Around Christmas, I turn into one of those annoying people who thinks everything is a little better just because it’s holiday time. But for a lot of people, this time of year can lead to depression and isolation. This week’s profile knows the pain of those dark days and now spends a good deal of his time helping others. He poured his story out in his autobiography, “Happiness.”
Here’s a preview:
PGN: Where are you from?
CH: Born in West Norristown Township, went to Norristown High. I went to George Washington University. I graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s and then earned my J.D. at Penn State Dickinson Law.
PGN: What type of law did you practice?
CH: I was in estate law for a number of years. In hindsight, that was a mistake. When I talk to young people today thinking about going into law I say, “Do you enjoy arguing — do you enjoy conflict?” It’s a fundamental question I wish someone had asked me. Because for me, the answer would have been: No.
PGN: Good advice.
CH: I should have gone right into writing. The first piece I wrote got into The Washington Post when I was just a junior in college. Soon after, I was published in magazines all over the country. And I wrote a novel — it was never published, but I got good feedback about it. I was told it just wasn’t commercial enough. After I became a lawyer, I wrote several books, including one on estate planning for people with disabilities, which became a passion for me. Later when I became a teacher, I wrote about that experience, too. But I never realized that writing was what I was meant to do until about three years ago.
PGN: What did you write about?
CH: A lot of history pieces. That first article was about Margaret Corbin, who fought in the revolutionary war and was the first woman to receive a military pension. The second piece was about prisoners of war during the American Revolution. I wrote about John Neville and the Whiskey Rebellion, which was one of the only insurrections we’ve ever had here on American soil.
PGN: What did you do after teaching?
CH: Nothing, I spent 10 years in bed trying to kill myself. I didn’t really get out of that bed until November 2015. I called an old neighbor who I hadn’t talked to in more than 20 years. I knew she’d become the director of counseling at a liberal-arts college and had a Ph.D. in psychotherapy. I needed help because I had detached from society. I had nowhere to go, no one to see and nothing to do. I needed help to create a life. She became a life coach and friend. Remember that book, “Tuesdays with Morrie”? Well, beginning in January 2016, I met with Phyllis in her office every Tuesday and told her my story. After two weeks, she said, “You have to write your story down.” I did, and it later became my book, “Happiness.” I wasn’t originally planning to share it, but I showed it to her and she said, “You have to publish it — it’s going to save and change the lives of millions of people.” I thought she was just trying to make me feel good because four months earlier, I’d tried to kill myself. But I shared it with a few other people and got similar reactions. One of the best was from a woman I met at my nephew’s birthday party. She turned out to have a master’s in social work from Penn and was working with students who’d had suicide ideation or attempts. I told her, “I have a book you should read.” So we arranged to meet and I gave her the original manuscript. It wasn’t published at that point. She got about halfway through — the whole thing can be read in 30 minutes — and said to me, “You know what you’ve done?” I’ll never forget that. She said that she wanted to give a copy to all of her clients to help teach them to tell their stories by reading mine. She’s been supportive the whole way through.
PGN: You said you were isolated for 10 years. What led to that?
CH: I’ve had an undiagnosed and untreated mental-health condition probably my entire life. It intensified over the years until I just couldn’t cope with life anymore. I lacked the mental faculties to cope with life. So as opposed to continuing to damage and destroy and hurt the people around me, I chose to remove myself. I stayed in self-exile until I found the proper medication and it literally saved my life. I spent years trying to find the right meds and when I found it in 2015 I was out of my bed in two days and meeting with Phyllis soon after. It was a miracle — it’s the only way to describe it. I should be dead.
PGN: What were some of the things that brought you to that tipping point where you withdrew from society?
CH: That’s a very good question. One of the mercies is that my mind has taken certain memories and put them to the side. I don’t have access to many of them other than those I wrote about in the book. And I wonder if I’m not supposed to have access; it’s not helpful to me in moving forward. Does that make sense? I’ve learned that I needed two things in order to survive: I had to learn to love myself and to believe that there was a future. Suicide is often when you feel there’s no hope left. Even today, three years out of bed, it’s still difficult for me to believe that I’m going to be here tomorrow. It’s very challenging for my friends, because I still don’t believe that I will see them tomorrow. So it’s very important to me to have plans.
PGN: That makes sense.
CH: Yes, I haven’t matured enough. Well, I’m almost 50, but I missed 10 years in bed. So the smart phones and social media are all new things to navigate. I drove here to meet with you and I’ve been doing signings and appearances, but I’m still not comfortable with it. I’m still working through finding hope and learning to love myself. When you’re looking to kill yourself, you create a mantra, “I don’t matter, nobody cares” — and you repeat it over and over.
PGN: Well, maybe that’s something good you can co-opt from Trump since his mantra seems to be, “I’m the only one that matters and they all love me.”
CH: Right? [Laughing] Oh, I needed that laugh. I appreciate that.
PGN: When did you come out?
CH: In some ways, this is it. Though as one friend puts it, the news that I’m a gay man is the news that water is wet. It’s always been a part of who I am, but it’s not a big part of who I am — there’s much more. I can say in 50 years I’ve had relationships with men and women, but my memories of what and who I was before the isolation is very spotty. Some of it is just in pictures, some in short videos, some don’t make sense. In truth, I have two lives — a previous life and a successive life. I’m a fundamentally different person now, as I speak about in the book. I have to say, I’m not a fan of labels, but I feel like I’m ready now for a relationship. But it’s hard because, one, I’m an introvert, I think I’ve been to a gay bar maybe five times and to any kind of bar maybe 50 times, ever. And secondly, as we spoke about before the interview, there are so many things outside of myself that I want to give my time and energy to. The fact that we’re destroying the earth — if I could devote myself to getting the plastic out of the Pacific Ocean and changing people’s mindset about the way we waste so much, I’d forego a relationship if I could make a difference.
PGN: What you need is a nice, environmentalist hunk.
CH: That will be a challenge. By temperament, I’m not the kind to walk up to someone in a social setting and introduce myself and I’m not a social-media person, so I’m going to need someone to set me up. This summer I’ve been focused on getting the book out, but now I think I’m ready.
PGN: Has all this been lifesaving?
CH: In July last year, I heard from someone who said that if they had not read my book, they would be dead, in jail or had to leave the area. But that 30 minutes with my book changed everything. Another woman, a mother, had been battling with narcotics for years and said that the book is why she now goes to Narcotics Anonymous. It’s been moving.
PGN: Wow. Were you also battling substance abuse?
CH: Yes, but I intentionally don’t speak about the details about that or the medications or specifics of the mental illness because it becomes a way to divide us. I was giving a speech and someone asked me and I responded that if I named it, someone might say, “Oh, that’s not what I was on, it’s a different thing, you wouldn’t understand.” It can be used to exclude rather than include. The book is written in the first person so that people will see themselves in the book. It becomes their story. The “I” becomes you, not me. You create your own story as you read it.
PGN: Well, “I” look forward to doing just that.
For more information, go to www.yellowpaperbooks.com/book-chad-harp.