Gabriel Nathan Takes Suicide Prevention on the Road

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OC87 Recovery Diaries editor-in-chief Gabriel Nathan attaches a GoPro to Herbe's interior
Gabriel Nathan attaches a GoPro to Herbie’s interior. (Photos courtesy of FreshFly and OC87 Recovery Diaries

Gabriel Nathan talks about love more than you do. He talks about it in relation to his twins, Elijah and Louisa, and his wife, Abi. He talks about the way he loves his parents, his extended family and the work he does as the editor-in-chief of the OC87 Recovery Diaries (more on that later).

Perhaps work and family are typical objects of love for you, too. But what about a 56-year-old VW Beetle, painted to look like Herbie the Love Bug, with the suicide prevention hotline plastered on the rear window, specifically conceived of as a symbol of love, mental health awareness and inclusivity? This, it seems fair to venture, is fairly unique to Nathan.

Nathan’s Herbie is his co-star in his upcoming film, A Man, A Bug and a Mission. A featurette was released on Instagram on July 3, and Nathan is working with director Glenn Holsten to ensure that a fuller-length version will be ready for a mental illness-focused theatre and film festival in Rochester, New York, around this time next year.

But why Herbie? Why suicide prevention? And what do the OC87 Recovery Diaries have to do with it?

“I had this whacko idea, ‘Oh, a road trip film, everybody loves a road trip film,’” Nathan said.

Nathan, 39, grew up in Lower Merion, and his father was, for a time, the principal of the Main Line Reform Hebrew school. He and his family flitted between different modes of practice and relation to Judaism — Conservative, Reform, cultural — but never quite settled anywhere.

Where he did find solid ground was in the stories of Exodus. Nathan, who struggles with depression and suicidal ideation, has found that the methods he uses to reckon with the challenges in his own life are far better served when he is thinking about narratives and stories, rather than facts and statistics. Working in the inpatient services at Montgomery Country Emergency Services, a nonprofit crisis psychiatric hospital, back in 2014, he found that stories were helpful to others in need, too. It was then that he found out about Bud Clayman.

Clayman was the subject of a 2010 documentary, OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger’s Movie. The movie, directed by Glenn Holsten, covered his struggle with various mental ailments, and received national attention. Nathan was enthralled by the project, and by Clayman. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is someone I should know,’” he said. (OC87 was a term coined by Claymans therapist, referring to the year — 1987 — that OCD took over his life.)

He reached out to Clayman, and they became fast friends, and movie-going buddies at the Ritz, too. Clayman, after the success of the movie, started a website called the OC87 Recovery Diaries, where both writers and nonwriters alike could work with him, the editor-in-chief, to publish first-hand accounts of their lifelong battles with their mental health. He asked Nathan if he’d be interested in joining on as a part-time editor, and Nathan happily obliged, editing essays on nights and weekends.

In November 2016, Clayman asked Nathan to take over as editor-in-chief, and he accepted the offer. The OC87 Recovery Diaries became his full-time job, as he solicited essays, worked with writers, and oversaw outreach, social media efforts, development, marketing and the part-time editors for the site.

Nathan and his wife found themselves “despondent” over the election of Donald Trump that month, and in February, they bought a 56-year-old white VW Beetle.

Those two things are, indeed, connected. Nathan explains it thusly.

In 1985, his Aunt Rena, babysitting him while his parents were out on a date night, rented The Love Bug from West Coast Video on City Avenue. “I saw this film and I was just gone to the moon,” Nathan said. “I was totally in love.” It became an early obsession, one of the “things that I’ve eaten up, or that have eaten me up” over the years, he said. He told his parents as far back as then: He was going to buy a white VW Beetle and paint it like Herbie one day. February, 2017, he and his wife decide that their world needs an injection of happiness and a symbol of inclusivity — Herbie is for everyone, after all — and voila: Herbie.

Immediately, people began to talk to Nathan. In supermarket parking lots and gas stations, and just about anywhere that a car is parked, people asked him about the car. Almost invariably, people wanted to know what, exactly, he did for a living. When he told them about OC87, total strangers began to open up to him about their own experiences with suicide. A lightbulb went off in Nathan’s head.

If Herbie was all it took to get people on the street to talk to him about their experiences, how could he use this to further his cause — suicide prevention? “I’ll take what’s happening in the community, and kind of explode it,” he thought. Immediately, he thought of Holsten, who directs monthly videos for OC87 that go along with the essays (including one short about Nathan and Herbie).

He worked with Holsten to come up with a basic premise — drive around in Herbie, with the suicide prevention hotline in the rear window, and collect interviews, planned and unplanned — and figure out the filming logistics.

“On a practical level, he was super helpful to me,” Nathan said. “He’s better than gold. White gold. Platinum, whatever.” (Holsten, who is now working to edit to the footage, on Nathan: “It’s been an amazing to watch his growth as a human being, as the editor-in-chief of the site, and he’s a terrific writer and he’s very funny.”)

This May, Nathan drove for close to two weeks, from Philadelphia to up near the Vermont-Canada border, breaking down for four days at one point. But now, he’s got “more footage than I could ever use.”

He’s hopeful that the finished product will get across his typical messages — suicide is preventable; help is available; recovery looks different at different times; suicide is not sinful — along with one, overarching theme.

“I want people to take hope away,” he said.

[email protected]; 215-832-0740

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