Most of us can probably relate to Dan Ellman in some way or another if we think back to our high school days or early years of college: the struggle to fit in, feeling alone, hating our bodies or the way we look.
How we each move beyond those obstacles and flourish in our lives differs. It was coming to Penn State Altoona and getting involved on campus, particularly with the THON organization, that has allowed Ellman to find himself and begin to heal from a devastating loss.
Ellman was the kind of kid who would have straight A’s if he would only “apply himself more,” the kind of kid who couldn’t quite find his place. “High school was rough for me, I didn’t have many friends, and I didn’t know how to make them. I tried just being nice to people, and I tried hanging out with different groups; that didn’t really work, so I just gave up.” Ellman was already struggling with weight and self-esteem issues, and it became easier to keep to himself and simply exist, blending into the walls of his high school.
And then at the beginning of his junior year, his father, David, suddenly passed away. “You never really think bad things are going to happen to you until they do,” Ellman muses. “It came out of nowhere. I left for school, said goodbye, have a good day, came back, and he wasn’t there.” As a stay-at-home-dad, normally David would be the only one to greet Ellman after school. But that day, when he arrived home, his mother’s car was in the driveway, an indication that something was wrong. When he went inside, his mother sat him down and told him that his father was gone. “I was in total shock,” remembers Ellman. At 59, David died from coronary artery disease, a condition from which he didn’t even know he was suffering.
Dan and his father, David.
“I just remember in the weeks after, a lot of people were in and out of my house. And I didn’t want to see them, didn’t want to talk to them.” The isolation continued month after month accompanying a downward spiral of grieving that left Ellman fifty pounds heavier and with failing grades. “I just stayed to myself. I would wake up, go to school and not talk to anyone, I would go home and play video games. That was repeated every single day. I just gave up on everything. I didn’t want to do anything anymore.” He began engaging in other forms of self-destructive behavior like binge drinking and smoking a lot of marijuana. “I knew people who did it, and it made them happy, so I thought it would make me happy, too. I didn’t feel good after doing those things, but I kept doing them anyway.” Most days Ellman would wake up and be disgusted with himself, hating what he was and what his life had become. He was depressed, often thinking about suicide. And he missed his father. “He was my role model. I looked up to him. I wanted to be him. He taught me so many things. We did fight a lot because we were both opinionated people and we fought for our opinions, but I never once thought that he didn’t love me. And I never once didn’t love him.”
Ellman’s depression lasted throughout the rest of his high school days, softened slightly by a few students who opened up to him after his father’s passing. It would be a long, slow climb out of the darkness that has continued to even now, his sophomore year at Penn State Altoona.
When he first started, Ellman didn’t know what to expect from college, and he feared it would be just like high school. For the first week or two, he sat in his room, headed further down the same path of despair he’d been walking the last several years. He still didn’t like himself, but he thought, “I don’t want to go through high school again. It was so terrible.” He recalled orientation week when he heard over and over to ‘get involved with this,’ ‘get involved with that,’ and realized it was within his own power to create a wonderful college experience. So he went to the Involvement Fair and ended up attending a general meeting for THON. “I remember sitting there, watching the presentation. It was the first time in so long that I thought to myself ‘wow, I really want to be part of something.’” Ellman didn’t think he’d stand a chance of being a captain his first year but figured he’d try for a position anyway and filled out an application. “I ended up writing a lot about my dad and the adversity that I faced in life and how it related to college. One of the executives told me that my application was the best one she’d seen.” Ellman was selected as Captain of Special Events, a position he still holds today.
Through the organization, Ellman began meeting different people and making friends. He wanted to become even further involved and give more of himself to the common goal he was sharing with so many others, so he applied to be a dancer for the 46-hour no-sitting, no-sleeping THON event held each February at University Park. He wasn’t chosen, but he knew it was for the best. “I was still in the worst shape of my life then. I was over 300 pounds. I wasn’t happy, but I had friends and something worthwhile going in my life. I decided to use that as my motivation to lose weight.” He started out by trying a run a mile on a treadmill every day. He’d find some friends to play basketball with. He started lifting weights and eating better. He is now down about sixty pounds from last year. And he reached his goal, having been selected as a dancer for this year’s dance marathon.
Ellman shows off his weight loss progression from THON 2014 to 2015
Ellman continues to get involved on campus with other clubs and organizations, while maintaining over a 3.0 GPA. “I still wouldn’t say that I’m happy, but instead of giving up or quitting, I’m trying to actively find what will make me happy or what will bring me happiness.” He will transfer to University Park next year to finish out his health policy administration degree, and one day hopes to be an administrator of a children’s hospital. Although he is a bit nervous about making yet another large transition in his life by moving to State College, he is excited to take the next step toward his future. He is adamant that his experiences at Penn State Altoona and the people who have changed his life for the better have made him stronger than ever before.
He’s open about his experiences and always offers the hand he feels was never extended to him, encouraging others to get involved, or to talk through their problems with him. “It’s amazing how much better you can feel just by talking things out.”
Looking back, Ellman is proud to see how far he’s come. “I’m not done yet, though. I still have so much more to do, so much more to accomplish. I want to be successful. I want to do something with my life. I don’t want to just get by. I want to make something of myself.”
Ellman remains close with his mother and older sister and carries his father around with him, not only in his heart, but on his wrist and around his neck by wearing pieces of jewelry that belonged to him. “They have such meaning to me. If I’m having a bad day, I can just look at my arm or chest, and feel better. I never take these things off.”
Ellman says he knows that down the road everything he learned and did during college will help build him into the man he is supposed to be. It’s important to him that he become the best version possible of himself.
“When I was depressed and not going anywhere, I was like, ‘Dad’s not proud of me, why would he be proud of me. But I think he is now, and that keeps me going. It makes me want to keep making him proud.” Ellman is, of course, heartbroken that his father won’t see him graduate college, get married, have children, or succeed in his career. But instead of mourning and shutting down as he did for years, he wants to celebrate the life his father had and the one he himself is still leading. “You only get one life. Even though people come and go all the time, there’s no reason to be sad. Just keep the good things.”