The Talk

IMG_3291Yesterday, my four-year-old son and I were looking through a box of old pictures. When he saw one of my mother and I, when I was about the age he is now, he asked a question I’ve been anticipating for years, but was somehow unprepared to answer.

Where is Grandma Sue now?

“Well,” I said, “Grandma Sue is an angel.”

My son only knows death as the process by which one becomes an angel. I am not a religious man, but “Grandma Sue is an angel” was better than “Daddy doesn’t know,” and infinitely better than, “Grandma Sue died by suicide.”

“I know,” he said. “But why did she die?”

I didn’t want to lie, but couldn’t possibly broach the subject of suicide, not yet. After about 20 seconds, I figured out a gentle, but honest answer.

“Well…Grandma Sue was sick, and she didn’t get to the doctor in time to get the help she needed.”

I’ve heard the best way to learn something is to teach it. Explaining the loss of my mother in a way a four-year-old could understand helped me make more sense of it, and brought me a degree of peace I hadn’t experienced in the 20 years since she ended her life. It’s one thing to know suicide is one piece of a complex mental health puzzle, but it’s quite another to fully grasp what that says about the losses we’ve endured.

“Why she didn’t go to the doctor?” my son asked.

“Sometimes people don’t know they are sick, or they think they can get better by themselves. That’s why if we don’t feel good, we should always let someone know.”

And that’s how I started I hope will be a lifelong conversation with my son about family, love, and the importance of self-care.

Getting Personal at KC Fringe

Next month, I will perform a one-man show that has taken me 20 years to write. That’s about how long ago I lost my mother to suicide.

For more than half my life, I dealt with every emotion and complication internally. Suicide is an uncomfortable topic and being connected with it so closely was a burden I tried to keep to myself. Not to mention, it made me sad as hell, and no self-respecting teenage boy likes to cry in front of people.

Pretending to be okay made me feel tough, and I thought being tough would eventually make me okay. Fake it ’til you make it, as they say. That unhealthy approach to dealing (or not dealing) with grief eventually bled over into how I handled my own issues. Correcting that approach is no small task.

Many people who struggle with these issues do so in silence, believing they are alone. I want them to know they are not.

If you’ve ever lost someone you didn’t think you could live without, lost someone to suicide, or deal with mental issues you don’t understand and are afraid to talk about, join me at the Kansas City Fringe Festival. I’ve got a story to tell you.

KC Fringe Logo

Mama’s Boy

The Fishtank Theater in Kansas City, MO

Click on dates below to purchase tickets.

Saturday, July 23 – 5:00pm

Thursday, July 28 – 6:30pm

Saturday, July 30 – 9:30pm

 

Happy and Uncertain

Three weeks ago I was in a dark place. It wasn’t the first time. I had a decent job that I should have been good at, but I stopped caring. I would sit at my desk with a series of easy tasks in front of me and struggle to start any of them. I would sit in conference rooms while co-workers discussed projects and all I could think was, “who gives a shit?” The short answer, it turned out, was everyone. Everyone but me very much gave a shit. Apparently, I was the only member of the marketing organization fighting back tears every morning on the elevator or starring at my computer in a haze of shame and depression, wondering how I ended up living a life of such inconsequential corporate fuckery.

I hated my job, and I hated myself for continuing to show up, afraid to bet on myself and pursue something that mattered to me. I came home emotionally drained and unhappy. I was not the husband or father I needed (and wanted) to be, and that made me hate myself even more. I started to wonder if there was any reason for me to be around at all.

Sometimes the advice we give is the hardest to take ourselves. If someone came to me in the shape I was in and said they were feeling such deep depression, I would tell them to seek professional help because life is short and there are no do-overs.

When I finally told my wife that my detachment was more than a temporary funk, she convinced me to seek help and scheduled an appointment with our family doctor.

“So what are you here for?” the doctor asked.

“Well, uh, my wife scheduled an appointment to talk about some depression I’ve been feeling lately,” I said.

My wife scheduled… Even in that office, I couldn’t just say the words, “I need help.” Many men have a hard time talking about mental issues like depression and anxiety. I am no different. It’s not that I was afraid to find out I had a problem, or even that I could be medicated. I was afraid the doctor would give me a screening and tell me nothing was wrong.

“I see the problem here. You suffer from moderate to severe Being a Pussy. Suck it up and stop wasting everyone’s time being such a bitch all the time. That’ll be $200. Pay at the desk and never come back.”

Luckily, that didn’t happen. After talking about what I was dealing with, I was prescribed an anti-depressant to take daily for one month, at which point we’ll regroup and see how things are going.

For the first time in a year, I felt a slight wind at my back. With the support of my wife, I decided to take another step I had been too afraid to take. I walked into my manager’s office and handed in my resignation.

After you give a two-week notice at an office job that most people consider a career, everyone asks the same thing: “so where are you going?” I answered as honestly as I could. I told them I didn’t know, but I was going to smile more.

Then everyone says nice things to your face, and other things when you’re not standing in front of them because that’s what passive-aggressive corporate people do. And you can’t really blame them. What are you supposed to do when someone tells you they would rather be unemployed than continue working with you?

So what now?

I want to make an impact. I want to show up for a job when, even on the toughest days, there is a chance to make a difference. In the coming weeks I’ll figure exactly what that looks like and how to get there, but in the meantime, one part of my plan has already worked out. I smile more.

I’m 33 years old, unemployed, taking prescription anti-depressants, and I don’t know what the future holds. But I feel better than I have in years.

I don’t know much, but I know this – I’d rather be happy and uncertain, than certain and unhappy.

Slippery Slopes

I formed a plan to win my future wife’s affection within minutes of meeting her. We were playing co-ed softball. She didn’t mention playing in college, but I could tell she had by the way she moved on the field. I fancied myself something of an athlete, so the plan was simple: I’d make a diving play on the next ground ball hit to either side of me. She would swoon, and a passionate love affair would surely blossom.

The very next ball was hit hard to my left. I dove, hoping to catch both the ball and the love of the beautiful blonde playing second base. Instead, my body bounced like I’d been thrown from a moving van and tumbled with a violence usually seen in YouTube videos titled “Skateboard Fail.”

After skinning back fat I didn’t know I had, it was time for Plan B – I quit smoking and spent the next six months pretending to like distance running and cats. Jogging became bearable, and Pop-Tarts and Parliament Lights ceased being my go-to breakfast. I felt better, looked better, and had a shit-eating grin for guys visibly confused how I ended up with her.

I built a relationship with Summer by getting out of my comfort zone and doing my best to enjoy her hobbies. She reciprocated by doing her best to enjoy country music and having sex with me, both of which led to a unique test in our relationship early in 2012.

Some friends invited us to MusicFest in Steamboat Springs. MusicFest is made up of three things near and dear to the heart of every Texan: country music, good beer, and a vacation in Colorado. We booked a trip and looked forward to three days of skiing, music, and drinking.

Shortly after purchasing our non-refundable tickets, we learned we had inadvertently booked a trip for three. Summer would be six-months pregnant by MusicFest, which would prohibit her from every activity that inspired us to book the trip. But rather than eat the cost of the tickets, we decided to go along for the ride and eat, well, everything else.

Pregnancy is not a team endeavor. We talk about shared experiences, but the husband’s role is merely support. As a caring husband, I exercised moral support the best way I knew how – by not exercising at all. The weight a husband gains over the course of his wife’s pregnancy is often referred to as sympathy weight. I call it freedom. For the first time in our relationship, Summer sanctioned over-eating and lack of physical activity. This was the culinary version of what I imagine a binge would look like if a drug addict’s sponsor agreed to look the other way.

When we arrived in Steamboat, things looked promising. Any sadness over the slopes we couldn’t hit passed when I saw a bar with majestic mountain views and big screen TVs with majestic NFL views.

Our friends loaded up their gear and left the condo on the first morning. That’s when Summer said three words that threatened our relationship:

“Let’s rent snowshoes.”

At six months pregnant, my wife decided snowshoeing 3.5 miles uphill was something she’d like to try. I hated the idea, but she was carrying our first child, which was made possible because I embraced an active lifestyle and pretended to enjoy it. We rented the shoes and got our instructions from a nice, older gentleman in the shop.

“Now, listen,” he said. “It’s 3.5 miles if you take the trail to the top, but there is a shorter track that is 2 miles. If you get tired or it’s a little more difficult than you expected, don’t be too proud to take the short track.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” I said. He didn’t tell me once. He assumed, incorrectly, that of the two of us, the pregnant woman might struggle.

We started trudging up the right side of the slopes that everyone else was skiing and snowboarding down. Summer was in Heaven.

“Doesn’t it feel great to do something active?” she asked.

“Yes,” I lied.

We started out walking side-by-side so we could chat, but Summer walked ahead when the only subject I wanted to discuss was “how all this fucking snow keeps getting in my boot.”

The sight of a visibly pregnant woman smiling and easily making her way up the slopes while her out-of-shape husband cursed and took breaks delighted the skiers who whizzed by us.

For the next two hours, almost every single person smiled and yelled, “You’re going the wrong way!” I hated their stupid turtlenecks more and more with each step.

At one point, Summer had to pee. She walked into the woods. I stopped. It’s difficult to describe the shame that comes when a woman rounding out her second trimester is disappearing into a wooded area and yells back to you “go ahead…I’ll catch up!”

Summer and I walked the final ascent together, took in the stunning panoramic view, and rode the gondola down the mountain. It was a beautiful sight, and I was able to share it with the love of my life. It was a moment I’ll treasure forever, and it happened because I found someone who makes me to get off my ass.

Left to my own devices, I would have sat in the bar, listened to a band, and watched a ballgame. I had been doing that for my entire adult life until I left a pound of back fat on a recreational softball field.

Sometimes, the best thing you can hope for in life is someone who helps you recognize the slippery slopes in your life, and inspires you to walk back to the top.

Thankful

Ah, Thanksgiving. The day I’m most embarrassed by how ungrateful I am most of the time.

I have a wife that’s too pretty to be with me, but I have the audacity to pout because I want her to be more enthusiastic about having sex with me – which she does regularly. Imagine you live in a studio apartment and you ask Michelangelo to paint the ceiling, AND HE ACTUALLY DOES. Anyone with an ounce of decency would think, “Whoa, Michelangelo could paint anywhere, but he’s painting MY little ceiling? How lucky am I?” not, “Why am I the one who always has to initiate the painting?

I have two incredible children – ages three and one – and I love them more than anything in the world, but get frustrated because after hours of playing they still want to be around me instead of entertaining themselves for a while so I can tweet about nonsense.

I have a job that isn’t difficult and pays more than I deserve, but I come home every day and complain because it is creatively unsatisfying and I don’t feel like I’m contributing to the world.

Today, my wife and children and I were unable to spend Thanksgiving with our family, but have great friends who invited us to have dinner with their family.

Have you ever caught yourself complaining about a life that is so much better than you ever believed it would be? I have an amazing spouse, wonderful children, a good job, and generous friends. I don’t deserve it. And I don’t mean that in a humble, ‘aw shucks’ sort of way. I did nearly everything in my power as a young man to die alone and well before my time.

Many people who battle addiction and alcohol abuse don’t get the help or the second chances they so badly need. Many people who suffer from depression aren’t lucky enough to find a partner who sees through it and hangs in there when it isn’t pretty.

I’m not a man of great faith, which is strange because I’ve received the grace many do not. I struggle with that. I struggle with understanding what led me to have so much, and maybe that’s why I struggle with accepting that I do.

I am thankful. For whatever combination of great family, white privilege, and dumb luck led me to second, third, and fourth chances when so many never get a chance at all. I am thankful for my family, my job, and my friends.

I am thankful that tomorrow I get another chance to be a better man.

Crying in Baseball

IflytheW know, I know – every time a perennially shitty franchise wins something, half their fan base soaks the blogosphere with refreshingly acceptable dude tears. That’s part of living in 2015, and apparently so is the Chicago Cubs being good. So here I go…

If you’re reading this, you already know the Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals to advance to the National League Championship Series for the first time since 2003. I love the Cubs, but at 33-years-old, I consume sports differently than I did twelve years ago.

I don’t care as much as I used to. That’s not something people typically say when the team of their childhood is on the precipice of history, but it’s true. Between family, the work I get paid for, and the pursuit of work I one day hope to get paid for, I don’t have a ton of bandwidth left. I no longer throw remote controls or put holes in my wall over blown saves in June. I watch games in a strategically placed mirror that allows me to see the television from the kitchen while making macaroni and cheese for my two young boys.

It’s harder to get my attention now than it was in 2003, but easier to hold once you have it.

The excitement of the 2003 Cubs wasn’t just a product of the history they were chasing. It seemed like the beginning of a decade of relevance, if not dominance. Kerry Wood was 26. Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano were 22. I was 21. Endless possibility. Such is youth.

Then Game 6. A memorable foul ball caused the good people of Chicago to try and ruin a young man’s life, the shortstop choked, and it was over. The game, the series, and thanks to a couple really expensive elbows that refused to cooperate, the future.

Now we’re finally back. This version of the Cubs is even younger. This version of me is not, but the older me knows how precious these moments are. There are 21-year-old college students packed into the same bar where my friends and I were glued to the NLDS twelve years ago. They’re drinking, high-fiving, and thinking, “we’re going to be great for the next ten years!”

I’m not looking ahead. I’m looking to my left at a three-year-old who knows the words to Go Cubs Go. I’m looking to my right at a one-year-old who doesn’t have a clue what baseball is, but claps enthusiastically when he sees other people clapping.

That was me and my rowdy crew when the Cubs recorded the final out on Tuesday – clapping, singing, and shedding a couple refreshingly acceptable dude tears.

Keep Fighting

IMG_2541Suicide is not an act of weakness. That stigma marginalizes the incredible strength it takes to fight depression and battle back suicidal thoughts.

We marvel at combat as sport. When a fighter is beaten, and I mean really beaten, when they’ve taken a crazy amount of punishment and lay motionless on the canvas, we don’t call them a “quitter.” We commend the courage it must have taken to stand toe-to-toe with such a dangerous opponent in the first place.

Depression is 1980’s Mike Tyson, living in your psyche. Depression doesn’t dance; it unloads with fury. Staying in the fight when you’re getting your ass kicked by depression is pure courage. It requires you to get off the canvas each morning with no guarantee momentum will turn in your favor. In fact, it’s entirely likely you will continue to get hit.

The good news is we are not defenseless. We can hit back and win rounds. But we need a support system. No fighter stands a chance without good people in their corner.

Who is in your corner? Have you offered to be in someone else’s?

It’s hard to ask for help. We’re afraid to be perceived as weak or weird, afraid to face the potential judgment of friends and family. And to be fair, as a friend or family member, we’re often uncomfortable asking if someone needs help.

We can stop suicide, but only if we end the stigma first.

It won’t always be pretty, but we can make it to the bell. We can make it back to our corner, get treatment and encouragement and love, and keep fighting.

And it starts with a couple phrases that should never make us feel ashamed or awkward:

Are you okay?” and “I need help.”

The harsh reality of the fight with depression and suicidal thoughts is wins are temporary and losses are permanent. Our only currency is tomorrow. If we reach tomorrow, we get to keep fighting.

My greatest dream is that everyone in the fight gets the help they need to keep fighting. And winning. One round at a time. Together.

If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.