Mike Brill is at home playing his guitar. He’s sitting outside the Starbucks at 10000 Roosevelt Blvd. singing his original song Home Again?, written about his longing to reunite with his parents after they passed away.
“Through the voice of my father and the tenderness of my mother I’ve become the man I am today,” he croons. After he’s done singing, someone else who recognized The Grateful Dead’s logo on Brill’s T-shirt approaches, striking up a conversation about the band and each other’s music even though it’s their first time meeting.
It’s a moment of cosmic energy for Brill. He’s written about his appreciation for the band, the story behind Home Again? and his music extensively in Hello My Name is Santa, his autobiography published in June. The book subtitled ‘An alcoholic’s journey from homelessness to Santa Claus’ tackles his struggles with childhood trauma, addiction and homelessness, and how he overcame these tribulations to become a substance abuse disorder counselor.
Brill realized he wanted to write the book as he was journaling his experiences playing Santa Claus at Peddler’s Village. Bringing joy to young kids’ faces from behind the beard and bright red suit was highly personal to Brill, and as he wrote down passages he realized the project could become so much bigger.
“Fulfilling this writing project became my legacy,” he said.
The book opens with the description of an idyllic beach sunrise in Bali, Indonesia on a trip Brill calls his “rite of passage.” Painting a picture of beauty in his writing, “salt kissed salt” as Brill’s tears fall into the water and he contemplates the beauty he might have missed had he succumbed to his struggles. These struggles are what he describes in the next chapters – trauma from a childhood event when he was just 12 trickled its way into other areas of his life, eventually contributing to the alcoholism that upended so many aspects of his 20s and 30s.
Brill chronicles some of his darkest nights spent living in Pennypack Park, his makeshift home. “I decided not to sleep right there on the front of the stage, as I didn’t want to scare the morning park attendees,” he writes of one particularly drunken night. “I stood on the stage and looked out on the open moonlit field and imagined hundreds of people cheering. There was only one thing left to do: AIR GUITAR.” It’s a stage Brill still dreams of playing on for a real audience, and as a sober musician, the odds of that happening are much more likely now.
Of all the difficult passages he wrote, perhaps the most difficult was the chapter about the death of his parents, who died within eight months of each other. His mother was too sick to attend his brother’s wedding, he recalls with heartbreaking specificity, describing the wedding party visiting her after the ceremony. His father’s last words to Brill urged him to get help for his addictions, something that had never been vocalized between the two.
Brill gives equal attention to the triumphs in his life, too. Chapters focusing on his love for The Grateful Dead and his rite of passage shed some sunshine on the pages, as is Brill’s chronicling of his successful 19-year journey toward earning a college degree. He wrote the book for those who suffer from trauma or addictions – whether that’s the individual, their family members or their community.
“My hope is our society stops chasing substances and starts chasing human life,” he said. “I think it is the core of human existence to help other people.”
One chapter of the book includes a guide for those questioning if what they are experiencing is trauma and how to get help if it is. Brill advocates for making the substance diagnosis as a secondary focus in treatment and shifting focus to the trauma behind the addiction.
“When we talk about the substances, we’re focusing on the consumption and history of difference substances when the motivation to take these substances is to avoid reality and the truth in their past,” he said. “It’s not tackling the ‘why’ and the truth of what happened.”
Before exiting the Starbucks to give the fellow Grateful Dead fan a copy of his book and talk about their respective music gigs, Brill revealed another key step to his mental health – Brillism. Brillism is a mindset of not saying no to anything that will help the individual not harm themselves or others, one day at a time.
“It’s an educated and empowered way to live,” he said. “Everyone of my clients has their own Brillisms. I ask them to take their own name and add -ism to it. Everyone can empower themselves.”