The Columbus Dispatch
Once-suicidal man now plays St. Nick to spread cheer
Dressed in his regular clothes, doing regular things, Gabe Howard usually manages to feel happy enough. But put him in his best suit — red velvet, fuzzy cuffs, price tag just shy of a grand — and his heart soars.
“I wish I could wear a Santacam with it and show how good the world can be,” Howard said.
Everything looks kinder through a Jolly Old Elf lens. Adults like you, kids adore you, cars honk in greeting. Howard discovered the power of the Claus about four years
ago, when his manager at a White Castle came to him with a desperate plea and a scratchy, $19 costume.
“Gabe was the biggest, tallest person we knew,” Shawn Reed recalled. “And he said he’d do it.”
Howard had a great time at the East Side fast-food restaurant, where co-workers built him a throne made of Slider boxes and customers snapped selfies. It was all so wonderful that the next year he invested in topnotch attire and charted an unorthodox course.
“I read all the rules about being Santa; I wanted to be a really good Santa,” Howard said.
He also wanted to go where few Santas go — to homeless shelters and drop-in centers for people struggling with addiction, trauma and mental illness. Howard wanted to dole out hugs and laughter and listen to the humblest of wishes: To live. To see a son or daughter again. To sleep in a warm bed instead of a tent by the railroad tracks.
He figures everyone deserves the gift of hope. “We all need someone to believe in us, even if it’s a middle-age bipolar dude who dresses up like Santa,” Howard said.
Luck and support, diagnosis and medication had pulled the 41-year-old Howard from the edge and into recovery. But not before he’d endured years of isolation and anguish, including hospitalization and nearconstant thoughts of suicide during what he refers to as his “epic battle with mental illness.”
Howard is one seriously empathetic Santa. He also has a keen-enough sense of humor to handle the inevitable bipolar Santa jokes (North Pole or South Pole?).
“In a way, I’ve taken the advocacy approach to Santa Claus,” Howard said. “I feel so good doing it. And I can’t overstate how awesome it is to be Santa. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to Mick Jagger.”
Samantha Gould, wearing a halo made from sparkly pipe cleaners, is among the dozens of people Howard visited Thursday at the West and East branches of the PEER Center, a drop-in wellness, recovery and support center.
Many already knew the man behind the beard dispensing candy canes and cracking wise. In addition to Howard’s work as a speaker, writer and mental-health activist, the Reynoldsburg resident is the development and marketing director at PEER, which stands for Peers Enriching Each other’s Recovery. The centers are open every day, and for that Gould is grateful.
“I will be here for Christmas,” she said. “The holidays are a depressing time. Being here, helping others, keeps my mind occupied. I don’t dwell.”
Gould is staying at a West Side homeless shelter. She’s learning to deal with her mental illness, recovery from addiction and emotional pain. The 32-year-old said she lost four children — two sets of twins — who died from congenital heart defects. Her two youngest were removed from her care and have been adopted.
“I know they’re in better places,” she said, smiling at the sound of Howard’s thundering “Ho-ho-ho.” “All I want is to be able to talk to my kids for Christmas.”
Donning a Santa suit for the 18-and-over crowd at PEER is just one more way for Howard to push his recovery message, said Juliet Dorris-Williams, executive director of the PEER Center.
“We know that sharing the truth of our experiences empowers others. It’s what we call radical honesty,” Dorris-Williams said. “Gabe is always just putting it out there. And we at the PEER Center get to come along for the ride.” *** As a teen and young man, Howard didn’t understand that he was sick. “I just thought I was an adult with a bad personality,” he said. “I thought about suicide every day. I just assumed everybody was thinking about it.”
He made lists. One with reasons to live, the other with reasons to die. “The reasons to live kept getting shorter.”
In 2003, Howard was diagnosed with bipolar and anxiety disorders after being committed to a psychiatric hospital. His weight had ballooned to 500 pounds and he’d been stuck in a manic phase that lasted the better part of a year.
When Howard finally reached recovery and learned how to live with his mental illness, he thought of all the people who’d been there when he needed them. Many were volunteers.
His service to a national mental health charity, like the blogging and podcasts that followed, was intentional. Becoming Santa at White Castle was pure accident. But somehow, it all fits.
Though he only worked at White Castle for a short time, Howard returns every year to play Santa. “I’m the only Santa that store No. 29 has ever had,” he said. “This is my fifth Christmas. I don’t get paid; I ask only for Diet Coke. I’m pretty sure they lose on the deal, because I can drink some Diet Coke.”
This year’s throne required 523 Slider boxes, said Reed, the store manager. It rests on bun crates, he told Howard, so it’s plenty sturdy for Santa. “Now it might get torn up a bit on the night shift,” Reed said. “People like to come in and sit on it after they’ve been drinking.”
Howard only accepts payment at more traditional Santa gigs, such as restaurants and private parties. Part of the reason is to break even on dry cleaning. It costs about $100 to freshen Santa’s suit, and the big guy sweats a lot.
Last year, Howard obliged an emergency Santa assignment after the first hire got drunk and hit on a server. But he turned down a request to play Santa outside a Short North bar, where organizers wanted him to hand out coupons for drinks. That’s not the way Santa rolls.
Howard might be a goofball at times, but for him, Santa is a “symbol of hope and happiness,” said Kendall Howard, Gabe’s wife. “There’s been days when he puts on the suit and his personality changes. He absolutely lights up.”
Much as he loves Christmas, Howard almost laments its arrival. “It’s the party that’s over,” he said. “I suppose the suit will eventually run its course, and I’ll hang it up. Or maybe not. This is addictive.”