The Secret To Starting Over | Danyell (Danny-J) Johnson | TEDxWaterStreet

Danyell (Danny-J) Johnson | TEDxWaterStreet | #reset21


I blurted out, “I’m going to have an abortion.”

“What did it matter, I’m gonna kill myself anyway?”

I scheduled the abortion,

But the day before;

I was brought to a meeting with someone from an inpatient eating disorder clinic that my parents were going to send me to…

I met this woman, Heather….

She shared with me her story…

She shared her desire to have more children but she couldn’t due to infertility caused by her eating disorder,

before I could even catch myself,

I blurted out, “I want you to have my baby”

She said, “What? Are you sure?”

I said, yes, even though in my brain I was screaming “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?! WE HAD A PLAN!!”

At 20 weeks pregnant Heather called me in tears, saying she wasn’t able to come up with the $50k it would take to do a private adoption.

I was devastated and scared… I had no idea what I was going to do with my baby. At this point, I knew I was having a little girl.

It was much too late for an abortion…

And bringing her into my tumultuous life didn’t seem fair to her..

She didn’t ask to be born into this…

and I wanted to escape.

I also didn’t like the idea of having a child ripped away from me and sent to a place I didn’t know about!

I decided, I would place her for adoption, as long as I could do it MY way.

I would choose her parents and I would make sure to hold her when she was born against the advice of all the adults around me.

I spent weeks reading profiles of families who wanted to adopt and found who I thought would be the perfect parents for her.

The entire pregnancy, I still had my secret plan to end my life after she was born.

After over 36 hours of labor, she arrived..

I remember looking at her perfect face, and I remember thinking, I may have done a lot of messed up things, but I at least did this one thing right.


And then…. I wondered “what if she grew up and asked what happened to her birth mother? What if she found out that I killed myself and she thinks it was her fault for being born?”

I couldn’t handle the thought, and I made a choice, that I was going to live.

I even wrote in my journal…

“Living isn’t so bad… you just have to find something to do…”

This was the first time I felt like I was getting a second chance… A do-over…. And this time with a purpose.

How many of you have ever found yourself in a situation where you are forced to start over?

A new job or career, Moving to a new state

Losing a loved one, a devastating accident or illness…

A break up or Divorce & navigating the dating world again?

And how many of you have had this happen more than once?

Look around…

According to my “scientific” poll on Instagram, 95% of people said they had to start over at one time in their life, and more than 65% of those people said they had to 3 or more times.

For me, as a student of life, I’ve realized that there are very few guarantees in life but we can count on three:

1. Death.

2. Taxes

3. Starting over

life has a way of sending people back to the starting line many times, whether it’s your choice or not.



Life is a lot like the game Chutes & Ladders.

Sometimes you land in great numbers and you get to take a ladder to the top. Other times you land on a chute and have to slide back down.

But have you ever played the game with a kid?

If they get ANY kind of unfavorable dice roll or wheel spin, what do they say? “I want a Do-Over! I want a do-over!”

Starting over feels like a punishment; it feels like you had a brick thrown in your face, you’re back at the beginning of the game, at the bottom of the board while everyone else seems to be so far ahead, you’ll never catch up.

But if you get a do-over you have a chance to correct yourself and maybe even do it again better.


We all have things that don’t go according to plan;

Teen pregnancy, a devastating illness that leaves you paralyzed, medical bankruptcy, your business partner breaking up with you, a complete brand identity crisis, foreclosure, bankruptcy again, your spouse having an affair, moving to another state, both your dogs dying in 8 months, pets with their heads falling off, a divorce, or your mom getting a brain tumor and you becoming her caretaker.

Just one of these things can be a massive set-back for any of us

You put them all together….

You have MY life.

Everyone loves a good comeback story…

Except when you’re the one in it.

I’ve had to start over so many times my friends started to call me “Do-Over-Danny.”

People have told me over and over that I’m the most resilient person they know, and I smile. But I know, it’s not resilience…

I just see setbacks as a secret gift that allows me to get a do-over.



Starting over at times will make you feel like it’s the type of gift that’s in a brown paper bag that some left burning on your doorstep that ends up burning your whole house, but it’s a different kind of GIFT,


After looking back on how I have been able to get through all of these obstacles, it’s the simple concept of seeing the opportunity in a do-over that’s been my secret to overcoming life’s chutes and ladders…


After my pregnancy, I was determined not to become a teenage mom statistic

Anyone here, like me, feel like when someone tells you you can’t do something, then you have to?

I was the first in my family to get a college degree

When I graduated/ I did what any college graduate would do/

I ran off / and joined the circus/

Yes CIRQUE DE LA MER, Circus of the Sea

I was officially a SeaWorld acrobat and I was living the dream until one morning I tried to get out of bed… and fell to the floor.

My legs felt like pins and needles like when your foot falls asleep.

It was extremely painful and I could hardly move.

I ended up at the ER and then wheeled back to be admitted;

After 3 days in ICU, my doctor came in, and I found out I had a gram negative bacterial infection that lodged into my sacroiliac joint leaving me paralyzed.

It was 3 kinds of bacteria, all things you would typically find in SEWAGE… that came from the water in my show.

“Danny, you’re not going to perform again, we’re not sure if you’ll ever walk again… You’re lucky to be alive”

All I heard was, “You’re not going to perform again” and I was devastated that my dream quickly became a nightmare, and I wished that the bacteria had just taken me.

If I couldn’t perform, or walk, I didn’t know what the point was.

Earlier that same year, my dear friend Kellie was diagnosed with terminal stage 4 colon cancer. She was just 18.

She came to see me at my show…

A few months after I had gotten home from the hospital, Kellie came to visit me. At this point, I had regained limited ability to move only my right leg, and I was able to hobble around using a walker.

I opened the door and she saw me standing there and she said

“Danny oh my gosh I can’t believe this has happened to you, it is so unfair.” Here was my friend, with a death sentence, telling me it was unfair that *I* couldn’t walk. (beat — realize)

I instantly felt ashamed.


I recognized, while my situation might not be ideal…

I had a chance to live…

I had a chance to do things over, just differently.

And that was something.

When you have a pity party about going back down that slide, and HAVING to start over again… It’s a slap in the face, to those who didn’t even get the chance to continue playing the game.


Sometimes we choose to start over.

Sometimes we are forced to do it..

And Some people don’t get a do-over.

Like my friend Kellie.

This is why, no matter if you’re forced or you choose it, you have the chance to see it as a GIFT. NO ONE WOULD HAVE TOLD ME TEEN PREGNANCY WAS A GIFT

Looking back on my life, no one in my circles could have told me that getting pregnant at 15 was a gift…

And if they did, I likely would have punched them in the face.

Even after I made the decision to place her for adoption…

I didn’t know!!

Did I make the right choice?

How many of you would have lived in fear, regret, and anxiety?

I did.

For 18 years I wondered If she tried to find me, if she would hate me for what I did, if she had good parents, and if I’d ever have a chance at having a relationship with her.

In 2016, I got to find out.


The terms of the adoption were that when she turned 18 she could have contact with me, if she chose…

But by a mistake of the adoption agency, I had her parents’ information and her dad had suggested to me to reach out to her on social media after her 18th birthday.

Being that we hadn’t had a relationship I felt like a crazy stalker…

Here was someone who *I* knew for her entire life…

But I was a complete stranger to her

I had the opportunity to speak in the city she was living in, so I took her dad’s advice and reached out, suggesting that we meet.

To my total shock, she answered…


We planned to meet at IHOP midday, where it was quiet..

Not at all like the airport fantasies I imagined her whole life.

I got to the IHOP

I tried to get out of the car


I asked my husband, “Do I hug her?”

He said, “Of course, just make sure it’s not a creepy hug”

“What does that mean?!! Of course it’s going to be a creepy hug!”

I quickly found a booth in the corner and stared at my phone.

“Hey there!”

I heard her voice and looked up

I had seen pictures of her, but it was the first time I had heard her voice…

And it was beautiful.

I stood up, we hugged… I was careful not to be creepy, (expect laughs) but she hugged me back, and I was survived

It was a quiet meeting, where I got to see my grown baby girl’s face, and I was mesmerized by her voice, interrupting her telling her how she was so cute.

She told me that she was grateful, and that she grew up with the exact parents she was supposed to have…

I realized after all those years, as much as I hoped she would be proud of me… I realized that *I* was proud of me.

But My first do-over was my best GIFT.


I have come up with a Framework that I use to remind myself that seemingly bad or unplanned things can be a GIFT, because I know that I am not immune to what life wants to throw at me and neither are you.

And when you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to know where to begin

The first step in Seeing the GIFT in a do-over is to:

Grieve — there is a time where you need to grieve your loss.

We are aware of grief when losing a person, but Sometimes the loss of a DREAM or what “could have been” can cut just as deep as the loss of a person.

The Author Christina Rasmussen calls these, “Invisible losses”:

A miscarriage, the 10 year anniversary you never had, the events, experiences and things that were taken away in 2020 all of those may require some time of grieving.

The reason I know this one is so powerful, was because I was not allowed to grieve. I was told not to hold her, not to see her, and I needed to suck it up because it was my choice. Our bodies need to grieve in order to move on.

Danyell (Danny-J) Johnson | TEDxWaterStreet | #reset21

Because I was not allowed to grieve, I was searching for ways to move on. A few years ago, I went into the jungle to experience ayahuasca.

If you’ve never heard of ayahuasca, it’s a psychedelic plant medicine, often used in traditional ceremonies, that has helped people process trauma and PTSD.

During one night of my ayahuasca journey, I found myself sitting there with my 16 year old self, in the hospital after delivering my daughter.

I held my younger self and let her cry, letting out the pent-up anguish I had for having to make the most difficult choice of giving up my child.

After you grieve, you can find

Insight — this is where we look for the lessons hidden in the pain. Insight includes clarity around the situation.

This is where you ask yourself questions, like

“What do I really want?”

“Who do I want to be in or after this situation?”

“What are the lessons here for me to learn?”

I gained insight in that I realized I had something to live for and a reason to be there. My social worker at the time suggested me read the book Man’s Search for Meaning, and in it, Viktor Frankl, a man who lived through the Holocaust and wrote about his experience in a concentration camp said;

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

I learned so much about choosing how we look at the circumstances happening to us. And I was able to see her birth as a new life for myself as well.

With your new insights, it gives you the courage of

Forgiveness — So often we feel like if we forgive someone we are letting them off the hook… that maybe what they did was ok.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean what anyone did was ok, what it means is that you’re no longer allowing it to control your life.

Forgiveness also includes yourself, recognizing you are doing your best with what you know and where you are. Forgiveness is showing yourself compassion.

I had a lot of anger towards my parents, the church and people at school. I forgave them for doing the best they could, and then came the hard part, Forgiving myself for not being able to take care of her, for not knowing what I didn’t know, and for making the choice that I made. My mentor says forgiveness is a practice, not a one time event and I certainly had to practice

After Forgiveness there is

Truth -Tony Robbins says “To see (reality) as it is, but not worse than it is” We, as humans, tend to catastrophize.

“My husband had an affair, that means, I’m fat, ugly, horrible in bed and I’ll be alone the rest of my life”

No.. The truth is, Your husband put his penis in another woman’s vagina. Don’t add stories to the facts.

By being able to objectively look at the situation for what it really is, will help us move forward.

I recognized the truth that pregnancy wasn’t the end of the world.

My story didn’t have to end there and I had a number of choices

Initially I chose abortion because I thought I had nothing to live for, no way out, and even though the alternative options in front of me were hard, I chose life and the gift of a do-over.


So no matter what happens, trust me when life throws you a curveball Remember, there is a GIFT of a do-over should you choose to take it.

You may not see it when it happens, but I am here and living proof to show you that it is. Thank you.

More about TEDxWaterStreet

TEDxWaterStreet brings together like-minded individuals who are intentional about resetting as thinkers, leaders, friends and community members to bring about a new perspective on how we press forward. The event aims to challenge human discomfort with obstacles and instead celebrate the strength that accompanies curiosity and the ability to dream. TEDxWaterStreet leaders will speak the language of possibility and foster a rediscovery of what the future holds for our shared humanity. Speakers are chosen through a highly-curated process by a select team that takes into consideration the best ideas. Founded in 2019, TEDxWaterStreet aims to put the NYC community onto a new type of global activity map that is being watched, shared, and talked about by the world’s top thought leaders.

This talk was given at a TEDxWaterStreet event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

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