Reprinted with permission from Rachel Thompson – rachelintheoc.com
A Little Background
I’ll be the first to admit that most people really don’t get me. Hell, most of the time, I don’t even get myself.
Out of everyone in my life, I think that it was only my parents who ever really got me. In fact, they got me when I was only six weeks old. Yes, they literally got me. I was adopted.
As an only child, it wasn’t as easy growing up as popular culture often portrays it. My parents explained my adoption to me at a very young age, and when they told me, I felt that I totally understood the adoption and all that it meant. At least, in my innocent, young mind, I thought I did. For the longest time, my understanding was that they bought me, and for much of my childhood I begged them to buy me a brother or sister to play with. Much to my chagrin, they never did.
I never considered my parents as anything other than Mom and Dad. They truly loved me and they showed it in the most effective way they knew how. They were Baptists, and I have vivid memories—as far back as the age of five—of trying to fool them into thinking I was so sick that they would take me to my grandparents’ house instead of making me go to church.
Despite my loving family life, limited interaction with other kids my age left me somewhat socially inept. Age five found me literally terrified to venture out of my comfort zone and into the pit of madness and mayhem commonly referred to as Kindergarten. I was simply very shy, a trait that has doggedly stuck with me my entire life—though I have done my best to hide it well … until now.
School had one saving grace: even at that young age, I knew I loved girls. I recall very vividly to this day my classmate JoAnn, and of course there was Tina, Misty and Tammie, who were all a couple years older than me. To me, they were all very beautiful. Of course, I wanted each of them to be my girlfriend, but I was afraid to talk to them, so my quad-fecta of love remained unrequited.
I often struggled with my identity, much like the rest of the kids, though there were two people that I trusted and considered my best friends: Brian and Matthew. They were cool in their own way. I felt they understood me, although they were no less geeky than I was.
High school brought about no change, and even rewarded me with a new set of awkward difficulties. My solution … I joined the marching band. No, not the “this one time, at band camp,” kind of thing—unfortunately! Hindsight has shown me that this was a serious mistake, just in the joining. As you might imagine, boys in marching band didn’t raise much excitement in most girls.
I didn’t really date much in high school. Instead, on Friday and Saturday nights, I typically spent my time at home, in my room, listening to LPs or cassettes on my stereo (for those of you under the age of thirty—these are forms of recorded music that we loved for their scratch-and/or-hiss-filled renditions of popular music releases). Kiss and Van Halen were my particular obsessions. My family hoped that this was merely a stage that would pass; little did they know my obsessions would spawn a career.
How I Became a Rock Photographer
Fast forward to age 22. Knowing my love for music, one of my best friends, Garry Danko, suggested I contact rock star Ted Nugent about a position within his organization. Garry owned the world-famous Rock n’ Roll store, Rainbow Rockatorium in Brick, New Jersey. I contacted Ted and landed a gig as Regional Director for Ted Nugent’s World Bow-Hunters magazine. Although I had never hunted a day in my life, in my mind it was a chance to work side by side with a real-life rock star. Who could be better than Uncle Ted?
I knew little about Ted’s political views or what he stood for, and frankly I didn’t care. My only concern was that he was famous, and I had his attention. At the time I wouldn’t admit it to myself, but inside I knew I took the job strictly to satisfy my own selfish reasons. Little did I know the pressures (and occasional death threats) that would come along with this dream job.
That being said, the job did come with a lot of perks and opportunities. When I was with Ted, we were treated like royalty. Anytime the opportunity would arise I let my friends, also his fans, enjoy the excitement of Uncle Ted’s world.
A photographer friend of mine in Greensboro requested a photo pass for one of Ted’s concerts. Ted hooked him up and, as fate would have it, my friend got sick and couldn’t go. Guess who had to fill in for him and take his place? Yep!
That geeky, shy kid from Cedar Falls, NC, was going to be photographing one of the most famous rock stars of all time.
Though I had never photographed a concert professionally, I had managed to sneak my camera into concerts as a teenager by sticking it down the front of my pants. While I was very excited to shoot Ted’s show, I was not ready for the events that were about to transform my life from super-lame to pseudo-fame.
From the very moment I first entered the pit (the area just between the crowd and the stage), I noticed something very strange. I was getting a lot of attention from the fans in the audience. I mean, a LOT of attention, especially from women—something I wasn’t used to, but had desired from my earliest memories.
My experience photographing Ted that night was beyond description.
About all I recall is walking away wanting more. I felt like an entirely different person.
For the first time, I felt like one of the IT crowd, high on some kind of drug.
And like every junkie, I had to have more.
My friend Tony and I created a magazine called MegaPop, for the sole reason of getting all-access at concerts. Before I knew it, I was shooting shows all over the country, for every major rock star and industry magazine imaginable.
Here Comes Strider
As my professional reputation grew and I began to shoot more shows, I found my ego also growing, to astronomical proportions. I became friends with a lot of the very same rock stars that I idolized as a kid. The more rock star friends I made, the more extravagance I enjoyed.
And I enjoyed it, to the max, everything that comes with the lifestyle: drugs, alcohol, parties, and especially the women—actresses, Playboy Playmates and more. Suddenly I was one of the USes in the Us-vs-Them, upside-down fantasy world of entertainment. It was a life of excess, and I lived it strictly on impulse.
I came to realize my country boy persona didn’t fit the environment. I created an alter-ego that emerged when I was around musicians and groupies. A total metamorphosis, both physically and mentally, known by only one name: Strider. He was 180 degrees from what I once was; Strider was like a beast, unleashed.
Strider imagined he was the rock star, not the people on stage. I had gone from having the self-image and confidence of Pee-Wee Herman to that of TEN mega-stars. It didn’t help that I was surrounded by yes-men everywhere I went.
My entire life had become a struggle between these two people inside me, each fighting for control. Strider had no idea who I was, or where I came from, and as Michael, I grew simply not to care. The only thing that mattered to me was the attention I was getting.
I have a clear memory of being introduced to a Playboy Playmate at a concert in Los Angeles, and having a dark foreshadowing that one could compare to the feeling Dr. Jekyll would get just before his transformation into Mr. Hyde (not violent—but just that extreme of an alternate personality).
I was so egocentric that the attention I got when walking into a room was more intoxicating than any drug I had ever experienced. At times, my arrogance overshadowed everyone around me, to the point of being disrespectful. To me, it was justified.
On different occasions Gwen Stefani and Gene Simmons both pointed out my problem. Gene once said to me, “You really need to get your ego in check, Michael!” Gwen, as usual, took the lighter approach in expressing her concern.
The fluctuation of the two people inside me often caused a mass of confusion, which sometimes led to rage. On occasion the anger and arrogance would spawn an external explosion that needlessly affected others. Not physically, but emotionally. Someone once compared it to a black cloud that overshadowed everyone around me.
Looking back now, I regret all the people that I hurt along the way, from my family and childhood friends, to my new ‘friends’ in the entertainment industry. Most of these individuals were innocent and didn’t deserve the treatment I served on them.
Photographing Rock Stars
Photographing rock stars was certainly not all I hoped it would be. Due to my naiveté, I failed to see the real reason many of these celebrities allowed me into their inner circle. It wasn’t my magnetic personality; it was my ability with a camera.
I’ve had my share of nightmares with these stars. I’ve been assaulted, belittled—you can imagine. David Lee Roth once poured Jack Daniels on my camera while I was shooting. Camera ruined—no remorse on his part. Another time, I was assaulted by Rob Zombie while photographing his show in Virginia Beach. After consideration, I’ve decided that both incidents probably owe less to bad character and more to declining popularity.
As for bad character, just as my own arrogance reached its peak, I met someone—someone very special. For the sake of her privacy, I’ll call her Maya.
Maya had no fear of Strider, my evil alter-ego. She met him head-on and never hesitated to put him in his place and bring him back down to Earth. I once said to a friend, “Who the fuck does this girl think she is? Does she know who I am?” She actually did … and she didn’t care. But more than that, she was asking herself the very same questions about me.
Maya believed in me, and my desire to live life to the fullest potential. She taught me that I didn’t need to be another person in order to give and receive real happiness. For the first time in a very long time, I felt like I didn’t have to be that guy who had to prove himself. It wasn’t easy, and it took some time, but Maya helped me work my way back to the person I had hoped to be.
Perhaps the author Iyanla Vanzant describes my journey best: “Your willingness to look at your darkness is what empowers you to change.” Indeed, really seeing what I had become was the only way I was able to change.
Maya and I have since gone our separate paths—however, she changed my life in countless ways. She encouraged me to remain positive in each and every situation that comes my way. She also taught me how to put kindness and sincerity above ego and arrogance. Through her, I learned I could achieve anything with a confident outlook and hard work towards my desired outcome.
Her resistance to Strider was the catalyst that led me to discover and accept that I never really needed to be anyone but myself. All the fear and insecurities that kept me from seeing my own potential was something that I had simply created in my own mind to hide behind. From what, I’m still not 100 percent sure, and I’m not sure I ever really want to find out.
In recent years I have found that helping others is the key to helping oneself. To that end, I’ve channeled my energy and strength into helping others in need. I don’t need to personally know those I’m trying to aid, and I don’t expect any recognition for my efforts.
My decision about where to focus my continuing growth is based on a very personal and very deep pain. On September 09, 2006, while having dinner with friends, I received a call from my mom telling that one of my best friends from childhood had attempted to take his own life. It was Matthew.
When I heard the news, my own troubles suddenly seemed very insignificant.
I first met Matthew while riding the school bus home in the 7th grade. At first I didn’t like him very much. He irritated the hell out of me. I am sure I did the same to him. During that long ride home he would always tell me about his favorite Bluegrass bands. At that age I was not interested in hearing about Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. Matthew and his family were also Bluegrass musicians. Damn good ones.
We both knew how to push each other’s buttons. As much as we argued, we were always like brothers. I had his best interest at heart and I know he felt the same about me.
Since first meeting him I knew something was wrong with Matthew. However, I dismissed it. In later years, he was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. As with anyone who has this terrible disorder, controlling the symptoms is often very difficult. Finding the proper dosage of medication is key to treatment, and that search can sometimes be overwhelming.
Matthew tired of the imbalance. Like so many others, when he reached a high, he felt he no longer needed the medication, and very quickly he would crash. After this happened, he completely shut out everyone in his life. He closed himself up both physically and mentally. Finally, after being alone inside his house for days, he turned a gun on himself.
He used a small caliber gun and therefore, did not die immediately. While in a hospital intensive care unit, Matthew was not able to move or open his eyes, but he could still hear.
Fortunately, I was able to visit him one last time. All I could think to say was, “I love you, Matthew. Everything is going to be OK.” A tear rolled down his cheek in response. Sadly, just 12 hours later, he was taken off life support. His life was over.
I felt as if I had let Matthew down because I did not see this coming. I couldn’t help, but in some way feel partly responsible. With all of my madness, I had drifted away from him. I often wonder if I could have said or done something to change his outcome. The reality is…I couldn’t. Matthew is gone.
Creating Awareness: The LifeAfterProject
From that moment on, I felt very passionate about creating awareness of the problem of suicide and I became an advocate for suicide prevention.
I began working on a project called LifeAfter—Visions of Hope. It will be a coffee table book featuring celebrities, (and a few ‘normal’ people, as well), who are advocates of suicide prevention. The term LifeAfter means there is life after any problem that someone may have that makes them feel as if they should end their life.
While doing research for my project I discovered that more deaths are caused from suicide than war, murder and natural disasters in this country each year. I contacted the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services in Los Angeles to talk to someone about donating proceeds to their charity. They suggested I donate on a national level since many of the celebrities will be from various parts of the country. Through their guidance I contacted the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org), located in New York City.
I arranged a conference call with Dr. Draper, the director of the Lifeline and we had an hour-long conversation about how the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is able to help people in need. We discussed in detail how my contribution would help the organization. After my conversation with Dr. Draper I felt elated because I knew this was the organization I wanted to support.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional stress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Since its inception in 2005, the Lifeline has engaged in a variety of initiatives to improve crisis services and advance suicide prevention.
Since 2007, the Lifeline has been providing special suicide prevention service for U.S. military veterans through an agreement with the Department of Veteran’ Affairs (VA) and U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services and Administration (SAMHSA).
If you or anyone you know is in need of help, please contact the Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Edgy, sexy, uplifting and provocative, LifeAfter – Visions of Hope is ultimately a Celebration of LIFE! I am donating 100% of the profits from the project to the organization.
Please join in this undertaking by visiting the links below, and finding out how you can also become involved in your own way to help others. I believe in the Butterfly Effect. Sometimes, without even knowing it, an act as simple as a phone call to say “Hi,” to an old friend, or holding a door for a stranger, can be the one thing that puts positivity back into their life, and may have helped to turn their focus away from the darkness inside to the wonder and brightness of the world around them.
Thank you for your time reading my story, and thanks for not laughing at me, and my many fumbles along my journey to Finding Michael.
Lifeafterproject.com (Subscribe to the blog)