Death Changed My Life

Around the time my brother died, my life was a mess. Publicly, I was a columnist at The New York Times, a CNN contributor about to start his own show on the Black News Channel, and an author on the brink of publishing his second book. My first, a memoir, had been adapted into an opera that would soon premiere at the Met. I worked out, and I ate well. “Health is Wealth” was my motto.

But privately, I wasn’t healthy. I was lonely and alone. I drank too much. I lived my life like it was about to end. I was afraid to be alone with my pain, because in the quiet, it got loud.

When people saw me, when they experienced me, they may well have seen a free spirit, even a reckless one. But in truth, what they were seeing was the personification of pain and trauma, walking and talking.

Then, my brother’s death blew a hole in me and made me reconsider everything. What kind of life did I want to live? What kind of man — kind of person — did I want to be?

Within a month, I changed everything. I stopped drinking. I learned to sit with myself, alone, and experience my emotions, and to deal with tough days, and even the exhilarating ones, head on. I was, and am, still dating someone truly special who has taught me what being at peace with yourself looks like.

And I have come to see things clearly again — things that seem so simple to me now, but that somehow I couldn’t see then: that life is a series of peaks and valleys, and it is a fool’s errand to try to flatten them out. That beauty is in the connections we make, to self, to family, to friends, to the earth. That we don’t judge the quality of a life by the volume at which we live it. That I deserve to be kind to myself.

I am finally, fully, at peace.

I have considered for months whether to write this column, whether it’s better to, as some advise, have an impeccably curated public persona. But the only image I want to project is one of honesty, openness and even vulnerability. The mission of my work is helping others any way I can, and that includes using the example of my own life and my own flaws.