Some moments in life stand out with a startling clarity; carved into memory in their quirky tiny details. When I was 29 I can recall sitting on these white, bendy plastic garden chairs in the freezing cold recreation area of Riverview Manor, an up-market rehab facility perched amongst the green rolling hills of Kwa-Zulu Natal. It was late in the evening on a Saturday and I was engaged in an intense conversation with two very young women about our predicament. We sat amongst the old rusting weights and a warped table tennis set – the so-called “gym”. The one girl, not yet 15 years old, was in for Cocaine addiction (but really it was more about attention) and the other was in for anorexia and cutting – she self-harmed. I was a garden variety drug addict, high-functioning, but suffice to say had reduced my life from full colour to a grey haze.
And there, in that rather bleak place, I felt completely alive. I realised that all of my searching had landed, and branded me, with two labels that I could finally rely on. I was an addict, and I was gay. Anyone who knows me now would know that this is a decade and a half in the past. That I was a different person. But somehow there is something in that memory that I find I need to return to at age 42. I need the reminder, because what happened felt like this: up till that moment in time these two labels, gay and addict, pointed at what I felt were the weakest, most awful, most sad and shameful part of me. I remember saying aloud that the only thing I could be sure of was that I would die a gay drug addict. And rather than making me feel weak and powerless, I felt that I had finally stumbled onto something I could reliably call “me”.
Here is the important part though. The words themselves had shed all their negative connotations (words that pointed to a reality I was well aware of since the age of four or five). It was like seeing me, but from outside of myself. It was a sudden growing up, because in that instant there was a new me that felt much bigger and broader than the narrow descriptions of “gay” and “addict”, and I remember getting this excited rush at the dizzying sense of expansion. The labels I had handled like grenades with the pin pulled, suddenly became doors into a much vaster world of all the things that I could possibly be. And the world felt infinite and possible and exciting.
I had not heard of Leonard Cohen’s quote of
there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,
but I physically felt it at that moment. Even now it’s so powerful because in some weird inverse law the moment I firmly grasped the truth of it, I simply let it go. And that’s the part that the 42-year-old me needs to be reminded of. The part both of those young girls sitting opposite me, beamed back. For them it was about food and cutting and their parents, and that would be their unique story to tell, but I know we shared the same sense of a weight simply dissolving away.
I had been a social chameleon. I fitted in, sort of everywhere, but it felt like nowhere. I had an incredible interior life that was (and still is) a wildly imaginative and often dangerous place, that I inhabited (and still do) as a kind of lone-wolf survivor. The moment was a deep maturing as I stepped beyond myself to see that these labels, my deepest fears, were the key to unlocking something so incredibly powerful. I literally felt invincible.
Why? I think Brene Brown captured it in her book Daring Greatly
Vulnerability isn’t good or bad. It’s not what we call a dark emotion, nor is it always a light, positive experience. Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.
And she continues:
Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.
In accepting what had made me feel most vulnerable, I discovered my very centre. And it was, and remains, unshakeable. All the terror vanished because in revealing who I was to myself, there was no place, or reason, to hide.
At 42 I can collect many more labels. Producer, businessman and husband are a few. They are all descriptors that have the power to imprison inside an identity, or simply remind us of all the things we are capable of being or becoming. I often struggle with the latter, but there is a winter evening with a 29-year-old guy from my past on some shitty plastic chairs, that, when I care to remember, nudges me awake again.
Brett Lotriet Best is the Founder & Creative Director of EdenRage Media, check out their Immersive Storytelling work at www.edenrage.tv. Image by Joao Silas, courtesy of Unsplash.