A writer’s primary purpose in drafting an interview article is perhaps to have a strong voice that allows for the delivery of a compelling message—a message that captures the truth of the subject being interviewed, in this style. A message that delves into the subject’s life, and from it, pulls golden nuggets of their journey to piece together their story (perhaps without muddying the waters by including the writer’s truth in the process). But the reality of the situation is, in this case, it would have been unnatural to arrive at the subject’s truth, without also discovering mine.
I intended to keep myself out of this piece entirely, other than to write it, but it is my first Spotlight and I found myself particularly nervous when Beit T’Shuvah’s beloved Jesse bestowed this honor upon me. The honor of learning about a precious soul in our community and attempting to effectively capture on paper their true essence for all of you to have a chance to see them for who they really are.
My perfectionism kicked in with force, so I wanted to select someone that I saw as a particularly “safe” person, to be real with you. But I didn’t just select them because they’re safe, I chose them because they’re awesome. Because they have their hands in so many projects at Beit T’Shuvah—they are a Program Facilitator, they braid challah, they lead by example in a multitudinous fashion. Their laughter is contagious, and if they feel safe with you, they hug you like they mean it; I chose Mel K.
Finally, we have arrived. . . way to bury the lead, right?! So, I’ll shout it from the rooftops, MEL, MEL, MEL, this spotlight is on Mel, BTS! Mel, who walks confidently about the halls either speaking emphatically, laughing boisterously, talking with their hands, working out in the gym, braiding challah, supporting their friends, or just generally being a kick-ass human being. But Mel wasn’t always in their element as they are here…and Mel doesn’t always feel in their element here either. Mel is finding their way as we all are.
I met Mel at 4:00pm in the library yesterday. They politely took on the room with their confident energy. I followed with my laptop and phone. We sat down together and sighed. We both acknowledged the collective exhaustion. Mel had just returned from the grocery store after a day of work, which often entails walking about the property briskly for multiple hours doing multiple things seemingly at the same time. I felt inclined to use my “spiritual toolkit.” I offered to play a short meditation. Mel agreed. We sat together, backs straight, eyes closed (I peeked once, they were closed, indeed).
Mel grew up in Los Angeles, but we didn’t spend much time on their early childhood. I quickly got the sense that there was a lot of pain there. I started the interview with an impossibly broad question to see where it would take us. “Who are you?”, to which Mel replied, succinctly, that they are a non-binary and queer early 40s drug addict in recovery with nine months sober, to which I “whoo, hoo’d!.”
This was followed by crickets. I sensed Mel going back into their shell. I got nervous.
So, I asked some popcorn questions to break the ice.
Favorite food? “Middle Eastern, and Israeli, of course.”
Hot or Cold Weather? “Cold”
Beach or Mountains? “Beach!”
This prompted an aside on the both/and concept. Two opposing things can be held at the same time, we agreed. One can love cold weather more than hot, and the beach more than the mountains! A nod to our founder Harriet.
Favorite Childhood Memory? Mel proceeded to explain a moment with a family member who has now become estranged. This is a recurring and painful reality in their story. I’ll put it this way to keep it simple: Stepping out of the closet of their forced “she/her” to their authentic “they/them” resulted in a massive fracture that I don’t have the right to go into because it isn’t my business.
What I will say is that their happiest childhood memory quickly became one of the saddest moments of the interview.
We breezed through details, but Mel lovingly mentioned their large and previously close-knit Jewish family with “lots of cousins and aunts.”
Then we discussed school, and without much detail, a crystal-clear picture of a suffering and isolated young person hidden behind a strong, stoic exterior began to weigh on my heart.
Mel was always finding ways to survive. In high school, Mel found the debate team. It was a traveling team, so the skills required were meticulous and exacting. Mel found their voice. No femme clothing was required, so they were able to wear button-down shirts and pants. Mel was on a traveling debate team arguing their way into the upper crest. One might say they were wearing the pants in that situation.
But in all seriousness, they were, and it mattered, to them.
Jewish sleepaway camps found Mel comforted and free in both sexuality and gender expression. Just in being a gosh-dang kid in the woods, frolicking about the forest in Malibu, finding their way, barefoot in the grass… using grounding techniques long before knowing of grounding techniques. Mel had many fond memories of Jewish sleepaway camps. But back at high school, reality set in. Mel had a compartmentalized self, which I could relate to all too well. Effective personality. Charming, driven, intelligent, sociable, but drowning on the inside, isolated. Lonely in a crowded room, so to speak.
Then at the age of 18 the unthinkable happened. I’ve already mentioned it once. The fracture.
Mel moved to northern California and delved into academia. Queer theory, specifically. This was solace for them because they were able to learn about living outside of the binary and gender non-conformity, and what it meant to be a queer person that’s not trans and also not a ‘she’ or a ‘he’, dammit.
Mel felt protected by books. Insulated by knowledge. And Mel met their partner. A woman that Mel would spend many years with.
The trouble was, the euphoria of close-knit relationships with family had to be replaced with something. There was a massive, empty void. A girlfriend couldn’t fill the hole of the loss of an entire family. Mel found hard drugs.
The oxytocin released from time with loved ones became replaced by the oxycontin released from the hands of Mel’s dope dealer.
And then came heroin and meth.
A lot of trauma during those years, obviously. Mel tried to get sober, Mel’s partner tried to get sober, Mel and Mel’s partner tried to get sober, and ultimately, Mel had to make the painful decision to move away from their partner to attend Beit T’Shuvah after literal years of trying to get and stay sober as a couple.
I saw myself in Mel during the interview and promised them that I’d call it out. That we both felt safe with each other and yet we found ways to avoid details. At the same time, we didn’t feel the need to go into too many details because we felt a certain soul connection just sitting with one another. Neuroscientists call this neurocepting. We can help regulate one another’s nervous systems. But it’s also a spiritual thing. Some things don’t need to be said, because they’re felt.
You weren’t in the room with us, though. So, while a part of me wishes I had been able to go into much more detail with you, a greater part of me realizes that exactly what was meant to be shared has been. Mel is a bright light that doubts their brilliance, in my book. I left the interview thinking “I probably kind of bombed that. I don’t think Mel felt that comfortable.” And hours later I got a text “I felt so safe with you Chris, truly. I love you.” And there you have it. We both doubted ourselves; we were mirrors of each other, as many of us addicts are. Mirrors of each other, holding up to one another each other’s talents, and vulnerabilities, and seeing into each other’s souls.
I asked Mel at the end of the interview, what do you want people to know about you in conclusion, to which they replied, a bit sheepishly, “I think I am a caring person at the end of the day….” (I interrupted and yelled “PREACH!!”). Mel smiled and carried on a bit more confidently, “I want the best for people and I really do like being of service at the end of the day. I am nerdy, and I love my Jewish religion.”
I think I can confidently state for everyone at Beit T’Shuvah, that we want the best for you too, Mel.