Talking with Joel Phillips

Joel Phillips’ turnaround came on a bike ride.

He had been overweight, inert, depressed. Enough factors fell into place to click him into a final decision: He would ride out to a quiet spot and shoot himself.

Instead, he returned that day in 2009 and has become a passionate advocate for biking in his Colorado community. He has shed weight and certain mental burdens from childhood. Now he can cycle 100 miles in six hours, which is about four hours faster than we can go.

“I let my mind get out of shape, like I let my body get out of shape,” Joel says. “You eat junk food, and your body doesn’t work right. It’s the same thing with your mind. Fill it with junk, and it doesn’t work right. I had to clear that out.”

He started telling his story earlier this year with a post in a bike forum, and it’s grown from there. He’s now one of several people featured on the ADDY award-winning Man Therapy website.

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Joel Phillips. I live in Lakewood, Colorado, in the foothills surrounding Denver. I was born and raised in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I was adopted by my parents.

How about your upbringing?

I was an inquisitive schoolboy. I think I presented certain challenges to instructors, when I look back at what I call my yellow-colored glasses. I asked questions people were not prepared for. In the third grade, my teacher scolded me for daydreaming. I said I wasn’t, and she said, “What are you doing?” I said I was thinking about what was going on in the battle we were talking about, which was Sherman’s March during the Civil War. August in Georgia must be dreadfully hot, those uniforms, they had no latrines, etc. I questioned my teacher, did more solders die from disease than battlefield wounds? I was told to stick to what we’re doing. I got bored really quick in school because I could easily remember names and dates. It caused some conflict. I started to create a world around me where I did was what was easiest for me at the time. As I got older, I realized that a lot of things came easy for me, so I was able to fool myself for a lot of years.

Fool yourself about what?

Oh, being happy, for the most part. I created these wonderful fantasy stories rather than deal with the reality that I had abusive parents. I was able to gain a lot of self-esteem and confidence through athletics. I was very involved in sport:  football, baseball, basketball, track, wrestling. I was able to maintain a presence of fairly normal, but on the inside I was trying to figure out a lot of things. It occurred to me no matter what effort I put in, the world would treat me the same way. So I kind of quit trying.

That was in high school?

No, there was a very specific event in grade school. It was around a paper I had wrote in fourth grade after we had moved to another house, a starting-fresh situation, and I wrote a report on escape velocity. The instructor wanted us to write something neat about space. I got interested in the actual rocket getting off Earth, so I wrote about the speed to break the Earth’s gravity. The principal was impressed and wanted to enter it in a contest, and he asked my parents to come in the next day. When I came home, my mom asked what I did wrong. She said, “The principal doesn’t ask us to come in for nothing.” I took a pretty bad beating from my parents that night. You know what, you told me to be on my best behavior, and this is the result? And I didn’t care anymore at that point.

And this carried on into older years?

It’s certainly the basis of the story I built my life around: No matter what I do, I’m not right. I’m a burden on everyone around me. Those thoughts permeated my life. That’s why I was in the situation I was in before I decided to take my life back. You can only have so much success when you’re afraid of having success. Because I was able to fool myself, I was able to talk to people, I was a good salesperson. In my late 20s, early 30s, I had a six-figure income. I started to believe this was not supposed to happen to me. I started looking for ways to screw it up. I was being late for meetings. And my safety net was disappearing. One big client did leave, and I lost nearly half of my income overnight. It was because one company was bought out by another and we were not the preferred vendor by that company, but because I was living by my story, I let all the things I was doing as a salesperson to insulate myself go. And I got a divorce. And that proved to me I was right. And I never took responsibility for things, because I had a great story to pin it on: I was abused as a kid.

Was that the beginning of your low point?

This was when I first started entertaining thoughts that I wanted to end my life. In about the year 2000. I just went for jobs with the least amount of responsibility and the easiest to do. When you’re in the printing industry, it’s hard to get a job anywhere else. I stayed in the industry, fooled myself I was happy. I met a girl, got married. This is an amazing woman. I’m lucky to have her, but I was not being fair to her because I was not letting her in, letting her love me, letting her family love me. I started to do things I did with my ex-wife.

And I got bigger and bigger. I go to work, I come home, maybe smoke pot and watch movies on cable, eat pizza. But Thursday nights I go out and play softball. But I couldn’t run the bases. I had to have an extra runner. As a kid, I could dunk a basketball. This was really weighing on me: Look at what I’ve done to myself. I had a hernia surgery, then gall bladder surgery. I thought I was having a heart attack when I had my gall badder surgery. I went through stress tests, and the cardiologist says, “I was gonna yell at you because you’re 378 pounds, but your heart’s in great shape. You won the lotto, but you’re not gonna stay like that.” So when the conversation came up, I needed to do more than walk my dog. Then my gall bladder went septic, and they removed it. In post-op, my general practicioner and cardiologist sat down with me, said that I was lucky, I have great markers for being as overweight as I am, but I need to do stuff. I finally say. “OK, maybe I’ll ride my bike at lunch.” And that was the end of that.

I started to grow deeper into my story: I’m not even worthy of being a shipping clerk at a printing company. I had one particular day where I mistook some info and didn’t get a shipment delivered on time. It really caused some big problems. It was the last straw for me: I’m even failing at this. I decided I would ride my bike at lunch tomorrow and shoot myself.

I went home that night, locked myself in the bathroom, wrote an apology letter to everybody I thought I’d hurt, and … I went to bed. And I had a peaceful sleep because I felt finally some relief from all of this. And I got up the next day, and I gave my wife what I thought was a last hug and kiss goodbye, and the last time I see my dog, and I went on that morning. I was very peaceful that morning and calm and calculated in everything I did. And I had gone to great lengths to make sure I wasn’t giving off any signs a person does who’s suicidal. I was very smart about reading what the signs were and avoiding them.

I left at lunch on my bike, fully intending to put the gun in my mouth and pull the trigger. I was riding towards Denver on the Platte River trail. And I rode underneath I-25 and across the river and turned north toward the amusement park, and that was a hill for me, a struggle. And whatever it was that kept me turning those pedals, that had me stop and take a look at a place _ it’s really beautiful where the Cherry Creek and the river come together, and you can see the mountains rise up _ and I got a taste of life right there. I remembered what it was like when I got my first bike. It wasn’t the bike, but it was I felt anything was possible in the world with that bike. And maybe for the first time since then, I got a taste of that. And I decided to ride more than do what I had planned.

About three weeks later, I told my wife, I said I wanted to ride my bike home from work. She said, “How far is it?” I said, “It looks like just over 14 miles.” She said, “You think you can handle it?” I said, “There are bus stops along the way. I think I can do it. I want you to give me ride to work Friday morning.” So we got in my truck that morning. After I dropped myself off at work, I reached with right hand across my body and grabbed the seatbelt and was able to buckle it, and I stopped. It had been 10 years since I had been able to do it. I had set the steering wheel a certain way so it wouldn’t interfere. I buckled it and was like, “Wow.” I hadn’t been doing anything but riding the bike. I did notice I had been wanting to eat better, not craving sweets. I wanted solid proteins. I started listening to my body more. The next thing I knew, I was able to sit up out of bed and put my feet on the ground instead of roll out. I had energy, my clothes were fitting better.

I decided I needed to look at what’s going on here, see what other changes I can make. I started examining what was going on in my life. I wasn’t training for nothing. I wanted to do something on my bike. I wanted to get more people like me to ride a bike. I would quit on myself, but I would not quit on other people. I started a site, Reasons 2 Ride, and blogged about what I was doing while training. I wanted to train for something crazy. I picked Ride the Rockies, a six-day tour over the mountains. Seventy miles you ride each day. I had a year to get in shape for that. I was doing it, and in the middle of that I thought, “How can I weasel my way out of this?” Then I had a stranger out of the blue who was following me and said, “I’ll come up and ride with you.” He was from Texas. I was like, “OK, I have to do it now.” So I did it. I didn’t ride every mile, but I didn’t realize what was the big prize. The big prize was doing what I did to get there.

I started getting emails, comments on blogs, media interactions that were extremely touching, how I had inspired them to take a chance at life. One person started playing the flute again, and their life’s happier because they go to the park and play. And I looked at myself and said, “I never understood why people listen to me. It’s not that I have anything to say, but when I’m engaged in life, playing it fully, I do so with integrity and honesty. And people can relate.” So I embraced that and decided to make it my life’s work, to get more people to ride bikes, to contribute to make a happier community for everybody. That’s the role I’m committed to.

And where you are now?

Now I teach a spin class three days a week, and the days I’m not teaching, I take other fitness classes. I do that in a group environment. Reasons 2 Ride has evolved into an ad agency whose campaign encourages people to ride more, with a network of businesses who are willing to offer discounts to people who ride a bike to their business. The website will have a mobile app. It’s social media, with me and interns out there interacting with people. And also, I started a nonprofit called Arapahoe County B-cycle. I’m going to manage a bike sharing program in the Arapahoe County area. It’s just taking it to the next level, having the confidence to do what I’m doing. I’m also working quite extensively with Landmark Education, I’ve done their Curriculum for Living, and I’m going to take part in their leadership program. This was an ontological view at life, what it means to be human in our relationships with each other. In these classes, seminars, I really learned how to get rid of my blind spots in life, fully express myself, be powerful about what I’m doing, be a cause for action, be a person for my community. It’s the first time in my life that I understand that I am my community, and my community is me. And now I life live joyfully. That’s the best word I can use.

How has your wife taken it? And your family and others you know?

Well, it was a big surprise when everybody around me learned I was at a point where I had wanted to commit suicide. That was something I couldn’t come clean with myself until really this year. They noticed I was a completely different person than the way I had been acting, but it was a person they’d always seen in me. The disappointment I had seen in others, what was disappointing them was they saw I failed to recognize the potential I had in myself. That was most disconcerting for them. That was true for my coaches, even educators. Because who I was as a person was not the person I had acted out in my life. That was the disconnect in the resistance I felt growing up. And I couldn’t see that because I had a tainted vision of who I was. And through Landmark, I’ve been able to see who I am for the first time and be able to act and speak in a manner that agrees with that. I like to think of it as those yellow-colored glasses. Have you ever put on yellow- or rose-colored glasses? The world takes on that tint, but after a while that tint goes away. That’s way I lived my life. I believed I was a burden, untrustworthy, those were my sunglasses, but after a while that faded into background. And now I was able to take those off.

The world occurs to me very differently now. I was able to make great peace with my parents. They passed away. I never let them love me. They did love me, but I didn’t accept it. It’s so emotionally debilitating not to let your parents love you. I was able for the first time to take a look at our situation from their side and feel empathy for them. They maybe were overboard with the beating I took, but what stresses were in their life that I didn’t understand? I was able to forgive them for making a mistake. I really got closure in my heart. It allows me to live. Like, if you have a wobbly tire on your bike because of a bad spoke, you tweak that spoke and everything runs true again. In my life, that was still a wobbly tire because I hadn’t let my parents’ love in. And just by acknowledging that, it kind of trued that wheel. It makes life easier as it comes at you.

I’m not saying everything is easier for me. My wife and I still struggle, but I’m able to accept what comes at me and, in the moment, choose to be happy.

You said this year you became open about your experience. Why?

What made that happen was, I was working with a life coach, and we were able to gain great avenues to getting to the root of why I was mad. I finally admitted to the story about the beating I took in fourth grade. And she called me out, she goes, “So what you’re trying to do with the bike program, the passion you have for that, there’s a disconnect here. You’re almost too passionate about this. It’s really overwhelming.” That’s when I started to say, “Well, the reason I went on that …” And I stopped myself. She said, “What?” I said, “Well, I told you about that ride I took, but there’s a reason I took it.” She said, “Because you promised your doctors.” I said, “That’s true, but the bike had been sitting at work for months.” And I admitted what had happened there. And she enrolled me in the Landmark forum.

And it was in that forum that people were sharing experience from all walks of life, from doctors to clergy to people like me. We learned that as human beings, we’re meaning-making machines. When something happens, we want it to mean something. That emptiness is so incomprehensible. And it’s through that process that we’ve created the world that we live in. All the racism, the hate, everything around us is, we created it because through our thoughts and actions we believe it to be true. And we can choose to not believe it to be true. And when I did that with my parents, that opened up the space for new and exciting things to happen in my life. To make the distinctions. When the voice in my head tells me to listen to my story again, I can stop it and say, “Wait a minute, what’s really going on here?” Mostly what it does it, it opens up my heart and soul to be vulnerable and truly be connected to people around us. To truly experience life, you have to be vulnerable. It’s been a big transformation. Allowing myself to be vulnerable in life has led to more joy than I thought I can ever have.

You mentioned still having difficulties sometimes. What kinds?

So I was let go by the printing company I worked at, almost a year after I decided not to kill myself and the spring before the Ride the Rockies. And so I’ve been working odd jobs, doing social media consulting, other things to scrape by financially, while I stay committed to getting Reasons 2 Ride and Arapahoe County B-Cycle off the ground. It’s a financial strain on us. That can be the source of so many other problems because there’s a lot of stress about it. However, my mental state of being, what I’m doing, my commitment, allows us to deal with the stress that can come up. We can handle it. It’s like a bike ride, not all rides are downhill or flat. Sometimes a hill is steeper than another hill. Keep pedaling, get to the top. That’s the philosophy I operate from. Rather than being attached to a certain outcome, I’m committed to an outcome, which means I’m doing what I need to do instead of finding an easy way or avoiding it. That’s where the stress comes from. Stress doesn’t go away. It builds up. If a bill collector calls, you talk to him, say, “Hey, this is our situation.” They’ll work with you. We can deal with everything life throws at us.

That feeling of wanting to end it all, it’s never come back?

It’s come back in, “God I can;t believe I thought that way once, how did I let myself get to that point?” And it re-empowers me to keep doing what I’m doing.

How did you get into Man Therapy?

As it happened, I gave a presentation to the city of Centennial about B-Cycle. My presentation was going to focus on all demographic and statistical info that painted a picture of a feasible, sustainable operation. But I didn’t want to do that because I had handed everyone a copy of the report that shows it’s worthwhile. “I want to convey to you how useful this can be to people.” I told my story, told how it could lead to a happier, healthy society. It was a left-field approach, but I guarantee each of those council people remembers my name.

That led to an introduction to a person in audience, his friend is COO of the Carson J. Spencer Foundation. They said “Wow, I really want to introduce you to our director, Sally.” We met, and what an amazing meeting that was. There’s something I can do to bring to the table of the foundation and Man Therapy. There’s synergy with Reasons 2 Ride. She asked me to share my story so she could put it on a blog, and I said, “No problem.”

Since then, I’ve come up with an idea for a fundraiser centered around … I love Man Therapy, so my brain immediately thought of “man cave.” So we’ll have a setup in a park, with a big-screen TV, we will have a punt, pass and kick competition, we’ll serve hot dogs and hamburgers and watch the Washington-Denver game. It’s gonna be really family-oriented. No alcohol there. We encourage people to ride their bikes, and I want to raise $10,000 for the foundation and Man Therapy.

And then the role I want to play is, I’m all about inspiring people to live a healthy, happy life, and I know what it can do for people mentally. And if sharing my story can prevent one suicide, I’ll share it a million times. I have cousins who committed suicide. And I’m getting to know their parents now. I had kind of abandoned my family, and now we’re reconnecting. And we’re really forming special bonds because they had children that committed suicide, and I almost did but chose to live. We share intimate stories, how I in some ways remind them of their son. And that’s very special to me. If I can bring a sparkle to their eyes just a little bit. This is what it’s about. I realize in making a stand for others, I don’t have to stand alone. And being a helping hand means I will always have one when I need one.

What have been some of the more striking responses to your story?

The emotion it evokes in others, I guess, has been the most striking to me. But just that, really, how caring and wonderful the people around me are. And I don’t just mean my immediate family and friends. And I think it’s because I’m really living life joyfully, and it comes through when I interact with other people. And I get to see a side of people others don’t get to see. Being vulnerable means others can be vulnerable around me. It’s easier to interact. I don’t feel afraid anymore.

What would you say to people whose minds are where yours was back then?

For me, it was like a light switch of emotion. Prior to deciding, I felt things had come to a head, pressure from all directions. In the snap of a finger, I decided I would do it, and it was calm over me. If you experience that, call someone. Tell someone. Tell them, because you’re a danger to yourself. You have the peace and resignation to end your life. I got lucky, I’ll be honest with you. Life slapped me hard. My legs were burning, my heart was burning, I got shaken out of what I was in. That’s my biggest advice. If you’re thinking about suicide, and all of sudden you come to complete calm, you’ve somehow made the decision to go through with it. You’ve come to the most dangerous point. That’s when you should seek help. And maybe signs of that are wanting to know what signs of suicidal people are, so you can avoid acting like that. Because you’re prepping yourself.

Is suicide something we choose or something that happens to us?

I chose to do it because I felt I was an overwhelming burden to others. I felt my being on Earth was a disruption.

Is this a mental health, mental illness thing, or a decision you made outside that?

I was diagnosed as depressed. That was the time when I was on antidepressants. But really, it all really came from living inside a story that I had believed about who I was. It was poor mental health. I let my mind get out of shape, like I let my body get out of shape. You eat junk food, and your body doesn’t work right. It’s the same thing with your mind. Fill it with junk, and it doesn’t work right. I had to clear that out.

I mean, god, you go on a 100-mile bike ride, it  takes six hours to do, and I didn’t want to think about how bad my legs were burning. It’s really easy to talk yourself out of a bike ride when that’s going on, so I wanted to do anything besides think about how my legs were burning. So I started going through my life: “What did I do that for?” I started to do the mental fitness part of my brain, too.

And that’s an interesting thing that you bring that up. One thing I recognize as a big problem in this country is, we are weaning out physical activity. Never before have we had more devices to avoid physical activity. There’s a big link, I think. We’re still mammals, and we’re still an evolved primate, and deep inside our wiring of our brain we have this desire and need to accomplish something, and what’s more, something physical. When we ride a bike, at our primal state, we’re accomplishing something physical. At our primal level, that’s satisfaction. And if the only thing we’re doing is getting into SUVs or electric cars and getting in cubicles and insulating ourselves there and coming back home, we’re missing something there. We even have schools cancelling PE, and our labor’s outsourced to different countries. Maybe this needs to be more seriously looked at. This is why I’m doing it. If more people get out and exercise, there’s the whole domino effect. Put physical activity in our lives, then some of the problems we have will start to disappear. It bothers me to a deep, deep level that we have a tragedy, and now it’s defined by how many people are shot in a public setting. We want gun legislation instead of talking about what in the world caused that kid to pick up a gun in first place. We as a society are easy to share our nightmares, our horrors, but we don’t share our most precious dreams. What would this world be like if more of us shared our dreams, rather than our nightmares?

What else would you like to do, accomplish?

Really the only thing I plan on doing is committing to helping create a happier, healthier society. As Reasons 2 Ride becomes more sustainable, it will be absorbed by the community, and i can move on to another project. I want to be a messenger of joy. We don’t have to be caught up in our stories. It doesn’t have to be a world of hate and un-health.

Who else are you?

I’m a class clown. I love it when I can make an absolute stranger laugh with a snort. I’m a big kid. Part of the reason I ride my bike is, I go to the park and get on a swing. A while back, my  wife and I were on the playground, letting our dog run around the jungle gym. They had this rock wall there, and I’m climbing on it. I said to my wife, “This was made for a shorter kid.” She said, “Did you just say that? Maybe it’s made for a kid!” And I was like, “That’s who I am!” I’m an adult that can still be a kid. And I don’t know who said we needed to lose that, but man, everything I do is so much more fun because I’m a kid.

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2 thoughts on “Talking with Joel Phillips

  1. Joel,
    Thanks for your courage to share your experiences and insights. Your perspective on the how we measure tragedies and want gun control instead of looking for underlying causes. That seems to apply to suicide as well; people wanting to “prevent” the outcome without looking deeper to address potential causes.
    Your willingness to be open is inspiring.

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