By the time Glenn Simpson awoke in a psych ward in Pennsylvania to a nurse putting an IV in his arm, he had lost track of a few fundamentals. He didn’t know what day of the week it was, what had happened to his clothes or how he’d covered the 2,439 miles from the Los Angeles airport, where he last remembered being.
But he knew one thing – he wasn’t Mr. Jackson. Mr. Jackson was having electroshock therapy that morning so Simpson’s only glimmer of certainty went a long way.
The nurse apologized, and Simpson, a former radio personality from Skowhegan, breathed a sigh of relief. But then, as a toothless woman wheeled herself across his field of vision muttering incoherently to herself, he heard the news that actor Robin Williams had died from an apparent suicide.
What happened next marked the turning point in Simpson’s 30-year battle with alcohol and drugs. He slid off the hospital bed onto his knees and whispered the word ‘help.’
“I don’t know what happened in that moment,” says Simpson, 50, of events that took place Aug. 11, 2014. “This sudden sense of warmth and safety and true belief that my life had meaning and purpose just hit me.”
It came, Simpson says, with a simple instruction: “How about you don’t drink today and you help somebody else out,” he says. The woman in the wheelchair was having a hard time getting to the TV room. Simpson got behind her and pushed her chair. He then listened to her go on about her fabulously wealthy father while half-hearing details of Robin Williams’ lifelong struggle with substances on the TV. Simpson was 45, divorced, the father of three children he had not seen in years. He had no job, no license, no car, no home and there was a warrant for his arrest for a parole violation. He was $38,000 in debt.
He decided to “just started saying yes to things.”
Simpson got himself to Portland, Maine, and said yes when someone offered to take him to a meeting. He was asked if he was willing to go to any length to get sober. He said yes. A visit to the courthouse to deal with the warrant was suggested. Once again, Simpson said yes. And to his astonishment, the clerk looked up from the screen and said, “Mr. Simpson, we have no record of you.” Simpson says he has no doubt about that turn of events being “a God bomb.”
Next came the most humbling part of Simpson’s journey: walking into a convenience store and applying for a job. The manager of the Lil ‘Mart in Scarborough handed him an application, then stood watching him.
“I’m trying to fill it out, and my hands are shaking, and that guy takes a chance, he takes a chance, he hires me,” recalls Simpson, his voice breaking, “People used to ask me for my autograph, and now I’m working two days a week in a convenience store. A year later, I’m the manager of the convenience store, and the guy who hired me calls me up and says, ‘Glenn, I started drinking again and I can’t stop.’”
Simpson did the best he could. By then he was pursuing a graduate degree in mental health and clinical social work. Helping people had become his mission, and he rekindled his passion for art.
As a fully licensed social worker, he watched people in early recovery take to an art project with something approaching hunger: Could he use art to connect people isolated by their disease? He thought of a puzzle, where one piece is necessarily connected to the next. Why not ask people to render on a single puzzle piece what recovery means to them? And why not then connect all the pieces in an installation to fight the stigma and isolation, and remind the powers that be that a public health emergency needs resources as much as it needs people?
Over the course of nine months, Simpson traveled to recovery communities around the state, meeting with a variety of people who created their own pieces of the puzzle. Then, at Portland’s Rally for Dignity in May, he witnessed a near stampede, standing by incredulously as the whole puzzle – all 80 feet of it – came together in a matter of hours.
Glenn Simpson isn’t done. He aims to travel to every county in Maine and draw people out of their isolation, puzzle piece by puzzle piece.