How Tea Helped me Heal - by Jason McDonald

You want a great American story? Follow Jason McDonald on Facebook. First of all, you will laugh until you cry - this guy's wit is uncanny. More subtly, you will be drawn into a story of a man who lives honestly in his triumphs and his heartbreaks. Jason has been hit with some devils including addiction, battling obesity, and losing loved ones, but this is where he shines. I met Jason at an agritourism convention where he was setting about starting the first tea farm in Mississippi. This is his story:

A lot is being said and proclaimed recently about the health benefits of tea. Some are true and some are just delusional fantasies for marketing purposes. However, tea holds a particular health benefit for me that many are not aware of. This is my story about my particular journey into the tea world by way of a non-traditional path.

One of my favorite quotes in a particular organization that I belong to is, "We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others." It embodies my life today—a life that at one time was drifting and sinking into a very deep abyss. 

There is no real beginning or end to my story. I grew up in a normal household and experienced very much the same things that many others experience. I learned to ride a bike, I had a first kiss, I graduated high school and went off to college. Sure, there were some tough situations in my early childhood, but doesn’t everyone experience some sort of trouble as they transition from childhood to the teenage years and then on to adulthood? My case is not so special but it is special to me because it is mine. 

I can say all of these things with 20/20 hindsight and some serenity about the situation, but experiencing some of the things that I did, I felt a totally different way about them at the time. I was different in many ways. I was blessed with an extremely high IQ (I do not say this to brag—I am just stating the facts), but this is something that made me socially awkward. I never could relate to anyone that was my age in my early days of school. I would often sit with the teachers at lunch because their conversations were way more fascinating to me than anything my peers were discussing. 

I also realized early on that I was different from others in the fact that I was a boy who liked boys. Many strides have been made in the past two decades since I was in school toward tolerance and acceptance, but when I was in school, I was a bit of an outcast. Imagine growing up in the very conservative, very fundamentalist Christian American South and being gay. It was not an easy row to hoe. 

Since I didn't fit anywhere, I decided that I would try to find some self-worth in the things I was good at. I was sociable enough to be able to hold many offices in the various groups that I was a part of. I founded a chapter of the Teen-aged Republicans and was active in youth group. I also graduated valedictorian of my high school class because I knew that if I did not fit in anywhere and I had no self-worth in any other realm of my life, I could at least excel at school work. 

There were always mundane questions by older ladies in my family and at church that went something like this, "Why don't you have a girlfriend?" or "You must be waiting on the right girl to come along, aren't you?" Even after a ten and a half year relationship with my former partner, I am still getting these questions from my grandmother. I find them cute now, but at the time, I didn’t have an answer for them. Since I was already socially awkward enough, it caused me to retreat further into isolation. 

I decided that if I became overweight, then no one would ask those questions. So I was on a mission to become overweight and make sure I was unattractive. It was a conscious decision. It seems silly, but what coping mechanisms aren't silly if you really take a hard look at them. As silly as it seems, it did stop the questions from a lot of people. I had achieved my goal, but I set into place a snowball of problems in later life. As I say, I have 20/20 hindsight today to view all of these things for what they are worth, but at the time, I was just fighting to stay above water in life.

Then came the college years.  I chose a school that was still close enough to my safety net of family but far enough away to start a new life. This time, I was determined to fit in at all costs—and it nearly cost me my life. 

Initially, I was so happy to be away from my former life, but once the honeymoon was over, I began to feel disconnected again. I went through the rush process for fraternities and although I was accepted by two fraternities, I did not get chosen for my first choice, and did not accept the bids that were offered to me. I viewed myself as a failure at fitting in but in hindsight, I really wasn’t a failure. These weren't the things I was meant to fit in with.

Around this time, I discovered the club scene. Although I vowed early in life to the contrary, I would go out almost every night and drink. Everyone was at the bar to drink, and I was finally a part of something. Since I was socially awkward, I needed something to do with my hands, to look busy so no one would approach me, and I took up smoking. I know this makes about as much sense to some people as a screen door on a submarine, but it made sense to me at the time. 

I had a series of flings and a few boyfriends along the way as one would expect from the club scene. I was discovering who I was in a new world that accepted me. I was still able to keep my grades fairly high, and I wasn’t feeling any real consequences for my actions. It was a pretty typical college existence, I think. Most people sew their royal oats in college, then leave and settle down. I had hopes that I too would settle down after college. 

One fateful night, I met the person that I thought was "the one." I had noticed him before many times and I finally had enough to drink that I could approach him. We hit it off and went to an after-party in the wee hours of the night. It was almost magical until the drugs came out. I was raised in the era of "Just Say No" and "This is your brain on drugs" and I knew the dangers of drugs. Self-knowledge availed me nothing. I knew I should have said no, but my desire to fit in would not let me. 

That night began a downward spiral from which I almost never made it out. I will not get into a lot of the details of my addiction nor my alcoholism. This story is not about the sheer hell that I endured. The sleepless nights that I put everyone close to me through. Nor is it about the lives that I ruined along the way on my endless journey of exploiting anyone and anything I could to get my next fix. I will not share the absolute depths to which I sank. Two quotes sum up my existence during those years, "Addiction is a family disease—one person uses and the whole family suffers" and "Drugs take you to hell disguised as heaven." Anyone who has come into contact or loved someone with an addiction will understand. 

This period of my life went from about 20 years of age until I was 35. There were countless jails and institutions along the way. None of that could stop me. It is best summed up like this: I was not suicidal, but I did not really care if I died either. It was a pitiful existence and no amount of love or support from anyone or anything could get me out of it. It was a hole I had dug myself and until I quit digging, it only got deeper. So, if you know someone with an addiction, my only advice is to love them until they can love themselves. You cannot save them, they have to save themselves.

So, what does this all have to do with tea, you ask? 

In the Spring of 2012, I had a stroke of good fortune in my financial life and I was able to pay off my mortgage. This was a good thing because I did not want to leave anyone with bills when my eminent death occurred. I had resigned myself to dying as an addict. That was just how life was going to end up for me. I had a brother who had also suffered the same fate, so it was no longer a taboo idea for me. I had a particularly bad Spring mentally. My mother later commented that she was ready to send me to an insane asylum. In retrospect, she probably should have, but it would have done me no good. I had to hit rock bottom myself and stop digging the hole. 

I decided that I needed to get away from everything at home so I attended to my affairs—drawing up and signing a will, paying off a mortgage, and withdrawing a large sum of cash out of the bank.  I didn’t know where I was going but I knew I couldn’t stay where I was. I set out on the road and ended up in Savannah, Georgia. I had not given up the drugs quite yet and paranoia was at an all-time high. I switched hotels multiple times and I finally settled on one because it had an underground parking garage where I could hide my car.  

I decided that I needed to get clean and the specific drug that I was using has a half-life of 72 hours in the human body.  I went to the local grocery store and bought food and sports drinks for the eminent dehydration, and locked myself into a hotel room for a week. All I can say about that experience is that no one should ever have to go through that in their entire lives: sleeping binges followed by insomnia, sweats and freezing periods, nausea and vomiting, hallucinations and convulsions. However, in the end, I was free. Well, free for a while—it took a few more months to be clean from drugs for good and another year and half to be sober from alcohol. 

When I finally emerged from that nightmare a week later, I went to the hotel restaurant and had a meal. I ordered tea and assumed they would bring an iced tea. I was presented with a cup of hot water and a tea bag. If you have never been to Savannah, the local food culture is very strong there. Naturally, the tea bag was from The Charleston Tea Plantation. It stated that they were the "Only Tea Farm in America." This piqued my interest because prior to that moment in life, I had never really given much thought to where tea came from. I just assumed it was grown somewhere with the corn in the Midwest. 

Now I know better, but it was something that I never really considered. I was too busy thinking about other things—much more philosophical questions in life. I truly was a barroom philosopher! I went back to my room and I searched on the internet how far it was to Charleston from Savannah. I booked the trip and I sent for my partner who arrived late one Friday night. On Saturday, we drove to Charleston and by Sunday, we were visiting the tea farm. I was shocked at the fact that tea was a high heat, humidity, ample rainfall, and acidic soil crop. It also is a low maintenance crop after it is established. This seemed like a perfect fit for me because I was looking for a replacement crop that could not get damaged by hurricanes like Hurricane Katrina that had destroyed a lot of pine plantations a few years earlier. We returned home but the thought of tea would not leave my head. I was enthralled by tea. 

A few months passed and I could not shake the idea of tea farming. We returned to Charleston over the Labor Day holiday in 2012 and I returned again later in September of that year. I had made up my mind that this was going to be something I was going to do. I laugh now because, after watching family and community members struggle, I made a comment to one of my cousins early in life that I was never going to be a farmer if I could help it. My mother also says that if the only two people on Earth were her and a farmer, the human population would cease to exist. I decided to enter into farming despite all of the warnings from anyone I came across. I was on a mission. 

For the first time in my life, I had a purpose—I was going to be a tea farmer. I would like to say that from that moment on, my life was changed and I lived happily ever after, but I still had some addiction and alcoholism issues to deal with. However, I was making baby steps toward a better life without even realizing it. 

By December of 2012, I had already contacted my MSU Extension agent in Lincoln County Rebecca Bates, and introduced myself by saying, "Don't think I am crazy but I want to grow tea." I also enlisted the services of Nigel Melican (TeaCraft, Ltd) to teach me how to grow tea. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew I would need all the help that I could get. Both of these connections have been invaluable to the success of what became The Great Mississippi Tea Company and to me personally. I consider both of them my friends and I am glad that our paths crossed. 

One day I realized that using drugs would no longer fit into the life that I wanted to lead so I put them down once and for all in the Summer of 2012. However, addiction is a cunning and baffling foe. I followed this path to an almost fatal end. 

On January 1, 2014, a few minutes past midnight, I had a clear thought, "It does not have to end this way!' I heard it as clear as if someone in the room with me had uttered these words to me. I have not had a drink since. I thank my new friends and "family" in a special organization that I belong to for helping me find a new life after a lifetime of addiction and alcoholism. I am not cured by any means, but I do have a daily reprieve based upon my spiritual condition. So, just for today, I am sober. 

I found replacement addictions to fill the void that the last addiction left within me. Just as my drinking increased after giving up drugs, when I gave up alcohol, my eating skyrocketed. I found myself at 350+ pounds, but I was sober and clean. I think the reality hit me on a trip in March of 2015 with Elyse Petersen and Tealet. We were climbing the narrow, steep hills in Darjeeling and Nepal and I couldn’t hack it. I also saw a picture of myself in a river with my shirt off. 

I knew that this could not be healthy and if I wanted to be serious about tea and tea travels, I would have to shed the pounds. I wanted to enjoy the things that I worked so hard to build on the tea farm. So I embarked on another journey—weight loss. It has not been easy. I have changed everything that I knew about fitness and dieting. I not only went on a diet, I made a lifestyle change. As of the writing of this story, I have lost 129 pounds and 14" off of my waist. I can now do the things that I want to do when I want to do them. I can fly in an airplane and not have to have a seatbelt extender. I am sure if I was in Nepal and India again, I could climb the paths like a champ. 

I decided to treat myself for a job well done with a trip out to Hawaii for the Tea of the United States Competition held in November of 2015 in Volcano, Hawaii. We had submitted samples to the competition but really did not expect to win.  I knew that we had a top-notch tea maker in Beverly Wainwright which was paired with the superior know-how that Nigel Melican brought to the project. I also knew that we had employed all of the best ideas for the tea farm, but you never really want to get your hopes too high. I received the call at 5am Hawaii time that we not only won, but swept the non-commercial division! It was already 10am back home and the phones were blowing up with excitement. I wont lie, I cried a little then I called everyone I knew. I still get chill bumps thinking about that moment. 

It was a victory over so much adversity in life. I had finally set out to do something, and that thing was successful. I had conquered so many demons and it felt great to be honored with so many awards at TOTUS. 

The future is bright. I don’t have anything holding me back anymore. However, I realize that it all can change in an instant if I chose for it to. I can never go back to my old life, even just to visit. It would swallow me whole. I have to live for today.

I am planning a move to Hawaii where Grif Frost and I have set up the Hawaii Tea Cooperative to work with local landowners and farmers to help foster new developments in the Hawaii tea culture. I plan on splitting my year between Hawaii and Mississippi. These are all things I never thought imaginable just a few years ago.

It is a funny thing how tea can change a life so dramatically. A simple beverage kickstarted my life.  I finally feel like I am a part of something, which is what I have searched for my entire life. The people I have met in the tea world are second to none. There is a healing spirit that comes along with tea consumption—it saved my life. Remember, everyone has a story to tell over a nice warm cup of tea, I am grateful that you took the time to read mine.

To keep up with Jason, find him on The Great Mississippi Tea Company or follow him on Facebook

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