- Associated Press - Sunday, December 4, 2016

SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) - At age 19, Tristan McDonald was living his dream.

While a theater major in college, McDonald won a job dancing for Disney and was even one of the subjects of a Disney documentary called “Making the Magic.”

But 10 years later, when McDonald looks back at that documentary, he watches his younger self and knows that he had just started using drugs at the time it was filmed.

“That was pretty much the beginning of the end,” McDonald said. “So quickly, so many things just went out of my life.”

McDonald, 29, began his battle to recover in late 2012, and in that quest, he has found a new dream, a career that is not as well-known but is growing in size around the country - that of being a professional mermaid.

In February, CNN did a feature story on this community, interviewing professional mermaids and mermen who have made a career in various ways by using the persona to achieve activism, education and inspiration.

McDonald is currently raising funds to attend Mermania 2017, a conference where many of those professional mermaids will be, in North Carolina in January.

“With mermaids, you don’t have to have red hair, you don’t have to have a six-pack,” he said. “It really is for everyone, especially with tail-makers coming out.”

McDonald has had a fascination with mermaids since he was a young child growing up in Florida, where he likens the normalcy of mermaids to that of alligators.

“Weeki Wachee Springs is a Florida theme park, and it’s the City of Mermaids,” he said. “I grew up going there. ‘The Little Mermaid’ was my first movie.”

McDonald began meeting people in Florida who were starting out in the “mermaid movement,” and he thought it sounded very cool.

“(It was) something that I would love to do, but I didn’t think it would ever be possible,” he said.

But after moving to Louisiana, McDonald found a company that made affordable fabric mermaid tails, got his own and began swimming.

“After purchasing one, I noticed the days that I was swimming, getting physical exercise in the pool, were days that I didn’t feel a need or the thought of drugs,” he said. “Just that feeling of being free… and that kind of grew with my support system here.”

McDonald moved to Shreveport earlier this year, and he said he found a great support in the Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse of Northwest Louisiana (CADA).

“I can’t say enough about that program…I’d gone to rehab before, and I had a lot of bias and I didn’t want to receive the message,” he said. “I love Louisiana; I feel at home here, and it’s given me back my voice.”

As he looks to navigate this new world, McDonald has sought mentoring from others including Christian O’Brocki, also known professionally as Merman Christian.

“He talked to me about his story and what are some strategies to actually make this a lucrative business of me being a merman,” McDonald said. “What he does is conservation and a little bit of a cosplay.”

McDonald has numerous plans, including starting a YouTube channel and promoting awareness about trash in the Red River.

“With the Red River here, there’s a lot of pollution, and that simile of drugs polluting our bodies is the same way,” he said.

There are other vehicles for teaching and entertaining, and with an aquarium opening up in Shreveport, McDonald is interested in the opportunities that might provide.

Wherever his future takes him, though, McDonald is hopeful that he has found the freedom that others have found in the mermaid world.

“Within that community there’s a lot of recovery and stories of people - this has saved their life,” he said. “If I’m going to live my life sober, it might as well be in Technicolor.”

___

Information from: The Times, https://www.shreveporttimes.com

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