Chris Leamy: Unsympathetic a-hole, no longer
Photo by Will Wu (Hasselblad 500cm in Kodak Portra 400 film) shot for MOXI
"I assumed these people needed MY help, and it was actually the opposite. In trying to serve others, I received 10 times that help in return."
MOXI artist Chris Leamy dives deep in a personal essay detailing the beautifully redemptive story of a painful journey that lead one man to overcome his demons by helping others who ended up saving him, from himself, in return.
Before #heplaysforme, I was an unsympathetic asshole.
The world was black and white and I knew everything.
It was during this time, in my mid twenties, that I was given a bad misdiagnosis for a very serious disease. In the worst case, it would have been terminal. In the best, it would have made my life very difficult going forward.
The initial shock of the diagnosis, followed by retesting and the “let’s wait and see" period really threw me for a loop. I lost weight, stopped sleeping altogether, and became focused strictly on the things that were within my control. Anything outside that paradigm became something I needed to avoid at all costs.
Upon hearing that I was actually going to be just fine, I figured this mindset would stop. Instead, it got worse. I became so fearful of catching any sort of disease that this sense of control became priority #1. Eventually, I had a method for even the smallest detail, and my life became a series of agonizing routine. If the tiniest thing fell out of sync, as it always does in life, I seemed to be unable to function. To be honest, I didn’t even know it was happening. It was not until a family doctor told me that he thought I needed to see a “specialist.” I agreed with him, I thought I needed a recommendation for a blood specialist. I had been tested for HIV 12 TIMES within a few weeks, and all tests came back negative. Was my behavior warranting such heavy testing? No, absolutely not. "But tests cannot be trusted." So I kept coming back. My family doc was right, I needed to see a blood doctor, I thought. A good one. Instead, he kindly explained that I needed to talk to someone about what had happened. I angrily disagreed. He said that he would not see me anymore unless I worked on some of these OCD “tendencies” (very nice of him to call them that). Since seeing my doctor was engrained in my routine, I had to agree.
I wish I could say I chatted with a counselor once and then got better. I didn’t. I was so far gone that I couldn’t really see what my life had turned into. After a few sessions, the counselor started to push me. He wrote down all the “necessary habits” I had given him over the previous sessions and then repeated them back to me. It sounded like the thoughts of a crazy person. That week he asked me to do ONE thing that made me uncomfortable. Just as a test. It could be anything, but it needed to be outside my comfort zone. So that Monday, I decided to change the order in which I got dressed for work. Pretty harmless. Unfortunately, to me it was like the world was ending. I was a complete mess. At that point, the walls came down and I realized how dire things had become. That was when the real work started. The process was slow, and frustrating. I tried to get bolder with my weekly challenge, going from small things like my morning routine, to big things like which side of the street to walk on (yup, at the time that was progress). I was having a very hard time discussing some of these things, so music was a huge outlet for me. I wrote a lot of songs while I was putting the pieces back together.
Then one day, a homeless woman asking for spare change on a subway platform said “this would be easier, if I played one of those” and pointed to my guitar (I was coming from a songwriting session with another artist in NYC). She explained that those with a talent on the street often make more tips than those without one. That weekend, as my “one thing,” I decided to go out on the street and play some song ideas next to a few homeless folks. I figured it would be good to see how the songs felt in a live context, plus maybe they would make an extra buck or two? I was not nervous about playing music live, but sitting next to someone who might be a bit dirty or unkept frightened me. I thought it was a good test to see how far I had come with everything.
That weekend I went to Union Square and sat with a few folks. I played some music, we made a few bucks, but that wasn’t the important part. THESE PEOPLE, and their amazing stories of strength absolutely took me back. I expected people with addictions and lazy attitudes. Instead, I found humble individuals with compassion and perseverance. My problems seemed insignificant in comparison to the challenges these people faced on a daily basis. Though I kept things very private, I still had friends, family, and great resources there to support me. These people had NONE of these things and yet they remained far more positive than I could have ever been. Sure, the few dollars helped meet their needs of the day, but to be honest, seeing their joyful reactions and genuine appreciation was so much more valuable to me. In these sessions, all my internal bells and whistles seemed to fade away. I assumed these people needed MY help, and it was actually the opposite. In trying to serve others, I received 10 times that help in return. It was a powerful feeling and I wanted more. Over the next few weeks, I went out every Saturday and spent time with those living on the street.
I was really unnerved by how horribly I had misjudged these people. With permission, I started sharing some of the stories I heard on social media with the hashtag #heplaysforme. Not all of them were about the hardships of being homeless, often they focused on kind moments, or funny jokes. I was trying to show a different side of the homeless community. A side that I wouldn't have believed existed had I not seen it with my own eyes. The more I did it, the more I began to feel like my old self.
After about a year and a half of doing this, the media began to cover it. Before I knew it, we had over 20 million views from different videos presented by Nowthis, CNN, People, TODAY, CBS and others. The focus was always on humanizing this group of people, who often felt completely ignored. We were able to raise thousands of dollars for different homeless organizations and even got several people completely OFF the street.
I am very protective of the homeless community, and would never want my friends to feel exploited. I am so grateful for all the press outlets that showed amazing patience and allowed these individuals to tell their stories. The homeless often say how lonely they feel. To see their faces as reporters from the largest media outlets in the world asked "tell me about yourself and the homeless community" was such a gift for me. I will never forget it.
I have been doing #heplaysforme for almost three years now (I still try to get out there once a week or so). It is funny how life's challenges often lead to new opportunities. Without my own personal hardships, I never would have been able to help these amazing people, hear their stories, and grow from the new perspective. Without their help, I never would have realized the extraordinary power in doing just a small act of kindness. This all started with me trying to return to my old self. I don't think I will ever be that person again, and I am so grateful for it.
WATCH THIS VIDEO FOR MORE INFORMATION ON #HEPLAYSFORME
Video by Justin Sudberry for MOXI MAG
Like on FB: @chrisleamymusic
Listen to Chris Leamy Music HERE.