Death Changed My Life

My oldest brother died more than a year ago, and that unspeakable loss changed me. I would say that it was the last straw, but there were so many last straws. I will simply say that it was in the final bale.

I have always suffered from a predisposition to depression. It was like the old friend, the constant companion, always a few paces behind or in front. There. I was never truly alone. It was always in the room, sitting on the edge of the bed, wanting to snuggle.

It is sometimes incongruous to hear people who we think of as successful talk about mental and emotional struggle, because we associate struggle with a lack of things that economic stability can provide.

But the struggle can manifest differently, as it did in me: as a feeling of being completely overwhelmed by your life. Even if by all outward measures I appeared to be succeeding, inside I was drowning.

The impostor syndrome can be severe, that feeling that you truly don’t deserve the things you have, that you haven’t earned them and are not talented enough to be in the position you’re in. For me, a poor boy from a tiny town with one stoplight, that was an ever-present worry.

I disguised it well by playing against type: I shrouded a lack of confidence in robes of overconfidence.

Over 20 years ago, I became a single dad. I loved it. I felt that I was doing an amazing thing. People, including my family, told me that I was. But I never said the thing I thought I couldn’t say: that parenthood was too much for me to do on my own, that it was consuming me, that I sometimes felt trapped in it, that it sometimes felt like someone was sitting on my chest, and I couldn’t breathe.

So I did with that feeling what I thought I must: I powered through. That was what men were supposed to do, right? Chin up, stiffened spine. No whining, no crying.

From time to time, when things became too overwhelming, or when I felt my life was truly spinning out of control, I would find a therapist. But therapy never really seemed to work for me. I often felt that I was talking into the void.

Around the time my brother died, my life was a mess. Publicly, I was a columnist at The New York Times, a CNN contributor about to start his own show on the Black News Channel, and an author on the brink of publishing his second book. My first, a memoir, had been adapted into an opera that would soon premiere at the Met. I worked out, and I ate well. “Health is Wealth” was my motto.

But privately, I wasn’t healthy. I was lonely and alone. I drank too much. I lived my life like it was about to end. I was afraid to be alone with my pain, because in the quiet, it got loud.

When people saw me, when they experienced me, they may well have seen a free spirit, even a reckless one. But in truth, what they were seeing was the personification of pain and trauma, walking and talking.

Then, my brother’s death blew a hole in me and made me reconsider everything. What kind of life did I want to live? What kind of man — kind of person — did I want to be?

Within a month, I changed everything. I stopped drinking. I learned to sit with myself, alone, and experience my emotions, and to deal with tough days, and even the exhilarating ones, head on. I was, and am, still dating someone truly special who has taught me what being at peace with yourself looks like.

And I have come to see things clearly again — things that seem so simple to me now, but that somehow I couldn’t see then: that life is a series of peaks and valleys, and it is a fool’s errand to try to flatten them out. That beauty is in the connections we make, to self, to family, to friends, to the earth. That we don’t judge the quality of a life by the volume at which we live it. That I deserve to be kind to myself.

I am finally, fully, at peace.

I have considered for months whether to write this column, whether it’s better to, as some advise, have an impeccably curated public persona. But the only image I want to project is one of honesty, openness and even vulnerability. The mission of my work is helping others any way I can, and that includes using the example of my own life and my own flaws.

My walk in recent years as an openly bisexual man has taught me the amazing power and importance of visibility, how transformational it can be to see someone else who is walking your walk.

As James Baldwin once put it, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” Maybe someone who feels privately broken as I did will read this, and they will realize that they are not alone and that it is not too late to change.

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