Meeting Chris Farley

I never met Chris Farley.

Not in a three-dimensional sense, anyway. I have spent a decent amount of time thinking about him, though, particularly the year I was 33. That was the age the rock star trio of him, John Belushi, and Jesus all died, and it put me in a very carpe diem frame of mind—albeit one that ultimately failed to lead me to entertain millions or, you know, be the focal point of a major world religion. But among the things you could say about that year, is that in a metaphorical or even a metaphysical sense, I did in fact meet Chris Farley.

You could also say that was a cheap trick I pulled with the title, and I wouldn’t call you a liar. “The Year I Finally Joined a Bowling League” just seemed too niche.

When I was 33, I visited Chris’ grave. My wife, Jenny, and I were driving from Minneapolis back to our home in Indiana, and we took a slight detour to Madison, Wisc., where he grew up and is buried.

It took Jenny and me a while to find the right spot in Resurrection Cemetery. From The Chris Farley Show, the terrific biography by his brother Tom Farley, Jr., and Tanner Colby, as well as some Internet searching, I had an idea of what the mausoleum he’s interred in looked like—or I thought I did, until we had gone all the way around the exterior of the building, looking at hundreds of vaults without finding the one labeled “Christopher Crosby Farley, February 15, 1964–December 18, 1997.” So I Googled it again and found a site with more pictures, the last of which made it clear that what I had thought was a patch of sky in the background was actually a window or a skylight, as the photo indicated the vault stood behind the altar in a chapel. We figured we’d try going into the building we had been circling for 10 or 15 minutes and, shortly after walking in the front door (going in the side felt weird for some reason), found it tucked away in a short hallway in between the chapel and another larger room.

There weren’t many vaults in this area, and they were stacked four or five high on either side. Chris—is it okay I’m acting like we were on a first-name basis?—is the top one on the left, near the base of the skylight. A bishop is interred off to the side of this group, back toward the altar, something I imagine Chris, a devout Catholic, would take a measure of comfort in. Being indoors, away from the birds and lawn maintenance crews and street noise, it was an incredibly still and quiet place.

He’s been there just about 18 years now.

I remember hearing the news that he’d died but only in the sense that it was too big to miss, especially as a high school boy who loved comedy. I don’t remember any details beyond that, partially because it was 18 years ago, and partially because I would later come to identify December 1997 as the worst month of my life and, as such, am a little hazy on all 31 days.

Whether or not I had already been diagnosed with OCD—tendencies of which Chris’ closest friends say he exhibited, although he was never formally diagnosed—I do know I hadn’t started a regular relationship with a therapist yet the day I reached my breaking point, or at least what felt like it. I was so scared by the thoughts in my head that I asked my mom and dad to keep me home from school and schedule an emergency appointment. And even that didn’t seem like enough, as on the way back, I suggested to them that maybe they should have me committed to a mental hospital.

I don’t think I was totally serious. But I wasn’t totally kidding, either.

I had never experienced something like this before, these intrusive thoughts that terrified me but that I couldn’t shake and that had grown stronger and stronger throughout the fall of my senior year. I had loving parents, was class president, had lettered in basketball and track, got almost nothing but A’s, and was on my way to my dream school, Notre Dame.

And yet there I was, scared I was going to kill myself.

Or, more accurately, that as a functioning adult, I could. One yank of the steering wheel. Couple of cuts with a knife. One bottle of pills. Then it would all be over. Everything I loved, all the good that had come into my life over those first 18 years—gone. Did the prospect of losing that scare me enough? Why didn’t it scare me more? Did other people think like this?

It turned out the answer to that last question was “yes,” even though I was misinterpreting what exactly thinking “like this” was.

Both therapists I saw that fall said I wasn’t a danger to myself, and the second, whom I worked with until around graduation, prescribed a therapeutic regimen that was light on the meds and heavy on a cognitive therapy routine that leaned literally on the assumption I would never pull the trigger.

No, then, like now, if I worry about something obsessively, it tends to have its roots in a general lack of faith in my ability to do the “right thing ” (e.g., not kill myself), assuming there is even one “right thing” to be done to begin with. It can be day-to-day minutia, larger life choices, the true-north-ness of my moral compass, being a good husband, being a not obviously incompetent parent—really, the list of muses is endless, and they usually present themselves in a simple dichotomy, with one path representing some amalgam of success and righteousness and the other abject failure, no middle ground in between. Plus, as a bonus, I can also get down and dirty with some good old-fashioned Is it cancer? … Maybe diabetes … What do shingles look like? hypochondria.

The fallout, as anyone who struggles with an anxiety disorder can tell you, ranges from mild distraction to trouble focusing to consciousness-consuming panic to not leaving the house. You might run through each state in response to a single stimulus—which can be as innocuous as your own wandering mind—or you might just hit one or two, and not necessarily in a clean order of escalation. Sarah McLachlan singing about dying dogs and other aggressive charitable pitches, for instance, historically have sent me straight to the second one (trouble focusing), while recently, when I called Jenny and human resources a combined six times in 20 minutes because I thought I was filling out a health insurance form wrong and was therefore going to forfeit my entire family’s coverage right as my wife is preparing to give birth to our second child because I am so lazy and careless and never make good choices etc., etc., etc.—that was a standard mild-distraction-to-trouble-focusing progression.

Consciousness-consuming panic is reserved for when lives and the fate of the free world rest squarely on my shoulders. As a writer.

With respect to not being able to leave the house, it’s never gotten that bad for me—I guess with the possible exception of that day back in December 1997—but not because I’m somehow better at dealing with my disorder than others. I just have a milder case of it. Remembering this detail of my diagnosis alternately comforts and floors me.

It’s been a long journey to achieve whatever level of understanding about my brain I can claim. I stopped seeing that therapist when I left for college and subsequently spent years floundering on my own, trying to “cure” myself; that lasted until I had made Jenny and me cry too many times to keep up the delusion that curing yourself is a thing.

I was 31 when I went back. It was a woman instead of a man this time—not that this matters, except that for me, I seem to be far more comfortable talking to women than men. You’d think that would have been an asset back when I was dating, but as Jenny can attest, I’m able to go from zero to awkward in the scant time it takes a luxury sports car to hit 60. Considering there’s really no way to over-share with a therapist, though, finding a groove with her proved to be one of the simplest things I’ve had to do with my disorder, which she recast within minutes of meeting me. She suggested what I have sounded much more generalized anxiety disorder than OCD, and we have been working from that baseline ever since, almost five years now. My quality of life has improved immeasurably as a result.

But this stuff doesn’t go away. Ever. Not completely. Having an anxiety disorder is, and always will be, a part of who I am. It’s not that I haven’t looked hard enough for a cure; it’s that no cure exists. No matter how well I’m doing, my mind can spin out in the time it takes me to notice how attractive a woman is (Why am I looking in the first place?) or see an unattended bag (What about the Boston Marathon?) or question whether I spent long enough with the sanitizing wipes on the shopping cart before putting my son in (He’ll get sick, and it’ll be my fault). Line them all up on the same walk into the store, and resistance feels increasingly futile; indeed, it’s often the cumulative effect of trigger after trigger that ends up breaking me down. The urge, the habit, the need to engage those thoughts, even though I know how harmful they are to me, becomes too much to bear. So I give in.

Or, to put it in terms of substance abuse, I use.

In sessions with my therapist, we come back to this connection between anxiety disorders and addiction on a regular basis. Insecurities, doubts, fear, overpowering impulses, the constant struggle against them—these are things people who struggle with either (or both) share. Where we differ most is in the consequences of our actions, and it’s humbling to recognize that, for whatever reason, my own inner demons haven’t manifested themselves in the kinds of habits that caught up with Chris with such disastrous results.

Reading one book obviously did not make me a Chris Farley expert, but it did leave me with the sense of a human being whose vulnerability was palpable. I hope that had I somehow had the good fortune to meet him, I would’ve been sensitive enough to see this truth behind the incredibly talented, larger-than-life character he played.

So there I was at his grave, feeling like I wanted to say something that conveyed how special of a person I thought he was. Not because my opinion should matter, and not because there’s any obvious way he could hear it even if it did, but just because I know what it feels like to spend a huge chunk of your life believing you’re not good enough to treat yourself any better.

When I was searching for information on the location of the grave, I also decided to look for something called “A Clown’s Prayer,” which, in The Chris Farley Show, the writers said he carried with him at all times. I ended up finding an image of the funeral program, where the prayer had been included beneath a picture of him. I printed it out and had it in my pocket when we went to the cemetery and decided I would read it in no more than a whisper but out loud nonetheless, in that tucked-away part of Madison that seems wholly incongruous with the impact he had on the world.

It goes:

Dear Lord,

As I stumble through this life, help me to create more laughter than tears, dispense more happiness than gloom, spread more cheer than despair. Never let me become so blaze that I fail to see the wonder in the eyes of a child or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged. Never let me forget my work is to cheer people, make them happy, make them laugh, make them forget, at least for a moment the unpleasantness in their lives. Never let me acquire success to the point that I discontinue calling on My Creator in the hour of need, acknowledging and thanking Him in the hour of plenty, and in my final moment, may I hear you whisper, “When you made my people smile, you made Me smile!”

Chris Farley, of all people, deserved that much.

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