In 2007, when Ryan Fitzgerald was 20 years old, he posted a YouTube video in which he urged anybody who needed to talk to give him a ring. The video racked up thousands of pageviews in a few short days. His cellphone rang off the hook, he said — and he embarked on a brief rollercoaster ride of fame.
Now, following an almost six-year hiatus of taking calls, Fitzgerald — a native of Southbridge who now lives in Rhode Island — has posted another video with his cellphone number. The video, posted Thursday, has received nearly 400,000 pageviews in less than 24 hours, and more than 900 calls have streamed in as of this morning.
In the 200 or so calls Fitzgerald has managed to answer since the video went online (he said he only got about two hours of sleep last night), he has heard from people throughout the United State, South America, Europe, and Africa. People have come out as gay to him, shared their professional dreams, even talked about suicide and addiction, he said in a telephone interview.
Gary White, 19, called Fitzgerald in 2007 when he was fighting a heroin addiction. After seeing Ryan’s online resurgence today, he called him from Carson City, Nev., to give an update: He’s now two years sober.
“You think you can open up to therapists, but you need to talk to somebody who can keep your secrets safe, who don’t know your friends or family,” said White, whose phone number was provided to the Globe by Fitzgerald. “If it wasn’t for him, honestly, I’d probably be dead.”
Many heartwarming stories surfaced of Fitzgerald listening to people’s problems, and comforting them. Fitzgerald also received money in appreciation of what he was doing, he said.
At the same time, a wave of hateful text messages and phone calls poured in. “When you are subjected to millions of people, it’s a huge scale of reactions,” said Fitzgerald. “You get thousands of death threats and hate mail. I started drinking heavily.”
Fitzgerald’s life fell apart shortly after the 2008 Today Show appearance. As he told it, he became homeless, bounced between jobs, and became involved in a toxic relationship with a woman who called him after she saw his video.
“I didn’t know how to deal with it. It was too much,” he said. “I felt pressure to maintain this image as someone who would talk to anyone.”
But things began to improve last year. Fitzgerald, a new girlfriend, and their two young sons now live with his twin brother, Sean, in North Smithfield, R.I. He is still unemployed, but his girlfriend has a job.
Fitzgerald said he posted the video last night because he was ready to listen again.
He said he is “addicted to the feeling of self-worth” he gets from comforting people. And he wants to do it for the rest of his life, perhaps even adapt it into a TV show. He is trying to raise money on gofundme.com for “the project,” he said.
So far, he said, he has only received one death threat, a much better ratio from the last time around. And a teenage girl called last night for 10 minutes who was more interested in listening to Fitzgerald than sharing her own story.
“A girl called and said, ‘I want you to talk to me for 10 minutes,’” Fitzegerald said. “She asked me a bunch of random questions. It was nice to talk to someone after listening all the time.”