Lili Bee talks with photographer Brad Oliphant about addiction, homosexuality, and coming to terms with one’s spirituality.
I am boarding a train from the beaches of Long Island back into Manhattan. Boarding next to me is a beautifully-built man with an impressive necklace hanging down onto his slightly sun-burned chest. It’s a Jesus made of hand-wrought iron, but looking more like a Phoenix rising up, not the usual tortured depictions of Christ so ubiquitous in religious art.
“Very cool necklace,” I say and the man decides to take a seat across from me. What transpires in the next hour is a passionate conversation about God, life, addiction, religion, the hot men he saw on Fire Island, and more. Oh, and an exchange of phone numbers.
A few weeks later we meet and he wants to walk, as it’s a beautiful night outside. He wants to show me something incredible. A few blocks along, he suddenly comes to a dead stop on the sidewalk, closes his eyes and takes a few deep inhalations.
“Is everything alright?” I ask my brand-new friend.
Keeping his eyes closed, he continues the deep breaths. A minute later he opens his eyes and says,
“You see those?”
He is pointing to some full garbage cans next to where he’s come to a stop.
“Is this the incredible surprise you had for me?” I ask him.
“No. I just had a memory come back to me,” and his eyes fill with tears. I’m taken aback but stay silent till he collects himself.
“I’m remembering rifling through those very cans for my dinner not all that long ago. And I’m just feeling such gratitude that I’m alive right now. Walking here with you. I have a full belly. I have my whole life back.”
The rest of the walk was a combination of me being in shock at his confession and me being suspicious that he was making up a tall tale. Eating out of garbages? Huh?
Because this man I’d just met was one of those people who, I don’t know how else to put it, seems to emanate a kind of light. It’s as if he’s plugged into something numinous that I can’t quite touch but I’m convinced is responsible for what can only be quantified as high wattage in his being.
I don’t know what to say, so we walk in silence until we get to Fifth Avenue. He takes my shoulders and turns me towards the opposite side of the street.
“Now, look up”, he commands.
As my eyes take in the statue of an angel way up in the frieze of a church, he gets out his camera and tells me he’s been here the past few nights shooting her.
“Wait till the full moon comes out right over that spire” he tells me excitedly.
And ten minutes later when it does, Brad turns a deliriously happy, five-year-old boy. His eyes dance with glee and he starts pacing up and down on the glittery sidewalk, making it a challenge to shoot his film.
“Lili! Look at her! Isn’t she magnificent? I mean, just look at this sky! Have you ever seen the light on a statue create such an incredible shimmer?”
And it was beautiful, I admit it. But the truly remarkable thing I remember is the way I felt walking home that night. I understood yet again, how God works through people. An hour with Brad and every cell of my body felt energized by his enthusiasm, his effusiveness for his life.
That night, I saw beauty in everything my eyes landed on. I wanted to hold onto the feeling forever. That’s the addict in me.
The addict in Brad had taken him down to hell before I met him.
This is the story of how a phoenix rose up and lived to not only make good, but to inspire.
Lili: When I think about people who’ve crossed my path who live an embodied spirituality, who really walk their talk, you come to mind so strongly. Can you tell me how you arrived at this place in your life where you’re clearly filled with an inner calm, a strength and a light that arrives a few seconds before you do? What happened—was there a darkest-before-the-dawn period of your life?
Brad: Thank you for the opportunity to share my story with you. I feel so grateful to be alive I don’t even have words exactly.
The darkness before the dawn was when I had descended all the way down into my drug and alcohol addiction.
I think it started with my first drink, when I was 19 years old. I had recently graduated high school and started my freshman year at college at the University of North Texas and was introduced to my first drink.
Prior to that, I grew up very sheltered on a horse ranch in rural Texas, kept from the partying life that’s more common to cities. Or even towns. So when I started my freshman year, I immediately joined a fraternity, Kappa Alpha, because I wanted to fit in with the guys. I wanted to make friends. I had just left my only reality, which was my family at the time, and I felt like a fish out of water.
So joining a fraternity seemed like the next right thing to do.
I did get to know quite a few men as fraternity brothers but once I was introduced to alcohol, it quickly became the solution to all of my problems.
Lili: What seemed like your pressing problems at the time that you felt you needed ‘a solution’ for?
Brad: I was a redhead, freckled and I got a lot of teasing from that. I was relatively shy and when I was in a strange environment, I shut down and became entirely reserved, timid. So being made fun of, not fitting in, and one of my gravest discomforts was my having to hide the fact that I knew I was gay.
Lili: Because being gay wasn’t acceptable in your particular peer group?
Brad: In their eyes, not acceptable. And in my family, I was raised Christian. I never really developed my personal stronghold with faith, a personal relationship with God although I prayed to Jesus when I was young, and attended church a lot.
But first and foremost, I had a very loving relationship with my family, which included a younger sister, an older brother and two parents who adored me. But there was conversation about homosexuality being despised by our God, and that haunted me.
When I was a kid, I remember my first prayers consisted of praying to be changed into a hetero, praying to have an attraction to the female body, to become lustful towards women, because what I felt towards men, I was horrifically ashamed of. And that fear, that shame and that guilt grew every day of my life.
Lili: And the alcohol helped you feel more comfortable in your own skin?
Brad: It removed the problem altogether, or so I thought at the time. It was my solution, my antidote, and my quick fixer and so when I had a drink, the shame and guilt were dissolved and I could just be myself.
Lili: So what happened that it spiraled out of control?
Brad: Six years of college with lots of drinking but no way to share my dark secret, is how it spiraled. So whenever I resurfaced after a night of being numbed by my “solution” I would reawaken to an even deeper level of guilt about my being gay, and with that deeper level of shame came an escalation into ever more drinking. It escalated then into using drugs and that paved the way to experimenting with all kinds of risky sex and the combination of all of it coalesced into a level of complete despair.
Lili: So what happened in your darkness that signaled what we might term a ‘hitting bottom’ for you? Or was there more than one bottom?
Brad: I knew I had a problem right from the beginning because I was told by my fraternity brothers that I shouldn’t be drinking, if the night prior was any indication. So I knew, deep down that alcohol was too important to me. And yes, sadly, there were a few bottoms.
I went away to rehab twice. And in my last attempt to get straight, I had myself locked into a mental ward for three and a half weeks. I was desperate to stop inebriating. But it didn’t take—that’s a pretty good snapshot of the progression of alcoholism to begin with: it started with one drink, led to two, and before I knew it, twenty wasn’t enough.
After decades of this, my final bottom was three years ago. I had reached a pinnacle of despair. I had recently had a dream job where I was a personal asst to a number of celebrities, where I was also a steward on a fleet of private Lear jets that shuttled back and forth between London and New York. I was making crazy money when I was introduced to something I never thought I’d stoop to try. And that was crack cocaine.
And the only way I can truly describe this experience was: it was like comparing my increasing alcohol use to my being on an escalator, but once I tried crack cocaine, it was like being on a high-speed pneumatic elevator. Down. And it started sinking very quickly. Really quickly.
I got to a place in my life where I felt hopeless, trapped in a dark void and there was only utter despair. I was suffocating there, in a way that hadn’t happened with all the other bottoms. I felt haunted, as if by demons, if there were such things; I felt haunted by my thoughts, I had paranoia. It was the abyss of hell.
And I was faced with a dilemma: becoming homeless in New York City. And every dime that I did have, mostly given to me by my family after I lost those good jobs, went to buy drugs. I couldn’t stop.
Lili: Did your family know?
Brad: (pauses) They knew. Not on the level of what I am sharing now, but they knew. I was the only one I was kidding.
Lili: So what happened next- despair, on the brink of homelessness, eating out of garbage cans….
Brad: Yes, getting food poisoning from eating old food from the garbages. Sleeping outside.
I called my little sister. And in a moment of greatest darkness in my life, I asked for her help. I was so totally lost- spiritually, mentally, physically, financially. She told me she would be willing to help me get on my feet if I would give up the drinking and the drugs and seek help.
And she told me this one thing that forever altered the course of my life: that without giving up my drugs and my alcohol, my life would never change. Something got transmitted in that moment, that I just knew would change me, because the darkness was so great then. I didn’t have anything left in me but to ask for help.
The choice was death, or being ready to stop the madness, the level of insanity that I’d come to know. I got off the phone with her and cried out that night from the depths of my heart, to a God I didn’t know. I begged for mercy and help.
And in that night, my prayers were answered. I had my very first profound spiritual awakening….all I can say here, was that it felt as if a forklift came in and removed two or three thousand pounds of weight off my shoulders.
My desire to drink or drug largely left me that night. There was a miraculous turn of events in this crying out, in this prayer to what I know now to be a universal law of Love. I didn’t know what it was then, but something radically changed in me.
I started to go to meetings, and started to feel something guiding me that was greater than I was.
Lili: How did you discern that the guidance was coming from something greater than yourself?
Brad: Because the changes that happened were too radical to explain any other way. They were too dramatic and too quick. I was introduced to my sponsor very, very quickly, who is still to date one of my dearest friends.
I was led to a very spiritual teaching called The Course in Miracles, which taught me how to remove the obstacles to universal love, “God” if you will. These things came fast and the only explanation I had was that something larger than me was leading me, and “it” got involved with me because I asked with all sincerity, a genuine crying out in despair.
And now I had an involvement in that new relationship with “it”, so I quickly dove into AA, engrossed myself in the principles of the 12 Steps, which led me on a path of ‘coming to believe’. I learned how to have a daily practice of turning my will and my life over to the care of something that loved me, that cared about me. What I loved about AA was that they were extolling a relationship with “the God of my understanding”.
Lili: What was significant about that wording to you?
Brad: I didn’t understand God, because of my background and heritage…I didn’t ever understand what the message of Jesus was, all growing up with church and Sunday school and everything. So to be encouraged to find a God of my understanding was true liberation. It felt like I was allowed to throw out the old script.
And I decided that that God was unconditional Love which had lifted this obsession from me, this obsession to alter my consciousness with drugs, alcohol, sex.
So I decided to let love lead me and I was led onward to this path of sobriety with all these beautiful gifts and tools given to me: to keep my life simple on a daily basis, to be willing to make amends and do it quickly, to putting Love first in all my affairs, to extending my hand to help others.
Lili: I’d like to read you a comment that was left after one of my articles on GMP recently. The man wrote: “I’ve always been in conflict with how 12-Step programs seem to be religiously based. The whole “higher power as you see them” bit, is still a recipe for guilt and shame. Idolizing or emulating any power outside that which is humanly attainable can and will lead to an inferiority complex, if not worse. Still, some people like to be parented all their lives, even spiritually. Are morals and standards alone not enough to be the basis for change in the right direction, whatever that particular “right” may be?”
So, here, this reader is identifying a key stumbling block of many people who may find themselves afraid of a 12-Step program for ending an addiction. Some just can’t wrap their minds around the idea of abdicating to something outside of themselves, the admonishment in Step Two: “Came to believe in a power greater than ourselves…”
What would you say to this man?
Brad: Well, let’s get real for a moment: For most alcoholics and drug addicts, would they be coming into the rooms of 12-Step programs if they weren’t in great despair?
When they come in, they’ve reached a level so low there’s nowhere to go but up. And then looking at it from that perspective, the rooms themselves are the change of events they need.
‘Coming to believe’ may happen a year later, a month later, whenever….but that happens as they work the spiritual evolution inside the steps. As you forgive yourself and others, as you practice vigorous honesty, make your amends, stop old patterns of behavior like lying, cheating, stealing, which were all included in my path of addiction, that’s the inside track of this ‘spiritual solution’.
But really, all that’s necessary is a willingness to change. The only thing that matters is the desire and willingness to change your life, that is all.
The gift is that I now understand the level of being lost, I get it. I’ve been there. I went so low, there was nowhere left to go. I had always taken as the truth that I would be forever in despair. I saw no way out, I thought that despair would finally consume me. I empathized with those who committed suicide because I could easily see it right there for me, especially at the end.
The 12-Step program itself is an awakening into the realm of what we truly are, someone made up of a spiritual nature, an awakening to the fact that we’re spirit, also.
So, why wouldn’t there be a more evolved Spirit that might care or be invested in us reaching for light? One could ask “Why a God?” and one can also ask, “Well, why not?” And when we’ve run our own lives down into a sewer of enslavement to – sex, alcohol, drugs– then we are much more open to the “why not?” question than the more detached, intellectual question of “Why would there be a God?”
Lili: Take me to a current time of unbelievable stress, like a horrible day, when you’re experiencing cravings to use again, yet you’ve committed yourself to the path of sobriety. At that stress point, what do you ‘turn it over’ to, that feels like it actually has your back?
I think it’s easy to imagine a loving entity that cares about us when life is flowing smoothly and we’re on top of our game. Faith is easy then. But when we’re face down in the soup, so to speak, that’s the challenge. So, what was that process like for you? What did you tangibly rely on?
Brad: A trust that it would get better. ‘Acting as if’. A trust and a hope that I would be removed from the insanity and despair. And the hope then became almost as great as the despair had been.
I gave all my free time to the greatest need of my life, which was to get sober and to stay sober. And then to help others. I didn’t know that a peace, a joy or a harmony, or financial ease, or anything good could ever come of this.
My only hope was to be removed from the pain so I would not drink or drug again. Because I knew I would be dead if I went back. I feel like God gave me a different choice and it was: Can you “practice these principles in all your affairs”?
And that means practicing the principles with my thoughts as well. So every day I went to a meeting and tried to learn these principles. Every day I prayed, and practiced the adage:’Fake it till you make it’.
I acted as if I could have a normal life free of needing to escape my consciousness. In the course of time, I went all the way through the 12 steps and then took on a number of sponsees. Its been the single most important purpose of my life: to stay sober and to help others out of the despair I was so acquainted with, intimately, all my life.
Lili: So tell me about the intersection between your homosexuality and your newfound sobriety? Here’s what I mean to get at: It sounds to me like your newfound spirituality, courtesy of living the principles contained in the 12 steps might be running a parallel track to your old religious life. How did you eventually reconcile those disparate components?
Brad: Well, now why’d you have to put it that way? (laughs) Because unfortunately, that’s exactly how it felt! Like the old religious track was still right there.
Lili: Because that’s frequently how it happens. When we suffer religious injury from our childhood religions, we’re often saddled with some pieces of it we can’t reconcile..in your case, your being gay. This shame often feels embedded in us, as do many things that we’re used to having be part of us all our lives.
So what I find myself wondering, were you able to make peace with your homosexuality finally?
Brad: The very next day, I met Tom, a minister who was gay himself, who had come to peace about his own sexuality and he helped me. That led me to someone else whom I worked with, who then led me to the Course in Miracles, which remains my spiritual path today. There, I really “got” that the God of my understanding loved and accepted me for who I was, exactly as I was. (starts getting choked up.)
Lili: Yes. It’s so astounding to me that so many churches are supposedly trying to download the message of Christ to us. But the Christ of my understanding is that he accepted and loved everyone, from the prostitutes to the disbelievers and everyone in between.
In fact, that was his message, that we are each beloved children of God and there is no condemnation in God. It freaks me out anew to hear your story of being so damned by your childhood religion- but then coming full circle back around and crafting your own religion, a hybrid of sorts, one that emboldens you to live out your highest truths.
Brad: Exactly. And that’s what haunted me my whole life: that the Church I grew up in taught me that my sexuality was an abomination before God. And hearing the word “sin” haunted me, too, a common enough word you’d hear whenever anyone in my Church spoke about homosexuals. A sin was the worst though, it was something that was an act against God that needed punishment.
But the Course in Miracles taught me how to give myself permission to remove myself from that childhood God. To start listening to myself, to start letting this presence guide me to self-love. And yes, it took a few years to really get clear about this.
Do you know I was a forty-seven year old man still battling my homosexuality? I either had to let that battle go or it would kill me. Because if I couldn’t find my way through this, make peace with it through and with God, that I would return to the bottle and the drugs.
So what I learned through The Course in Miracles is that sin is nothing but the opportunity to choose again. And I made the choice to follow love. And really, wasn’t that always the message of all the prophets throughout history? “Choose to follow love.” So I had to choose to love myself and I asked God to help teach me how.
It was another surrender process just like the night of prayer to be released from the chains of addiction. So today, I think the Church was wrong, misinformed. I think to myself, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” And I pray for them, too, to let go of all that need to be separate. To feel superior by judging others unlike themselves.
And so, in the past three years, all the fear of my homosexuality has dissolved. And now my fears have been replaced by normal fears, like finances, (laughs) instead of the haunting of being condemned all your life by God, hanging over your head like a sword. I don’t think most people understand that level of torment, you know?
Lili: It’s religiosity at it’s worst, I think. Not to trash religion, because there’s some good ones, too- but I think there’s been some pretty horrendous misunderstandings enacted in the name of God.
So, how would you characterize your personal religion today?
Brad: All I know is that my religion today is Love. It’s kindness. I recognize that how I give to my brother, I give to myself.
I recently watched a documentary that showed a visual of an infinite glowing figure eight circulating between two people. And whenever there was an encounter, whatever passed between them energetically, whether it was a kindness, or a hatred, or a judgment, it would flow from one being out to the other and then circle back around and just keep cycling like that. And the visual had such an impact on me! I thought, Well let’s test this out, and float everyone we encounter our kindness. That’s my idea of a perfect religion. Condemn no one, love all. Not easy, but I’m trying my best at it.
For myself, I continue to try and follow love, to stick with the principles of AA, the principles of A Course in Miracles. I have three years of precious sobriety, fear has mercifully left me, I have a loving relationship with my sponsor, I have a sponsee, I have come to know a peace that I never knew existed, an understanding that all is well, and an understanding that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Lili: It sounds like you have come full circle- repaid your debts, healed broken relationships and you have this incredible photography practice, with shows in Manhattan and all kinds of great things happening now.
Brad: I’ve shot more photos in the past 3 years of my sobriety than I did in the past 30 + years. I did fashion photography, you know I have a degree in that, but had to get out of that field…the parties and the nightlife just fueled my addiction. So many drugs and so much drinking there! I had to close that door because it wasn’t healthy for me.
Once I got sober, I started shooting nature. Nature has been one of my greatest teachers. My passion for photography returned because of nature. I’m obsessed now with shooting, creating and helping others to be inspired, to lift them up.
Lili: Any parting thoughts before we take a look at some of your inspirational photographs?
Brad: I just want to say that something was done for me that I could not do for myself. And I know that that was the God of my understanding. There is no other reason I’m alive today, since all roads pointed to a very different ending for me. I feel blessed today by this power greater than me, for which I’m eternally grateful. I hope you enjoy my art as much as I enjoyed creating it. God bless you!