I jolted awake in my London hotel room.
Adam, the program manager of the Intel Education Technology Accelerator, was calling my phone, and the six missed calls notification told me that he had been trying to reach me for some time.
“Trace, where are you?” he said. “The conference started twenty minutes ago, your booth is empty, and Miles said you volunteered to present first thing this morning.”
“I’ll be there in ten,” I said, unconvincingly, my voice dripping with panic.
I hung up, and as I scrambled to find my clothes, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. There were heavy bags under my eyes. Not a single hair on my head was in place. My stomach lurched as I suppressed the urge to be sick.
This isn’t like me, I thought. I’m never late. I never sleep through my alarm clock. I never forget my responsibilities. How could I be so stupid? What the hell happened last night? How much did Declan and I have to drink? Shut up. There’s no time to think about that now. It’s time to go, go, go, go!
I sprinted at full speed… to the elevator… through the busy lobby… across the pathway… into the hotel’s adjacent building… past the conference attendees… into the Intel booth…
Adam furrowed his eyebrows as he looked me up and down.
“Are you okay?” he said, no longer angry at my tardiness but genuinely concerned for my health.
“I’m fine. I’m fine. Sorry about that. Sorry I’m late. I’ll be fine. I promise.”
I struggled to catch my breath as I shuffled some papers and straightened my lanyard and tucked in my shirt.
Just then, I looked up to see Miles, my boss, the CEO, walking towards me.
“You can go,” he said simply, dismissively, trying his best to mask his disappointment and shame. Desperate to redeem myself, I tried to protest, but he continued, “Trace, seriously, man, just go. Get some sleep. You look like shit. I can take it from here.”
On my way out of the conference, I saw Declan, making his way in. He took one look at me, chuckled to himself, said “rough night, huh?” and kept walking. Declan was himself a CEO, and as such, he had nobody to report to, nobody to dismiss him when he looked like shit. But that’s just the thing… he didn’t look like shit at all that morning.
And because I didn’t connect all the dots until several months later, I didn’t think much of this fact back then.
Five months before the London debacle, I had flown out to Silicon Valley to join a startup as employee #1 and to complete Intel’s Education Technology Accelerator program.
Out of thousands of applications, only eight companies were accepted — the best of the best of the best. And, at 23 years old, I was the youngest one there. Fresh out of college, and with minimal experience in the corporate world, I knew I had a lot to learn. But I also knew that the time for classroom theory had gone and rapid-fire, on-the-job learning would have to take its place.
It was about this time that I started a marketing campaign, which would require me to interview every education-technology executive I could find and share their lessons with the world. The good reason for this campaign was that it positioned our company as an authority in the field, but the real reason was that it allowed me to develop personal relationships with the people who had the thing that I wanted most — knowledge.
Of all the people I interviewed, Declan was by far the most intelligent — and that was saying something — and as luck would have it, he and I became close friends.
Declan was in his mid-thirties. He grew up going to the best private schools, and he attended a prestigious university to boot. Whenever all eight companies in the cohort would go out for dinner and drinks without an Intel representative present, he would secretly pick up the tab, then pretend like it was nothing, because to him, $1,200 was nothing.
I, on the other hand, grew up going to a public school in a small town in Indiana (population: 13,272). I dropped out of college during my junior year to ride my bicycle across the country for charity. After that, I started a business, which quickly failed, and as such, I didn’t have a penny to my name when I arrived in Silicon Valley.
My friendship with Declan, then, was an unlikely one, to say the least. It was this juxtaposition, this contrast, however, that made our conversations so fruitful. First, he would share a lesson with me. Then, I would ask a thousand questions, and we would work our way through the answers together. And finally, both of us would leave the conversation feeling more energized, more inspired, and more knowledgeable than we had been before we started.
It sounds like an exaggeration, I know, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t learn more from talking to Declan for four months than I learned while going to college for three years. Just to put that in perspective, that’s a 900% increase in learning-time efficiency. Furthermore, my college tuition was $10,020 per year, which means my casual conversations with him alone were worth more than $30,060. But to me, they were worth so much more. I knew that. He knew that. And I knew that he knew that.
That is why I knowingly and willingly ignored all the signs of danger.
The red flags surrounding Declan started off small. Besides, if you squinted at them through rose-colored glasses, they looked sort of pinkish anyway. Those are innocent enough… right?
I could tell you the whole story, but, instead, I’m going to save us both some time and list the red flags outright; he and his mom were on such bad terms that she didn’t even have his phone number; when I asked him whether he was still friends with a former business partner, he said, “god no,” giggled, then said he was particularly fond of burning bridges; days after the accelerator began, he made a cohort-wide slack channel, and a few days after that, we discovered that he had been reading our private messages. All of that was bad enough as it was, but the biggest red flag was yet to come.
I walked into work one day to find one of the eight companies, moving their team out of the co-working space and into an office down the hall.
“What’s going on?” I asked Henry, one of the team’s engineers, who towered three feet above me.
Henry lowered his voice.
“We’re not comfortable being in the same room as Declan anymore.”
“What? Why?” I replied. “What did he do now?”
Henry grabbed a box of office supplies and started walking out the door. Curious to know more, I grabbed one of the remaining boxes and followed him down the hall.
When Henry was sure that we were alone, he continued: “You know how Declan was hitting on Lucas when we were out at the bar last night?”
I nodded, unsure where this was going.
“Well after you guys left, we all went back to Declan’s place to watch the UFC fight, right? So it was just me, Jared, Declan, and Lucas. And Declan was trying to get Lucas drunk, but Lucas doesn’t drink. So when that didn’t work, Declan spiked his drink with MDMA. Meanwhile, Lucas had never done drugs before in his life, so he panicked, and we spent the last 18 hours in the emergency room, trying to calm him down.”
Oof, yeah, that’s pretty bad, I thought to myself. I had already decided that if it came down to choosing sides, I would leave Declan hanging, high and dry. That was the easy part, of course. What wasn’t so easy was figuring out why Declan would do such a thing in the first place. He had money, he wasn’t unattractive, he could have practically anything or anyone he wanted, so why would he do something so gross and so wrong? There had to be a good explanation — not an excuse, mind you — a logical explanation. At this point, I had a pretty good idea of what that explanation was, but I needed to know for sure.
The next night, I invited Declan out for a drink and we wound up back at his place. Hold on, you’re probably thinking right about now, you just found out what this guy was capable of, and your first thought is to go and have a drink with him? AND to go back to his apartment alone? Wtf is wrong with you? Yes, I could tell you, but that list is even longer than the one up above. So maybe next time.
When we got back to his apartment, Declan sat next to me on the couch — an obviously sexual advance. Trying to be as tactful as possible, I excused myself to the bathroom, and when I sat back down again, I restored a more comfortable distance between us. The subtle rejection was not lost on Declan.
“You seem to have your doubts about me,” he said. “I can see it in your eyes and in the way you talk. What’s the hangup?”
“What’s the hangup?” I repeated, buying myself some more time to think.
“Yeah, what’s the hangup? We’ve been friends for months now. Why am I sensing so much hesitation from you?”
I thought for a moment. I took a deep breath. And when I had worked up the courage to continue, I said, “do you really wanna know what I think?”
“Are you sure?”
“Trace, just tell me. I’m sure.”
“Okay,” I said. “If you really really wanna know… then I think… that you might be… a sociopath.”
Declan immediately broke eye contact. He slouched his shoulders and stared at the floor. He looked as if he might cry.
“Listen, man,” I continued, trying to console him but still keeping my distance. “If I’m wrong, then I’m sorry, but I don’t think I am. And if it’s true, then I don’t fault you for it at all. It’s not something you can control and there’s no cure for it either. I know you didn’t ask for this. But you did ask me to tell you what I thought, so there it is — I think you literally have anti-social personality disorder. And again, man, if I’m wrong, then I apologize. But I can see that you’re uncomfortable, so I’m going to go ahead and leave, and I will see you sometime tomorrow, yeah?”
He nodded, still staring at the floor. I stood up, walked over to him, grabbed his hand, pulled him up to give him a hug, and then quietly slipped out his front door. I got halfway home to my apartment when my phone buzzed — a text message from Declan:
When a character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is asked, “How did you go bankrupt?” the character replies, “Gradually, then suddenly.” Apparently, this is also how you come to the realization that someone, who you thought was your friend, roofied and raped you in a London hotel room. Trust me, I should know.
In retrospect, the clues were always there, waiting for me to solve the mystery, and slowly, slowly, I remembered; I remembered that I had only had four drinks that night; I remembered blacking out right after that; I remembered the lady who came up to Declan and I at dinner the next day, asking which one of us had passed out on the floor of the hotel bar (at the time, I thought she was berating us for being unprofessional, but now I see that she was trying to send me a sign); I remembered Declan looking clean-cut and unhungover, chuckling to himself, saying “rough night, huh?”
It took quite some time for “gradually” to turn into “suddenly.” I was recently giving my friend, Chris, a ride home from a bar when he told me a story about a polyamorous couple who had been trying to seduce him for months. One night, when he was finally in the mood to accept their invitation, he went back to their place for a couple of drinks. But, after the first one, he started feeling strange, experiencing tunnel vision and disorientation. Luckily, he sprinted out of their house and called a friend to pick him up, but the next day, he had his worst-ever hangover, despite not having had much to drink. This story felt oddly familiar, and I thought about that night in London.
When Chris got out of the car, the realization of what had happened that night washed over me like a tidal wave, and I felt… nothing. By this point, Declan and I didn’t talk anymore. We had drifted apart, seeing as we lived in different cities and didn’t have much reason to talk on a regular basis. I thought about calling him, but I knew it would be useless to ask him point-blank if he did what I thought he did. He would just deny, deny, deny, so, instead, I whipped out my phone and looked him up on Facebook. And I was confused, at first, by what I found.
A bunch of Declan’s friends and family members had posted strange comments on his profile. Things like, “Is this a joke?” and, “Sending lots of love and prayers,” and, “I regret not trying harder to meet up with you in person.” I scrolled back up to the top of his profile to see three words that put these comments in context — “Remembering Declan Byrd.” Yep, that’s right, Declan was dead and had been for two years. I may never know for sure, but the context clues — no publicly visible cause of death and no other logical reason to die at such a young age — indicate that it was probably suicide or overdose.
Suddenly, I felt a little bit disappointed that I would never get to speak with him again… a little bit mad that I would never have any answers… a little bit sad about the tragedy of an unloved boy developing an incurable disorder and turning into an unloving and unloveable man… But, more than anything, I felt a lotta bit confused about how I was supposed to feel.
Still, to this day, I don’t have any answers… but I bet Declan would.
I thought about ending the story there — at the end of Part IV — but it would seem borderline irresponsible to do so, don’t you think? As it stands, this story offers no lesson, no consolation, and no hope for other people who might be struggling with a similar situation. To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I had any of those things to offer in the first place. So, instead of rushing to plaster this story all over the internet, I sent it along to a few close friends so that we could talk through it together. In doing so, we discovered some of the lessons to be learned, and I want to share them with you now.
Lesson #1. Your Response to Trauma Doesn’t Have to Look “Normal.”
I haven’t told many people about my experience with Declan — up until now — but, already, I have gotten a wide range of reactions to my unusual trauma response.
Most people have been nothing but kind and supportive. But some people think I’m in denial and/or suppressing my emotions because I have no regrets. And some people think I must be lying because I’m not more visibly angry or upset. These comments don’t bother me much, but I can’t even begin to imagine how harmful they could be to someone else.
Dear reader, if someone trusts you enough to show you their wounds, then please don’t turn around and poke them. And if you’re the one showing said wounds, then know this: however you feel, and however you show it, is completely valid and normal.
Lesson #2. Show Wounds, Share Scars.
On the one hand, showing my wounds to a few close friends has been incredibly therapeutic because a) they have reminded me that I’m not alone b) they have shown me that it’s okay to ask for help and c) they have given me the courage to write this down and share it with you.
On the other hand, if I had prematurely shared my wounds with the wider world, I think it would’ve made matters worse because a) I wouldn’t have been as sure of myself b) I would’ve been coming from a place of fear instead of love and reaction instead of action and c) I might’ve brought harm to other people by not offering something resembling a message of hope.
Side note: if you HAVE had similar experiences, it is NOT your job to share them with the world OR to offer a message of hope (it just felt important to me).
My advice? Take however long you need. Ask for help. Heal at your own pace. And when you’re ready… share your experiences with others… if you can… no matter how painful or taboo…
Show wounds, share scars.
Lesson #3. You Deserve Better.
Have you ever seen the movie Good Will Hunting? There’s a scene in it in which Robin Williams’ character tells Matt Damon’s character that the abuse he endured as a child was not his fault. Ten times he says this — “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault, it’s not your fault” — so on and so forth.
Consciously, Matt Damon’s character knows this. But, like him, we sometimes subconsciously believe that we were not only at fault but that we also got what we deserved. So, for the purpose of this story, I want to assume that you already know that whatever has happened to you is not your fault, and I want to take it a step further by saying, “You deserve better.”
“Yeah, I know that,” you might say… just like Matt Damon’s character does in the movie.
And if I were physically with you right now, pretending to be Robin Williams, I would say, “Look at me. You deserve better.”
“You deserve better.”
“No, no you don’t. You deserve better.”
“You deserve better.”
“You deserve better. You deserve better.”
“Don’t fuck with me.”
“You deserve better.”
“Don't fuck with me all right? Don't fuck with me, Trace, not you.”
“You deserve better… You deserve better…”
After this conversation, I imagine we would hug and cry together, like they do in the movie, and say to each other, “Fuck them, okay?” — not because we hold grudges against the people who hurt us or because we have hatred in our hearts but because we did everything right and still got burned. And there’s nothing we can do about that now. So fuck them, okay?
Whether it’s a toxic significant other, an abusive parent, or a sociopathic mentor, I want you to know…
You. Deserve. Better.