For more than a year, the key to Ricky Beekman’s happiness lay in the hands of complete strangers.
Literally, in their hands.
Holding their phones.
Reacting all day, every day, to the memes, the quips or, more specifically, the comments and posts Beekman wallpapered on popular Ballantyne social media pages, where he poked fun at suburbia’s fear of snakes, storms and helicopters.
To the thousands who visit these pages every day, Beekman was known by the name Richard Joseph, the witty, sarcastic online personality that grated on some and grew on many since he made his public online debut on the 34,000-member Ballantyne Connection Facebook page on Christmas Eve 2017.
Once he had a following, he hatched real-life hijinks that went viral and landed him several times on TV news — offering to rent himself out as an acceptable (fake) boyfriend for women to bring home for the holidays, and “panhandling for dates” on busy South Charlotte street corners.
Richard Joseph was Charlotte’s giddiest jokester.
But Ricky Beekman was crumbling.
He was dealing with a trifecta of personal crises: post-traumatic stress disorder from witnessing a fatal accident while serving in the Marine Corps. Severe job stress upon returning home from active duty. And a breakup with a girlfriend that left him reeling.
Volleying funny messages into the Ballantyne cyberspace felt good.
And when the likes or the ROFL (roll-on-the-floor laughing) emoijs would roll in and the quippy responses would pile up, Beekman would feel a high that, for a moment, was strong enough to make him forget his troubles.
But then, reality would come flooding back and despair would bear down once again.
“I can’t tell you how many people commended me on living my best life,” said Beekman, 25, talking in a calm, soft tone in the lounge of Atkins Library on the UNC Charlotte campus, where he’s now embarking on a bachelor’s degree.
“I’d log in and I’d see all these people laughing and I thought to myself, ‘Isn’t this great? Look at how happy everybody else is,’ which brought me happiness,” Beekman said. But the happiness was always fleeting.
“For awhile, you almost trick yourself into thinking that this feeling of elation that I have means I’m happy. But then you get off of Facebook, and within a couple of hours it’s almost like a drug. You start craving it again.”
The road to ‘Richard Joseph’
Beekman was born into military family and when he was 6, his dad retired from the Marines and the family of six moved from Camp Lejeune to the next closest big city: Charlotte.
They settled in Ballantyne and Beekman graduated from Ardrey Kell High School in 2012.
He wasn’t the class clown but he also wasn’t a serious student, so when his parents told him they weren’t going to pay for college because they worried he wouldn’t apply himself, he set off for Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., figuring he’d serve five years and then qualify for a free bachelor’s degree when he got out.
He spent the next five years circling the globe, serving for about a year in San Diego and 3 1/2 years in Japan, where he worked as an F-18 jet engine mechanic.
While in Japan, Beekman said he was operating a jet engine when a civilian contractor got caught up in the jet blast, was thrown more than 80 feet and died. Investigations by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Marine Corps cleared Beekman and his peers from wrongdoing, he said, but the trauma from witnessing the accident sent him into a tailspin of anxiety, sleeplessness and depression.
“One hundred people can tell you (you did nothing wrong),” he said, “but you still question: What if I had done this differently?”
Beekman said he received some mental health counseling while in the Marine Corps, but he didn’t get all the help he needed.
His symptoms seemed to ease up a bit when his five-year service commitment ended and he got out of the Marines. He moved into his own apartment in the Ballantyne area and passed licensing exams to become a financial adviser.
But stress from starting up a financial advising business mounted, and then a serious romantic relationship dissolved. The sadness became too much to bear. Nightmares from the military accident began to reemerge and depression set in. He started eating and drinking too much.
Shortly before midnight on Christmas Eve 2017, he was sitting in his apartment scrolling through his Facebook feed when he saw post after post from Ballantyne Connection members worried about loud booms (likely fireworks) they were hearing outside.
Beekman chuckled and fired off a dry-humored post referencing the movie “Die Hard:”
“Saw a lot of questions about explosions earlier today. Didn’t want to concern anybody, but earlier today there was a hostage situation at Nakatomi Plaza. Luckily thanks to a local cop, the situation was taken care of, however the Plaza did blow up. Hope this helps!”
Fifty-five people responded, some asking for the location of Nakatomi Plaza, and others angry that he would make light of terrorism. Many got the joke.
Beekman waited for the Ballantyne Connection administrators to take the post down. They didn’t.
He continued in the following days with more dry-humored posts and comments, met with the same mixture of responses — some annoyed, some amused.
The volume of his online chatter — and his reputation — grew, and after awhile, Ballantyne Connection administrators removed him from the group because users were complaining that he was distracting from the objective of the page, which is for individuals to connect with local businesses and events.
His absence didn’t last long. After a few days, a member launched a “Bring Richard Joseph Back” campaign. Administrators brought him back on.
“Once he came back on the page, we saw he was there for a good reason,” said Ashley Wojdyla, one of four Ballantyne Connection moderators. “I’ve never met Ricky, but you get the feeling he would literally do anything he needed to do to help somebody out. I think he’s like a breath of fresh air.”
If someone took offense to something Beekman said online, he would extend an olive branch by looking up their profile page and donating money to a charity they supported.
When Amanda Rosen, administrator of the 60,000-member Ballantyne/Waxhaw Sales Facebook group, posted that she was throwing together a birthday party for a little girl bullied because of alopecia (which Rosen also has; she is bald), Beekman paid the $200 pizza bill and asked for no recognition in return.
“It wasn’t a good day on the (Ballantyne/Waxhaw) sales page without him,” Rosen said. “When people would post a not so-smart question, we would all tag him immediately because we wanted his response. We would all be tagging him, and now we’re egging him on, because we thought it was hilarious.”
Neither Rosen nor Wojdyla can know for sure, but they suspect Beekman helped draw in followers and that the flurries of comments and interactions he inspired helped raise the pages’ profiles in the Facebook algorithm.
“I could see where people would say, ‘Go check out Ballantyne Connection because there’s a guy on there and he’s hilarious,’” Wojkyla said.
“I’ve always loved having him on the page,” she said. “In a world where social media is just always a lot of negativity and people being rude and ugly to each other, it’s nice to have somebody who is constantly laughing and funny.”
Laughing through pain
Privately, Beekman’s life was getting less funny by the day. But publicly, he was upping the antics.
Last November, a post offering himself as a date for women “who don’t want to spend another year listening to their mother ask them, ‘When are you going to finally meet a nice man and settle down?’ “ went viral and was picked up by local media.
And as Valentine’s Day approached, he stood on the corner of Ardrey Kell and Providence roads with poster board signs, looking for love: “We can say we met on Tinder,” one sign said. On another he printed: “Local vet seeks love. Send digits not dollars,” with his phone number.
His texts blew up. He went on several dates, he said, but no real relationships sparked.
His antics and popularity were at an all-time high, but he was feeling at an all-time low.
He confided in his mom that he was depressed and anxious and had thoughts of suicide.
He started seeing a psychologist, working through his issues with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety and depression.
He was still slinging comments and memes daily on Ballantyne Facebook pages, and as April Fool’s Day approached, he thought of a prank to pull on his followers: he’d post a fictitious story that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had written him to say that his Facebook account would be deleted because of too many complaints.
He planned to stay off Facebook for a few weeks to get people wondering about his whereabouts, and then reemerge and see what they said.
Some of his followers were concerned — and confused. Friends texted him screenshots periodically of people posting: “Where is Richard Joseph?” Some theorized he had rejoined the military and been deployed. Others thought he’d run off and gotten married.
But the longer he was off Facebook, the better Beekman felt.
At first, he’d still pick up his phone and slide his finger to where the Facebook app used to reside. But then he’d remember he’d deleted it and find something else to do instead.
His cold-turkey social media cutoff was only part of a series of lifestyle changes he was making: weekly therapy appointments, sticking to a healthy diet and regular exercise.
“I really liked the idea that it was almost this transformation and I was the only person who got to see it … It was a much healthier way to get happiness into my life,” he said. “What I was doing was not dependent on ‘Is someone going to like this Facebook status? Is someone going to laugh at this joke?’ ”
He’s lost 46 pounds so far, and last month he moved into a dorm room at UNC Charlotte, where he’s starting coursework for a degree in finance and hoping to become a resident advisor.
Earlier this spring, Beekman fell in love with a woman he was introduced to during a UNC Charlotte spring football game; no online prank, no street-corner sign involved.
She only knew him as Ricky Beekman, and when he finally told her about his Richard Joseph alter ego, “she didn’t believe me,” he laughed. “Now, she thinks it’s hilarious.”
Finding joy in the real world
Forty-seven days after his April Fool’s farewell post, Beekman decided to re-emerge online.
Several people had reached out to him on Facebook messenger, which he still could access, worried about him.
And he thought perhaps sharing his mental health journey could inspire others who might also be going through a rough time.
He posted before and after photos that showed his weight-loss journey, and explained that the Facebook break had given him the time and space he needed to get mentally and physically healthy. Hundreds liked and commented on the post, and shared it on several Ballantyne community pages.
“I wanted to do what I could to erase the stigma around mental health issues,” he said. “If my story is able to help somebody else out, I want it to help them out.”
Wojdyla, a Ballantyne Connection Facebook moderator, said she was relieved to see Beekman resurface. She’d noticed that he’d posted about depression and PTSD in the past, and wondered if his April Fool’s prank was related to his mental health.
“It really is true, that the people who are the funniest are usually the ones that are hurting the most,” she said. “I really kind of admire him for leaving for that amount of time and then coming back and being so open and honest about something that needs to be talked about more.”
Beekman is back on social media, but barely. For now, he’s embracing the new life that started April 1 — one lived more off the screen than on.
“There’s very much the possibility that I stay on Facebook and I still have my identity and self worth and healthy choices and it works out fine,” he said.
He takes a breath, and continues: “But I know there exists the potential to where it snowballs and ends up taking over my life, it ends up taking over my sense of happiness . And now I know firsthand over these past couple of months that I can get off (social media) and live a happier life than I led when I was on it,” he said. “The risk far outweighs the reward.”
So for now, he’s focusing on bringing laughs to himself and others in the real world. He’s diligent about his school work (he’s taking a required writing course this summer), keeps his tiny dorm room barracks-tidy, and is focusing on making good choices in his diet and relationships.
Ricky Beekman has taken his happiness back into his own hands.
This article originally published in The Charlotte Observer.