"As many of us do, I spent decades showing up to a career that represented safety, not growth. I found myself stuck in the rut of a predictable and unfulfilling future I couldn’t seem to find a way out of. As I looked at many of my colleagues who were close to their retirement, after having spent most of their lives showing up to a job that was not challenging nor utilizing their strengths and passions, I realized I was guilty of the same mentality, believing that we have to do what is safe and pays the bills while putting our dreams on the back burner and convincing ourselves that we will live after five o’clock, on the weekends, on our vacations, and hopefully after we retire. This to me seemed like dying years before our bodies did, with no guarantee that we’d even make it to those points in our lives.
I had a history of suffering bouts of depression, addiction, self-harm, and becoming suicidal multiple times in my life since I was a teenager. I didn’t see this pattern clearly or identify with these words until I was hospitalized after becoming suicidal again almost three years ago. It was in the clarity of my sleepless and sober nights in the psychiatric ward at Yale New Haven Hospital that I realized I lacked healthy coping skills to deal with pain, anger, grief, and sadness. I had been using the same coping skills since some of my early childhood traumas, crises, and major life changes. What I didn’t realize yet was that I was just beginning a path of both healing and following my heart, which ultimately led directly to fulfilling my dreams.
In 2010, after getting fired from Yale University, where I had been cooking as a chef for three years—which for many is the last stop in their culinary career, as it is safe, paid well, and offered great benefits and security for a predictable and comfortable future—I thought my life was over. I had been in the throes of a battle with depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicidal ideations, after the traumatic end of an abusive relationship, starting over again with nothing more than a couple trash bags of clothes, and losing both my aunt and uncle to the completion of a dual suicide. Though opportunities to get help were offered to me leading up to my termination, I had no will to save myself from drowning.
It was then, while collecting unemployment, that I bought an inexpensive camera, which I began to use as I walked the streets of New Haven, Connecticut. Without my realizing it, this became part of my therapy, a daily meditation, and a tool to connect with the world around me. I began to pause and look at ordinary life around me in a way I never had before. I deliberately found myself looking for light and beauty wherever I happened to be. I would capture these moments and perspectives and later share them on Facebook. It seemed to be having the same impact on others as it had on me; it was giving them an opportunity to pause and look at the beauty that surrounds us, which we are often too busy and too distracted to notice and appreciate.
Though I continued to pursue and work jobs in the culinary field for the next few years, I continued taking photos, and even went back to school at Gateway Community College, where I explored a few career path ideas while focusing on how to incorporate art and psychology into a career allowing me to engage and work with people wherever they were on their journeys, in a variety of mediums. But as my relationship of almost five years was ending, I could no longer keep my balance, and continued to sink deeper into depression, was overwhelmed with anxiety, still battling addiction, and became suicidal again. This I thought was surely the end of the road for me. I had been accumulating debt due to my addiction, abandoned all my jobs, and withdrew from classes. I was isolated, ashamed, and hopeless.
By my third day in the psychiatric ward at Yale New Haven Hospital that cold December, I began to heal through accepting where I had been, what I had done, and where I now was. I was no longer trapped in silence and shame, because there was no more hiding or denying. My family and friends now knew the truth, and I realized as I looked around at the other patients, who were also stricken by grief, shame, and hopelessness, that I was not alone. In this very raw, vulnerable, and authentic state we were all in, it no longer made any difference what our careers were, what our race, gender, or sexuality was, or what our income was. We were all human beings who had been suffering and lost hope. Through our stories of how we’d arrived in this place, we made meaningful connections that seemed to give each day purpose, hope, and a sense of support and community.
Months after being released and continuing on my road of sobriety, healing, and growth, I was inspired to connect my photographs with inspiring quotes, and wanted to create a Facebook page to showcase them. I had a friend with a project rooted in giving people from all over the world an opportunity to share their expressions of gratitude. Over lunch one afternoon, I mentioned my idea to her and she proposed something I never considered. She asked if I would be willing to photograph and ask strangers on the streets, or wherever I found myself, what they were grateful for, so she could begin to incorporate them into her project. Though I had never really photographed people or approached strangers with questions before, I accepted the challenge and began that spring.
Seven months and over 1,200 portraits and interviews later, I recognized that the stories that people were sharing with me of what led them to be more grateful had more value to me than what simply they were grateful for. I wanted to create my own platform where people could share their hardships in a way that might inspire others. I realized that my own willingness to share my hardships and journey through depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicide on social media was giving others hope and inspiration, that healing and progress were possible. I thought that if my own story had the power to inspire and give others hope and a sense that they were not alone, then others’ experiences and stories of resilience and courage surely would too.
So in December of 2014 I created a Tumblr blog and called it “Hearts of Strangers.” I never imagined it would evolve into the movement it has become today, but I can honestly say it has changed my life, been a huge part of my own recovery, and become the foundation for using all of my passions, gifts, and experiences in a way that helps human beings connect and heal simply through giving them an opportunity to be seen, heard, and valued, as they are—human."