I’m so excited to share with you a virtual tour of our tiny home on wheels! Sarah put together this awesome video that is a little insight in where we live and how we live. You can also follow her on IG: @sarahmayheirendt or her blog for some different perspectives, details and content on how we built the van and our journey around the country. Enjoy!
With my right foot pressed against the accelerator the vehicle stopped moving and the most dreaded sound cursed my ears: sand and dirt flying out from a stationary tire. I slammed on the brakes before the tire could dig itself any deeper. It was a fear realized… the crushing weight of a three-ton van with front wheel drive and city-tread tires burrowing deep into a steep, unpaved road.
“Fuck.” I mumbled as my stomach jumped to my throat. I looked over at Sarah, her big green eyes enlarged in a look of alarm. We are on a remote road, out of sight and out of cell service. Not only are we trapped, but the sky has also shifted from blue to an ominous gray. A different kind of storm is brewing. A few miles away the White River Fire is raging with 55% containment. Now its smoke and flames are headed in our direction.
The prior evening, a gentle northerly breeze blew. Not strong enough to be felt through the thickness of the Mount Hood National Forest but with enough power to clear the air and provide Sarah and I a view from our campsite of the marvelous mountain. Mount Hood, an 11,249ft volcano protruding from the forest in a masterpiece that seems to merge geology with animism, is Oregon’s largest peak. We relished our time and fortune, finding a spot with a view and no people on Labor Day Weekend was a true #vanlife victory. The beauty made it easy to forget about the steep dusty road we came down on. But on the morning of departure, with a strong southeasterly gust, a choking scent of smoke, and a stuck van, I cursed the decision to come down the road.
I put the van in reverse and the laws of gravity rolled it back down the road until I hit the brakes. I gave Sarah a glance and tried our luck again, pressing on the accelerator. Our home-on-wheels struggled to gain speed up the hill. Near the same spot, the wretched sound returned; the front tires sank into the dirt, immobilizing the vehicle.
“FUCK,” this time I wasn’t so quiet. Mount Hood is now hidden behind a plume of smoke. The air was dark enough that I could stare at the sun, the smoke providing enough of a blanket to protect my naked eyes. One option remained. I put the van in reverse again while Sarah got out to patch up the road. I let the van roll all the way to the base of the hill where we’d slept the night before. If I could gain enough momentum, maybe Lady Luck could see us back to paved roads and safer grounds.
I put her in first gear and slammed the pedal to the metal. I was just another millennial in a camper van but in my mind I was rodeo cowboy steering a wild beast. Like the cowboy, the next 8 seconds would determine our fate. The speedometer crept higher and I bounced like a wild man over rocks, guiding the machine around sandy curves. Sarah watched from the sidelines with sweaty palms near the worst stretch of road. I hit the softest spots, felt the van stall for a second, and with a fiery spin of dust, it churned further up the hill and thankfully to safer ground. Sarah came running to catch me, a bright grin stretched across her face. We were in the clear and relief slowed my pounding heart.
Sadly, our troubles with smoke did not start, nor did they end, at Mount Hood. Three weeks prior a thunderstorm would roll over us as we camped outside Lassen National Park in Northern California. The storm’s lightening would ignite what would become some of the most destructive fires in West Coast history. While our home had the ability to move on to safer terrains, others were not as fortunate. Over 2,000 homes (and counting) would go up in flames. Fires across California, Oregon and Washington would claim the lives of over 30 people.
In Oregon, we restructured our route, now the smoke report was just as critical as the weather report. We’d leave Lassen, Mount Shasta, Crater Lake, Bend and Mount Hood, all on the account of air quality. We drove as far north as we could get, finding clean air in the Olympic Peninsula. This time, after a couple days of clear skies, we’d learn our lesson to run from Mother Nature. The smoke arrived, thicker than ever. We surrendered and joined the millions of others that ceased outdoor activities and prayed for rain. The air quality index would stay above 200 for over a week and even reach the 400s in parts of the Pacific Northwest. The smoke wouldn’t just cover most of the West; it would travel as far as Europe.
From left to right: Spot the smoke and fire in the distance north of the Three Sisters, OR. Smokey view of the Columbia River Gorge. View from top of Mount Angeles in Olympic National Park looking down on the entire coast covered in smoke. Mount Rainer National Park on a “sunny and clear” day. (Sept 2020)
Like many other things this year, the wildfires left me with a swirl of emotions. Houses were lost, lives were given and politicians would say stupid things. Not even #vanlife can get you away from the troubles of 2020 and the reality that things don’t always go your way. In the van, we’re more vulnerable to the elements. We rely on fresh air to breathe, sun to power our electronics and good weather to exercise outdoors.
When the air finally cleared we immediately hit the trails of North Cascades National Park. Upon reaching Cascade Pass a familiar sight brightened my eyes… blue skies for the first time in over two weeks. I breathed in the crisp mountain air. It was one of many realizations during this trip of simple things I take for granted. The fresh oxygen made me feel high, not on intoxicants, but on the acute awareness that things were improving. And while things still appear to be falling apart across the US, I wish our whole nation could experience the sensation of seeing the proverbial blue skies to come whence the gray skies have passed. I’ll keep praying that time will come. I’ll keep praying that time is near. I’ll keep praying that the new growth that will replace the destruction of 2020 will be better than the simple things we once took for granted.
The beauty that is North Cascades National Park after the smoke cleared. Pictured: Sahale Glacier, Cascade Pass, Maple Pass.
“Don’t shit where you eat.” It’s a heed of caution, an expression of warning. It’s also dead wrong if you’re a van-lifer. Since moving into a van, shitting where I eat is now a luxury. Compared to my years of car and tent camping, van life is glamorous; from the comforts of a home or an apartment, it’s an adjustment to say the least.
I’ve been shitting where I eat for nearly a month now and at the time of this writing, it’s been nearly four weeks without a traditional shower. Yet, I couldn’t be happier. In a world where pictures depict perfection and in a time where a post often conceals more than it shares, I, and many others, crave the balance between authenticity and judgment, between reality and perception. #vanlife seems to come with a certain romance, an intrigue into the tiny life of freedom. But the questions we get more than “What’s your Instagram?” or “Are you Youtubers?” are: “Where do you go to the bathroom?” and “How do you shower?”
Our tiny home holds a full sized bed, gas stove/oven, sink with running water, refrigerator, two bench seats, all of our belongings, a retractable table and a portable toilet. This toilet pulls out right below our dinner table… I know because I just used it. Afterall, it’s 10am and I just had a nice cup of tea. The dinner table is also the desk, and in the same spot I went number two, I’ll write this blog. A blog about all the juicy realities of living in a nomadic home with a living space about 6’ wide by 12’ long, with a couple inches to spare above my 6’ tall frame when I stand up. Because let’s face it, #vanlife isn’t, and shouldn’t be, for everyone.
Vans come in many different makes, sizes and layouts. And van-lifers also come in many different classifications with different needs, wants and levels of luxury. We’re what you’d call full-timers. Meaning this is our home; we live in it full time as opposed to weekenders or part-timers. Everything we need is right here in our 48 square foot house. I’d been downsizing my belongings for a while and now that everything I need is tucked in a van I share with my partner I must say – I still own too many things. My wardrobe pre-van life could be classified as “repetitive yet functional”. And now, after getting tired of unused clothes falling out of my one designated cabinet, I can declare, I still own too much clothing and I look forward to the time I can ditch the stuff I don’t use. And in a culture where more seems to be better, I know after years of experimenting, it’s not true for me. The less excess stuff I have, the happier I seem to be. I also know it wouldn’t be feasible if the two of us weren’t committed to staying organized and keeping the space clean. Our space is too limited to have clutter, let dirty dishes pile up or stack used clothes on top of the bed.
We’re also what you’d call off-grid’ers. Meaning we don’t use campgrounds, we almost never stay in cities, and we never hookup our van to an electrical source or a water line. We can easily carry enough water and food for a full week. Our 30 gallons of clean water are refilled in five separate six-gallon jugs. A different jug holds our dirty sink (gray) water, which we empty manually each time we replace our fresh water. Under our bed is a storage area we refer to as “the garage”. Down there you’ll find our outdoor gear, tools, extra belongings, water storage and the electrical bank. Three solar panels are secured on top of our van, they are the sole charging source for the batteries that power a host of 12volt appliances such as our refrigerator, roof fan, water pump, dimmable LED lights, and outlets for charging our phones, laptops and kindle. We chase good weather by spending our summers in the cool mountains and coastlines and plan to head south when the seasons shift. I’ll report back on how the solar does in the winter, but for now, it’s been providing way more power than we can consume. It was one of the harder aspects to learn and build but our self-sustaining lifestyle has been incredibly rewarding and gives us the freedom to live in a van… down by the river!
THE SEARCH CONTINUES
So, where do you sleep? Well the goal each day is to be somewhere surrounded by nature, away from people. Fresh water or a vista is always an added hope in our daily search for the night’s parking spot. It doesn’t need to be beautiful but it better be free. How do we pull this off? Thanks to our incredible public lands we scour maps (physical and digital) for National Forest Land, where off dirt roads you can sleep in any pull out for free (always be sure to check for restrictions and honor the land by keeping it clean and free from wildfires). Searching for a spot is a skill I’ve worked at for the last nine years. And while its benefits of seclusion, beauty and saving money (one month of campground fees can cost anywhere from $300-$1500) it certainly isn’t for those that need the structure, security or mental stability of planning out your trips and not worrying about where you’re going to sleep at night. I’d say this is the second most challenging aspect of van life for me and worthy of its own blog where I can share some entertaining stories of this process.
I SWEAR I DON’T SMELL
A few nights back, after a long hike, Sarah and I plunged into the clear waters of the South Santiam River. The water was probably in the 40s (F) and the tall trees on either bank shaded every splotch of land insight. “We haven’t had a shower in so long!” I let out a crazed laugh as the frigid water washed away the eco-friendly soap.
In fact, it’s been 27 days and counting without a shower. I’ve been submerged in 15 lakes, 3 rivers, 2 creeks, and when those aren’t around… it’s our little friend Sebastian, a one-gallon weed sprayer from Home Depot, that gets the job done. Never would I have bet I could go that long without any hot water, a shower or a bath. Mainly because I love being clean, especially before bed. So, I assure you, I don’t smell. The waters are often crystal clear and the icy temperatures soothe my sore hiking muscles. It’s the plunges in the lakes and rivers that make me feel the most alive, and one of my favorite freedoms of van life!
I also recognize I don’t have a menstrual cycle or legs to shave, but check out Sarah’s perspective here.
I SWEAR OUR VAN DOESN’T SMELL
“I think that’d be a good spot,” Sarah and I scouted out a public restroom in Mount Shasta, California; it was my turn to empty Prince Eric, our portable cassette toilet that’s made for RVs and boats. I detached the cassette, the lower section of our toilet, threw on my mask and went in. I turned the valve and leaned it at the right angle over the flush toilet as a brown liquid rushed into the porcelain. I quickly lifted the cassette but it was too late, the momentum sent a splash of the foul liquid out of the bowl and onto my flip-flop. And this, this is definitely the worst part of van life.
If you’re still with me, kudos. I’ll say the liquid actually doesn’t smell. Nor does it ever smell in the van. A chemical breaks it down, however, it still looks (and sounds) disgusting. While there are other options on where to go number two, and the types of toilets you can put in a van, I’d still go this route. This is a luxury in my world as it gives us the freedom to not have to squat in the woods or be near a privy. A luxury I didn’t have car and tent camping.
And there you have it: we don’t shower, rarely know where we’ll be sleeping, and we shit where we eat. My insights for success so far have been: the right van, the right layout, an amazing partner who’s into this way of life, and a great attitude. And while I’ve never felt more aligned with and grateful for my lifestyle, it definitely ain’t for everyone.
What is the happiest you have ever been? Stop reading. Take a deep breath. And think. Reflect. Conclude.
Summer of 2013. It was my great American road trip and my introductory to minimalism when I made a bed in the back of my Nissan Murano, loaded up some backpacking gear, closed my graduate school textbooks and opened up my road atlas. It was one of those wonderful moments where I found myself in between chapters in the story of life; this additional chapter would prove to be worthy of its own book. It would be called: The New Taste of Freedom. Freedom from schooling and career, from responsibilities and obligations. Freedom from addiction and codependence, from the pressing thoughts of what if. It was my time to be fully alive, to explore, to grow spiritually, to be in the moment and to quench my strong urge for new experiences.
I’ll never forget my two-week mark. I was in a grimy public restroom, in a city park in rural Eastern Tennessee. It was the kind of public restroom that has mirrors permanently fogged, as if the glass didn’t want to see clearly the kinds of things that happen on the other side. I squinted to see as best as I could while I trimmed my neckline to edge out my freshly grown beard. It was that moment I realized this wasn’t a vacation. This was life. My life. At the age of 27 I was learning how to be alone: physically and emotionally, but never spiritually. Inside my pocket was a lone car key – it was a different kind of homeless, a kind I grew to love. A kind I always craved to return to. I didn’t need the mirror to be replaced to see my glowing smile, I could feel it.
The pinnacle of the trip was when I jumped off the deep end. It came at a place called Cleetwood Cove. Nestled inside a bowl of a collapsed volcano with thousand foot gray peaks soaring above, it’s the only place at Crater Lake National Park where you can access the shoreline and experience the most powerful lake in North America at water level with cold, wet hair and a big smile. Past the boat dock a jagged cliff juts out over the deepest lake in the United States. At nearly 2,000 feet deep, the only injury you have to worry about is the one you do to yourself if you let fear get the best of you, if you let fear convince you not to take the jump. In September 2013, I took the jump for the first time. The fall lasted a second or two but the liberation and growth has proven to last a lifetime.
Seven years later, and two weeks into my current nomadic experiment, I was back at Cleetwood Cove with my bare feet gripping the cliff’s rocks. It was my idea but my partner Sarah’s bravery led the way. Part of me didn’t want to do it; part of me knew I had to. I could feel the results of aging – tight hamstrings and a mind that spends a lot more time calculating risk than it used to. If I let it, the older I get the more energy I spend worrying, the less I spend living. That’s why I had to jump again. Not to honor the first 27 years of my life that brought me here the first time, but to honor the seven years since that brought me back. While I’m more calm, cautious and quiet now, the same wanderlust stirs within. This time around it’s not about peak-bagging and adrenaline bursts; it’s about being in nature and slowing down. At 27, I’d categorize my growth with one word: grace. At 34, that word is resilience.
On our hike back to the van we chatted up a lovely family. There was a certain spirit about them, the place, and the moment. I’d felt it once before on a hike, when we’d crossed paths with a woman on a trail many months and miles away. It was the day I told Sarah I loved her for the first time. This day, I wouldn’t learn this family’s story but I would experience their love. As they appreciated our converted van the youngest kids were drawn to Sarah’s crystals, impressing us with their knowledge and vocabulary. Little Joey, perhaps seven years of age, stuck out his small hand to reveal his own treasured amethyst. The deep purple points were beautiful, but not as beautiful as his words that whispered out of his soft, innocent voice, “For you.”
Sarah took the gift that moved her to tears and sent chills down my neck. I desire to be as generous as little Joey. Perhaps I will be seven years from now. Our time at Crater Lake was shorter than expected, however it’s lessons won’t be measured in minutes or photos, but rather in change and gratitude. On the road, or in the routine, there’s always the choice to appreciate the small gifts as much as the big leaps.
An update and intro to van life
“Are you all early retired?” asked the older man, social distancing didn’t stop him from chatting up a stranger. In front of us the wind pushed the water over the pebbles, mimicking the sound of a calm ocean shore. But the ocean, and “home”, are a full day’s drive away. Here, the wind doesn’t come from the open Pacific. Here, the wind comes from the mighty Eastern Sierra Mountains that shoot up from the far side of Convict Lake like great granite guardsmen.
“Ha- no. We’re temporarily retired,” I smile at my wit and then at the idea. The term had come on the spot, it felt good to be able to place the right language to my thoughts. The days before I lacked this simple skill as I struggled to describe my surroundings. I wondered if John Muir ever hurt for the right words to describe the wilderness now named after him. Perhaps it was the beauty, or the altitude, that made it so hard for me to depict.
Sarah and I have been full-time nomads for a couple weeks now. Our “temporary retirement” home is a converted Ram Promaster 159 high roof cargo van. At the beginning of June it was a filthy work van, the keys passed over from a wonderful man, newly retired (the traditional way). His work van still had remnants of gravel and soil from his career as a landscaper and plumber. By the beginning of August, the van was our tiny home on wheels. The vehicle and our new lifestyle were the source of compliments and questions. We wander, we hike, we write and we relax. We have few belongings but expansive possibilities; we have many aspirations but no obligations; we have a tiny home but a giant backyard.
“Yeah, we built it,” I always love responding. If only they knew… if only they knew. Like most labors of love, only the builders know truly the price that was paid. You see, the two of us hadn’t touched a power tool as adults. But after two months of sweat, hours of YouTube tutorials, days of overwhelm and nights of exhaustion, our dream was now a reality. The process was one of the more challenging and crazy things I’d undertaken and it’s already proved to be one of the most rewarding.
Like every other human, 2020 looks very different than I expected it to. My sabbatical from teaching was supposed to be on my terms and my destination was supposed to be South America. Come March, I was laid off and my school eventually shutdown operations permanently. My stint as a teacher was a dream in itself and a source of great reflection during quarantine (to which I intend to elaborate on in a separate piece). I loved my job but my battery was depleting faster than I could recharge it. Thus, I optimistically embraced the changes. I knew I needed to slow down, to make my world smaller. I knew I needed to be in nature, to reawaken the explorer within. I longed for the days where my youthful spirit had me jumping in lakes and turning down unknown roads. It’s been the homelands of the Sierras, Cascades and Rockies that have healed and excited me before, surely they could again. My great road trip of 2013 remains one of the happiest and most transformative times of my life. Do mountains, lakes and trees understand borders? Do they think my mask matches my re-worn hiking outfit?
But even rainbows need bad weather. Before the murder of George Floyd I began my break from social media and haven’t looked back. Covid was enough for me to confirm what I had known for a while: my sensitive mind was never intended to consume a thousand opinions a day; my time wasn’t best served scrolling, trying to decipher what to trust and what to believe as I failed at my 2020 resolution – to become less judgmental. While benefits had surely existed over the years, and while I’ll probably still selfishly promote my own content from time to time, social media seemed to be my experiment gone wrong. Being scroll-free for a couple months has cleared my head and freed up much needed time to work on my dreams and goals.
Which leads me to now. While my silent stretches vary in length you can know I’m still here, I’m still trying to live my best life, I’m still filled with thoughts on everything our country is going through, I’m still trying to create purpose that outlives me. And most importantly, I still love my friends and I cherish staying in touch. I’d love to hear from you and you can check back here for some more stories and adventures from the road. You can also follow Sarah, whose writing and updates are superior and more frequent. Until then, we move northward or we don’t move at all.
Raul and I hadn’t spoken verbally in over 20 years. Here’s what went down when my best friend from elementary school had me on his podcast to talk all things mental health after reading my last blog. I want to thank everyone else who reached out after reading/listening to ask questions and share their story. You are heard. Give it a listen and feel free to share!
“Take a deep breath,” the command was spoken as the cold metal of a stethoscope pressed against my hairy chest. I sucked in and blew out, the pain in the center of my chest remained.
“Again,” now the doctor was behind me, the metal felt colder on my back. I inhaled; I exhaled.
“Again,” the last breath before prognosis.
“Well your lungs are clear,” the doctor spoke, “so it’s not bronchitis.”
Not bronchitis? I was shocked. I’d had bronchitis many times. Anytime I had chest pains in the past it was always diagnosed. Clear lungs? Then why does my chest hurt so bad?
“What are your stress levels like?” she asked.
“Um, okay I guess. You know, the usual stuff but nothing major.” I shake my head now. When would I learn that not everyone reacts to things the same way or by the same standard?
The answer was the next morning. I woke up and the pain in my chest was stronger. I tried to suck in a deep breath but my chest burned a different kind of pain. Perhaps the doctor was wrong?
Then the words came. Those silent words that you’re not sure if they are in your own voice or the divine’s. Those words that speak from deeper layers of your soul. Intuition.
“Maybe it’s anxiety.”
Cue the light bulb moment. When I “heard” the word I knew it with a certainty. It was time to trust myself, no matter how large the slice of humble pie was. It was April 2019, I was 33 years old and had lived my entire life without symptoms like this, a life that involved much more extreme periods- periods of alcohol abuse, childhood dysfunction, more demanding jobs and toxic relationships. At 33 I was nine years sober, eating healthy, in great physical shape, openly sharing with friends about my problems, participating in 12 step work, practicing yoga and meditation on a regular basis, and working shy of 40 hours a week. Do these things not work? If I were to have anxiety, why now?
The answer then was easy. I knew what the source of my anxiety was just as much as I knew what the solution would be. After years of personal growth, spiritual and self-awareness modalities, I finally faced my fear and made the call. I booked a kick ass therapist to address my emotional intimacy issues. Dating should be fun again. It shouldn’t make me feel like this.
I was diagnosed with panic symptoms and we embarked on the terrifying but worthwhile journey of EMDR trauma based therapy. The early sessions were immense in a way I struggle to describe; doing EMDR involves revisiting and reprocessing the most traumatic moments of your life. After the first several sessions I’d sit in my car physically and emotionally exhausted. Thankfully, by June my symptoms were mainly in remission and by September I was not only dating again- I was falling in love and starting a deeply intimate relationship without a trace of panic or anxiety.
If only the story stopped here, the message short and clear- struggle with anxiety or panic then go to therapy and all will be better forever. I thought that was my story. I wanted that to be my story. But life, like anxiety and panic, is unpredictable.
Now it was November 2019. I was at work, standing in front of a small classroom of students like I had done for the last two years when the chest pains returned. Before I knew it my legs were weak and I couldn’t stand- the fear of fainting to strong to risk it. I reached for my chair and attempted to continue teaching while seated. My thoughts were jumbled- I did my best to go about business as usual; my simple job now boggled my brain like a complex calculus problem. If April was a tornado then November was a hurricane.
Even after cutting my hours I felt like I couldn’t work. I warned my boss that my health might lead to my resignation. “Really, but you’re so healthy? You’re like the poster child for health with the yoga and meditation and stuff.” I took a hard swallow and lowered my head in defeat. Is healthy living a hoax?
I was perplexed- what more could I possibly do to combat my mental health? I kept doing all the healthy things I already had in my weekly routine but the symptoms intensified. I was scared, very scared. Could this be my new normal? The more I thought about it the more I worried, the more I worried the worse my symptoms would get. The vicious spiral of panic led me to feel like the mind I’d loved had betrayed me; the body that endured so much was at its capacity. I rarely laughed in November.
What next? Pain is the greatest motivator- I’d known that many times over. Pain has made me better, happier, more useful. I felt all the suppressed emotions inside me swirling, pumping unwanted cortisol through my nervous system, overwhelming my body; they needed out and they needed out now.
I fucking hate pain. Recognizing the benefits of pain doesn’t make it any more comfortable. Which is why I’m so willing to take action to get out of it. I’m a lot of things but I’m no emotional masochist. I knew this problem wouldn’t be solved with waiting it out, nor did some magical panacea exist that would fix me forever. I felt pharmaceutical capsules would only treat my symptoms and not my problem. I wanted more than to patch the ship; I wanted a better boat.
I embarked on a holistic approach- mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. I analyzed my life, this time it wasn’t about all the healthy things I was doing, it was about what I could try now. I started journaling daily, I cut caffeine and sugar out of my diet, I went to the boxing gym and unloaded those emotions, I sought a medical doctor and took some more tests, I watched TED talks and read articles about anxiety and panic, and most importantly I asked myself what I needed. The good thing when panic struck is the amount of tools I already had in place to help me navigate a difficult question in a difficult time. I didn’t care about the cause or which of the activities would fix me. I just wanted relief, to experience life without fear again, to feel like myself again, to make my girlfriend laugh and not worry, to feel the sun after a cold rain.
By the end of the year I was nearly back to normal. Three pivotal moments stand out:
- I was leaving my girlfriend a voice message when the words came out, I spoke what I needed. I’m not sure where it came from, I hadn’t had the thought until that exact moment. “I don’t need anymore sympathy, feeling bad for me isn’t helping, it’s adding to my fear based thinking, I need help breaking from the anxious thought patterns, I need accountability on things I’m trying, I need positivity.” I accredit therapy for the ability to communicate my needs in a relationship. Wow, what a positive impact it had and not just for me, now my partner knew how she could show up best, something she was eager to do.
- I sat across from my therapist. She told me the worst thing I could do would be to run from the panic- the best thing I could do would be to confront it. Don’t quit your job, use it as a gauge. The advice was terrifying yet I’m so grateful for it now. We entered EMDR, it was a meditative like state where I could sit in my own pain and panic, she asked me to speak up when I couldn’t tolerate it any further. I was much stronger and in control than I thought. That was the worst I’d ever felt it and still is to this day.
- I was introduced to breathwork. I found an amazing teacher (shout out to Chelcy Pine- her classes are available online now during quarantine) who specializes in releasing trauma. Breathwork remains the most powerful modality I’ve experienced. While it can be difficult and challenging it’s also been liberating and freeing. In breathwork I’ve processed through pain and I’ve felt bliss. My nervous system could reset. I could breathe freely again.
This story has a happy ending. Because of my panic I’ve healed myself on such a deeper level. I’m happier and healthier, not because I’m different, but because I appreciate a simple day so much more. I live the benefits of therapy and breathwork everyday. I’m proud of myself on how I showed up in the face of adversity. It made me closer to my partner. I’m a more compassionate person- I wrote a book about mental health before I had this experience. I felt it was the universe’s way of making sure I was qualified to tell a story on the subject.
The struggle with mental health has never been a universal picture nor will it be. I can’t put a baseline for my stress levels on a workload that’s easy for others. I must know my own limits and boundaries. I must acknowledge past coping mechanisms don’t work into the future. Thankfully we live in a time with access to so many kinds of treatment, the ability to talk with the people that matter, and the resources to discover solutions. But nothing replaces the connection we have with ourselves.
If you’re struggling with anxiety or panic I hope it’s causing you enough pain to make you take action. If you’re life isn’t the healthiest then don’t be fooled by the things that I was doing pre-panic. Meditation, yoga, exercise, diet, etc. all have made my life better and are a great start to seek improvement. Heck, they probably delayed this whole experience. If you’re like me and your onion is thick and the layers seem to need periodic peeling then I hope this blog provides you options, insight and most importantly strength and hope.
Crystals and candles lined the rim of the large tub, the sound waves of soothing ambient music danced with the steam of hot water as the scent of lavender diffused bath salts entered my nostrils. I was in a beautiful mountain house with a beautiful woman. I hadn’t taken a bath in at least a decade- you know… because men don’t take baths. At least that’s what I told myself. This narrative shifted to, “unless you’re with a beautiful woman.”
It was in that tub of serenity I began another subtle shift in my internal dialogue of manliness. You see, I’ve always been one to question societal structure- why we do what we do, why we believe what we believe. So why is it that a man shouldn’t take a bath? Even by himself? After all, surely the Spartans took baths. To answer this question I knew I had to look beyond the tub and into my soul. What makes a man, a man? So, here’s a fun little look at me reshaping my view of what’s okay for me to do while still owning my masculinity. Spoiler alert: it ends with me taking a bath.
I believe one’s definition of a man is subjective and not universal. I, like a lot of men, learned this the hard way. Up until my mid 20s I embodied and promoted toxic masculinity. It wasn’t until I had the self-awareness and tools to start identifying these stories I’d created that I could realize the benefit in re-writing my perspective.
At 24 I started talking about my feelings. And no longer only to compassionate women after I’d had too much to drink. No, it was time to open up to other men, particularly men who’ve been through some shit, and not over some beers or whiskey. Because like those men, I’ve been through some shit too, and we help each other because we know the alternative… For us, suppression is a struggle that leads to self-destructive behavior or hurting those we love the most. I found that instead of being shunned by other men I ended up with the deepest male bonds of my life.
At 25 I started doing yoga. I was one of the only men in class on countless occasions- my physique manly yet broken. Years of punishment on the football field and in the weight room made every posture embarrassing and challenging. The experience wasn’t emasculating though, it was healing, both physically and emotionally.
At 26 I went from dancing like a tough guy to dancing like someone who didn’t care anymore. Seeing a grown man twirl around and shake his hips wasn’t “gay”- it was fuckin’ fun.
At 27 I looked backed on a failed relationship and owned my part- I never cuddled. It wasn’t about what broken part of me thought that a man shouldn’t cuddle or that cuddling felt weird. It was now about how I wanted my future to look. And I wanted my next relationship to have the kind of physical affection a woman deserves. So I forced myself to cuddle until I liked it. At first it was weird and uncomfortable; now I crave a good cuddle if it’s been too long.
At 31 I started my journey to be able to cry. To be honest this part is so complex it deserves its own blog. I wish I’d known the consequences of suppressing so many tears as a boy and young adult- that stored tears would lead to stored trauma and that price would be more expensive than not looking tough. But I can say at 34 I’m finally chipping away and releasing some much needed tears. I don’t feel like a little bitch, I feel gratification.
The interesting thing about adding these activities was at the end I didn’t feel like less of a man. Sure, by pop-culture perspective that case could be made. But how I felt on the inside was quite different. I felt manlier than ever. Why? How? Well the answer must have come from my definition of what makes a man, a man.
For me a man is someone who lives an authentic life with honor and courage- a person that recognizes that fear exists but doesn’t jeopardize his values in the face of it. A man must have the courage to go towards the fear, towards the struggle, to do the work, no matter how painful. So, that means I wasn’t a man when I was living other’s ideals of manliness and I wasn’t a man when I chose reputation over judgment. It also explains why I’m more in my manhood than ever.
Now this story ends where it began: a bathtub, some meditation music, and the scent of lavender. But this time there’d be no beautiful woman or double sized tub. Nope, now it’s just a dude in a shower tub with sore muscles and some unwanted stress. Yet this time he has the ability to both love and laugh at himself. Sure, the internal resistance is still there, the old stories love to get retold. In the end life is better with new experiences- even if that experience involves seeing my six-foot frame with Sasquatch like body hair taking up an entire bathtub.
“How is he so free, so happy on the dance floor, sober, surrounded by alcohol?” These were the questions inside my head as I watched my buddy David, nearly 40 years old, twirling around with a smile on a dance floor packed with intoxicated 20 something’s. The year was 2011, I’d come back to Ultra Music Festival, this time sober and with a sober friend, he was 18 months ahead of me in sober time but worlds apart in confidence. Two years prior I attended the same music festival for the first time. I’d leave Miami with alcohol poisoning, going in and out of consciousness as my body involuntarily purged. I could’ve been one of those “kids” you read about after a big festival, another dead all for the pursuit of partying, all because he was too uncomfortable in his own skin to dance without intoxicants.
This month I’ll celebrate ten years of sobriety. I get emotional thinking about all the times I nearly lost my life; it makes me appreciate things on such a deeper level now. But this isn’t the story about how I wrecked my body and lost myself to alcohol. Nor is it the story about getting sober. It’s not a story about how substances are killing a music genre built around peace, love, unity and respect. Nor is it a story about how dance saved my life. Recovering from alcoholism saved my life, dancing is what got me comfortable in my skin. This is the story about how I came to love dancing sober, the lessons I learned from it, and where you can find your own community to experience it for yourself.
Back to my buddy David. “I go to ecstatic dance,” his response was the first I’d heard of the movement. A year later I’d find myself across the country, newly relocated to the new age headquarters of San Diego, “ecstatic dance” punched into my Google search. No talking, no substances, just a safe place to move to the music.
A few minutes into my first visit it didn’t take me, a clean-cut dude from Texas, long to realize I’d never out-weird anyone there. People dressed how they wanted, moved how they wanted, smiled a lot and gave good hugs. Their liberated movements inspired me to move a little deeper, the wild rhythms of musical genres I’d never listened to pushed me out of my comfort zone, my own intuition could be heard over the speakers, “close your eyes and smile.” It was then I learned, “I can’t dance” is a fallacy, “I can’t dance without worrying how I look” the more accurate statement. A few more visits and I realized we are all dancers, there’s no wrong way to move, and dancing without a partner and without substances gave me a chance to grow out of my comfort zone and grow my relationship with myself. It also gave me a natural high, one that came with a smile and no hangover.
In the lobby the people were chatty, friendly and from many walks of life. I made friends who even though they didn’t have an addiction like me, excused alcohol from their lives in search of a higher frequency of existence. I got the low down on other sober dance communities. There was Dance Church on Sundays and my favorite midweek dance, Tuesday Dance Jam. Out of town I found myself at 5Rhythms, The Wave Silent Disco and Daybreaker.
It was at Daybreaker I felt like someone invented a business based off a dream I hadn’t had yet. A sober morning party, live musicians, blasting house music, eccentric themes, community gatherings and healthy treats. Now talking was allowed on the dance floor, the message was clear… have fun sober. Dancing without alcohol meant a time for exercise, a time for connection. The sober dance movement is here, and it’s sexy AF.
Years without a drink and I finally felt comfortable in my skin, fun and sobriety were words I could now associate. Back at parties with alcohol I felt freer, more confident, the crippling fear of what others thought of me lost its control. At my best friend’s wedding I tore up the dance floor to whispers of, “yeah and he’s sober!” The shame and stigma were gone.
So let’s open our search engines, find our tribes, have our own experiences. Ask around for other sober dance experiences until you find your home. Get uncomfortable until your comfortable. And for those who aren’t in a big city, remember all of these groups were started by normal people who, like you, just wanted to dance. All you need is some people, some music, some guidelines and an open mind. The beautiful thing now is that whether people are sober for an hour, a day, an addict or sober curious, the labels get dropped, we all become human again, dancing to beats in community to connect and relieve stress like we’d done eons before.
So when I was at Defected Croatia last year, dancing like a maniac, a young British raver nudged me and asked the question I get so frequently when I’m out in the club scene, “What are you on?” I smiled and told the truth, “Espresso.” He looked perplexed, his face said he wanted what the Americans had, some slang for an elusive drug he’d never heard of.
“What’s that?” he inquired further.
“Umm, like coffee bro, I’m sober.” I smiled and gave him a friendly pat on the back. He laughed and yelled to his group of friends, “This guys f***in’ sober!” They laughed in adulation. I can’t go back and save my younger self from the pain, but I can be a better example now. Thank you dance. Thank you sobriety. Thank you community. Thank you self.
Check out the article on Elephant Journal:
How Sober Dancing Changed My Life https://www.elephantjournal.com/2020/03/how-sober-dancing-changed-my-life
Some FAQs about my first novel, An Unlikely Guru
What’s your book about?
The short answer is that it’s a coming of age tale about a millennial in his mid twenties battling mental health. Instead of Peter (the main character) filling his prescription for anxiety medication he embarks on a spiritual journey seeking reprieve and happiness. He’s guided by a van-dwelling old surfer who’s enigmatic, charismatic and has overcome the darkness of his own past to be the enlightened man he is today. The story is raw and relatable yet mainly inspiring and applicable. It’s a beautiful tale… but I’m as biased as they come!
To be honest, I’d love to give a long poetic answer about all the obvious and subtle themes that appeared in my book. But I want to honor the reader’s experience and all of the time and creativity that went into these pages. A lot of it felt channeled, like I didn’t come up with it. Going back and reading it was a strange experience, like someone else wrote it.
Is the book about your life?
This question has been almost automatic from even my closest friends when I give them the answer to question 1. The short answer is no. I wanted this story to be more universal and relatable. With that being said, there is a lot of me in both characters and even some specific life events that are personal to me. In fact, as new challenges entered my own life during the course of writing An Unlikely Guru, I found them making their way into the story. Writing has been therapeutic for me for many years, and it surely was while writing this book. Hopefully one day when my book is out there I can share a spoiler post about what I’m referring to specifically. Until then, assume all characters and events are fabricated.
When can I read it?
I wish I had a better answer to this question. I’m currently in the slow moving world of pursuing traditional publishing. Obviously this is a challenge for any first time author, especially when there’s more people at Costco than following you on IG. Currently I’m seeking representation from a literary agent, next would come securing a publishing deal. Both steps would come with rounds of editing. So the answer is… who knows? But believe me, I want it out there as bad as anyone.
Why don’t you self publish?
Perhaps a question for Google for this debate but I’ve always looked at self publishing as my last option. I’d prefer to not spend the money on it (editor, publisher, marketing, etc.) and have a team of professionals to help me reach a wider audience. Plus, a book advance from a traditional publisher allows me the financial freedom and time to write the next couple of books I’m working on. Either way, my book will be readable one day.
Why did you want to write a novel?
Intuition. To be honest I loathe a lot of the spiritual books out there. I rarely finish them and even though I can agree with a lot of the ideas expressed, I don’t find them compelling or inspiring. Plus, I don’t like the tone of feeling like I’m being told how to live my life (The Power of Now Leave Me Alone). However, I love a good spiritual story that’s more entertaining and leaves room for me to interpret and apply things to my own life. To me, this is where the inspiration is, in stories, real or imagined. I feel this section of the spiritual/self-help genre is really underrepresented. So instead of complaining about it my intuition spoke… write your own. When I ignored it, the voice got louder; when I didn’t ignore it, my soul was on fire, a lot of the creativity felt channeled through something I can’t explain.
Shout out to some of my favorite spiritual stories: The Surrender Experiment, Siddhartha, The Alchemist, Way of the Peaceful Warrior and The Celestine Prophecy. With the exception of the first title listed, all the other books are fiction and written before smartphones in a different time and in a different culture. What about a modern spiritual saga that address things like the impact of technology on our mental health, addiction, and the rise in suicide while also remaining lighthearted and enjoyable? (hint… hint…)
How long did it take you to write?
To get to the first draft I wrote for two years. It was another 6 months of editing and five drafts later before I felt good about the manuscript I’m currently sitting on. I started this project in November of 2017, as I write this it is March 2020 and the book will still have a few rounds of editing to go, this time from the eyes of professionals. Send it some love!
*All content of this book, including the title, are subject to change.
What years of your life have been the most pivotal? For me there’s the obvious, at 24 I got sober, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and it led to the biggest transformation of my life. Then there’s the more subtle years, at 27 I learned how to be alone and got comfortable in my skin- living out of my SUV was more than a life of freedom and happiness, it was a lesson on simplicity and solitude. And as I write my first blog on my 34th birthday, I can’t help but reflect on how I’ll look back on 33 as one of the more pivotal years of my life.
There were memories I’ll cherish forever: a bucket list trip to Iceland, hiking alone until 2am across a mountainous fjord of magic; hours of the best music and dancing of my life at Defected Croatia, high on the rhythm alone; the manuscript to my first novel is complete, it’s a beautiful tale about mental health; and I fell in love at a deeper level than I knew possible, you know the fairy-tale rom-com stuff, you know from friend-zone to soul mate kinda stuff.
But don’t fret, this ain’t a blog to brag about how awesome my life sounds- that’s what Instagram is for (and why I’ve stopped posting). This is a blog about keeping it real, about being authentic, about sharing more than a photo with a caption. This past year I’ll remember more for the pain, for the challenge, for my resilience, for my growth. This year I’ll thank more than my friends, family, mentors and girlfriend, I’ll thank my therapist. I’m grateful for those moments when I questioned it all, those moments when I felt it all, and those moments when I made it through. This year was an adventure from lows to highs, from anxious to euphoric.
This year I’ll remember the continual onslaught of panic and anxiety that led me to open the door I had convinced myself didn’t need to be fully opened. The door that got me to open more old wounds than I knew were there. This year was dedicated to healing trauma. 33 was the year my body told me it couldn’t suppress anymore.
But 33 won’t be remembered for the year I suffered. It will remembered for the year I went towards the pain, towards the challenge, and came out a much better man. 33 was a pivotal year.
So when I arrived in my classroom today and my students surprised me with a cake, when my friends picked up the dinner tab in TJ, and when my partner treated me to a night of surprises, I had more gratitude. The food tasted better, I laughed harder and I loved deeper. This year it felt earned. This year I gave love and got love. This year, like all challenging years, I couldn’t have done it alone. The journey continues.