With all the demands in life, most of us hardly have a minute to catch our breath. But, for Brennen Reeves ’14, that has always been the No. 1 priority.
Born with the progressive lung disease cystic fibrosis, Reeves has struggled for every breath he’s ever taken. He’s never known if this breath would be his last. In 2011, when the disease nearly choked the life out of him, Reeves was given a double lung transplant – which, while extending his life, still doesn’t mean he can breathe easy.
Encouraged and coached by David Lee Nelson ’00, a stand-up comedian who taught Reeves’ solo performance theater class at the College, the theater major has documented his story of survival in Breathe. A True Story. He has performed the one-man show with raw honesty in many settings, including in the 2015 Piccolo Spoleto Stelle di Domani theater series. He is currently working to expand the show into a book.
When you wake up every day not knowing if it’s the last, you see things a little differently. And, while Reeves has been concentrating just on breathing for the past 24 years, he’s made quite a few observations that we could all learn from. Here are 6 tips to help us all learn to just breathe.
1. Find a creative outlet.
“Writing Breathe was a really strange, cathartic experience for me,” says Reeves, who started writing his story at the insistence of Nelson. “He sent me home and said, ‘This is who you are.’ So I went home, and I kept going and going, crying at home, letting things go. I’d write these things down and they came to life. It was really strange. … Writing for me is a very piece-by-piece kind of thing. I wasn’t very focused. I’d get on a rant for days. It would just take on a life. It was organic and natural, and I think I needed that.”
2. Don’t be afraid to mess up.
“One reason I love theater is that it brings life to the arts – and that’s so necessary. You’re up on stage, it’s live, and people are watching everything you do – even when you mess up. That’s human. Theater is the most human art form, I think, because you can only control what you can control. And that’s life,” says Reeves, who is taking his show on tour soon. “I just feel like this maybe is something to pursue, so why not? If I get shot down, I’ll just get back up and start again.”
3. Give what you can.
“Nothing is greater than giving someone a longer lease on life by being an organ donor. Whether it’s one eye or a lung, whatever: Donating yourself is the most selfless thing you can possible do,” says Reeves, adding that there’s plenty that we can do while we’re alive, too. “It’s heartbreaking that some kid is sitting alone with this. Why can’t he have someone sit with him? People want to know, What can I do? First, be a donor. But right now, if you don’t have the money to give and you want to make a difference, go play a game with a kid whose family can’t spend the time they need with them. Be a person who can take something on as great as changing someone’s life.”
4. Be grateful.
“It is never lost on me that someone had to die for me to live. It’s not even possible to put into words how grateful and sad that makes me. Thank you doesn’t touch death, and sorry doesn’t touch grief,” says Reeves, who has not investigated the source of his transplanted lungs. “In many ways, I am so lucky – my life is so great. And not just with the transplant. There are so many individuals who suffer from this and don’t have the support that I had – who don’t have a family that can take them to the doctor every day, that can afford the kind of care it takes. I am so, so, so blessed. It’s hard to think of all the kids out there who have this and don’t have the kind of support I’ve had. Millions of kids who have this die because they weren’t financially able to get transplants.”
Reeves adds, “I especially want to thank my mom, dad, and brother and mostly David – the creative genius which he is. David is the reason Breathe. a True Story is alive.”
5. Don’t worry so much.
“I want to teach people that everything is all right – you’re going to be OK. You don’t have to try so hard. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t care or that you’re not going to struggle ever, but you’re going to be OK,” says Reeves. “Check: you’re here, and you’re OK. I’m here now, and when I die, it’s going to be OK. We don’t have to get all philosophical about it. Everyone’s got their thing that they’re carrying around – what matters is how you carry the weight, not what the weight is. It’s all going to be OK.”
6. Participate in life.
“Just because I have to think about exhaling and inhaling isn’t an excuse for checking out. Every breath could be my last. That’s the reality. I’m not going to live forever. I’m just going to enjoy this while I can,” says Reeves. “You can’t be scared. If you’re always scared of what’s out there, why would you even get out of bed? And then what’s the point? Don’t forget the big picture. You have to look at quality of life and just live.”