Toby Herman

man with beard outside

The topic is phones. “We’re a lot like them,” he muses. “We sleep to recharge, we look for a connection, we can take in a lot of data. But when a phone malfunctions, it can reprogram itself.” He continues, “Our human malfunctions are depression, anxiety, addiction. And there are a lot of people who feel like they can’t reprogram themselves – we forget that we can do that.” And once we do? “Once we reprogram our hardware, our algorithm changes. And so do our lives. Our lives become better.”

On the phone is Joel Relampagos. Television Executive Producer, recovering addict and founder of Change Your Algorithm. We connected to discuss his journey and his new mental health initiative.

What can you tell me about your relationship with mental health and addiction?

I suffered from depression and anxiety for years – and nobody knew how severe it was for me. I was always known as a happy guy – which just shows you the lengths I went to in order to hide it. I was so shameful – and it took everything in me to mask the truth at work or with friends. I distracted myself by staying busy – sometimes too busy – and when things were quiet, when I was alone, I’d drink two bottles of wine a night. And I felt like I was getting away with it. I thought, I’m finding success in my career, I have friends – I guess I don’t have a problem. And after 17 years of that, the emptiness and unhappiness took over. I felt like I didn’t have a purpose. And I knew I had to go inward to understand what was really going on.

What did your road to recovery look like?

I went to rehab for 50 days. I took a step back from entertainment. And it changed my life. I was able to disconnect from the world and began to understand that I was such a people pleaser because it gave me validation. In rehab I could focus on myself and discover what those things were that I was trying to avoid mentally. I could give attention to my overwhelming sense of unworthiness. It was a lot of soul searching. And at the end of my stay, I returned home and realized that, while I loved working in TV and creating shows and content, I no longer wanted to produce just any show. Fun and entertaining no longer felt good enough. The world itself was suffering – as were so many people within it. I wanted to do something about that.

How did Change Your Algorithm come to be?

Things peaked during quarantine. Everything was online and everyone was isolated. It wasn’t just those in recovery – it was friends and friends of friends who were experiencing
depression and anxiety, some for the first time in their lives. I’ve led over 100 recovery meetings, webinars and seminars since becoming sober – and I realized that there was a need for a recovery program for non-addicts. Because, let’s face it – we’re all recovering from something. Bad relationships, failure, mistakes, loss…. And if we’re all recovering, we all need a path to empowerment. It’s a choice to be empowered in your own life. To find your purpose. And that is the mission of Change Your Algorithm. Without purpose, it’s hard to find motivation to actually experience life. Instead, you focus on just trying to get by. The more I realized how universal this struggle is, the clearer the mission became.

I firmly believe that everything starts with our mind. I don’t believe that people have an addiction just because they want to have one. I think that addiction is a coping skill that people turn to because they don’t want to deal with their issues. For me, the first step of recovery was breaking my cycle of shame. I now know that that stigma is universal. As with anything, the more we talk about it, the more we understand it. The irony is – depression, anxiety and addiction are very lonely. Most don’t realize how many people are struggling right alongside them. So, I set out to amplify the conversation, focus on raising awareness and providing resources to aid in the journey.

How does Change Your Algorithm work?

I have learned that the four pillars that lead to a successful meeting are literature, a talk from a professional, a group share and a mindful meditation. And that became the backbone of this program. The topics change daily and include: reprogramming your negative belief system, gratitude, fulfillment, forgiveness and boundaries. Whether you attend in person in Los Angeles or online, you will go through a brief reading about the topic, hear from a guest speaker (usually a therapist), followed by a group share and a final meditation to help keep you grounded before we leave.

My time in the entertainment industry – specifically as Executive Producer of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” – gifted me with skills and resources to aid in my promotion of mental health awareness. I worked with a psychologist and a team of doctors that have approved the program. Personally, I have found that working with professionals is the best way to heal. But that is not always an option for everyone – largely due to financial concerns. It was very important to me to make “Change Your Algorithm” accessible to everyone. And I am very proud to say that the entire program is free.

How did you land on the name for the program?

The name came from the fact that on social media or in tech, we believe that we have to abide by the algorithm. The algorithm is set and we take for granted that it’s there no- matter what, end of story. But it can be changed. I feel that when it comes to our own human skills we can change our own algorithms. We can reprogram in recovery and set out with a new algorithm, a clear purpose in life. And that is at the very heart of Change Your Algorithm. I want people to know that they have a life purpose. It is just waiting for them to answer the call.

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Toby Herman is a writer and producer in Los Angeles. You can find her on Twitter @tobyherman27