There was a time when Anthony Varela wasn’t funny.
It’s hard to imagine scrolling through his TikTok, @NobodyCaresAnthony, where video after video about the mundane absurdity of town Facebook groups racks up tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of views.
Varela, 32, has a brightness to him, an energy that feels benevolent and mischievous at once.
But in the midst of active opioid addiction, Varela said from a sunny conference room at Foundations Group Recovery Centers in Mashpee, his humor — which has now attracted an international following — was muted.
“I’ve always been like a good guy, like a funny, caring person,” he said. “But the drugs just slowly stripped that away. I was a shell of a human being. None of this stuff with TikTok would have happened if I wasn’t clean. There’s nothing funny when I’m getting high.”
Varela’s TikTok account — where he dissects screenshots of Facebook posts in groups with names like Chelmsford Town Talk in his expertly played-up Massachusetts accent — began to gain traction late last spring.
In early August, he made a video about a post in All Things Plymouth from a woman who was looking for help finding her boyfriend a job.
“This has to be the most hostile town Facebook group out of the 50 that I’m a part of,” he said in opening the video. “Relax a little bit over there, jeepers creepers.”
The video, which now has 4.9 million views, spread like wildfire, and outlets from The Boston Globe to CBS Atlanta picked up the story. From there, Varela’s follower count skyrocketed.
The thousands of people who followed him for laughs didn’t know that he was in recovery. They didn’t know about the years the Bridgewater native had cycled through jails, detoxes and sober homes. They didn’t know that his 6-foot-2 frame had once withered to 135 pounds or that dozens of people in his phone contacts had died from overdoses, including the first woman he fell in love with.
Varela wasn’t sure if he wanted them to know. He was beginning to think about how the videos people liked so much could launch a career in comedy.
Varela is Foundations Group Recovery Centers’ outreach coordinator in Mashpee. It’s a job where he talks to people coping with substance use disorder and their loved ones around the clock, helping them understand their options for treatment, helping them maintain hope through some of the bleakest times of their lives.
In those conversations, Varela is happy to share his recovery story, but he was hesitant to talk about something so personal on the internet.
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Then, he saw a Facebook post.
Again, the post was from All Things Plymouth. It was a meme reading: People don’t need to be sober and drug-free to deserve food, shelter and kindness.
The comments below the post were brutal.
“Getting high is a personal choice. Be a productive member of society.” “You deserve what you earn.” “Grow up and get a job.” “Love addicts but hate the un-jabbed. That’s it, right?” “They shouldn’t expect handouts and live off the government.”
More:Massachusetts opioid overdose deaths climbed in 2020
The fear of being on the receiving end of those types of comments was what had prevented Varela from talking about how he had fought his way through dozens of relapses to sobriety.
“People are so opinionated these days, so I didn’t want anything controversial,” Varela said. “Vaccines, Black Lives Matter, all these topics that I have so many opinions on, I can’t touch those because I don’t want to rub anybody the wrong way. But I’d say the biggest thing was my own fear, my insecurities, being afraid of being judged.”
But when he saw the comments on that Facebook post, Varela couldn’t stay silent about addiction on his platform any longer.
“So this might lose me some followers, and I’m totally OK with that,” Varela said in a video he made about the post. “I really hesitated about making this video. I have 150,000 followers and to get vulnerable in front of that many people is not an easy thing to do. But I read this post on the All Things Plymouth town Facebook page and I felt like I needed to say something.”
Varela goes on to talk about the harm caused by the stigma that still surrounds addiction, and how comments like the ones below that post do nothing to solve an ongoing crisis that killed more than 100,000 Americans in 2021 — a staggering 28.5% increase in overdose deaths from the previous year.
“So if you or a loved one is struggling, don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Varela said. “Reach out. There (are) a lot more people out there that care than those idiots in the comments, OK? You’re worth it. Things can get better.”
Varela was, of course, speaking from experience, and though he shared his work email in the video, he didn’t yet feel safe telling his followers exactly why the Plymouth Facebook post bothered him so much.
Less than two years before, Varela was still in the throes of an addiction that first took hold when he was 15 years old.
“I had burned every bridge in town,” he said.
He was trying to get a bed at a Cape sober house and had been told he was in until the owner asked around about him and decided he’d be too much trouble.
But then, as he was driving over the bridge back to an apartment he shared with a roommate he’d been using with, Varela got a call from Mike Clancy. Clancy had a reputation for running strict sober houses that helped people get and stay drug-free, Varela said, and he wanted in.
“He started the conversation with: ‘Here’s the deal,’” Varela remembered. “He gave me a hard guy speech. ‘If you screw up, pack your stuff. I don’t want any games. But I’m going to give you a shot.’”
More:Cape to remember those lost to opioid overdoses at Tuesday candlelight vigil
On Feb. 4, 2020, Varela moved into Clancy’s sober house in Falmouth.
If Varela hadn’t been living there with 10 other guys when the pandemic struck a few weeks later, he isn’t sure where he’d be today.
“Mike literally saved my life,” said Varela, who achieved two years of sobriety this month. “When people help you get clean and stay clean, now it’s your responsibility to help other people. There are a bunch of Mikes out there helping guys like me. And now that he did it for me, my job is to do it for somebody else.”
More:Significant increase in opioid-related overdoses on Cape Cod blamed on COVID-19
When Clancy decided to expand his recovery business beyond sober houses and open Foundations Group Recovery Centers last winter, he asked Varela to be one of the founding employees. Foundations, which now has upwards of 20 employees, serves roughly 70 patients in a two-step program designed to help people maintain long-term sobriety after coming out of detox.
“Two years ago, he wasn’t that guy,” Clancy said. “He’s that guy now because he’s changed his life and I trust him. If someone needs treatment, Anthony is driving them because he can make light of a bad situation. He has that humor. That’s what he’s good at.
“Now with his TikTok, his avenue of helping people — whether they’re on Cape Cod or in Georgia or Utah — is so vast. He’s helping people all over,” he said.
After Varela made the video about the Plymouth post, and after the CDC told Americans that more than 100,000 people died of overdoses last year, he decided to be more explicit with his followers.
In a two-part video, he shared a sliver of his recovery story on TikTok for the first time.
“A lot of people see my posts and (do) not realize the struggles that I have had in life, the path I took to get to this point,” he told his followers.
Varela said the response to the two-part series, which he posted in January, was overwhelmingly positive.
“There were a couple of people that talked about the choice debate, but 95% of the comments were like, ‘My mom died in 2006.’ ‘My husband died in 2016.’ ‘My girlfriend died in 2012.’ Or like, ‘I have four years tomorrow.’ ‘I’m struggling, thank you so much, I needed this.’”
Two patients currently enrolled at Foundations Group Recovery Centers reached out to Varela for help specifically because of that two-part video, he said, and many others called for advice.
More:New mobile clinic on Upper Cape offers Narcan, Suboxone – and hope
Varela, who is working to expand his online presence to YouTube and podcasting with the hopes of making a career out of comedy, plans to keep posting about addiction and recovery when he has something to say.
He recently made a video in which he reviews the comments people left below a video of a free vending machine that dispenses Narcan, a drug that can reverse overdoses.
After reading a comment that said, “It’s a choice. Don’t be weak,” Varela deadpans, “Oh, this guy cracked the code. I wish he told me this years ago. I would have saved myself so much pain and suffering.”
Varela was saved by Narcan.
“I was at Falmouth Heights Beach alone getting high in my car,” Varela remembered. “I was on the phone with somebody … and they drove down and Narcaned me and I lived.”
People opposed to widespread Narcan distribution talk about people with substance use disorder as if they will always be the person they are when they’re getting saved from an overdose, he said.
Varela was looking for drugs a few hours after his 8-year-old son’s birth. Now, he coaches his basketball team.
“What they don’t understand is that Narcan is just a second chance,” Varela said. “It’s really about what that person could turn into and what they could become and who they can help and what they can accomplish. That’s what they don’t see.”
Contact Jeannette Hinkle at [email protected]
There was a time when Anthony Varela wasn’t funny.