by Ty Y., 18
When I met Dan, the first thing he asked me was to call him “Danny Rocker.” If there was any indication of the eccentric personality that I would be speaking to, that was it. A conversation with Dan is not a linear ordeal, it’s a sprawling one. He will enthusiastically point out his shirt featuring his favorite band, Scorpions. He will gesticulate wildly, speaking his mind with such ferocity that you are thrust along for the journey, and you are enjoying it. There will be interjections and long laughing interludes, quick bursts of rapid-fire stories, each one missing a conclusion but packing the punch of a doorstop novel. Through music, art, mental health, and life itself, Dan tells a story of struggle. More important, he celebrates the many ways he has overcome that struggle.
Dan’s stories never start at the beginning. Somewhere along the winding road of our conversation, you will find some of his formative moments, punctuated by his animated storytelling. He has always had a penchant for creativity and a passion for art in all of its forms, beginning with long hours of his childhood spent drawing Spiderman. His interests quickly solidified and he moved onto painting, which he pursued with great enthusiasm. His ultimate dream was to go to an art school to study painting and chase his passion, but this was never fully realized. Dan’s parents insisted he either become a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer—a lineup that makes him laugh to this day and was wholly unappealing to him then. Despite this less than ideal choice, Dan remembers that he was ecstatic to leave his home to go study engineering. “I didn’t like being controlled by my parents, so when I left home it was very inspiring,” he said, grinning. When I asked him whether he was at all scared to undertake this journey, Dan balked at the question. “No, I was looking forward to it. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the house!” he laughed.
However, this enthusiasm soon subsided. The high-strung environment of schooling became overwhelming for Dan. He warned his parents that he “would be better off studying what I wanted—art—and be stable,” but his words were ignored. Two months after enrolling in his engineering program, Dan was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and diagnosed with clinical depression, which he believes was exacerbated by the stress of schooling. His illness, and the subsequent treatment for that illness, deeply affected Dan and has been a continuous obstacle throughout his entire life.
Most frustrating for Dan is the effect of his illness on his creative process, an essential part of his life and well-being. “It sort of deadens the creativity, unfortunately,” he says of his illness and medication. “I used to play guitar. I bought a brand new Gibson Les Paul, and I don’t even use it!” he says, still laughing as he always laughs. Despite Dan’s struggles with remaining creative, he is thankful for his medication for making him stable, and always recommends staying on medication if you’re prescribed that for a mental illness. With this fact, Dan remains steadfastly dedicated to retaining that playful spirit he displays so readily, to continue to live in and love this world despite the obstacles.
Dan continually refuses to let his illness define him or his demeanor. The passion is still there, and it is still strong as ever. You can see it in the enthusiasm that permeates every yarn he spins, every joke he tells. Whether waxing poetic on Scorpions or telling sprawling stories full of gusto and drama, Dan exudes a certain zest for life that is rarely found these days. Our conversation is punctuated by potent memories: the Vatican during Mass on Easter Sunday, long hours spent listening to the stereo, a job as a gate watchman for a petrol chemical plant during the Persian Gulf War. He says he would get calls threatening to blow up the plant unless he personally gave them a million dollars. When I asked what he would say back to these threats, he laughed, explaining that he said, “If you step foot in this terminal I’ll kick you right back out!” Dan brings each tale to fruition, building them larger than life itself, imbuing them with a mythic vivacity, and a set of comedic chops to match that.
The energy that Dan exudes only becomes more valuable as you learn more about the deeply moving struggles he has endured. The hilarity of his stories, the sadness of the hardships he has faced, all of this taps into a wellspring of the deep and powerful emotion that makes speaking to him an absolute pleasure, an experience wrapped up in itself.
Dan is firm in his belief that people with mental illnesses are intelligent, creative, and important. They deserve to be treated with respect. He is proud of being alive, proud of being able to share his stories. I can only imagine that Danny Rocker’s final stand will last forever; no matter what setbacks he faces, he will continue to tell stories, he will continue to laugh, he will continue to live.