By Hank Center
How Freddie Mercury Changed My Life
Freddie Mercury provided the soundtrack for my life in the ’80s; alcohol was the fuel, and cocaine brought clarity and connection. Life was great and the parties were over the top. His music and influence were evident at the Black Party in NYC, the White Party in Miami, and debaucherous weekends on Fire Island. He was in the background at Danceteria, Limelight, Roxy, and Splash Bar, which was my “homegroup” Our crowd moved in rhythm. Friends would meet for a drink in the afternoon, then to a hot new restaurant for dinner. Someone would have tickets to a show or would be going to hear a new band on the Bowery. It was a magical time to be young and gay.
‘drugs got harder and booze flowed faster, the clubs thumped louder,
the parties started on Thursday and ended on Tuesday’
As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, the drugs got harder and booze flowed faster, the clubs thumped louder, the parties started on Thursday and ended on Tuesday. My sober boyfriend wasn’t having any of my partying and ultimately asked me to move out. I can’t blame him. It was just more of the unmanageability that had become my normal. I hooked up with a drunken Brit and stayed with him for the next few years. He was mean-spirited, petty, and abusive. But it was a place to live and exactly what I thought I deserved. He told me nobody liked me, and I didn’t have any friends and that he was the only one who could stand me. After a while, I believed him.
AIDS had settled onto our community and friends were dying. Street drugs were now woven into my life, coffee and cocaine kick-started every morning. Fire Island had been decimated by the plague and I stopped going there. It was just too sad and way too real. I could barely function at my job.
‘I started asking for help in the mid-’90s after an attempt at suicide where I was too drunk to maneuver my apartment’s 17th-floor balcony so that I could jump off the building’
As life in New York spiraled, my reasons for going out changed. It wasn’t fun anymore; it hadn’t been in years. The energy of the city that once fed my soul had now captured it and held it hostage. My friends were gone, most of them now dead. As much as I hated everything about my life, I couldn’t stop using drugs or people and I didn’t know how to change that. I was stuck. I hid in seedy after-hours bars around Hell’s Kitchen because it was better than going home to a certain argument and a probable black eye, or worse.
I started asking for help in the mid-’90s after an attempt at suicide where I was too drunk to maneuver my apartment’s 17th-floor balcony so that I could jump off the building. I somehow found the wherewithal to call the alcohol abuse hotline and was directed to a clubhouse on 37th St., just a short walk from my apartment. I went to meetings for a while, but I couldn’t stay sober.
The round of rehabs followed an intervention with in-patient situations in Miami, later in New Hampshire, and an out-patient in the city. My home-group was the Mustard Seed and I went faithfully to the daily beginners meeting at 11:30 am.
‘The weight gain also provided me with another barrier to relationships’
I met a nice man in outpatient. He was funny and sweet and wore round glasses. I was smitten. We started spending some time together. Coffee at first, then dinner, then weekend road trips; crab cakes in Mystic Harbor and lobster in Maine. Lots of coffee and new restaurants were as much of our recovery as was going to a meeting. We celebrated small victories. An aspiring writer, his poem called “Meat” was published and we went out for a steak dinner. It was very exciting. We would always remind each other that “No New Relationships” was the cardinal rule of the group. It was a dilemma. We wanted to stay sober and follow the rules, but damn; we also wanted to be in love and to spend time together. So, we didn’t share it in a group. I told him I wanted to live on an island, get a kayak and a dog. I also wanted him to go with me. Ultimately, I relapsed, and it destroyed our new relationship. I was drunk again and now devastatingly heartbroken. He had been so kind, and he had loved me. I knew I couldn’t let this happen again.
I didn’t get sober for a few more years but ultimately landed on an island in South Carolina with a boat and a dog. But not the boyfriend. I made some friends in recovery but was still spiritually adrift. I didn’t know how to function in life, didn’t know how to be a friend or a son or a brother. I had a few connections with people and was convinced that If I did, I would certainly get hurt. I was sober from drugs and alcohol but found that I could get that familiar sense of ease in comfort from food. I ate a lot of doughnuts. I had heard in rehab that I shouldn’t worry too much about the weight gain. I could deal with that later. Great. I’d have another doughnut.
The weight gain also provided me with another barrier to relationships. Fear of people, which had always been a part of my life, intensified. That layer of fat insulated my feelings and provided a sense of security as well as a wall between me and people. I began to isolate again and the friends I had didn’t come around quite as often. Food was rapidly becoming my new Higher Power and the pounds climbed from my crack cocaine weight of #130 to 160, 200 and then 240. Fortunately, I was healthy enough to donate a kidney to my mother at four years sober. The medical team was concerned about my weight then and warned me about diabetes. During the 12 weeks of recovery from that surgery, I gained another 40 lbs. At six years sober I quit smoking cigarettes, and this resulted in more weight gain. My bottom with food addiction was a diagnosis of Diabetes and now, with only one kidney, I was terrified. I am a compulsive over eater and the process of recovery from food addiction had to begin. I had survived alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence, and cigarettes, but now I am dying from pizza? WTF??
I hadn’t been to a movie or any other public event, other than an occasional hockey game with my niece, in years. It was just overwhelming to be in large groups of people. I was too fat to fit in a stadium seat or a restaurant booth and If I did go out, I had to be careful to locate a sturdy chair so that I didn’t break it and fall onto the floor. Going out in public required planning: from where to park the car so that I can swing the door open wide enough to get in and out, to the location of the restrooms so that I didn’t attract any attention as I moved through the venue. I would have to arrive at a restaurant early so I could choose the table and would always sit with my back to the room to avoid the stares and comments from other diners. Even renting a car was a challenge. Once, in Europe, I had to upgrade five times before I could fit into the vehicle. Who has to try on a car? It was just easier to stay at home and eat.
Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie, was released in 2018. I wanted to see it and was determined to figure out how I could. There is a boutique cinema on the island that is known for its wide reclining seats that can be reserved. This looked promising so I did some research. Tickets could be purchased online and the floorplan showed a couple of seats near the exit. I drove by a couple of times to determine when there would be a queue that would have to be avoided, and where I could park. This may work. I ordered my ticket, selected my seat, and timed my arrival so I could slip in and out unnoticed. It worked beautifully.
Something changed that day. I had overcome a fear that had been torturing me for years. I had planned to see a movie, suited up, showed up, and was transported to a happy part of my life by my old friend Freddie. It inspired me to go out again and I began to explore different areas of creative interest. I was more aware of when I needed a haircut and what I was wearing. I made an effort, met with friends, and attended events to which I was invited. I became more mindful and included a food plan in my morning process of prayer and meditation, followed by some form of action and exercise. As a result, I became more connected, involved in the community, making new friends, and dropping weight. My self-esteem has improved, and I am happy.
I heard at a meeting that we should “walk through the doors that are open”.
Overcoming a fear to attend a movie about Freddie Mercury opened a door and I walked through it. It has changed everything.
You can reach Hank at email@example.com