Searching for Normal: “Breathe. A True Story” Theatrical Autobiography Chronicles CF Struggles, Inspiration

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by Reid D'Amico |

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Breathe. A True Story

“Brennen Reeves just wanted to be normal. The only problem: the fatal lung disease, cystic fibrosis.  The only solution: a double lung transplant.  Hilarious and heartbreaking, this solo show is one man’s journey to live beyond the odds.  Co-created and directed with David Lee Nelson (Elephant in My Closet, Status Update).”

The following account is adapted from an interview with Brennen Reeves. Brennen is a twenty-four year old cystic fibrosis patient from South Carolina. Building on his experiences, struggles, and a lung transplant, Brennen is able to masterfully craft his production. As Brennen describes, “Breathe is a true story — a ‘creative autobiographical show’ about my life, having grown up with the incurable disease, cystic fibrosis. Breathe. A True Story narrates my double lung transplant which I received just over four years ago. The show accounts my life from a young age, to my current age and place in life. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s honest.”

For the majority who are diagnosed with CF at an early age, the disease, its manifestations, and its treatments integrate to become part of their daily routine. Brennen Reeves was diagnosed with CF when he was just eight weeks old, so from the get-go, CF was an integral part of his life. “I kind of always knew I was sick or that something wasn’t right, that I wasn’t normal or as normal as my brother who was three years older than I. I was away a lot, at doctor’s appointments, the hospital, sometimes for weeks at a time. Somehow my parents made it seem normal though. Like we’d go see my grandparents for a night and then the next day get up and go to the doctor for an appointment. It was a genius concept- it always worked. Another trip to go see Grandma, oh and now the doctor! When I would be admitted for a tune-up I’d be centralized on the same floor as all of the other CF’ers.”

Well before the CF isolation and contamination practices seen today, it was not uncommon for those with CF to establish a sense of solace and camaraderie with other CF patients in the hospital. Research has found that CF patients have a greater susceptibility to transfer bacteria and infection to each other, and clinics have abolished interactions between CF patients. However, Brennen and many other CF patients who are well in their 20s and older are able to recall these friendships. “There were so many of us we could cover a whole hospital wing. We’d all cough together, wear our oxygen together, wish others good luck as they were headed downstairs for a procedure or surgery. It was a family. This continued for about ten years or so.”

It is at times too hard to explain: the way that those of us with CF form these strong relationships, yet know that the foundation of our friendships is built upon a deadly disease. You become immune to the reality. Perhaps it’s an element of becoming jaded, or a defense mechanism. Brennen was able to recall that “on the outside I stayed looking the same, very short, skinny, pasty, but happy. Though we couldn’t see it, day by day I, along with some of the CF patients, some friends, we were decaying. Some faster than others. Throughout the twenty-four years of my life, I’ve lost a handful of friends and a few family members to cystic fibrosis. It sucks. And sometimes even the patients who take care of themselves still pass. There’s nothing to say. So I guess my experience with CF is the same now as it was sixteen years ago. I’m not normal, nor will I ever be but I’m okay with that. Somethings suck, something’s don’t. For example, I have the most incredible, fascinating family. From my mom, dad, brother, all the way down to my cousins. We’re strong and we care and we love. That’s what’s great. What’s not so great, is still yet to be written.” Cystic fibrosis is hard on the body. CF is a genetic mutation of the CFTR protein. It results in a defective ion channel that causes much of the mucus in the body to become thick and sticky. The body is unable to clear this mucus, so bacterial infection in the lungs and sinuses grow and damage the organs. In the pancreas, the thick mucus blocks the flow of necessary enzymes that digest fat, resulting in many CF patients who struggle with malabsorption and gaining weight. The battle is unyielding, and takes its toll on the body. Many, like Brennen, eventually undergo a double lung transplant because the diseased organ loses function.

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Those of us with CF are strong. We carry a burden of disease, but we assimilate into daily life. Brennen graduated from the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC. It wasn’t until his last year of college that he met a professor that would help him sort through his journey with his double lung transplant. “David Lee Nelson. He saw something in me. Davey, at first was my professor during my last year in college. Then he became my friend, mentor, funnel to speak through. I took his solo performance class and that changed my life. One of the first days of class he had us write down ten events that changed our life, and then we’d narrow them down until we found one we wanted to explore. In the ten events I chose to jot down my transplant was nowhere to be found nor was the disease, cystic fibrosis. This is how I remember it anyways. He and I talked one day after class and he knew about me, somehow, and he told me he’d like me to write about my condition and my transplant. So I did. And it was hard. I cried at home, in class (in front of others). Then after the semester ended and I had presented my piece that was about 15 minutes long about my life in front of others, I remember feeling excited but not yet complete. I knew there was more. A little bit after the class and showcase ended Davey and I got back to talking and he told me he would like to help create a full length solo show, which is how Breathe. A True Story came to be. I would write, all the time, then we’d meet, talk, joke then back to writing.”

Despite the struggle and tragedy experienced, people like Brennen are able to use these experiences, find the remaining semblance of humor, and transform it into an outlet that left many who watched Breathe. A True Story feeling an onslaught of emotion ranging from blissful laughter to tears of sympathy. Brennen’s production served a platform of awareness, a stage for him to tell a story that can inspire others to persevere through their own struggles, and also a way to help those of us with cystic fibrosis. Brennen touched upon something that has even bothered me. With many of us with CF getting involved in the CF community or advocacy, there is often an element of guilt. “One thing that really bothered me during the process of writing my show and performing it is, I feel guilty. I kept saying to Davey ‘that everyone has their baggage’. Like ‘who am I to be telling mine? Do I think my story needs to be told, yes. Do I think everyone’s story needs to be told, whatever that may be, yes.”

In his closing remarks, Brennen discusses what he hopes to gain from Breathe. A True Story: “To someone who is not familiar with me, the disease, or transplantation; learn. Learn how you can help. No, you don’t have to donate money, there are other ways. One thing I like to tell people who ask me ‘what can I do’ is to go to a local hospital and sit and play with some kid whose parents aren’t able to. That makes a big difference. That puts a smile on a kid’s face and lets them forget reality for a little while. Also my other moral that I like to share and I hope people get after seeing my show is: everything is going to be okay. You’re going to be allright. Things happen. Life happens. You have the choice of either putting your head down or picking it up and keep going. From a young age I had this attitude. Life is beautiful but you have to find that beauty yourself.”

The future of Breathe. A True Story is truly wide open. Brennen and David are taking the show on the road starting later this fall. “We’re going to hospitals, colleges, and theater conventions. I’ve also started writing a book, a memoir that I’m going to continue with on the road in hopes of getting it published in a year and a half or so”. For more information, to book Breathe. A True Story, or to contact Brennen or David please email them at:

David Lee Nelson- [email protected]

Brennen Reeves- [email protected]

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