In Atlanta, my new role in the company was completely different than what I did in Nashville. My title was "Lead Innovator," and I'm still not completely sure what that meant. When you're a small company that can't pay people a lot, you give them fancy titles which is a type of self-soothing. I liked my title.
As the "Lead Innovator," my job was to innovate things. I've always had a creative/crafty bent, and back then our company was mostly super-outgoing, hyper-extroverted folks—big personalities who were good at sales. If you're starting a new business, hiring people like this early is very smart. Those people give you the gusto and enthusiasm you need to get the rocket off the ground. One of those guys would have crushed it in Nashville, I thought.
By the time I landed in Atlanta, I had been with the company five years, so people knew me and liked me. We had around 100 team members across the country then and we were still growing despite the bad economy. Schools were loving our fitness-based fundraiser, and we began to expand beyond the South.
They'd brought me to Atlanta to add a little polish and creativity to the brand. We were working with several hundred schools and about 250,000 students then. We needed to keep our brand strong so schools would invite us back each year. I was responsible for "marketing," but no one in the business world really knows what that word means anymore. Basically, if it was remotely creative, it got passed on to me or my right hand man, JC. I loved it.
Anyone who's worked for a small, fast-growing business knows that roles can expand quickly. Without the money to hire as many people as you want, existing team members often have to take on more work. Personally, I loved this because it meant I could do a lot of random things and diversify my skills. I had a policy that I'd say yes to anything the bosses asked me to do.
Design a sales brochure? Yes.
Pick out team shoes? Yes.
Decide what art to put on 30,000 beach balls? Yes.
Talk to a reporter at a local newspaper? Yes.
Organize a huge company training event? Yes.
Fly to Orlando for a sales luncheon? Yes.
Help choose the prizes for the next year? Yes.
Create a social media strategy? Yes.
Yes. Yes. Yes. All the Yeses.
This may sound overwhelming, but this was a workaholic's dream come true. This was like letting a monkey loose in a Chiquita factory. It was great fun for me.
Twelve or 14 hour days weren't uncommon for me—sometimes more. I remember leaving the office many nights after 9 p.m. And I'd work on the weekends, too.
I remember one Saturday night, I left the office about 3 a.m. and began a late-night search for dinner. Unbelievably, the road was packed with cars. What on earth were all these people doing out at 3 a.m.? I pulled into the Steak 'n Shake parking lot and noticed beleaguered bros in cowboy boots and tipsy girls in heels with tussled hair. It looked like a drunk, under-budget Luke Bryan music video. This was a next-level hot mess. I went inside to get my frisco melt.
"What are all these people doing here?" I asked the girl at the register. I was in my suburban business attire, so she could tell I wasn't there for whatever was happening.
"Oh honey," she laughed. "Wild Bill's just let out."
I didn't know it, but Wild Bill's was a locally famous nightclub.
Annoyed, I got my sandwich and fries and pushed my way through the mass of very loud drunks. I walked back to my car and drove home. It was past my bedtime.
At this time in my life, I was a single, 26-year-old workaholic. But there were really two versions of Brett.
This working Brett maintained a polished exterior, but he was verrrry busy. He loved telling people how busy he was. Sooooo busy, all the time. Friends wanted to hang out on Friday night? Sorry, can't . . . gotta get some work done . . . maybe next week.
The second version of Brett—the one only I saw—was haggard. He was still in a decade-long boxing match with his inner demons, and he'd taken a lot of punches.
It'd been three years since I first came out to Olan, and we only talked a few times a year. I'd told no one else my secret and had no plans to, really—too risky. My theology hadn't changed, so dating/pursuing guys was off the table. The feeling of being alone would get to me at times, but I'd just redirect my mind to work. Work was always there for me.
And it was during this season where I began to seriously consider the possibility of lifetime singleness, of lifetime celibacy. I didn't know anyone on this track, but I was sure somebody out there was.
Lifetime singleness had always been rooting around in the back of my mind, but it felt like the last resort, the nuclear option. I'd imagine myself as some old single guy whose only friends were houseplants and cats. I still thought marriage and family was a possibility. I'd dreamed my whole life about having a family, and I still had some faith that maybe—just maybe—God would miraculously find a way to make it happen. I prayed Psalm 37:4 a lot:
Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.
God knew my desire was to be straight, have a wife, have kids. I had been faithful to seek God, pray, study Scripture, and surround myself with Christian community. It seemed like a long shot, but I still had some hope that God would John-Wayne this whole situation and make it all work out. I had faith He'd give me a family.
But I wasn't positive . . .
The lifetime singleness thing was the backup plan, but, honestly, I wasn't sure I could pull it off. I was 26 and had a lot of life left to live. I still had lots of single friends. But as more people disappeared into the married world, friends became more scarce. The supply of single people was limited and thinning with time.
My future was feeling blurrier . . . scarier. I noticed straight people love the future—white picket fences and babies and beach vacations and soccer practices. I wasn't sure if I'd have any of that. I wasn't sure if I could stick it out for the long haul.
I needed a test.
I needed a trial run.
So I got creative. And in my mind, I invented a thing . . .
I called it "Lonely Practice."
Lonely practice was exactly as it sounds—practicing being lonely.
My whole life I'd acquired all kinds of skills through practice—math, football, basketball, leadership, graphic design, writing, computers, etc. So I thought:
Why don't I just practice being lonely? If I can get better at that other stuff, then I can get better at that too? If this is going to be a lifelong thing, I need to be good at it.
My early lonely practices were very basic. I needed baby steps. Eating alone in a crowded restaurant was my first challenge.
Cracker Barrel was very homey and family-oriented, and I knew it'd sting a little more. So I'd drive 20 minutes to the nearest Cracker Barrel and sit by myself and order lemon pepper trout with hashbrowns, macaroni & cheese, green beans, and sweet tea.
Eating alone is pretty awkward at first. Your instinct is to just look at your phone the whole time because it makes you look busy, like less of a loser. But I'd force myself not to, so I could feel the full force of loneliness. It was like weightlifting back in my football days. If it doesn't hurt, you're not doing it right, I reasoned.
Eating alone gives you a lot of time to think.
I thought about how restaurants don't even make tables for one. It's not an option—at any restaurant—anywhere. I looked around and noticed all the happy people around me . . .
An older couple—she with her reading glasses and he with his overalls—both sitting on the same side of the table.
I noticed tables of families and all the kids with their sippy cups and crayons.
I noticed tables of teenagers, texting on their phones and laughing loudly.
You notice a lot when you're alone.
And after several dinners like this I also noticed that when you are eating alone in the restaurant, the waitress always asks you if you're ready to order the first time she visits you. They never do this when you're with a group . . . they just ask you what you want to drink. But when you eat alone, they instinctively assume you're miserable and want to order as quickly as possible so you can get the heck out of there. Next time you eat alone, just watch. You'll see.
In the fall of 2009, I decided to ramp it up a bit. I needed a more intense lonely practice . . . multiple days.
So, I asked my boss if the company would pay for me to rent a cabin for three days in the mountains of north Georgia so that I could get away from the office, rest a bit, and do some undistracted work on a few big projects.
So I booked a cabin, loaded up the black Tahoe, and drove about 90 minutes north of Atlanta to a little mountain town called Ellijay. I had a cabin way up in the woods, far from the main highway. I spent three days alone up there with just me and my laptop and the birds. There were other rental mountain houses around, but it was the middle of the week and they were all dark and empty. It was like living in my own little ghost town. I'd take lonely walks during the day down the little gravel roads around the cabin. I'd talk to myself and God. I let myself feel. I let myself imagine a future where all of my friends were married and at their kid's high school soccer game, and I was up here by myself just hanging out. It wasn't so bad. This was quality lonely practice.
A few weeks later, I'd stage my grandest lonely practice yet—an Alabama football game.
I've always been a huge fan of Alabama football. It was something my dad and I bonded around when I was a kid. I survived the awful Mike Shula years, and then everything changed when Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007. We had a pretty good year in 2008 and in 2009, we were undefeated heading into the Tennessee game which always happens at the end of October. Tennessee is one of Alabama's biggest rivals, so I knew it'd be a fun game to go to. So I decided to make the four-hour drive from Atlanta to Tuscaloosa alone, walk around the campus before the game alone, and then actually go into the game . . . alone. This was new because Bama games were always big social events for me. I'd drive over with a few buddies, and we'd hang out for hours before kickoff, bouncing around to different tailgates—eating snacks, making drinks, and laughing a lot.
I got to Tuscaloosa a few hours before kickoff and pushed my way through the sea of crimson fans.
I think I ended up running into a few friends that day. Socializing wasn't a part of lonely practice, but I didn't want to be rude. I love going to football games without tickets. To me, part of the fun of gameday is negotiating with the guys on the streets to get cheap tickets. So that's what I did that day.
People who go to sporting events know there's one universal way to indicate you're looking for tickets—raising your hand in the air and holding up fingers to signify how many tickets you need. So I raised my arm and sheepishly held one finger in the air.
Within five minutes, a middle-aged man saw me from a distance and beelined straight to me.
"You need a single?"
"Here . . . you can just have this one. We had an extra."
Tickets were selling for $150+, so I was pumped to get in for free. I made my way toward the stadium.
On the walk there, I noticed the seat was in section KK . . . 20-yard line, lower level, about 25 rows up from the field. This would be the best seat I'd ever had in Bryant Denny Stadium.
I found my seat. The stadium was packed—nearly 100,000 frantic Bama fans ready to see Nick Saban's Crimson Tide defeat Lane Kiffin's Tennessee Volunteers.
The game began, and it quickly became clear it'd be a low-scoring affair.
I made small talk with some of the folks around me, but I think people noticed I was by myself, which was a bit unusual.
The game wore on, and it was a defensive battle. With a minute left in the game, Bama was winning 12-10. But Tennessee was driving the ball down the field, and our defense couldn't answer. They pushed it deep into Bama territory. With four seconds left, Kiffin decides to go for the win with a field goal.
Kicker Daniel Lincoln trots onto the field to attempt a 44-yarder, not a gimme but definitely makable. If he makes it, Tennessee wins. If he misses, Bama wins the game 12-10.
It got loud. Hearing 100,000 humans making as much distracting noise as possible is quite the experience. To this day, I've never heard a roar as deafening and ground-shaking. Amidst the chaos, Lincoln lined up for the kick . . .
(You should just watch the clip...turn up your volume.)
Bama's mountain of a nose guard, Terrence Cody, blocked it. Bama wins the game.
The stadium came completely unglued, bursting into a massive celebration. In our section, grown men in khaki pants were high-fiving and hugging and jumping around like children. Moms in houndstooth hats were screaming and crying and hugging their children. Frat bros were jumping and hugging and spilling their drinks down their white pressed shirts and crimson neckties. The jumping/hugging combo is universal in moments like this. Just watch next time.
I spun around 360 degrees to take in the scene all around me. I jumped a little bit, awkwardly. I was happy . . . I really was. This was a huge win. But I just didn't know what to do. In these moments you instinctively turn to the person or people you are with and make eye contact and shout and raise your hands and then go in for the hug or high five—that's protocol. But I was alone and everyone had their person . . . but me. In a giant metal bowl of 100,000 happy people I felt completely alone, completely invisible.
I learned that day that the big moments of life are only fun when you've got someone to celebrate them with.
Celebrating alone is utterly vapid, lifeless, gray.
Humans fear being invisible almost more than anything. And feeling like that in the epicenter of a massive celebration is a very unique kind of human pain. To celebrate life's big moments is to be invisible in those moments.
Imagine being invisible at a wedding . . .
or a graduation . . .
or a birthday party . . .
or an awards show . . .
or a New Year's Eve party . . .
Oh sure . . . you're present. You're visible . . . but you're unseen. Single people feel visible but unseen quite often. And the presence of strangers just isn't all that comforting. It only makes the pain worse.
I got a little taste of that pain on that crisp autumn evening in Tuscaloosa. I got a little taste of my future.
The crowd eventually died down, and everyone began filing out of the stadium.
I made it through the gates and into the crowded streets to begin my long walk back to the car. As I walked . . .
Brett, good job, buddy. You did it. This was a good lonely practice. It wasn't so bad, now was it? I mean . . . it's not ideal, but you could have it way worse. It's fine. You're fine. You can do this.
Yeah . . . I could do this.
I walked a little faster.
And as I walked underneath streetlights over Tuscaloosa streets, I replayed that kick again and again.
I replayed that big 'ol party that went down in section KK. I replayed all the smiles on all those faces. I replayed all the hugs.
And I pictured 30-year-old Brett in that scenario, awkwardly attempting a solo celebration . . .
then 40-year-old Brett . . .
then 50-year-old Brett . . .
then 60-year-old Brett . . .
Then I pictured a balding 60-year-old Brett walking back to his car alone and starting the long drive through the night, down Interstate 20, back to Atlanta. I pictured him stopping in Oxford to get a snack at the Taco Bell that's right off the exit. I pictured him crossing the Georgia state line and finally pulling into his driveway at 3 a.m. at his little one-bedroom house in the suburbs of Atlanta. Exhausted, he unlocks the front door and sorts through some unopened mail sitting underneath a lamp on a sofa table. A calico cat saunters over and brushes up against his leg. He bends down to pick her up and pulls her in close to his chest.
I arrived at my car.
It's not so bad, Brett. It's not so bad . . . 👊
All photos by Sterling Graves. Copyright Blue Babies Pink & Sterling Graves.
B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.
B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.
B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.
To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com.