I use these powerful, stigma-filled words and identify myself in the brave and powerful way I do because I am taking my life back. If I own who I am, I can no longer be undone and broken by others in the way that I have been all my life before I boldly and loudly proclaimed my truth. I am no longer a victim of my past. I am now a survivor, dancing swiftly and joyfully into a future filled with possibility.
I’m doing what I do to save myself and others like me from the pain and hurt caused by name calling and abuse. I am beautifully broken and perfectly imperfect and I don’t care if you know it. I am not afraid of who I am, and it is my hope in that being strong and standing firm in who and what I really am you won’t be either. I am stripping the walls I built around myself in shame and fear so that I can take my pain and make it my power. No one can take that away from me now.
I wasn’t always like this. In Kindergarten I used to be afraid to go to school because the boys in my class waited for me every day with rocks at the bus stop. They carelessly threw them at me, spitting out venomous names about my weight and sexuality. Because I was five, I didn’t even know what most of these names meant.
The fear and hopelessness this situation caused never went away. This destructive and mean behavior shaped my identity and continued all the way through school. Fear ruled me all the way through adulthood, too.
In third grade, my mom bought me a striped black and white jacket that looked just like the one Michael Jackson had made popular in his “Thriler” video. I loved the jacket and was excited to show it off. But I was taunted and teased with hate and hurtful words the day I triumphantly wore it to school. I was so embarrassed, I made my mom take it back to the pricey department store we had bought it at. I never wore a jacket like that again.
On the last day of sixth grade, the boys who either ignored me or called me names approached me with a present. It was a chocolate Ding Dong pastry. I didn’t like chocolate, but since I wanted the boys to like me, I ate it anyway. I later found out it was a joke. It had been filled with laxatives to make the fat boy lose some weight presumably.
In the summer between seventh and eighth grade, I lost nearly 40 pounds. To go with my svelte new look, I asked my grandmother – a hairdresser – to give me a perm. My dad had always had one so I thought it was something men did. But when I emerged on campus on the first day of eighth grade at a new school, the reaction was sinister and cruel. Now I was suddenly very gay – the weight loss exaggerated my feminine mannerisms – even though it would be several years before I realized that and boldly claimed it as my sexual identity.
Things got considerably worse in high school. I went to a fancy and pricey all boys’ Catholic college preparatory school. I tried desperately to fit in, but my “friends” wanted nothing to do with me. At parties they held be under water in the pool. Once they tricked me in to climbing up on a roof with them only to try to push me off of it. They called me a lot of names, but the one I remember most is “The Whipping Boy.” I held on to that name for years. It seemed to always fit, no matter where I went or what I tried to do to remove myself from it.
College also started rocky, but got better in time. I had decided to attend the alma mater of my mother in a small town in Iowa. I felt like it was my chance to start over and carve a new life out for myself, and I eventually did. But the first week started out just like everything else had. I was walking down the hallway and I was suddenly grabbed from behind by a crew of three masked men. They pulled me into my room, threw me on the floor and smothered me, beating my face with long socks that were filled with something heavy that was supposed to make them look like giant penises. I think they were trying to mock me for being gay, but the fact that these men spent so much time stuffing socks to look like penises seemed more gay to me. Maybe something about me made them afraid of their own truth.
College was different. This time there were consequences. All of the men who attacked me were punished. Nothing like that ever happened there again. As a matter of fact, my junior year – long before “Will & Grace” and Ellen – I got honest in the back seat of a car on the way to a drag show in Des Moines. “I think there might be more to this trip than just a drag show for me,” I almost whispered to my friend Amy who was driving. “We know,” it seemed like she shouted. “Why do you think we arranged this outing?”
And just like that, on a cold, snowy January Iowa day, I was gay. And though I now know I always was, because I was actually owning it, this newfound truth made me feel like I was the most of myself I had ever been.
Something magical happens when we break through fear and become who we really are. It’s in this space that magic really begins to manifest. Suddenly, I was confident. I had no qualms about who I was, and for the first time in my life, people took notice. I was treated with nothing but love and respect when I came out. I even had some friends that looked out for me and made it known I was not to be messed with. My friend Kevin, a football player from a small town in Iowa who had never really encountered someone like me was one such friend. I’ll never forget how safe – and loved – he made me feel.
I’d like to say adulthood was better, but it wasn’t until I got sober when I was forty. I spent all of my twenties and thirties chasing men, always to my detriment and sometimes – and increasingly – dangerously.
I didn’t get into my first real relationship until I was thirty. He was a closet case in his forties who had ever acted on his sexuality. He bought me a lot of gifts and played a nice provider role, but ultimately he never accepted who he was. It lasted less than a year and a half and ended one night when he screamed that “I reminded him of everything he hated about himself.” Those words stung, probably more so than any of the words all those boys had called me in school. They ignited a firestorm of drunken activity in me that soon became full-fledged alcoholism. I drank and drank to numb the pain caused by the loss of my first love, but all it really did was make me hate myself.
By my mid-thirties, I hated myself so much, I took up with a guy who upped the ante on name calling: he beat me regularly. He also kicked me and spit on me and trapped me behind furniture. One time, he threw me to the ground and chocked me out to the point I couldn’t breathe. Mostly he screamed at me. He was a scary angry drunk man but the worst part about it is I almost begged for it. In some sick, twisted way, I kind of enjoyed it. He was saying and doing all the things I felt about myself anyway. I drank more and more to escape.
By the time that relationship was over, I was so ruined I decided to become a drug addict. I hated myself and wanted to die and I figured drugs would finally end me. I put an ad on Craigslist looking for someone to teach me how to do drugs.
I met Pack and fell in love with him instantly.
Pack wasn’t much different than the other guys I dated. He too was a closet case, a 50-year-old man who had never lived his truth. Until me.
For more than a year we met up on Friday nights to do drugs together. We talked enthusiastically about art and politics and music and football and friendship and family and eventually love. Fridays soon became Saturdays too. Eventually I came over on Wednesdays and stayed through the whole weekend. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, he cooked me ornate five course meals and we acted like a couple. On Fridays we smoked drugs and acted like a couple … of drug-struck, star-kissed fools. Even though our behavior was dangerous, it was ultimately and overwhelmingly loving.
Eventually, he invited me to live with him. He still hadn’t told anyone in his life about me, nor had he ever told anyone he was gay. I knew this was going to be a problem eventually, but I loved him and I knew he loved me. So I moved in. We even exchanged rings. I was his and he was mine and I never knew love like I did with him. For three years, Pack’s infinite and all-consuming love took all of my pain away.
I found him dead on his bathroom floor one January morning while I was getting ready for work.
The police quickly arrived and told me I had no rights in my house. This was only months before gay marriage became legal. His family – people I never met and didn’t know – were in our house within hours devouring what was inside it like vultures. They took everything that wasn’t nailed down, including some of my stuff that I never got back. I never got to go back in to my home again and see it the way it had been when we lived – and loved there. I was also kicked out of there, and even worse, forbidden from attending his funeral.
And so with no appropriate way to grieve – and now knowing how to do drugs because he taught me well – I set upon a dangerous mission to kill myself with drugs.
My first overdose occurred the day of the funeral I wasn’t allowed to attend. The second happened just a few months later. I was hospitalized and even went to rehab several times during this scary year and a half period, but nothing really stuck in those long, torturous days of complicated grief.
On top of the loss of my only love, my father – who already has Parkinson’s – had a cancer scare. I also wasn’t getting along with my mother, who was showing signs of dementia.
I was alone and broken and scared and dying and mostly dead inside and I didn’t want to be here anymore.
Somehow in the midst of all of this, I had planned a trip to Vegas to see Britney Spears and Mariah Carey in concert for my fortieth birthday. I was so a prisoner to drugs that I left the Mariah Carey concert – the very reason I was in Vegas in the first place – six songs in and went back to my penthouse suite to do more drugs. I had been awake for more than three days by this point and noticed the window on the 26th floor room I was in opened. So I opened it. I looked out in to the sparkly lights below. I wanted to be in the light so I decided to jump.
But God intervened. After arguing in the phone for an hour, my mother had somehow found me. Help came and I surrendered to the powerlessness of my situation. I realized my way wasn’t working anymore so I asked God to protect me. I spent the next six days in a forced psychiatric hold in a Vegas hospital. It was there I learned I was bi-polar. It was also there that I learned how to love myself. I removed all the fences I had built around myself in fear and decided to become defenseless. I decided to live instead in love. And like I had when I came out some twenty years prior, I stepped out of fear and transformed into the man I am today.
I put on a pair of sparkly shoes and started doing the work I needed to do to rebuild my life and I did. I made the choice to save my life. I got a sponsor, I worked the steps and I met hundreds of friends in the rooms who instantly felt like family. We share a dream of a sober future together. We love each other unconditionally.
I got healthy in the rooms I started sharing at meetings, leading committees and participating in my life there. It was soon time for me to put my hand out and help another person. So I did. And another one and another one and so on and before I knew it I realized that light I so desperately wanted was not only around me; it was inside of me.
And so instead of jumping out of a window I got sober, I found the light from within and in doing so, I finally learned how to fly. I became the Sparkle King, a nickname given to me my others that with my shoes has become my calling card of experience, strength and hope.
Unpacked Sparkle is for all the beautifully broken souls who faced their demons and found their way back to love. It is also for the ones who aren’t there yet. May you know whatever hardship you are facing, you can overcome it and unpack your own sparkle. If I can do it, anyone can. Don’t give up – you are worth it. You can be anything you set your mind to be if you love yourself. I’ve gone from The Whipping Boy to The Sparkle King because I unpacked all my pain and made it my power. I believe you can too. All you have to do is stop living in fear and start leading with love.
We were all meant to sparkle – the light is inside of all of us. Don’t play small to make others feel more comfortable. Instead, stand stand tall, be proud of who you are and move out of fear so that others feel safe to do the same.
Be the love. Be the change. Be the sparkle. If you do so, your life will become more beautiful than you ever imagined.