Last month was both Stroke Awareness Month and the one year anniversary of the publication of Family Don’t End With Blood, the book written by the cast and fans of Supernatural. So this is a perfect time to chat with Supernatural actor and Louden Swain frontman Rob Benedict (Chuck/God) about the powerful chapter he wrote in the book. In his chapter, Rob takes us through every tension-filled moment of the stroke he had while at a Supernatural convention in Toronto several years ago and how the SPNFamily got him through it. I knew when Rob sent me the story to include that it was going to make readers cry (in a good way) and that it was going to inspire people – but I didn’t know that it was going to literally save lives.
That’s exactly what happened though.
At a Supernatural convention this spring, a fan approached the vendor table for Family Don’t End With Blood and said she had something to tell me. I’ve heard so many wonderful stories about how the stories shared in the book have inspired someone to keep going, or given them the courage to make changes in their lives, or helped them feel okay being who they are for the first time. When the fan standing at my table got emotional, I expected to hear a similar story.
“The Supernatural fandom and this book,” she said, “saved my life.”
Not in the way I expected, however. Patty Barbera had read Family Don’t End With Blood, and Rob’s chapter, in which he shares his experience having a serious stroke at the Toronto convention, had really stood out for her. Shortly before the convention, she was getting ready for bed when her hand started to go numb. The numbness slowly moved up her arm, and then there was a pain in the back of her head and her whole right side went numb. The right side of her face began to droop. She began having trouble speaking. Because she had just read Rob’s chapter, which details what happened during his stroke, Patty immediately realized she was having a stroke. She screamed for her husband, and they drove to the hospital – where a CT Scan showed that she was indeed having a stroke – the type referred to as a “TIA” or mini stroke. Even more alarmingly, her scans showed that it was not the first one.
As she told me her story, she began to cry – but they were good tears. She was healthy enough now to attend the convention and thank Rob herself (and has since made remarkable progress and is almost fully recovered)
“If I hadn’t read this book, I probably would have ignored everything and went to bed, most likely damaging my brain. But because of this book and Rob’s story, I’m back to my old self with minimal damage,” Patty said.
I felt my own eyes well up, and we shared a few tissues together.
Patty’s powerful story was a reminder of why we all wrote Family Don’t End With Blood – we wanted to make a difference. The actors who wrote chapters and the fans who wrote chapters all wanted to share their very personal stories in the hopes that others would be inspired and impacted by what they wrote.
That was certainly the case for Patty with Rob’s chapter. Shortly after I met Patty, I sat down with Rob to ask about why he wanted to contribute to the book and what the response has been to his story. In keeping with the important messages of Rob and Patty, we’ve included a summary of the warning signs of stroke at the end of this article – you can read the entire account of Rob’s very emotional experience in his chapter of Family Don’t End With Blood.
Lynn: You wrote a really personal chapter in Family Don’t End With Blood, taking readers through every moment of your experience when you had a stroke at a convention several years ago. What made you want to share your story?
Rob: It’s almost easier for me to express myself through writing. And I felt the need to re-visit the experience and take all of it back into my consciousness, and to try to account for what happened. In my recovery I read an amazing memoir called Brain On Fire, in which the author Susannah Calahan tracks her own journey through a debilitating virus that attacked her brain. I was inspired by that. I am inspired to put all of this in a book someday, but this chapter was a place to start. It was incredibly therapeutic.
Lynn: Was it challenging to be that personal and share your own vulnerability?
Rob: Not really – I mean the fear of getting too personal is always a road block, but it’s one I like to push out of the way. I do it a lot with my song lyrics. At times, singing my songs is like reading my diary out loud. It’s terrifying! BUT I am motivated by that fear. I dare myself to speak the truth. I think there’s something incredibly confident, or robust, about expressing one’s own insecurities and fear. I’ve said it before on stage when I sing songs like She Waits, but there is something about this fandom that makes me feel safe to express myself. I feel like there’s an unspoken connection, especially by the end of a convention weekend. So I did also feel that when I wrote this – that it wouldn’t fall on judgmental ears.
Lynn: No, it definitely didn’t. And I think it’s because you’re brave enough to be real that both your chapter and your songs have such an impact.
Lynn: Was there anything you ultimately included that you were hesitant to share with the world?
Rob: Oh, I’d say in general when you are describing yourself at your absolute rock bottom, your most vulnerable self, there’s that part of you that goes, “ok, how specific do you want to be?” You know, this idea that I was stuck in my head, that I got stuck in my head at a convention, admitting that felt raw at first. But again, once I committed I kind of felt okay telling it as it was. And of course the story went on, there’s more story to tell, to add to, and I hope to write that soon.
Lynn: (who I think everyone knows is a HUGE Louden Swain fan): I can’t wait to read more! Also, we all know you’re a fabulous songwriter – how different was the writing process for writing an autobiographical essay instead of a song? What was easier and what was more difficult?
Rob: It felt very similar. It was coming from the same place. This felt almost easier, because the story was already there. I just was a reporter, reporting it as I saw it, as I remembered it. Songs are tricky because it’s part diary, part poem, part painting a picture with words, part storytelling. Songs are tricky because you have to go, what am I saying here? What am I creating? With this chapter, I really just sat down and it came pouring out. Again, I was just siphoning it out, telling it factually, as it was.
Lynn: Your chapter is regarded by fans as one of the most compelling in the book. What feedback have you gotten from fans about your chapter, either from chatting with you when they have you sign it at cons or otherwise?
Rob: People have been amazing about it — saying that it meant a lot to them, thanking me for being so honest. I think it hits people emotionally for various reasons. Either it happened to them, or someone they know, or they just relate somehow, and empathize. But there’s this amazing part of it where people don’t even have to say anything – they get it, and that means so much. They get it. They’re with me.
Lynn: They are, most definitely. Every time an entire ballroom lights up when you’re singing ‘She Waits’, it’s so clear. You credit your fellow actors (especially Richard, Jensen and Misha) with literally saving your life when the stroke happened – how did that experience change your relationship with them going forward?
Rob: Well, we’re not speaking…. Kidding!
Rob: Well, it was a one way ticket to being locked as brothers – I mean at least to me. Those guys are a part of my story that I will never forget. And we are truly brothers.
Rob: And it doesn’t stop with them. That event brought the whole cast (the convention-going cast members at least) closer together. It is a part of all of our story now. In Toronto (with the exception of this year) we have an annual dinner you know, we have THE dinner that I missed when I had my stroke (the joke is that I have to eat the same steak Richard ordered for me…now 1, 2, 3 years old…), and EVERYONE comes. Yes, it’s about me in part, but at the same time it’s not about me at all. It’s about this connection that we’ve all fostered with each other…not just Rich, Jensen and Mish, but the band and Jared, Matt, Jason, Ruth, Kim and Briana, Sheppard, Pellegrino and on and on…Fergus, who’s newer to the group. He’s in. It’s just a gratitude fest when we do that. And that’s one of the positive effects of what happened. And now, you know, with the same thing happening to Timmy O (who’s also such a big part of our group), you know, it’s like we’re already ready, locked and loaded to help brother Tim out ( And Tim’s doing so well). I can’t say enough solid things about this group of friends. I really love them all. And it starts with the kindness that J and J show all of us. It starts with those two dudes. If they weren’t the solid human beings that they are, this would be a different dynamic. It’s a family dynamic.
Lynn: It really is. I’ve said to you before that I think one of the things that turned the Saturday Night Special into such an emotional experience was that we almost lost you – your triumphant return was chronicled through the SNS and that made songs like Amazing, as well as other emotional songs, so much more powerful. I can feel that from the fan side – do you think that’s the case for you and the band also? Is the emotional power of the SNS what makes so many of your colleagues want to join in (I think so btw).
Rob: Absolutely. I mean, I can definitely say it’s the case for me. Songs like Reunion, Amazing, and even She Waits take on a different meaning for me now. Even other emotional songs, Downtown Letdown and Leg Up – having that experience which was very raw left me feeling very open and thereby, emotional. The first time I played again in front people was at a con (pre SNS) in Vegas. We opened with Reunion and when I sang, “I’m still alive and I’m still trying” the crowd erupted and I thought, okay they’re right there with me.
Rob: And that energy carried through and hasn’t stopped. I know the band feels it and yeah, it’s there with my colleagues as well. So many of them started the circuit after my stroke (like Ruth, Briana, Pellegrino, Lisa Berry) but they of course know about it now and there is just this incredible support system built around all of us. It started buoyed by support for my stroke but now it has built into this all-encompassing supportive family. Each of us love each other. And they’ve all taken the band (Billy, Mike and Steve) in as well. I am still so flattered that they all leave their egos at the door and allow me the space to perform that show. I can’t say enough about what an amazing group this is.
Lynn: I sometimes want to pinch myself because I can’t believe that every single person is just amazing – what are the chances? And it’s like a snowball effect, because the band and the fandom together create such a safe space that the other actors have been able to tackle some of their own deepest fears and desires by performing at the Saturday Night Special. Ruth, Gil, Kim, Briana, Osric – they all write in their chapters of Family Don’t End With Blood about facing those fears and how the support of the SPNFamily has changed them. Jensen and Jared too, they write about their battles with anxiety and how the supportiveness of the fandom has helped overcome it.
Lynn: I recently met a fan who recognized that she was having a stroke because she had just read your chapter – it literally saved her life. What is it like to know your writing did that and was that part of your reason for wanting to share your story so fully?
Rob: Well first of all I’m just so thankful it helped. I’m happy to help spread the word – the more people know, the more lives are saved. Stroke is a bewildering event – and people traditionally think of it as something that only happens to old people. But the truth is it could affect anyone, at any age. The signs are very easy to identify, so it should just be something we all are aware of.
Lynn: Ultimately, what do you hope that fans will take from your chapter? What message was it important for you to send?
Rob: That life is fragile. Conversely, the human body is incredibly resilient, as is its will to live. Friends matter. And at the end of the day you have only yourself and that is okay – not in a lonely way, in an amazing “I’m the Captain” sort of way.
Lynn: Which is a pretty empowering message. Okay, finally, what’s coming up for you and for Louden Swain? And what’s this about a Felicity reunion?
Rob: Louden Swain is currently recording an acoustic album of mostly reimagined previously recorded songs, with a few new songs and a cover or two.
Lynn: Yay!!! I can’t go too long without some new Swain music.
Rob: The Felicity reunion we just had at the ATX festival was amazing. Had the whole group back together. We did a panel and talked openly about doing something like a movie. Not sure if it will happen but everyone went on record saying they’d do it if it were a possibility.
Lynn: Okay, a lot of people are going to be VERY excited to hear that!
Rob: The film I made, 30 Miles From Nowhere, is still being finished, after which it will go out to festivals and hopefully get a distribution deal. Stand by on that one. And Kings of Con is still looking for a home but Rich and I are writing a few new projects. And in between tours, I’m waiting for the next big thing!
I’m waiting too, because every single one of the things Rob is working on is super exciting! I miss Kings of Con like crazy, and am going to continue to believe that it will be returning in some way, shape or form soon. I need more Rob and Rich!
You can pick up a copy of Family Don’t End With Blood at the link below – Rob’s chapter provides a great deal of information on his personal experience of having a stroke, and every purchase benefits the important charitable work of Random Acts and Attitudes in Reverse. Family Don’t End With Blood on Amazon
In addition, Rob’s ‘Rock God Roadie’ campaign to benefit the National Stroke Association is currently underway over at Stands if you’d like to help a good cause- Rock God Roadie
Finally, make sure you (like Patty) know the signs of stroke. A stroke happens every 40 seconds, and every four minutes someone dies from stroke. Up to 80% of strokes CAN be prevented. Getting help fast can make all the difference.
A stroke occurs when one of the arteries to the brain is blocked or bursts. Without enough blood flow, brain cells begin to die. Some of the signs of a stroke are sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side; confusion, trouble speaking or understanding; trouble seeing; dizziness or loss of balance; and a sudden severe headache. The acronym FAST can help anyone recognize a stroke quickly –
F – look for facial droop on one side or an uneven smile
A – check to see if one arm is weak (if the person holds up both arms, one drifts downward)
S – listen for slurred speech
T – don’t waste time, call 911 immediately if you suspect it could be a stroke
Patty’s experience — a TIA, or transient ischemic attack (a “mini stroke”) — can be a warning sign for a more serious stroke. This occurs when an artery is blocked for even a short time, which causes weakness, numbness, loss of vision, difficulty speaking and loss of coordination. If this happens – even if it goes away on its own – get medical help right away. People who have a TIA have a 25% greater risk of having a stroke or other serious complication.
Thanks Rob, for sharing your powerful story. I love that it’s making a difference.
You can read Rob’s story (along with many of
his fellow actors) in Family Don’t End With
Blood, links at the home page