At first glance, it looks like he’s shoved a screw right through his earlobe. But then, he takes it apart, revealing it only looks one way when in reality, it’s much more complex. Dante Rey Diffendale is the same. With black cropped hair, gender neutral clothing and stark blue eyes full of a strength only permissible by great sorrow, Diffendale appears like any other college student just trying to figure out who they are, unsure of some things, confident in others. For Diffendale, he’s confident Keene State College is the place to be and just as that screw has many ridges spiraling one onto another, so has his life. Here, is his story.
Diffendale was born in 1984, 18 days after the United States and the Vatican united diplomatic relations after 117 years of hiatus. However, for Diffendale, life wasn’t so peaceful. “When I grew up, I was the youngest kid on the block. When I was a kid, others were 16, 17, 18,” he said. “I saw a lot of things.”
Diffendale continued, “My birth mom is an alcoholic. She’s in recovery now, but wasn’t when I was little, and she drank a lot. My brother’s father (my stepfather)…he beat me, broke my nose. I have a lot of traumatic views from when I was little and trying to deal with that, and also the bullying in school.”
Drugs made these memories distant, almost to the point of being unreal. “I don’t want to blame anything that happened to me, but I think going through that suffering definitely made it easy for me to turn to something that made me forget,” he said.
He was eleven when he first used drugs. “Oh God, it was horrible. Looking back on it, I’m like, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ I was huffing perfume, airplane glue and purel straight…I poured it into a plastic black bag,” he said.
He was 15 when he realized he was addicted to alcohol. It was a sunny day, beautiful for the beach, so that’s where he and a few others headed when given 12 hours of freedom from the group home they lived at. “ We got to do whatever we wanted, so we walked downtown and one of the residents had their cousin pick us up,” he said. “We went to the ocean…we went to an arcade, we went in the water. [Then] it started to storm, I think. We went inside the cousin’s house and there was a whole bunch of marijuana, so I got stoned. And then there was a whole lot of alcohol and I was like, ‘Oh, that looks good!’”
Diffendale kept drinking and drinking and drinking. “I couldn’t get enough that first night,” he said. The next morning while others moaned of headaches and nausea, Diffendale felt nothing. “I had no hangover, I didn’t feel any different. It was just like any other day waking up,” he said.
KSC senior Allison Sonia comes from a place of knowing the grasp alcohol can take on person. “My mom’s a recovered alcoholic,” she said, “She’s been sober all my life.” Sonia said her mother has always been open about her addiction, giving her insight on people like Diffendale. “I’m aware that [a lifestyle of heavy drinking] does have an impact on others. It’s a personal choice for me [not to drink a lot], but it helps my relationship with Dante,” she said.
Sonia met Diffendale two summers ago at the Links program. “I was a tutor, not his, but when we met, he expressed an interest in psychology, which I was majoring in,” Sonia said. The two connected and thus blossomed a friendship in which both would be a mentor to the other at various times. “I never felt the age difference,” Sonia said, who is 12 years younger than Diffendale. “Especially since we’re both students, there are things to connect on. I forget our age difference even though he’s had this whole life outside of college,” she said. Sonia said the give and take in their relationship is equal. “It’s interesting, because as an upperclassman, I’ve been a mentor to him, but with the life he’s had, he’s more of a mentor to me,” she said. While Sonia is hesitant to share much about her friend’s life, she does admit some of what she’s been privy to as a close friend. “I know the impact drugs and alcohol has had on his life…I know the lows he was at, struggling with mental issues. But he was able to come back, and he’s good at handling himself,” she said.
For Diffendale it wasn’t until he hit rock bottom that he found a steady surface. After two family deaths due to heroin and a drug overdose almost causing his own death, Diffendale realized the importance of his life.
He was only provided with a secondhand account of his overdose, as the last thing he remembers before waking up in the ICU was smoking a cigarette on his front porch. He was told, “My lips were gray, my skin was gray, I only had very limited breathing. I had peed and pooped myself, because apparently when your body starts to die, all your body organs just kind of let go, because you don’t have that control your body anymore,” he said.
Thirteen days later, he came back, Lazarus from a grave situation. “I don’t remember anything,” he said. “It was weird, 13 days had passed. I had lost 13 days. I still don’t have any other memories.” His eyes flitter across the room, a subconscious chill shaking him, reminding him that death had left its signature, but not a date. He looked straight ahead, “I was basically dead.”
Shortly after that, Diffendale decided he had to go to college. He had pondered the idea on prior occasion, but it wasn’t until that moment that he was ready to go. Diffendale is adamant it is his choice. “I’m not doing it because my parents want me to go to college, I’m not doing it because my family expects me go to college or anything. I’m in college because I want to be able to take my life-lived experience and hopefully if everything goes as I hope it does, I want to be able to help somebody (else) down the road,” he said, “So all the emotional and physical pain that I’ve gone through, maybe I can make it so somebody else doesn’t have to go down that road.”
But there are other roads for Diffendale to travel down and there are other hurdles along the path. Most recently, Diffendale came out as a transgender male. He gave permission to include this, saying he wants to be open and honest because now he finally can be.
Born Natassia Lynn Diffendale, he now prefers to be called Dante Rey Diffendale. “The reason I chose Dante is because it means faithful and loyal and I thought, these are definitely two qualities and attributes I have. And plus, Dante? That’s a pretty killer name,” he said.
Diffendale said he’s felt like a man for a while, nearly three or four years in his words. However, having an adoptive father who is homophobic, makes it hard to open up. Growing up, he’d have to bring home boys to meet the family to cover up the fact that he was at the time, a lesbian. “When I was down in Jersey, I didn’t say anything, just because it would have made family get-togethers strange. My dad probably would have ostracized me and disowned me,” he said.
Diffendale admits that he always felt something was amiss in life, that even when things were going well, there was a darkness lingering in the background. “I’ll tell you, ever since I came out, there’s a sense of peace inside me that’s so unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. It feels really nice to be 100 percent true to who I am, without having to worry about what other people think about who I am,” he said.
That worry waits for him in New Jersey however. “[If] I know I’m going to see my father, I’ll wear girly clothes,” he said. “I do that for protection reasons.” He has two outfits, a black dress for funerals, the other: dress pants and a nice shirt to curve the impression of womanhood. “They’re basically in my closet because this is not a conversation I’m ready to have with my father yet. So it would be easier for me to wear girly clothes around him until I’m comfortable with actually talking with him about it,” he said.
However, Diffendale is steadfast in his identity. “This is who I am, I’m proud of who I am,” he said. Diffendale said being at KSC has opened doors for him. “Keene State is such a good campus to come to if you’re in the LGBTQ community, we have so many resources where I felt [that] this was a safe place for me, where I didn’t really have to worry about really being judged. There’s a community,” he said.
Coordinator of Community Services Jessica Gagne Cloutier said these resources are there for a reason. “There’s a responsibility that students have to have to remember [these resources] and to seek them out and I think we have a responsibility too, to notice when a student isn’t in a place to seek that out. I think it kind of comes down to us all working collectively to support one another,” she said.
Cloutier said Diffendale is one of those people set on a mission of support. From the start, Cloutier could see that Diffendale’s openness on his life before college and his passion to implement change was something revolutionary for Keene State. She said it was at a 2015 Student Leadership Retreat that the two had talked about a student recovery group. “The idea of having people who have had similar experiences as students (and addicts), [these] may be two unique identities that aren’t always represented in recovery groups,” she said. Cloutier acknowledged this could really help others, saying that even just talking with Diffendale could provide aid.
“The patience he comes in with is always a welcoming thing, both his patience with himself and to others. I think it’s really extraordinary,” she said. “I would just say to other students, if they have the opportunity to meet Dante and know Dante, to do it. I think he is a very warm and welcoming individual, a very open-minded individual, someone who has a lot to share and give, and someone who has a lot to learn from other people too.”
Diffendale said he’s willing to learn more about himself, saying therapy has helped him tremendously. “A lot of people don’t want to admit they’re in therapy, but for me, it’s been one of my saving graces. I have the emotional support, I have really good support from friends who tell me all the time, ‘You’re doing great.’” He smiled. “I truly believe that everything I went through up until now has made me the person that’s sitting here today,” he said. He stressed that in acknowledging that, it’s far from saying everything has been okay.
When asked about fonder memories as a kid, Diffendale laughed before explaining he was a bit of a klutz as a kid. At one point, he broke four toes, but didn’t let it cripple his energy. “All of that summer vacation, I was in a full-blown leg cast, and I’ve got to tell you that I could run on my crutches faster than most people can walk. It was really fun. I made the best of it,” he said. He smirked. “I remember putting my rollerblade on this foot because it was the okay one and crutching down the road on the other one,” he said. “My mother would yell, ‘You’re going to break something else,’ and I’d scream back, ‘Nah, I’ll be fine!’”
Even now, Dante Rey Diffendale has that same energy. The hold of an addiction never fully lets up, but Diffendale is proving that he can still forge forward. “I’m grateful that I’m alive, first and foremost,” he said. “But I’m also grateful that I have the opportunity to better my life and have that opportunity to broaden my horizons. It’s just all been so surreal.”
Dorothy England can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org