Day 365 - Colin (the last person I approached)
December 31, 2014 - DAY. THREE. HUNDRED. AND. SIXTY. FIVE. If you had asked me last year if I thought I’d fulfill the idea of talking with a stranger every day for a year, I probably would have laughed at you. It was daunting enough to think of this project as something to do, just for myself. I thought I'd just share with it my friends and family. I had no intention of becoming so public with it.
This social experiment has taken on a life of it’s own, far beyond my wildest ideas, or expectation. I thank you, for being a part of this ride. About four months into the project, I had been asked several times if I would ever share my own story. The answer was always 'no, this isn't about me.'
Looking back, I’ve shared more and more of myself, throughout the year, in media interviews, and in the two TEDx Talks I did. Mostly, I shared bits of my story on a one-to-one basis, with the strangers I chatted with daily. I found things in common, or in complete contrast to speak about, with every person. We may be all different people, but at the core, we’re not so far apart.
If you’ve been following along all year, you’ll know that I’m okay with breaking my own rules. I deal with change well. The one rule I have stuck with, is not writing about anyone I know. Until today…
I was born in a small gold mining town, Bralorne, in the interior of British Columbia (BC). My parents were both immigrants from Scotland, and my sister and oldest brother are both Scottish as well. My older brother and I are the Canadians in the family, making me the youngest of four. When I was two years old, the family moved from Bralorne to Port Moody (BC).
My sister was almost ten years older than me, and we spent a lot of time together. I have fond memories of watching ‘Bewitched,’ eating Kraft Dinner and wieners for lunch, with my sister. My parents divorced when I was three. In time, my siblings went to live with our father and I stayed with my mother, who remarried.
My mother, stepfather and I lived in an apartment. When I was nine years old, I went to live with my father and siblings. They lived in a house with a dog and lots of people. I wasn’t particularly close to my brothers, but I was always close to my sister. My father had remarried, and his wife had two kids. It was always a busy household. However, I only lived there for a short time. My father left his second wife, and my older brother and I went with him to his homeland - Scotland. I was ten years old.
School in Scotland was a difficult transition. All the kids spoke a local Scottish slang, and I was ostracized because I didn’t. I was considered ‘posh’ because of my accent and diction. We lived in a tiny town called Montrose, on the east coast for the first six months or so, staying with my paternal grandmother. I remember I was the first Canadian kid that most of the others had ever met. About three months after starting at my new school, an other kid who happened to be from New Foundland came to our school. All the Scottish kids wondered if we knew each other, with both of us coming from Canada.
My father, brother and I moved to Dundee, also on the east coast of Scotland. We stayed there for five years. I learned to speak with a Scottish accent and blended in. Until I was fourteen. I became a fan of David Bowie. One day, I went into the bathroom with a few sachets of red hair dye, and a pair of scissors. I shaved my eyebrows off, cut my hair, dyed it bright red and proclaimed ‘I am Ziggy Stardust.’
It was the early seventies, and looking back, it was a remarkable time to live in Scotland. The glam-rock, pop culture of Bowie, Marc Bolan, Roxy Music, Abba, Blondie, Elton John, Queen, Sparks, Suzi Quatro and many others had a huge impact on me. It seemed everyone in Scotland stopped on Thursday night at 7:00pm to watch Top of the Pops.
I got along with pretty much everyone at school, even though the others sensed I was ‘different.’ I hated gym, took cooking classes and wanted to be like David Bowie. They all seemed to know something I didn’t. At that time in Scotland, most kids completed school by sixteen. Because of my birthday being in November, I finished school at fifteen.
We came back to Canada just before my sixteenth birthday. I got my first job working as a busboy in a restaurant. They told me they hired me because of the Scottish accent I had acquired. I worked in customer service positions and continued exploring fashion, music and alternative culture. I came out to my family when I was eighteen years old. Within a two week period, I told all the people in my life that I’m gay. I was fortunate to have an entirely positive and supportive reaction from everyone. A couple of people maybe took a while longer to understand, but that was their issue, not mine.
My friends were all artists, involved in fashion, theatre, photography, and performance. I was working as a manager of a hair salon and making my own clothes. We’d go out to night clubs and I’d go home halfway through the night to change into a different look. Underground night clubs, a thriving art scene, alternative performance art shows, fashion, theatre and culture. Despite the fact that most of us wanted to move to Europe, Vancouver in the ‘eighties was a very fun place to be.
I moved to London, England in 1987, hoping to revolutionize the fashion industry. Because of my Scottish heritage, I was able to live and work there. I had some goals I wanted to achieve, working with fashion photographers as a photo stylist. I met some of those goals. I also became what I call a ‘professional drunk.’ I was working, clubbing and drinking. Not always in that order. The idea of working in fashion slipped away, and I continued working in retail, and partying.
I loved being in London for the cultural opportunities as well as the bars and clubs. A day off, reading the newspaper and two hours later, listening the Vienna Boys Choir singing at the SouthBank Centre. I walked everywhere, tired of waiting for transit delays due to IRA bombs threats or 'Delay due to passenger under train at next station’ signs. Walking became a habit that has stayed with me. I love walking everywhere. After six years in London, it was tme for me to come back to Canada.
My alcohol consumption had really taken a toll and I grabbed at straws for normality. I got a job in Victoria, on Vancouver Island (BC). I worked at the Belfry Theatre, one of the top, independent live theatres in Canada. My job was essentially looking after the audience and the team of volunteers. My life changed there.
I woke up one morning at 5:30am, and I had no memory of finishing work. I couldn't even remember leaving. The Belfry is in a historic building, a fully restored, one hundred plus years old, former church. I got dressed, and ran to the theatre, relieved to find that everything was just as it should be. I had gotten so drunk at work that I blacked out. This wasn’t good. While many places would have fired someone for my behaviour, I was fortunate to be cared for. A few very special people in my life saw more in me than I saw in myself. I got sober on January 18th, 1999, almost sixteen years ago. The Belfry helped me save my life.
I didn’t want to be that person anymore. I had had the experience of ugly crying in the mirror, upon seeing my own reflection. I went to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) for five years. I wanted to get sober. At forty-two, I went back to school. I took an intensive two year multi-media course at Camosun College in Victoria. I went in thinking I wanted to be a videographer, and graduated with a passion for radio. I wanted to make documentaries and had a profound love for story-telling. I got a much-sought after contract right out of college, working on Victoria FolkFest (2006) as the Programming Coordinator. Truly one of the best summers of my life.
Once again, I moved back to Vancouver, my fifth time making this wonderful city my home. I was working for a technology company, in retail. I spent a couple of years learning to train staff and facilitate training workshops. Over the years I've given up alcohol, cigarettes, and smoking pot. Tomorrow marks my not having eaten a potato chip in four years - now that’s an achievement!
When you peel away the layers, new things come to the surface. I knew something was still not right. I took some time off work last year. I started talking with my doctor about how I constantly felt ‘grey.’
Everything was becoming a chore, nothing made me happy, or held my interest. I wasn’t sleeping well. I only felt somewhat okay when I was at home, by myself. I was declining invitations from friends and to social events. If I could get out of doing anything, I ditched it. As a sober alcoholic, I had worked hard to rebuild my life. I recognized that I needed to do more work. I was diagnosed with major clinical depression.
Part of starting The Stranger Project was a way to ensure that I would leave my house, every single day. For most people, that's not easy to understand. For me, living with depression, leaving the house can be a completely debilitating concept. Meeting a stranger every day ensures I leave the house, whether I want to or not. I had made a declaration to my friends that I was going to do this project every day. There was no going back.
The Stranger Project isn’t my only tool in working through depression. I see my doctor on a regular basis. I’m also seeing a counsellor, to walk through some issues. Who ever knew talking to people would help one feel so much better? I’m still working on all this, and have a long way to go. But the work is well and truly underway.
I have always enjoyed telling and sharing stories. This project has helped me to grow in ways that I could never have imagined. The connections I’ve made with complete strangers. The stories I’ve heard from people I’ve literally just met. Laughing with strangers, having people cry as they share their stories with me. I’m entrusted with secrets, and have learned a lot of things, about a lot of things. I research many of the random facts that I hear from day to day, and learn something from every single person I chat with.
I feel that it’s only reasonable that I should now be willing to share my story. After all, if it hadn’t been for three hundred and sixty four others being willing to, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
The Stranger Project has become a work of passion. There’s a chance to connect and build community. The power of reaching out to someone, listening and hearing. The opportunity to find out about somebody we might not otherwise know about. A reminder that we really can’t make judgements based solely on just the person we think we see. Everybody has a story. Everybody wants to be heard, to feel connected and to feel a sense of belonging.
The Stranger Project 2014 ends tonight, with my story. Tomorrow is a new day, and the New Year sees the start of the next chapter, The Stranger Project. The same but different. I hope you’ll stick around and join me in the new year. Be the friendly you want to meet, so that you can be #notastranger.
Happy New Year!