ADHD – Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which is an incredibly inaccurate name for the disability – can be an absolute nightmare, especially when you don’t know what’s happening. I was undiagnosed until my late 30s, and my entire life it felt like I was slightly out of sync with the world around me. My parents were constantly angry and disappointed that I couldn’t pay attention or follow simple instructions, my friends kept dropping out of my life without explanation, and time after time I would retreat into my own world of books and TV to escape from a reality I just couldn’t seem to deal with.
I felt ostracized and rejected by everyone around me, acted out in school, was repeatedly branded a troublemaker, and spent the majority of my high school experience isolated in a “Marine Corps” themed boarding school – aptly named the Marine Military Academy – located far away from home in the furthest southern point of Texas near the Mexican border town of Matamoros.
Prep school was an entirely new level of hell for me because EVERYTHING was about order, timing, and obeying the “indoctrination process” patterned after Marine basic training (boot camp). Worse, the school was full of pint-sized bullies running around everywhere who had absolute control of my life for no other reason than some arbitrary student version of a military rank system, which based on everything I could tell was awarded not on merit but instead some sort of elitist pecking order that I was never invited into. I was awfully bad at all those things, but I could not get away from it so despite the trauma I eventually started to become acclimated to the system and find a sort of rhythm.
I found some measure of solace in the routine, and over time even began to be proud of my accomplishments. It became a relief to know what uniform I was supposed to wear each day, how the bed was made, what time everyone around me was waking up and when to head to the mess hall, and where I was supposed to be during school and after classes let out. The competitive environment was designed to teach a warrior mentality, and for me that constant striving for achievement and having concrete goals, as arbitrary as they were, kept me focused on the horizon and out of my own head.
After high school I struggled with integrating into the “real world.” I quickly hit a wall with my studies, tuition, and other challenges and dropped out of college at 19, and subsequently joined the Army. In hindsight I realize that the environment had become for me a relatively safe space where I could set aside my identity and executive function challenges in familiar patterns. Even after several traumatic experiences I kept going back for more, likely stemming from some form of Stockholm Syndrome developed in the extreme hazing environment of high school, and ended up serving for over a decade – including nearly seven years on active duty – before worsening damage to my spine and a traumatic brain injury stemming from an Airborne mishap in 1995 eventually forced me out. Once again surrounded by decisions I felt ill-equipped to handle, I started trying to impose order on my environment, and after years of learning to navigate the chaos in my head I finally started to get a handle on most aspects of life.
Two things I never quite figured out were corporate culture and healthy eating. Office politics remain a mystery to this day, and after a severely traumatic situation in the Army involving corrupt leadership in my Special Ops unit at Fort Bragg I to this day actively avoid putting myself into such situations. I have adapted to these limitations by finding oddball jobs without direct supervisors. Bartending, driving cabs
and limos, and computer tech support kept me in environments that changed constantly with new challenges to deal with and bosses who mostly left me alone.
In 2005 I and a friend went in together on the purchase of a bar in Northern Nevada, a new adventure with a steep learning curve, many challenges and rewards. Things were rough at first, especially because the bar we took over had some incredibly difficult to navigate challenges including staff embezzlement, drug use and sales, prostitution, and many similar problematic situations that needed to be addressed all at once by inexperienced owners.
Over time our innovative and community-centered approach to management began to attract staff who cared about the customers (and customers who cared about the staff and the bar!) and took ownership of their space, and the leadership traits we developed in the staff – sourced in large part from Primary Leadership Development and other leadership training I received in the Army – in turn allowed me to “ping-pong” around the edges of operations in an unattached advisory and support role without screwing too much up.
Business ownership taught me how to empower others to handle the detailed work that I continue to this day to struggle with, and how to set up protocols to automate daily tasks that kept the business moving forward without my direct involvement. My team gave me a nickname, King Shiny, which I wore with pride because I knew it was given with affection. We persevered, grew our customer base, and continued to support the community with our presence and involvement.
I finally got a diagnosis of ADHD in 2008 from the VA hospital in Reno Nevada, and the stimulant medication I was then able to access allowed me to go back to school and finish my degree as well as to focus more on developing the business. The knowledge I gained helped me to create better business models and capitalize on opportunities others missed, including acquisition of the commercial property within which I ran my business.
Cooking has been a tougher battle. Years of unhealthy eating habits, largely stemming from my avoidance of the kitchen stemming from both confusion and physical pain, and reliance on fast food had taken a toll on my health. This resulted in a ton of weight gain and skyrocketing cholesterol, until I was forced onto statin medications. My (ex-) wife Michelle found herself in a similar situation, and we committed together to take back our health and figure out ways to get around my cooking challenges several years ago.
We found pull-out organizers for cupboards that helped me to reach into low spaces that my back disability made difficult to access, learned and practiced how to create meals in large batches to reduce overall cooking time and bought a drop freezer (then a second one!) to supplement our fridge, experimented with meal planning strategies, and a number of other ideas until we found a routine that worked for our needs.
Slowly, step by painful step, we started to get healthy eating dialed in, but we kept running into problems including food going bad because we didn’t get to it fast enough, lack of room in the kitchen, and my ongoing issues with planning and following recipes which created a number of often humorous catastrophes.
It didn’t help that in 2014 an advancing case of TMJ (temporomandibular joint tension, also known as lock-jaw) from years of taking Ritalin forced me to come off medications, dropping me back into full-blown unmedicated ADHD. This, along with my physical disability, forced me to make the painful
decision to sell the now extremely successful bar and accept a Permanent and Total disability rating from the VA.
When I finally sold the business in 2017, in part because I retained the commercial property, I was able to achieve my financial goals and retire with a passive income. I discovered that I missed my commercial kitchen with its endless supply of ingredients, well designed prep space, and a steady customer base to keep food from sitting long enough to go bad. I got involved in charity efforts addressing food insecurity, and over time started to identify ways that business models could be utilized within a nonprofit structure to tackle some of the tough challenges which cause so much damage to our nation’s healthcare.
I realized that the tools which made my business successful, and especially those empowerment techniques which allowed me to keep the day-to-day operations at arms’ length and avoid allowing my ADHD to create too much chaos, could also be used to automate market-based retail and other solutions to tackle hunger and food waste. I realized that my experience in the bar and nightclub scene could be directly translated into food retailing and logistics support, and much of what I learned in the Army also applies to this challenge. My passion for solving this problem is now my north star, and it’s amazing how much looking outside myself and focusing on helping others helps to keep me internally calm and cool despite the brain chemistry-imposed chaos of my life.
In 2016 I co-founded On Common Ground, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, with the intent of figuring out how to apply my experiences and struggles with healthy eating to the challenges of food insecurity and to work with community stakeholders to create a systemic solution that addresses the needs of people who share my support needs. Five years later OCG has faced many challenges, gone back to the drawing board many times, and engaged innumerable community stakeholders – both in the Northern Nevada area where we started and now around the world – to learn everything we could about how the food system works – and in many cases doesn’t work – and what we can do to fix it.
I and my growing team of dedicated volunteers have developed a market-based (this means employing retail dynamics similar to those in the profit sector but with goals centered on community health and resiliency vs profits, aka Circular Economy Strategies) charitable food logistics system to tackle Food Deserts, urban food waste, provide healthy meals for seniors and people with disabilities that create barriers to healthy choices, and a number of other societal benefits.
In September 2021 I finished writing my first book, called Low-Hanging Fruit: Market-Based Strategies for a More Resilient Community Food System, which provides a way for me to share our achievement with the world. My request to you, dear reader, is to support our cause and help me and OCG to advocate for the implementation of a healthier food system in communities all across the US struggling with food insecurity and food access inequality.
Buying and reading my book is the best way to support us as we work to solve this challenge. I have positioned OCG as the publisher on Amazon, and 100% of net proceeds are pledged to support our charitable effort and will continue to fuel the effort going forward indefinitely. I’m not pocketing a dime of the royalties, so the more books we sell the faster the org will grow and the more we will be able to accomplish together.
If you already have a copy and still want to support, you can donate directly to On Common Ground – with a credit card by going to our website at OCGReno.org and clicking “Donate”. You can also send a check to 1625 N Murray Blvd, Suite 214, Colorado Springs CO 80915. All donations are tax deductible,
however purchase of the book is not due to IRS restrictions on sales. On the plus side you get to read it, and learn more about how our food system works – and doesn’t work! If you are affiliated with a foundation or other charitable funding group and wish to sponsor OCGs efforts, or if you have a significant donation you wish to make that cannot be easily handled with a credit card or check, please contact us at Contact@ocgreno.org.
Life is still a struggle for me and everyone I know, and in many ways it always will be, but there are some things we can do to make healthy food easier to access and to reduce food waste. At least now I know I am not alone in this fight, and the knowledge that solutions do exist to make the healthy eating part less stressful while also improving food logistics for underserved communities keeps me inspired every day.
If building a resilient community food system resonates with you then you are going to LOVE what we have planned. I believe we can create a healthier food system – with enough for everyone to achieve their full potential – when we work together! Buy your copy of Low-Hanging Fruit on Amazon today, just search for my name.