was quite rural then. We had a huge yard, a massive garden, fruit trees, berry bushes, and a bunch of other awesome things for a little kid to eat and explore.
I have very few memories of living in this home, but the smells of fresh cut grass and burning leaves (back when that was legal) bring me back to a feeling I can’t quite visualize.
One of the first memories I can actually recall to some extent (I have very little conscious memory of my childhood) takes place when I was somewhere around 3 (I’m guessing), at a park. I remember being in some kind of sand pit or something, maybe with one of those mechanical diggers kids can sit in/control. There were some other kids there, possibly bigger/old than me (I’m not sure) and they asked my name. I felt shy/didn’t want to tell them, so I said “let’s just play”. They kept asking, I kept repeating “let’s just play”, growing more and more uncomfortable.
At some point, they stopped asking my name and started mockingly calling me/chanting “let’s just play” as if it were my name. It’s not an ultra vivid visual memory, but more a feeling I can remember – the discomfort, shame, embarrassment, and frantic desire for them to go away and leave me alone.
The reason I’m sharing this is because I’ll get much more into the deep inner work/exploration that I’ve been doing the last few years in later parts of this series, this is a memory that frequently comes up while doing that work, and I’d like to encourage you to make little mental notes of events like this as we go.
Not so you can “learn” my story, but so that you might be able to indentify moments, events, circumstances, or experiences from your own life which may be playing a role in current struggles or issues you’ve had in the past.
Ok, back to being a little kid…
When I was around 5, we moved to Lombard, Illinois – a near western suburb of Chicago. Due mainly to a public school strike when I was in 1st grade, I ended up attending St. John’s Lutheran School all the way through 8th grade.
My passions early in life were primarily sports, playing with friends, swimming in our pool in the summer, and video games. School was easy for me academically, but I had trouble sitting still, being quiet, and behaving in class. I also developed a “problem with authority”, which hasn’t changed much 30+ years later!
Some teachers I had at St. John’s were rather harsh – and some things were said & done to me that would never fly in today’s educational environment. When I was in 2nd grade, my teacher told me I was garbage and (literally) tried to put me in the trash can in our classroom. This didn’t seem traumatic at the time – but I’m sure this experience didn’t help my self-worth or trust of authority. My 3rd grade teacher would already have my name on the board (for detention) before we even started the day. In 4th grade, I generally had to stay inside while the rest of the kids were out on recess. (I think you see the pattern by now… I’ll stop with the examples.)
I was labeled “the bad kid” by teachers and other kids’ parents early on, a label to which I gradually warmed up to, lived up to, and embraced.
The “bright side” of being in the same class with the same 30ish kids for 8 straight years, is that I made some very close life-long friends that I’m still in contact with today after almost 35 years of first meeting.
Somewhere around the age of 8 or 9, I got my first concussion (that I’m aware of) jumping from couch to couch in our living room and cracking my head open on the leg of one of the couches. (This is also when I learned that wounds on the head bleed… a lot.)
When I was 10ish, my puppy, Jordan (I grew up in Chicago during the Jordan era…), drowned in our pool. After frantically looking for her for what seemed like forever, we found her… and I saw her. The vision of her wet, limp body was seared into my memory.
I remember screaming, wailing, pleading with my parents to do something, calling 911, and anxiously waiting for whichever parent took her to the emergency vet to return. I remember the neighbor kids, who were previously my “friends” growing up (all 4 were older than me) laughing at me and mocking my screams in the back yard.
I remember getting the news she was gone. I remember cleaning up the house and getting rid of her things. I remember the overwhelming guilt and shame. It was my fault that my puppy was dead. I had nightmares, waking night terrors, and I remember sleeping on my parents’ bedroom floor at some point (unless that’s a dream too).
After that happened, my grandfather said to get me “whatever dog he wants” (throwing gifts/money at emotions is a common tactic in our society), and I picked a dalmatian. In hindsight, while we loved our dalmatians – they’re not exactly the best dogs for kids/families, so please make sure you’re prepared for that if you ever consider one.
I still remember the first time we couldn’t immediately find Crackers (got her around 4th of July – “Firecrackers”) in the back yard at night, shortly after my other puppy had drowned. The panic, terror, and flashbacks. I would follow her around in the dark, never more than a few feet away, making sure nothing happened to her – irrationally scared the entire time.
Two years later, we had a litter of dalmatian puppies – which was pretty much the coolest thing that could ever happen to a kid! I spent the summer playing with all the puppies – and it’s one of my fondest memories.
After much persistent lobbying, one of my best friends at the time convinced his parents to let him have one of our, Rocky. Shortly thereafter, his alcoholic father had Rocky euthanized because Rocky bit him when he yanked his tail as he was running towards the door. This was unfathomable, confusing, and devastating for myself, my family, and my friend.
I carried unexpressed rage and grief around this for 15 years before I’d be able to confront the man about it myself when he tried being buddies with me at that same friend’s wedding. I’ve still got enough there to bring it up almost 30 years later…
We also kept one of the puppies – so I spent the next 10+ years with two dalmatians as pets. Like I said earlier, I did like them… but they were more my dad’s dogs. They followed him around, they slept in my parents’ room, and neither were overly affectionate to me.
Another noteworthy event around the age of 10 was my parents taking me to see Oliver Stone’s film JFK at the theater. It totally blew my mind, started a life-long borderline obsession with the Kennedy assassination and government corruption, and shattered the idea I grew up with that US government was “the good guys”. I didn’t know it then, but my activist days started in that theater…
By junior high, I spent much of my time at school sleeping, goofing around, in the hallway (you could just kick kids out of class and leave them in the hallway then…), principles office, detention, or being punished in some other way. My parents got a lot of phone calls.
This is how I got other kids to like me and think I was “cool”. Goofing off and being a rather good athlete. I ran track and played basketball, soccer, and baseball.
It was in junior high that I started questioning the religion that was being taught to me. Questions and objections that I felt were entirely rational were often met with harsh backlash and/or removal from class. To be completely transparent… goofing off, challenging teachers, and being good at sports weren’t the only strategies I used to get kids to like me or to make me feel good about myself. I also participated in picking on, teasing, and bullying (usually not physically, although there were a couple times) other kids for… well, just about anything I could find.
Putting other people down is a way many kids learn to feel better about themselves – and I was guilty of this (still catch myself in it sometimes today) as much, if not more than the average kid.
Later in life, I actually ran into a girl I went to grade school with and she told me that she almost tried to drag myself and a few of my friends on a trashy daytime talk show to shame us for what we “did to her” and shove in our faces “what she looked like now”. (I think everyone has seen that episode…)
I’d also like to acknowledge that my parents were extremely involved in my athletics, from my dad coaching both my baseball and soccer teams, to serving as chaperones on our out of town trips for tournaments, and allowing me to attend several great sports camps while growing up. Having your dad as the coach comes with perks and challenges, but it usually worked out pretty well from what I remember.
My cool/popular kid days came to a quick halt when I started high school at Montini Catholic, also in Lombard, Illinois. Almost all my friends from St. John’s lived in another district and I was scared to go to the big public high school (in my district) mostly alone. Most of the kids at Montini had gone to one of a few different Catholic grade schools in the area – so cliques were already formed, of which I was not a part. To add another layer of “outsider” into the mix, one of the “brothers” (wear the same costume as priests, but aren’t priests, I don’t know…) who taught religion class often liked to isolate and pick on me due to being Lutheran instead of Catholic. By this point, I viewed/experienced this more as a childish annoyance than anything else, but it didn’t make for a warm experience.
Since Montini was a small school and didn’t have a soccer team, I played football. I was barely 5 feet tall and weighed a hair over 100lbs. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in the trainer’s office tending to various injuries – including my second (and maybe third) concussion.
While I maintained high honor roll, there were a lot of reasons this ended up being a single year (failed) experiment. I was no longer popular, I only made a few friends, I felt like an outsider in many ways, and I was getting in petty trouble quite a bit. Leaving Montini after one year was an easy decision to make.
My final 3 years of high school took place at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, Illinois – the much larger local public school. I went back to soccer and played basketball through high school. Due to the fact our local high school basketball programs were rather terrible, and my friends and I from St. Johns all still wanted to play together – we ditched our high school teams and played for the church team. (This is a thing in the midwest, at least it was… churches have high school basketball teams.)
I’m bringing this up because I’d like to brag on the fact that we won the national championship for Lutheran basketball in the high school division in 1997, my senior year… and came within a choked 15-point lead in the 4th quarter of the finals my senior year of becoming back-to-back national champions in ’98.
My passion for sports, however, was gradually replaced with a passion for parties, drama, and getting into trouble. My grades gradually declined. Detentions became arrests. Goofing around became fights. A real possibility of playing soccer in college was squandered and I quit the team my senior year. At 5’9” on tiptoes, college basketball was pretty much out of the question…
It needs to be noted here as well that my first three “relationships” all ended with me being broken-up-with for various reasons – ferociously triggering my abandonment issues and further crushing my self-esteem. “Emotionally unavailable bad boy” was added into the persona I was creating for myself. Can’t get hurt if you don’t let yourself be vulnerable in any way, right?
It took more than 20 years for me to be willing to open back up to vulnerability. I’m not proud of the ways I acted during that time, but I understand it – and have learned to have compassion for my previous self. We learn behaviors (even “negative” ones) and ways of acting to protect ourselves.
At that stage, numbing out and being “cool” were my top priorities. I needed to be liked at any cost. So, I spent a lot of energy trying to be what I thought people wanted me to be, or what would be accepted.
This is when I became aware that I was depressed.
My partner in English class died, and I remember listening to morbid songs and fantasizing about it being me. Thinking about my funeral, how sad everyone would be, who’d be there, what people would say, and how everyone would like me then… which is what seemed to happen when anyone died.
I took a bunch of muscle relaxers (or painkillers, I’m not sure) once when I was around 16 or so and slept for like a whole day. I didn’t really tell anyone about it.
Since this is a health blog… I’ll share that we did eat a lot of fresh fruit & veggies when I was young, and we had that big garden (which became a smaller garden when we moved to Lombard). I was very active as a kid, even through high school, with sports and swimming in the summers. I think my early start with a lot of fresh produce and a very active lifestyle with a lot of time outside/in the sun, etc… allowed me to stay relatively fit.
Gradually, this gave way to a fairly Standard American Diet filled with sugar, processed/fast food, soda, and whatever other junk food I could get ahold of. I loved Taco Bell, Dr. Pepper, pizza rolls, purple Gatorade, Cheez-Its, Cap’n Crunch, and Portillo’s (if you don’t know… you don’t know) as a growing adolescent/teenager.
For those who do know… our home in Lombard was less than a half mile from the Original Portillo’s, so I’ve had more than my fair share of Italian beef and cheese fries over the years!
We did always have fresh produce in the summers, and I always had food on the table – this is in no way a dig towards my family. Everyone does the best they can with the knowledge they have at the time.
While I was able to stay fit through high school, I did have a ton of dental problems, and still have a mouth full of metal that I haven’t dealt with yet. I also experienced several significant sports-related injuries and suffered from terrible embarrassing acne in my teen years. I hated my skin and the way I looked. I now know that my skin issues were likely a result of the countless hours I spent in a heavily chlorinated pool, combined with my diet of processed food and (later) alcohol, etc…
Before we get beyond high school, I need to acknowledge that due to my head-first dive into the party scene/culture, this is when I first encountered psychedelics. I still vividly remember my first experience with LSD with two close childhood friends (one of whom has since passed away), and the permanent shift in my world view that occurred.
Various psychedelic substances have now been part of my life for over 20 years, and are as responsible, if not more responsible, than any single outside factor on my own healing, growth, and development. I will discuss this further in later parts of this series, along with sharing some of the incredible research being done in this area today.
In addition to shifting my world view, they led me towards music, art, and the entire anti-war/activist counterculture that then consumed my attention as I changed focus towards studying history, sociology, and politics in college.
Ok… finally, let’s end high school.
To graduate on time, I ended up having 3 periods of PE my final semester because I’d been kicked out of PE the two previous semesters. That’s an overall indicator of how seriously I took high school.
Around the beginning of my junior year, I realized I could get into college based on my ACT score alone, and my grades “didn’t matter”. Right then, I mentally checked out. The strategy became to do the least possible amount of work to pass classes and then lean on my ability to ace tests.
My “plan” worked… I scored very well on the standardized tests which we use to determine the value of a student in our culture, so I was going to college!
First, I was intent on going to Florida State University in Tallahassee, and actually got accepted! Then my friend, whom I was going to go with, decided against it – and I backed out of traveling cross-country on my own.
This landed us both at good ‘ole Western Illinois University in Macomb, IL. Home to corn fields, liquor stores, gas stations, bars, and the Fighting Leathernecks!
And that’s where we’ll leave off for today…
Part 2 Preview: (Age 18-28)
- Real-life Animal House (my college experience)
- My experience of having a child, when I was still a child
- Slowly waking up to the realities of the insane society we live in
- Surviving/graduating college and my (very) brief 1st career
- My 2nd career and settling in to an unfulfilled life
- Accidentally finding my best friend and greatest teacher
- The flip of a coin chooses a new career trajectory
- Escaping the midwest for palm trees and beaches (for the first time)