I think it was 2004. My family kind of fell apart [during] a chaotic divorce situation—everyone suddenly stopped talking. I left the family home [in London] and traveled to Australia. I picked it because, of all of the places I had ever visited, Australia was the one I knew the least about.
When I arrived, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Watching travelers meet their families and friends, seeing all the love there, kind of struck a chord. I had reached a pretty depressive point. I ended up contemplating terrible things. At that moment, I suddenly got this mental image of a guy holding a sign that said, "I get sad, too." That was enough to keep me holding on for a bit longer.
A couple of weeks after that, an old friend tracked me down and dragged me to a party. I stood in the corner awkwardly because I felt like such a fish out of water. Out of nowhere, this girl walked up to me, hugged me, and walked off. I instantly felt better. My next thought was, "How can I do that for other people? You can’t just walk up to complete strangers and hug them. They wouldn't take too kindly to that, seeing as hugs are generally something you ask for permission to do."
Then, the image of the guy holding the sign that said, "I get sad, too" and the idea of the unexpected hug from a stranger sort of meshed into one. I made a sign that said "free hugs" and went into the city, scared absolutely shitless. I had no idea what was going to happen.
After just standing there feeling nervous for a while, an older woman came up and hugged me. She told me it was the anniversary of her daughter’s death, and that her daughter’s dog had died that morning. She was sad because she no longer had any real link to her daughter. She came into the city looking for a sign and found me, a 22-year-old guy who had no idea what he was doing, holding a literal sign. I was just putting it out there and hoping for the best.