The Privilege and Risks of Pretentious and Delusional Self-Importance in American Youth

These past several years I have really been noticing a significant rise in bravado, grandiosity, self-aggrandizing, and a false sense of social importance, particularly among young American men. This pretentious view that one is special and important, and that the choices they make have great potential for incredible impact on the world is actually quite dangerous and feeds the ego that will one day become their greatest adversary and impediment to a fulfilling life.

In this article I’m going to further define this behavior, outline its potential causes, and explain how this mindset is leading many young men down a path of disappointment, inflated self-worth and self-esteem, and to the eventual and consequential development of mental health issues. In particular the anxiety and depression among teens and young adults increasingly prevalent the past twenty years. I will also identify a healthier mindset for combating the ego.

Starting in childhood, our parents and other family members begin telling us we are special, that our every effort and accomplishment a moment to be celebrated, no matter how ordinary it might actually be. Whether we are successful or not, our every attempt is applauded and praised as a unique and profound ability. This sets the groundwork for the ego to arise and begins to lay the foundation for a lifetime of seeking to satisfy that reward-center of our brain: the mesolimbic dopamine system.

By the time we enter school, the process of inflating our fledgling ego is well under way, but it’s in school when this ego begins to be fed to a dangerous degree, partially because of school practices but also because of societal norms, social media, and teen culture. Our teachers begin offering an overabundance of reassuring compliments and actions that further feed the delusion that we are special and powerful, and that our words and actions can change the world.

For students who happen to be athletes, the ego is fed ever the more. Coaches and other training staff set out to stroke the ego of their athletes in the belief that if you work hard, results will always follow. While a positive mindset and an established practice of self-improvement and determination can truly go a long way in life, there is a point where we are no longer being grounded in reality and are cast adrift into the space of endless possibility and glorification of the self. A mindset that concludes positive results will always follow our hard work. The notion that if we’re doing our best, everyone will notice, applaud, and offer us rewards for our achievements.

It might be that if parents and schools were to set limitations to this process of feeding the ego, it may simply result in a healthy egoism. However, society has changed and the practices common in parenting and school no longer limit recognition of achievement. Rewarding behavior has become overabundant and consequently saturated. Children, teens, and even young adults now have unrealistic expectations about what they “deserve.”

In my former career as a professional development instructor, I both taught career skills to employees and sat on interview panels. Through these processes I encountered managers and supervisors who expressed concerns over the behavior and mindset of young people entering the workforce today, referring to them as woefully unprepared for real life. They described their new young employees as having a type of privilege, an expectation that they should be rewarded for merely showing up and working.

I think a major part of the problem is society and culture grooming young people into the idea that life will somehow miraculously unfurl before them like a red carpet premiere, that opportunities will just throw themselves at them because they showed up. Unfortunately, beyond the security and comforts of home and the safety structures of school, adult life is relentlessly hard and unforgiving. Rewards and success are few and far between, recognition and acknowledgement only follow behavior that exceeds expectations, and even when you do go above and beyond it doesn’t always deliver what you think you deserve.

Hype culture is one of the things that makes me cringe the most, especially when young people carry that behavior and mindset into the workplace. The notion that anyone can think that they should receive attention or reward for exaggerated self-importance is one of the most unbecoming things I’ve seen from Generation Z and the younger members of my own generation, Generation Y (Millennials).

The painful truth is that we are unremarkable. Very rarely does any one of us accomplish something unique. Startlingly enough, most of the population is rather ordinary. Despite what their social media accounts might suggest, their lives and accomplishments are rather unimpressive. Even the rich and famous eventually fade into oblivion.

I’m sorry to inform you that you’re not a legend. In the grander scheme of things, you will live and die without anyone beyond your family, friends, and coworkers ever knowing you existed at all. Whether you have 300 or 300,000 followers on Instagram, in a 150 years from now, no one alive will ever know you even existed at all, save a few descendants who take the time to do genealogical research.

That trophy, medal, or plaque you received for winning first place in high school or college athletics is awarded to someone every year, you are just one of many. It doesn’t make you more important, better, or more capable than any other candidate in a job interview. Yeah, you were determined, you worked hard, you sacrificed time, energy, blood, sweat, and tears, but guess what my friend, some people do that every day just to survive.

Oh, what’s that you say? You have faith that your “god” has a plan for you and so that makes you special? You that 1 of 8 billion human beings, living approximately 75 years on one little blue planet of eight in our solar system, which is one of potentially hundreds of billions of other solar systems in the Milky Way Galaxy, which is 1 of 54 other galaxies in the Local Group, which is just 1 of 100 galaxy groups in the Virgo Supercluster, which is one of 10 million superclusters in the observable universe. You are one person on one planet of approximately 21,600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 sextillion planets in the observable universe, but please tell me more about how special you think you are.

If your god exists, then it doesn’t know you exist anymore than you know a single specific microbial organism at the bottom of Point Nemo in the pacific ocean exists. Your god has no more of a plan for you than the 2-year-old that he/she/it just gave a terminal brain tumor to not but 30-minutes ago. Stop duping yourself into believing that you deserve a bright future and a long life, while your neighbor’s toddler deserves a terminal illness and a funeral in six months.

In other words, your god doesn’t know or even care that you exist. Your god probably doesn’t exist either, but if it does, it certainly doesn’t deserve to be acknowledged. I know, the truth hurts, I faced this reality a decade ago and the mere contemplation of it caused a crisis of faith and radically changed my perspective on life, purpose, and meaning. It also shattered my false sense of importance and that’s why I bring it to the forefront of attention here. We have got to shake the sleeping and dreaming self, we have to wake up to the reality that we are not as deserving as we’ve been fooled into believing our whole lives.

While all of this may sound dreadful, severely disappointing, and potentially life-crisis inducing, there is a bright spot in all of it. The only people whose attention and judgment you should ever concern yourself with are your family, friends, and colleagues. You interact with these individuals on a nearly daily basis, you should be striving to nurture these relationships and working to aquire their admiration and respect.

When you accomplish something, celebrate it. Not with strangers on Tik Tok, but with your family, friends, and colleagues. It’s part of their role in your life to give you the support and acknowledgement needed for a healthy dose of self-worth and self-esteem. No one person can change or save the world, but one person can change or save a life, and it’s with the people closest to us and that we encounter in our daily lives that we can begin this process of influence and lasting legacy.

There are going to be times where you feel like a failure, where you feel like life is unfair and that’s because we are all failures and life is unfair. The notion that things are going to go perfectly for you is a delusion that’s been spoon-fed to you your whole childhood and adolescence. There are no training wheels in adult life, just falls. Most of the time you can learn things from your mistakes, and sometimes there’s nothing to learn and only wounds to tend to. Maybe they’ll heal and maybe they won’t.

I sincerely hope this article has been a reality check that humbles all who read it. The practice of temperance as a virtue is severely lacking in modern society and I am seriously concerned about American youth who are being set up for a painful awakening to the disappointments of adult life. There needs to be a strong cultural shift away from the obsessions of fame and fortune and the delusional belief that self-worth is the culmination of social media engagement.

While personal achievements are noteworthy, it is the actions carried out for the benefit of others that truly deserves recognition and reward. We should want to raise youth who go out of their way not for personal gain, but for selfless service. For any young person in high school or university, you should think less on the things you can do for yourself and reflect more on what you can do for others. Then and only then, will you be worth remembering.

Prajñāpāramitā Part III: The Sacred Lotus of the Dharma

Prajñāpāramitā

Part III: The Lotus Sutra

This is my third and final installment on the three core sutras that define Mahayana Buddhism. It has taken me four years to complete a study of these ancient Buddhist scripture in order to walk away feeling as though I have some grasp of their teachings as a Buddhist practitioner, but I am by no means a Buddhist scholar and this review is not intended for that purpose.

It is highly recommended that you read the previous two installments Prajñāpāramitā Part I: the Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion and Prajñāpāramitā Part II: The Heart of Insight before proceeding with part three. If you are not at all familiar with Buddhism, I highly recommend you read my introduction to the basics in The Middle Way and the Turning of the Wheel: A Brief Examination of Buddhism.

Though I have implied as much with the title of this review, the Lotus Sutra is not technically part of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, and is in fact a standalone collection of text. It focuses on similar themes that I explored in the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra and reads much the same way. All sutras were originally memorized as poetic verse, long before ever being written down.

The entire Lotus Sutra scripture took more than two centuries before arriving at its current written form. During the process of transforming from oral teaching to literary scripture, the verses were expanded and translations saw these teachings converted to prose, or at the very least accompanied by prose, in order to more fully explain the purpose and meaning of the teachings.

I will not be exploring the areas of study and practice we have already covered in the previous installments, and will instead focus on areas not previously discussed, or at least those not previously discussed in any depth. The Lotus Sutra is made of 28 chapters, but the first one that really stuck out to me as new and interesting was Chapter 14, wherein the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) has a conversation with one of his closest followers, Manjushri.

In this conversation Manjushri asks the Buddha how the Dharma may be taught in the future when “Bodhisattvas are rare, and life is full of evil and unhappiness and there are so many ignorant living beings.” The Buddha responds to Manjushri by declaring that they will be able to practice and spread the Dharma by “Dwelling in the Four Ways.” He outlined these as states of being, or conditions of existence and practice.

They are as follows:

  1. Action and Closeness
    • By practicing patience and tolerance with those unfamiliar with the teachings of the Dharma we dwell in the first way. We must seek harmony and not force others to adopt views they do not yet understand or are not yet ready for. The Buddha instructs us to not approach those who walk the wrong path in order to convert them, but to also not reject them if they approach with earnest desire to hear the teachings in the Lotus Sutra.
  2. Peace and Joy
    • To dwell or live in the second way, the Buddha instructs us to not praise (worship) nor criticize those we teach. Whether they struggle to grasp the meaning of the Lotus Sutra or if they quickly understand its teachings, we should be at peace and not struggle in aggravation nor hold them in high regard or renown.
  3. No Jealousy, No Contempt
    • The third dwelling is a follow-up to the second and simply reiterates that we should not allow ourselves to become jealous of others who are expanding their Dharma practice by quickly learning the Lotus Sutra, nor should we hold contempt for them if they need more time.
  4. Compassion and Aspiration
    • The concept of Bodhisattva is extremely important in Mahayana Buddhism, it is in fact one of the core principles that sets it apart from other schools of Buddhism. All Mahayana practitioners are striving towards becoming a Bodhisattva, one who suspends their own nirvana (complete separation from the self) in order to assist other beings who yet endure duhkha (suffering). Individuals in the pursuit of becoming a Bodhisattva take a vow and are said to have Bodhichitta or an enlightenment aspiration, and use skillful means to aid those who do not yet understand the Lotus Sutra and other Buddhist scripture and Dharma practice.

Aside from Manjushri, the Buddha mentions or interacts with several other well-known bodhisattva in the Lotus Sutra. Some of these include Dharanimdhara, Avalokiteshvara, Samantabhadra, and Kshitigarbha. Bodhisattva Dharanimdhara, also known as “Protector of the Earth” or “Earth Holder,” took a vow to connect humankind with nature, or to reconnect those that are distant, or mediate for those who do not agree or understand one another.

For anyone studying or practicing as an environmental engineer or working in environmental protection, conservation, or restoration, they will find a kindred spirit in Bodhisattva Dharanimdhara who suspended his own chance at nirvana for the betterment of all, swearing a vow to serve all living beings on planet Earth until none need his aid.

Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha, also known as “the one who seeks great suffering,” made a vow to seek out places of terror and torture, places of pain and punishment, sadness and grief so that he could offer aid and support. Instead of seeking his own nirvana, he sought to aid those in most need. For this he is depicted as the bodhisattva of trauma. Those who work or volunteer in his name are known as the “Hands of Kshitigarbha” or sometimes translated as the “Arms of Kshitigarbha.”

He is also frequently affiliated with people who are known in Buddhism as “hungry ghosts.” People who have wandered down the wrong path and have broken the Five Core Precepts, or people who are experiencing some form of suffering. When we are overly hard on ourselves or get angry with people when they don’t live up to our expectations, this too can cause us to become hungry ghosts. When we find ourselves or others in this state of being, we should remember Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha and his strength of compassion and try to follow in his footsteps.

The Lotus Sutra focuses heavily on being compassionate to ourselves and to others, it reminds us of how we can continue to practice the Dharma no matter the circumstances in our lives or in the world, and it reinforces the importance of taking a bodhisattva vow.

I don’t intend to cover any additional Buddhist scripture, but I would certainly encourage others to explore them if they have not. Like most ancient religious texts, they are filled with wild stories of supernatural beings and events, but they are also filled with profound lessons on the human experience and serve as gentle reminders of who and what we should strive to become.

The Cost of Stigma

CPL Matthew Dillion Springer, 23, of Hebron, Kentucky died by suicide on December 24, 2020. On September 9, 2020, he publicly posted on his Facebook account that he had been struggling, you can read his post at the end of this article. I learned of his death via an email newsletter I subscribe to that honors deceased military service members. They focus a lot on military mental health and suicide awareness and prevention as many of the men and women they feature have died by suicide.

I debated whether or not to share the post that Matt wrote, but he shared it publicly to inform people of what he was struggling with and to shed light on something so many young men face while battling a mental health condition. I feel as though not sharing it would be yet another consequence of stigma. I want others to read it because it really shows the struggle, both internal and external that he felt.

Knowing how things turned out for him and his family is a real gut punch. I know that thought process in his post, it is so familiar and relatable to me and to countless others. I can’t begin to tell you how many young men I’ve had discussions with about mental health issues and the societal view that it’s a sign of weakness. For young men, this perception can be so devastating. It’s a major part of stigma and stigma kills.

When I got discharged from the Marine Corps in 2008 for my mental health condition, I was told by people inside and outside the military that I was a weak person because of it. So, I applaud Matt for coming to the realization that his struggle with mental health was not a weakness, but a sign of strength and his willingness to speak openly about it was a sign of courage.

I don’t know the details of what happened between September and December that led to his decision to attempt suicide again, but I’m sure it was a combination of external pressures and internal struggle. I don’t know what support systems he had available to him and what he was utilizing, he doesn’t mention any of that in his post.

Please understand that there are countless government and non-government resources available, you all know the drill, I post about this stuff constantly. Not every resource is right for every person, you’ve got to browse and try different things until you find what works. I’m alive today because there are things that work!

The road to recovery is long and hard, nothing in life that’s ever worth overcoming is ever easy. And mental health conditions and substance use disorders are so worth overcoming! Every young man wants to be challenged as part of his coming-of-age process, and there is no greater challenge than facing death and saying “not today motherf*cker!”

With the proper tools and support systems in place, not only can you survive, but you can thrive! Battling mental health and substance use should never be shamed, it should be applauded and celebrated! People who have struggled with these things are the strongest people I have ever met!

I won’t shame, smear, or dishonor Matt for the decision he made to attempt again. I’ve been in that mindset and I know full well that his judgment was clouded by his mental health condition. I have explained and described this countless times in all of my writings, but mental health conditions and substance use disorders cast a veil over you and through this distorted filter you cannot see things as they once were before the onset of symptoms.

I’ve probably said this a thousand times: no one wants to die, people just don’t want to hurt anymore and mental health conditions and substance use disorders trick us into believing that our lives and our pain are one synonymous thing.

When you’re deep into the throws of mental anguish, floating upside down in the dark waves that keeping rushing over you time and time again, it is so hard to know which way is up. It’s so hard to see and understand much of anything, and you feel so damn alone. But when you get help and break the surface and rise up above the darkness and the pressure of those depths dissipates, and the weight is lifted and the sky is made clear again, born on the horizon the sun shines like hope after the darkest nights that you have ever known.

Hope… this above all else must be believed in for recovery to ever be possible. To Matthew I say:

Saepius Exertus, Semper Fidelis, Frater Infinitas!

If you or someone you know needs help, here are a few places to start:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
(1-800-273-8255)
Provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources, and best practices for professionals. Spanish and hearing impaired communication available.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Helpline
(1-800-662-4357)
Free, confidential, 24/7 (even holidays), treatment referral and information service (English and Spanish), for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use issues.

SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline
(1-800-985-5990)
Provides 24/7 (even holidays) assistance with crisis counseling and support for people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters. Call or text options available.

Crisis Text Line
(text the word HELLO to 741741)
Trained Crisis Counselors who volunteer their time to provide 24/7, free and confidential support for people in crisis, utilizing active listening and collaborative problem solving.

The Trevor Project
(1-866-488-7386)
A 24/7 resource for LGBTQ+ youth struggling with a crisis or suicidal thoughts. The line is staffed by trained counselors.

You can Learn more about Matthew Springer by accessing his obituary provided by Don Catchen & Son Funeral Homes. You can also read the tribute from the newsletter I subscribe to:

“CPL Matthew Dillion Springer, 23, of the U.S. Marines, lost the battle with his demons on December 24, 2020.  He was born July 28, 1997, and called Kentucky his home. Springer served honorably from July 27, 2015 – July 26, 2020.

Springer believed in everything that America stands for and found his “purpose” being a Marine. Outside of the military, he became an advocate for mental health issues and wanted to bring awareness to mental illness, depression, and PTSD that veterans often suffer.

Springer was a dedicated family man, and his wife and young son were his entire world. When his son was born, he felt he finally understood what true love was. We join friends and family in remembering a father, husband, and son who meant so much to so many. Semper Fi Marine. Til Valhalla!”

© 2021, Til Valhalla Project

How to Practice Empathy and Prevent Emotional Impotence

Your first question after reading the title is probably “What is emotional impotence?”

Emotional Impotence is a term sometimes used in behavioral health, also often called toxic positivity or chronic optimism, and refers to the act of compartmentalizing or dismissing negative and often traumatic experiences in order to “feel better.”

This behavior can be expressed inward towards one’s own struggles or outward onto other people and the traumatic experiences they are enduring, but you will notice this behavior in others before you will ever notice it in yourself.  Examples of this behavior can be seen in statements such as:

1)  It might be hard now, but things will get easier.

2)  You’ll feel better in time.

3)  Just don’t dwell on it.

4)  You need to move on.

5)  I think you need to do this… and you’ll be okay.

6)  You need to believe that it happened for a reason.

7)  You need to accept it.

8)  I’ll keep you in my thoughts.

9)  This was part of god’s plan.

10)  I’m praying that you’ll get over this.

One of the most egregious examples I have ever heard someone say or post online was to a grieving parent who had lost their child. Someone posted this comment on her Facebook page, “Thank God he graced you with other beautiful children!”

Though perhaps intended to be consoling or reassuring, this utter shit-show of apathy was abhorrent to read, I cannot imagine how the mother felt receiving those words. It’s as if this lady thought that because the mother had other children she need not dwell on the loss of the one and just be grateful she still had the other children.

This social media comment was borderline, if not full-on, psychopathic. Unfortunately it is not the first nor the last such comment I’ve read on social media or statement I’ve heard in person that stunk of emotional impotence. I am quite mortified by the atrocious things people will say without thinking of how the statement might actually come across to the recipient.

These types of responses can be delivered by both strangers and people we would otherwise classify as close friends or family. Another horrible thing I’ve seen or heard people say to grievers, were to young widows or widowers, statements like, “You’re young, you have time to find someone new.”

Though not intended to be malicious, selfish, or detrimental, or honestly outright psychopathic, all of these remarks are invalidating and dismissive of someone else’s traumatic experience and the extremely difficult emotions felt in the fallout of that trauma. Individuals say these things in an unconscious attempt to bring attention to themselves and to feel good as though they are being helpful, while not actually helping the other person at all.

A useful analogy would be this: you walk down your street after a bad thunderstorm and see your neighbor attempting to lift a tree limb that had fallen down onto his car. Instead of stopping to ask if you can assist, you shout to him, “Lift with your legs!” You carry on with your walk, proudly patting yourself on the back for offering your neighbor what you perceived to be supportive encouragement.

While not factually wrong, such a statement is rude and unhelpful to the neighbor. Yes, it saves you from having to get emotionally invested in your neighbors struggle, but it also dismisses it as nothing to worry about. Although this type of behavior can occur in a multitude of situations, it frequently occurs after loss, when people attempt to offer their condolences but then quickly or even immediately move on with their own lives and expect the griever to do the same because it’s uncomfortable for them if the griever doesn’t.

They want that person to quickly heal and move on because it impedes upon their own positive and optimistic view of life, which they need in order to feel good about themselves and their perception of life.  They selfishly see other people’s grief as a hindrance to their own joy and happiness.

It’s delusional thinking and a type of wall they build up around themselves to conceal their own trauma and their lack of willingness to address their emotions about those experiences.  Hence the name: emotional impotence.  It is literally their inability to address their own issues while projecting it onto those around them. This is why it’s toxic.  There is a huge difference between addressing trauma and concealing or compartmentalizing it.

So, if someone you know is struggling or grieving, what should you do or say instead? What kinds of actions or statements should you do or say to appropriately express how you feel about the other person’s grief or trauma? This is the power of sympathy and empathy, the ability to emotionally understand and connect to other people and the things they experience.

Often times people confuse empathy and sympathy, sometimes viewing them as interchangeable and sometimes drawing the false conclusion that one is always better than the other. It can be very difficult to properly understand them. Sympathy is your ability to understand that someone is going through something that is challenging their resilience. This could be anything from losing their job to losing a loved one. You may not understand how they feel about that experience, but you know that any reasonable person would be upset and struggling.

In my years of teaching, I have sometimes encountered people who believed that sympathy is less-than empathy, that somehow sympathy is for those incapable of practicing or expressing empathy. This is not true and represents a misunderstanding of the proper usage of these tools of social behavior and denigrates the honest value of sympathy.

When you go the store to purchase a card to express your condolences, you do not purchase an empathy card, you purchase a sympathy card. There’s a reason for that. Sympathy allows you to express yourself to the recipient without fully grasping what the recipient is actually thinking or feeling. It is a generalized expression of support and is appropriate for a wide range of recipients, anything from near complete stranger to a friend or family member.

Empathy on the other hand is a deeper, more careful, more attentive dive into human interaction and social understanding. Sympathy stops at the door and offers a casserole, empathy walks through the door and bakes it in the kitchen.

There is an old saying, “Empathy is your ability to understand what it’s like walking in another person’s shoes.” This description is true, but I often feel it doesn’t fully encapsulate the hard work that empathy truly requires in order to be authentic and effective in social situations. Empathy is more than looking at another person and imagining how that person might be feeling because doing that is still sympathy.

Empathy requires you to interact with the other person, to ask open-ended questions, to paraphrase their responses for the sake of your own better understanding, it requires you to remove yourself from the psychological equation you need to answer in order to understand the other person. What does that mean? You need to literally stop thinking about yourself and how you would act or feel or think in the situation. Stop thinking about your past experiences, your perceptions and perspectives, your past actions, your opinions and beliefs, you must fully let go of your ego.

This is why so many people fail at practicing empathy. Their ego doesn’t allow them to remove themselves from the equation, and instead insists that they always be a part of it, they feel compelled to always evaluate people and situations based on their own experiences, rather than on the other person’s experiences.

This analogy is extremely helpful in understanding the concepts of sympathy and empathy: You work with someone whose grandfather passed away last week and they are returning to work today and you want to express your condolences. You have also lost your grandfather and you reflect on how it makes you feel. What you choose to do next will determine whether you are practicing sympathy or empathy.

If you approach that person and offer your condolences, stating that you have also lost your grandfather and tell them that you can relate to what they are going through, then you are practicing sympathy. If on the other hand you approach them with condolences and ask them how they are feeling so that you can understand how they are mentally and emotionally experiencing that trauma, then you are practicing empathy. That’s the difference, whether or not you are leaning into that social interaction from your perspective or from the other person’s.

True empathy requires you to remove your perceptions and perspectives from the equation, essentially yourself, and focus solely on how the other person is perceiving and feeling about the experience. The reason this is important is because how you perceive an experience will not always be the same way that someone else perceives an experience. Going back to the analogy, the relationship that you had with your grandfather, may not be the same as your coworker’s relationship with their grandfather. When it comes to empathy, one of the most important rules is to never assume how someone else feels about any given situation.

The only way to know how someone else feels is to ask them. This is not always easy, and can often be difficult when you are engaging with someone who does not express themselves very well or when they simply don’t want to talk about the experience. If this is the case, you cannot pressure or force them to do so, simply accept things as they are and offer sympathy.

This goes back to what I was saying earlier, there is nothing wrong with expressing sympathy, it is not the ugly step-sister of empathy, both of them have their place in social behavior and both have important value to offer in human interaction. You just need to understand how and when to practice them.

If the other person is not able or does not want to express their emotions about what they are experiencing, but you still want to show them that you care, then use actions rather than words. So, if you know their lawn needs mowed, then mow it.  If the leaves need to be raked in their yard, rake them.  If the snow in their driveway needs to be shoveled, shovel it.  If they haven’t left their house and walked to the mailbox to get their mail all week, go get it and bring it to the door.

Remember, sympathy is your willingness to show up at the front door with offerings in-hand, empathy is walking through the door if/when they invite you in. Apathy is you avoiding the house altogether, or in some cases allowing your dog to shit in their yard as you go for your self-absorbed morning stroll.

Seriously though, if they call you or message you to talk about their grief, shut up and listen, even if they talk about it a lot and take up your time and make you uncomfortable.  They didn’t call for your advice unless they specifically request it.  Practicing empathy means you never give unsolicited advice! Always remove your ego from the conversation.

If you really can’t handle someone else’s emotions, understand that it is a reflection of your inability to deal with your own emotions and that it is not the other person’s fault. Be honest and politely apologize and tell the other person that you are struggling with your own emotions and that you are being triggered by the conversation.  If you know the person has no one else to talk to, ask them if they’ve heard of the various warm-lines, crisis-lines, and hot-lines for those struggling.

If you are able to practice empathy and listen to them, here are some more generalized things to keep in mind when you have conversations with them:

Let them know they can talk to you about what they are dealing with.  Let them know they can contact you whenever they need to if that’s an option for you.  Do not induce guilt trips or give them ultimatums about what you think they need to do or what will make them feel better.  Do not make it about you, they didn’t call or text you to hear about how your significant other won’t throw their dirty laundry in the washer or any of your other problems!

Establish social boundaries between you and them to make sure you are not overwhelmed by their grief or emotional struggle – be honest and tell them what days or what times of day or night they can call or text. Do not assume you know what they need, never assume why someone feels a certain way, or how they feel about any given situation.  Regardless of what you believe about your alleged superpowers, you can’t actually read their mind. Not everyone experiences every situation the same way.

Two examples of things you should say:

1)  I am here for you and I support you.

2)  It’s okay to feel the way you do.

Give praise when they do things despite their circumstances, point out their strengths and the things they have been able to accomplish despite the experience they have been going through, to remove shame over their emotional struggle. Remind them of their previous or past accomplishments.

We have a culture in America that is not well-suited for emotional understanding, or emotional intelligence.  The words we choose to use, the phrases we rely on, can either make or break another person’s recovery from a traumatic experience.  Think about what you are about to say to another person, think about how you’d feel if you were on the receiving end, and if ever possible ask them questions so that you can understand how they are feeling about their situation and how they perceive it.

In closing, if you wish to be a more empathetic person:

1) Never make assumptions

2) Remove yourself from the equation

Down the Rabbit Hole and Through the Looking Glass

[Warning: this article contains discussions of suicide, caution is advised for readers who may be triggered by this subject]

Me in late 1998, aged 13

This writing was never intended for this website, but I have a lot to say and no other internet medium allows me unlimited space to express myself. This has been something that I have needed to address for the last two months, honestly I could say the past few years. It has been eating away at me from within, and with people still asking me why I “abruptly” quit my job in February of this year (2021), I feel like this is the best way to handle the matter. For anyone on the outside looking in, it did seem rather abrupt, but it wasn’t as spontaneous as it appeared. Only a small select few individuals knew about what was happening during and after my resignation.

Quitting one’s job may not seem all that interesting or useful to talk about. People quit their jobs from time to time, nothing unusual there, but most people don’t do it without having already secured a new one. Two years ago and barely more than a year into my now-previous-job, I had already attempted to find a different one. Sporadically over the next couple years I continued to apply elsewhere. The obvious question is why, why was I applying to other positions, why was I trying to leave my teaching job as a professional development instructor?

It’s an easy question, but not one that has an easy answer. There are many factors that went into that behavior and I will discuss that soon, but if I want to be more encompassing, the reality is I have not been mentally and emotionally okay for many, many years. The photo at the top of this article was included because that’s about the age where my mental health began to fall apart and my mental illness began to show itself. I may look cute and happy, but behind those eyes was a lot of fear, self-hatred, confusion, and sadness; wishing I could wake up and it would all be different or wishing I’d never wake up again. Some of it known and explainable, but held deeply secret. The other part of it was a total mystery even to me at the time, completely and terrifyingly mystified by what was beginning to happen to me, and horribly clueless as to how bad it was going to get in just three years time.

In more recent times, these past several years have been particularly daunting, a trend I have not seen in more than a decade. I have included a graph to better help others grasp what I’m talking about. In the graph’s severity rating of 1 – 10 on the Y-axis, a ten represents the worst severity in symptoms. The zigzagging blue line is my mental state from 1995 – 2021.

The red banner across the top represents a danger zone, wherein the suicide risk is greatly increased. The fluctuations over time are important, basically they map out the effects of my mental illness over the decades. This graph shows five spikes, in 2002, 2005, 2008, 2018 and 2021, all representing moments in my young adult life when I reached suicidality due to bipolar disorder.

For every person with a mental health issue there are triggers that can cause an increase in symptoms and a general sense of instability. If not monitored and addressed, these triggers can go on to initiate a psychiatric episode, a period in which a mental illness is its most severe and the well-being of the person is at greatest risk.

I have addressed my mental health experiences from pre-2018 in previous writings [A Journey Called Hope, My Experience With a Mental Health Condition, The Power of Hope on the Journey of Recovery], so let’s skip ahead to 2019. It was a pretty good year for me, as you can see the severity of my symptoms were on a downward trend, and then 2020 happened. My personal life and activities changed, my professional life and how business was conducted also changed. This impact was felt by many people around the world and the data collected by mental health support agencies, service organizations, and support phonelines such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and Crisis Text Line (741-741) reflect this same kind of global spike in reported mental health issues and crises during 2020.

I managed most of 2020 without any major struggle, which is a notable success because for people with a mental illness like me, any interruption to our usual routine can have dire consequences to our overall mental health. There were two exceptions to my wellness though: (1) my medication that I was taking for my mental illness stopped working in early 2020 and I came down off it, and (2) I became less physically active throughout 2020 despite it being my new year’s resolution to increase my workouts. This slacking in physical fitness had been an ongoing downward trend since 2016, the year my mother died.

As a professional development instructor I taught career skills to agency staff, and because we live in the digital age, I could do this job online at a desk in the workplace or at home and have no in-person interaction. In some ways I rather enjoyed my time away from others. As a naturally introverted person with an INTJ personality, I found the social distancing to be quite the convenient excuse to avoid other people. But as 2020 drew to a close, I began to sense that some semblance of “normalcy” would soon return and that I would have to go back to “business as usual,” something I was not willing to accept. Coupling this realization with a related increase in pressure in the workplace, an ongoing disagreement with decisions being made, and unfavorable management practices, I began to feel suffocated and trapped.

With my physical health going down the drain and other mounting pressures, I applied to positions outside my organization before 2020 came to a close. When those attempts were not fruitful by December, I no longer had any desire to remain in my position, whether I had found another job or not. I had always been financially responsible and I knew that money was not a problem for me, I could be unemployed for months without any real issues. I was overworked, overwhelmed, felt belittled by management, felt as though my ideas, talents and interests were not adequately respected or utilized, and when we were asked to nearly double the number of classes we were teaching I experienced immense burnout.

I felt as though I could never take off work without two weeks advanced notice, and when I did I felt guilty about it. If for some reason my mental illness was particularly bad one day, I could not just simply call-in that morning and take off, as a professional development instructor I had classes that were scheduled two to three months in advance, occurring 3 to 4 days a week, sometimes more than one class a day. Each class lasted anywhere from 1.5 to 3 hours, and teaching was only half my job, the other half was equally demanding and consuming.

Some of my other tasks included maintaining employee transcripts by tracking and issuing education credits – including for professional licenses and certifications. I coordinated other training and education opportunities for the benefit of internal and external agency employees. Wrote and submitted proposals for new program initiatives and process improvement ideas. Designed and promoted marketing materials, informative graphics, and monthly newsletters. Captured and reviewed data analytics for performance expectations, tracking, and reporting. Truth be told, I felt as though I was working two jobs, but only enjoyed one of them.

I saw several news articles during 2020 about how teachers were quitting their jobs because they could not handle the new pressures that the Coronavirus and COVID-19 were placing on them, either directly with online learning, or indirectly by how it was impacting everything and everyone around them. The stress and anxiety was just too much. Reading and listening to those teachers being interviewed, I couldn’t help but feel a kindred spirit. Even though teaching teens and kids is vastly different and more challenging than teaching adults, mainly because I didn’t have to assign homework or grade papers, I could still understand their feelings of overwhelm and burnout.

I cannot speak for all teachers, but when you get in front of your class (in-person or virtually) you have to perform much the same way an actor performs in a movie. You have a role to play and an audience to win over, you have to be convincing in your act, and it is most certainly an artform. You have a responsibility to make sure they learn, but you also have a responsibility to make sure they learn in a pleasant manner, that they have a good experience. For someone with an extroverted personality, this performance is likely not that challenging, but for an introverted person – the task is an immense challenge. Mostly because you have to fake it, you have to pretend to be this outgoing and extroverted person in order to capture and retain their attention and interest. You have to be someone you’re not for the benefit of others.

After every in-person class or online webinar I felt absolutely exhausted, drained of my mental and physical energy, but because teaching was only half my job I still had to perform in other ways each day. Just like those school teachers, I too genuinely began to hate my job. The very idea of having to get up in the morning became a constant source of dread and despair as I prepared myself to once again perform for an audience, I had to literally drag myself out of my bed and down caffeine every single day just to survive it.

This agitation was amplified by the reality that I seemed to be working a dead-end job. Even though I was always a high performer and always went above and beyond expectation and was rightly financially rewarded for my willingness to do so, I was not allowed to progress in terms of job classification. Despite performing duties beyond my station, I was not permitted the opportunity to be acknowledged for doing so. This lack of willingness to recognize my contributions by rewarding me with the title I had dutifully earned was both belittling and demoralizing. I felt as though I was being taken for granted.

This daily experience was my main trigger, I began to feel as though I was being traumatized by my own workplace. Not traumatized in the sense that my work was gruesome or dangerous, but that it was violating my mind, a mentally grueling experience for someone who already had a major mental illness to combat on a daily basis. This ongoing trigger awakened my bipolar disorder in a way that it had not been stirred in more than twelve years. I began having this sense of panic or dread, that something was coming, something was growing inside me and about to emerge. I felt like I had to get out of that environment, out of that situation. It reminded me of when I had been suicidal in the past, this heavy storm in the distance, rumbling with quick and frightening flashes on the horizon.

So, I submitted my first letter of resignation on December 16th with the expectation to leave at the end of the month. After some renegotiation, I chose to stay for another month to write procedures for all the tasks I performed, and also record, edit, and post all ten of my courses online for agency staff to continue to take after my departure. While this process was daunting and came at great personal financial cost, I committed myself to completing it before I left and was successful. That last month felt so relieving to me, like I had been in prison and I was just given my release date. I was excited but nervous, I didn’t know if I’d make it on the outside or if I had been imprisoned for so long that I was forever changed and broken, unable to survive. I had worked in that building for 12 years of my young life.

The first two weeks after leaving were great, I began catching up on my sleep after feeling as though such a burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I could finally get more than 5 hours of sleep a night! I was working out regularly again, I spent my time chilling out, catching up on Netflix shows and movies I hadn’t had time to see, but I also spent it being creative and experimenting with video editing and post-production, putting together informative content to share. I was also intent on finishing the book that I had been writing for several years, and finishing a research project I had started a few years ago. I had plans, I had intentions, a list of things I wanted to accomplish before finding a new job. All of those things seemed possible, and then everything changed.

By mid-February my mental illness arose in me, revealing its whole self. I began sleeping for 12 to 14 hours a day, and even when I was awake I struggled to get up out of bed, I just laid there like someone was drugging me, injecting me with a tranquilizer. I still managed to shower almost every day, and I cleaned my apartment, but I was barely eating anything, I had no energy or drive to do anything more productive than that, nothing that demanded deep thought and concentration anyway. This crushing sense of hopelessness came over me, not about unemployment, but about my life. That I would never find a sense of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment, that no matter what job I got next, it didn’t matter because in a few years time, I’d be right back here again. Trapped inside this loop of proverbial living and dying, drowning in the darkness of my own mental illness.

I would go for days never stepping outside, little sunlight touched my face, at times I couldn’t even bring myself to go outside to check for mail or throw my trash out. I began having suicidal thoughts, like little whispers in my ear, ways that I could end my life in my apartment. Hang myself in the closet, maybe a knife on my wrist, maybe those pills I had stashed away from a surgery several years ago. The storm swallowed me and nothing mattered anymore, all of it was meaningless, life was meaningless, I was meaningless. It was all I could do to get out of bed and go lay on the couch, my brain and body capable of nothing more than watching movies and streaming Netflix. My pushy 80-year-old father was perhaps my only saving grace, he expected me to visit him every weekend. This expectation was enough to get me up and going one day a week, the one day I felt like I could actually do something productive outside of my apartment.

For the next week I lived like this, if you can even call it living, and by the last week of February I knew I had to do something. I did manage to go hiking at the end of February, but I had so much more I wanted to accomplish! I knew I needed something to trigger my bipolar disorder again, to trigger the other phase called mania. For people with bipolar disorder we experience intermittent episodes or phases of major depression and mania, and sometimes a reprieve in between the two that can appear to be a “normal” state of mind. I was very clearly experiencing a major depressive episode and since I had been off and without prescription medication for almost a year, I had to find another way through.

I was not interested in going back to the doctor to try yet another prescription medication, I had tried 9 different ones from 2005 – 2020. Some did nothing, some made me sleep so deeply my parents couldn’t wake me, some gave me bad stomach cramps that didn’t subside with or without food, some caused me to gain weight, one made me have hallucinations of floating heads, and a couple worked for a few months and then had no effect. I knew that I needed to try something, to get up and get moving, so I went online to purchase a multi-ingredient performance enhancer (MIPE) that would give me the boost to do just that. Now, let me give a disclaimer here, I do not advocate for other people with bipolar disorder to take multi-ingredient performance enhancers because some of the substances in those cocktails can interfere with psychotropic prescription medications or with bipolar disorder itself.

I made the decision for myself to try it, I was in a bad place and felt like the worst was already upon me. By March I began the MIPE and after a week, nothing really changed. By the end of the second week I found myself experiencing the exact opposite of what I had been enduring – insomnia. I was able to go hiking a second time, but I also went from sleeping 12 – 14 hours to not being able to sleep at all. I would lay there in bed wide awake, the longest I laid there was for 7 hours, just laying there glancing at the clock every so often, waiting for sleep to take me. It seemed as though I could only sleep when the sun came up, and I would sleep at least until noon, sometimes well into the afternoon. Eventually this U-turn made me become foggy-headed, like I was in a daze all day, every day. I knew I had to stop the MIPE, but didn’t want to abruptly stop in fear of side-effects, so I took half the dose for the next week and then never took it again.

My second adventure into self-medicating was also over-the-counter, a chemical compound called 5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan), a naturally occurring amino acid that impacts serotonin in the brain. Initially I took it at night, and the full dose as directed on the bottle, but after a week of feeling like it was perhaps perpetuating my insomnia, I cut the dose in half and started taking it in the morning. After another couple weeks I began to feel very different, my major depression was lifting and I began having moments of what felt like mania. Those who have bipolar disorder type 1 (one) experience hypermania, those with bipolar disorder type 2 (two) like me experience hypomania. The difference between the two types of mania is that hypermania is generally considered a more severe variant. Either kind of mania can induce effects such as euphoria, obsessiveness, compulsiveness, physical and mental hyper-activity, and impetuousness.

For me in the past, hypomania has caused all of those symptoms, there was one time where just drinking water felt like a profound experience. Some of my best creative work was done while in a state of hypomania. It can be difficult to focus during, but if I’m able to channel the energy into something productive I can accomplish a lot. There have been times I have sat and become so engrossed in my work that I didn’t eat, drink, or use the bathroom for some 12 hours or so, just completely and utterly transfixed on the task at hand, an unstoppable machine. Hypermania is like hypomania’s evil twin, often causing people with bipolar disorder type 1 (one) to engage in bizarre, risky or violent behavior. Anything from egregious social behavior, to gambling or spending all of their money shopping, to erratic behavior that puts themselves or others in danger.

Since taking the lower dose of 5-HTP I have started feeling emotions again, other than despair and dread. I have doubled my daily workout routine, found myself baking and cooking things I hadn’t made in more than a year, I’ve begun reading books again – something that I used to enjoy. Words seem more powerful to me, I can feel other people’s emotions in their words, written or spoken, and the lyrics in music feel more powerful to me, more invocative. One night I laid in bed listening to a song and tears started rolling down my face, not because I was sad but because I felt joy. I felt like things were going to be okay, like everything was fine, like I was no longer dying. These are the effects I used to feel when my prescription meds would actually work, but they are also similar to the effects of mania. So, is it the 5-HTP impacting my serotonin, or has the 5-HTP triggered my mania?

I won’t know for a few months, mania is always temporary but it can last months. It eventually breaks into intermittent bouts of major depression, causing someone to stumble back and forth between the two which can be a horrific experience. This is why many people with bipolar disorder choose to take mood stabilizing medications in addition to their anti-depressant, in an attempt to prevent these cycles of episodes and ending both major depression and mania. Like with many other health issues, not all medications or treatment options work for everyone, the key is to keep trying something different.

Hopefully this piece of writing sheds light on what has been happening for the last few months. I wish that I could say that this has been a new experience and one that I will never have to go through again, but mental illness often doesn’t work that way, especially bipolar disorder which is notorious for being treatment resistant and debilitating. While I have known from personal experience the harsh reality of living with bipolar disorder, I recently learned that 30-60% of patients never recover to the point where they can function normally and retain or return to full-time employment. Instead, they become disabled by the condition.

While these percentages are disheartening, they are not surprising. Looking at my timeline of symptom severity I can see how it makes sense. My mental illness has impacted my personal life and goals, my social life, and my professional life for many years now. I have received therapy from counselors, social workers, and a psychiatrist, I have received prescriptions for Celexa, Cymbalta, Depakote ER, Effexor XR, Lexapro, Paxil CR, Prozac, Wellbutrin, and Zoloft. There are other alternative treatments I have not yet tried such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), but it can be hard to hold on to hope in the face of such adversity.

Nevertheless I choose to keep moving forward, performing the mental acrobatics I need in order to make it through the day. I always say this, but people don’t want to die, they just don’t want to hurt anymore and they often don’t see another way out of that pain than through suicide because they see their life and their pain as one synonymous struggle.


If you or someone you know needs help:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
(1-800-273-8255)
Provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources, and best practices for professionals. Spanish and hearing impaired communication available.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Helpline
(1-800-662-4357)
Free, confidential, 24/7 (even holidays), treatment referral and information service (English and Spanish), for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use issues.

SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline
(1-800-985-5990)
Provides 24/7 (even holidays) assistance with crisis counseling and support for people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters. Call or text options available.

Crisis Text Line
(text the word HELLO to 741741)
Trained Crisis Counselors who volunteer their time to provide 24/7, free and confidential support for people in crisis, utilizing active listening and collaborative problem solving.

The Trevor Project
(1-866-488-7386)
A 24/7 resource for LGBTQ+ youth struggling with a crisis or suicidal thoughts. The line is staffed by trained counselors.

Rainer Maria Rilke

“Letters to a Young Poet” is a very short book first published in 1929. The book is comprised of ten letters written by Rainer Maria Rilke, a German speaking Bohemian-Austrian poet who died in 1926 from leukemia at the age of 51. The letters in the book were written from 1903 to 1908, as Rainer reached his 30’s. They were compiled from a series of correspondence between himself and another Austrian named Franz Kappus, a 19-year-old aspiring poet studying as a cadet at a military academy, who had originally wrote to Rainer for advice.

The letters from Rainer were published posthumously by Franz, who did not include his own letters to Rainer, but from Rainer’s written responses you can determine what the correspondence was about. What unfolds in the letters is that Rainer takes on the role of an older brother and offers advice to Franz about poetry, art, love, and life in general. Though Rainer was already a published poet before ever corresponding with Franz, his letters to the young cadet are still some of his most beloved and famous works more than a century later, due to their eloquence and sincerity.

I recently finished reading the M.D. Herter Norton translation of “Letters to a Young Poet.” Nearly two years ago I had heard the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt recommend it in an interview as his favorite book. I bought it in October of 2019 based solely on his recommendation, but was waiting to read it until I had finished my stack of other books first. However, I felt compelled to skip the others and start it early and within the first few pages I just really felt a connection to Rilke in the letters he wrote and I couldn’t stop reading.

After a quick YouTube search looking for more information about him and reading recommendations, and after viewing a short documentary film from the year 2000 about his life, it seems quite apparent to me that Rilke suffered from bipolar disorder, a mood disorder. While I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist and can’t diagnose anyone, I am a behavioral health advocate who has spent many years educating myself, and I’m a former certified peer specialist on mental health conditions and recovery who has assisted others, but most importantly I am someone who lives with bipolar disorder type-two.

I’ve never felt so connected to someone’s words before, each verse like a mirror showing the unfiltered me to myself, like someone flinging open the window curtains in my room and letting in the light to both illuminate and cast shadows upon me as I search for myself through this recent phase of major depression that I’ve been experiencing. Like Rilke, I too become extremely productive when I experience phases of mania, and when I’m going through major depression phases I yearn to return to mania because I feel like that’s when I can do my most extensive work. But also like Rilke, I find inspiration in the heavy cloud of depression that feeds my creative outlets. Recently I’ve been unable to find the words to explain my current experiences and reading Rilke’s letters and learning more about his life and struggles has helped me through.

Rilke has many other collections of poetry and prose. If you go to YouTube and type his full name into the search you will find book recommendations and some incredibly profound readings from his works by some YouTube users. Here are two of my suggestions…

Documentary film about his life with selected readings of his work:

Profound audio exploration of his work and legacy:

I have purchased two other collections of his works: “The Poetry of Rilke” by Edward Snow which is a collection of some of Rilke’s most beloved poetry and prose and “The Dark Interval” by Ulrich Baer which is a collection of Rilke’s letters on loss, grief, and transformation. If you know anyone who struggles with mental health issues I encourage you to introduce them to Rainer Maria Rilke if they have never heard of him. Nearly 100 years after his death, he’s still deeply impacting people’s lives. No poet or author could ever want for anything more.

The Power of Hope on the Journey of Recovery

In this episode of the Ardent Axiom I reflect on how important hope is on the journey of recovery, as well as the other factors that aid in the process of healing after a mental health crisis or struggle with a substance use disorder.

If you or someone you know needs help:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
(1-800-273-8255)
Provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources, and best practices for professionals. Spanish and hearing impaired communication available.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Helpline
(1-800-662-4357)
Free, confidential, 24/7 (even holidays), treatment referral and information service (English and Spanish), for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use issues.

SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline
(1-800-985-5990)
Provides 24/7 (even holidays) assistance with crisis counseling and support for people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters. Call or text options available.

Crisis Text Line
(text the word HELLO to 741741)
Trained Crisis Counselors who volunteer their time to provide 24/7, free and confidential support for people in crisis, utilizing active listening and collaborative problem solving.

The Trevor Project
(1-866-488-7386)
A 24/7 resource for LGBTQ+ youth struggling with a crisis or suicidal thoughts. The line is staffed by trained counselors.

To learn more about The Ardent Axiom, or to follow on social media:

Facebook – https://facebook.com/ardentaxiom/
Instagram – https://instagram.com/ardentaxiom/
YouTube – https://youtube.com/user/kmerancis

— Special thanks to the following creative commons contributors:

Tima Mirosnichenko
Cotton Video & Graphics
AkiraWakira

Companionship: Love Not Lust

I’m a descriptive writer, I love details, analogies, essays and creativity. Someone told me one night that I write because it’s how I come to understand things.  That through my writing I come to terms with things that once tormented me or that continues to torment, perplex or inspire me to journey inward.  I make sense of these things through writing when I can’t put the puzzle pieces together in my head by just thinking about them.  He said that I don’t write just so that I can explain things to other people and tell them who I am, but I write so that I can come to know myself.

I can’t claim to know why human beings are drawn to each other.  I don’t know what really causes us to be attracted to certain people or even what things we collectively look for as a species in one another. I’m not sure if I can even explain what attracts me to certain people.  Though, I have on numerous occasions attempted to figure it out and have tried to dissect it in writing.

I’d like to know what causes me to be drawn to a broader spectrum of people, more accurately particular genders. I’m physically and emotionally attracted to men, but not so much romantically. I’m romantically and emotionally attracted to women, but not so much physically. There are things I’ll do with a girl that I won’t do with a guy and things I’ll do with a guy that I won’t do with a girl. I’m neither gay nor straight.

When I was younger I was drawn to certain girls that I found both physically attractive in the sense that I thought they were pretty and who’s personalities I found favorable. Like any male, I was also drawn to other males, as friends.  Guys to talk to, relate to, have fun with, laugh and joke around with, pick on each other, normal guy stuff.

These are things all kids go through and experience.  But at some point everything changed and I became consciously aware of this change.  A change in perception and desire. At around eleven years old I began to see things differently, I began to feel differently about people.  I still liked girls as friends, but it wasn’t just friends.  There was something else there.  I could feel it, proverbially in my heart. I liked their attention, I liked spending time with them and talking to them and I wanted to be closer to them.  I became jealous when the girls I liked spent time with other guys.

By all accounts that part was entirely average.  Puberty causes physiological changes, charged by chemical changes in body and mind. For me those changes didn’t just end there.  The way I saw and felt about some males also changed.  Sure, I still saw some of them as friends who I could spend time with and talk to, joke around with. However, there were other males that I found myself drawn to in ways that I knew were not normal.

I started to notice things in guys such as attractiveness.  I knew whether or not another male was physically good looking.  For the most part, I have always felt like this was normal for all guys.  Despite many guys being unwilling to acknowledge the attractiveness of each other, most males, if not all, are fully capable and fully aware of how attractive each other are, regardless of orientation.  I think it’s something that comes into play in knowing whether or not another male is a threat in competition for females.

What pushed me beyond that level of new normalcy was that I didn’t just notice how attractive they were, I wasn’t just interested in hanging out with them because I felt like it would increase my chances of being noticed by a girl. No, I was drawn to them because I wanted to become more than friends with them, I wanted to know everything about them, become best friends, even become physically familiar with each other.

You see, at eleven years old, I wondered what their guy parts looked like.  Not because I wondered whether or not I measured up, but because I was turned on by it.  It excited me to think about another guy naked.  When we looked at playboy magazines and the other guys got all worked up about the naked girls, I didn’t care about the girls anymore, I was way more curious about finding naked pictures of guys.

It wasn’t just physical lust or shameful curiosity and I only say shameful because back then I was incredibly embarrassed and ashamed that I had those feelings.  I may have been eleven, but I knew it was not normal.  I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I knew it wasn’t something the other guys around me were apparently going through and experiencing.  I felt like I was all alone in my thoughts and feelings.

Even though I spent the next eleven years of my life hiding and trying my hardest to pretend that I didn’t have an abnormal interest in other guys, those feelings didn’t just vanish from my mind because I wanted them to.  I had to fight them every single day, sometimes I faltered, but who could hold it against me, I was fighting a war that I had no chance of ever winning. Despite the unending curiosity towards certain guys, I carried on.  Luckily for me, I still had an interest in girls.  They still made me feel certain things and even though my raging hormones didn’t make me overrun with the desire to see them naked, I still wanted their attention.

Though I have never been able to understand that aspect of me, it was something that carried on into my adult life.  Even today, I still feel drawn to certain females, especially the more time I spend with them.  They make my heart feel something that is similar to how I feel with a guy.  A romantic and flirty sensation that hasn’t gone away with my attempts to ignore it.

There was one particular girl from my past that made me realize this before any other.  I had always found her physically attractive and her extroverted personality made her enjoyable to be around.  When I spent time with her, she made me feel good emotionally.  I liked having her attention and I liked being with her. The more time we spent together the more drawn to her I became.  I started to see us together in the future.  Dating, a relationship.  I fantasized about what it would be like later down the road, what we could become, what our lives would be like together with a family.

Eventually the fluttery emotions turned to physical desires and one particular day when we were standing close to one another I became consciously aware that I wanted to kiss her.  It confused me because by that time I had assumed I was gay. So, I didn’t understand how I could feel that way towards a girl.  I had no intention of dating women anymore, I had no desire to have a sexual relationship with one and yet here I was feeling romantically drawn to this girl and suddenly craving physical interaction.

Periodically that same bizarre feeling would come back to me in moments with other girls.  Over the years I have found that who the girl is plays a major effect on whether or not it happens because it didn’t just happen with physically attractive women.  It took much more than looks to spark that feeling inside me.

The most recent time was different, I hadn’t spent time with this girl, in fact we didn’t know each other at all whatsoever.  Just the mere sight of her face caused that reaction and it was the first time that it had ever happened without interaction or familiarity. For the first time a girl whom I did not know personally, caused the same physiological reaction inside of me.  Suddenly I found myself being sexually aroused by this girl I knew nothing about.

It baffled me, it caused a lot of confusion and inner conflict.  It didn’t make sense to me at all.  How had this happened, why did it happen and what did it mean, were just a few of the questions I started asking myself.  I didn’t have answers for any of it. It was a fundamental moment for me.  It made me rethink who and what I was.

Since 2008, I have encountered similar situations that made me or others think that I wasn’t gay at all.  I’ve dated men who told me I wasn’t gay, some told me that I was bisexual, others told me I was straight and confused.  I’ve even had girls tell me they found it difficult to believe that I was gay.  But at the time I was so convinced that I was, that I just brushed off their words as them simply not knowing me well enough.  They didn’t know the thoughts I had since childhood.

Despite these momentary lapses of confidence in my orientation, I was still sure that I was only really into men.  That was until this girl made me put all those pieces together and I realized that I wasn’t entirely gay. In my article “Ubiquitous” I outlined that orientation is not always so black and white.  Human attraction is a fluid thing, not everyone is just gay or just straight.  In reality, I think most people are somewhere in between those two things, whether they ever act on it or not. What draws or attracts us to some people isn’t always what attracts us to others.  It changes with the individual we’re looking at.  Sometimes we have to find different people who attract us before we realize the differing aspects of what we find attractive.

It was a sobering truth and even now I don’t know what to call myself when faced with a situation where I have to pick an orientation. Recently I was asked and I simply said that I didn’t know and that I was following my heart wherever it led me. I’ve looked back across my past relationships, attempting to figure out where I was the happiest.  Hoping that in-so-doing I would figure out which gender I should be focusing most of my attention on and looking for a partner in. Truly, I don’t know.

Most of my relationships with males and females were fleeting.  None of them ever lasted more than three months from the point at which we met.  Granted many of them were detrimental relationships that crumbled due to their lies, their cheating, their addictions and a lack of their willingness to commit to a monogamous relationship. The one guy that was good, I lost interest in and no longer had a physical attraction or romantic feelings for, which led to an inevitable break-up.

The girls I dated were those who asked me out.  None of them I actually went out and pursued.  I will, however, say that a couple of those girls I held an interest in for years after our relationship ended.  It was just one of those things, where we were not compatible. There is this one girl that I have always had an interest in ever since we met in high school.  She’s so loving and gentle, she’s extremely beautiful, compassionate and caring, funny in a subtle, innocent and adorable kind of way.  She’s creative and artistic, expresses herself with her style rather than with words. She’s short, has stunning eyes and perfect porcelain skin.  She likes keeping her hair short and it just accentuates her beauty.  She could always make me smile or laugh with her dorkiness, even when I was having a bad day.  She made me feel safe and comfortable and I always enjoyed the days when I got to see her and spend time with her.  And not to mention we both like tattoos, cats and the same kind of music.

I don’t know if she and I could have ever been together romantically, but I know that if there had ever been a girl in my life that had everything I looked for, it would be her.  She is the standard by which I compare all girls that come into my life, she is literally the epitome of the perfect girl in my eyes. She and I can never be together, she’s married these days and I doubt she ever even knew I had feelings for her.  She seems happy and honestly that’s all anyone ever wants for someone they care about.

Why have I been so hell bent on finding a male partner when I am capable of having romantic feelings towards girls?  Why haven’t I been looking for a girl the same way I’ve been looking for a guy? Those are huge questions for me.  I have considered the potential answer to be that I spent so many earlier years holding those feelings in and feeling repressed that once I was liberated in 2008, I didn’t want to focus my attention on just girls anymore and they fell to the wayside of my focus.

But just because a guy is physically attractive and catches my attention doesn’t mean he’s actually going to keep my interest either.  I have a very specific type that gets my attention and is able to keep it. Sure, physical appearance makes me initially notice someone, but if he doesn’t have the right personality or collection of traits, then I will not be able to maintain interest in him.  Even if he looked like a model.  Without the right behavior, he’s just another guy on the street.

Something I’ve often found consistently true is that I’m much more likely to be interested in or fall for a straight or bisexual guy rather than a gay one.  Which as you might suspect has been rather problematic. I’ve often wondered why that is and I’ve attempted a few times to decipher an explanation.  It really boils down to appearance, personality, and behavior.

There is an undeniable physical and psychological difference between men who identify as strictly heterosexual and men who identify as strictly homosexual. The difference between the two is not just something I’ve noticed.  This is something most people, of all genders and all orientations have noticed. The real question for me is why I find one more attractive than the other when either could be equally attractive in terms of physical appearance?

More than likely it has to do with my past.  Childhood probably.  We come to understand who attracts us or what type of traits both physical and psychological we find most attractive when we are children.  We observe, socialize and come to know and understand people throughout our lives and these people help us come to understand who or what we find attractive later in life when we are able to act on those feelings.

These traits, physical and psychological, are also traits that we exude ourselves or traits that we would like to see in ourselves.  Eventually these traits become externalized within our perception.  By that I mean they become traits we project on to others and wish to find, naturally, in our romantic partners.

As a young kid, I idolized super heroes, I was obsessed with all kinds of characters from different cartoons, video games, movies, books.  I collected all kinds of action figures.  When my girl relatives would come to my house, they would bring their barbies or whatever type of dolls were in trending at the time, we would play house together. But I never wanted to play with their Ken dolls.  I never liked the way they looked.  I used my actions figures, so that when we’d play house, I’d be Conan, Tarzan, one of the guys from the Masters of the Universe series such as He-Man, a Marvel or DC Comic character, toy soldiers, ninjas or some other masculinized and testosterone driven action figure from some cartoon or video game.

I idolized these characters as a kid (as do many young boys).  I wanted to be like them.  As I grew older, I never really lost that idolization.  Most guys don’t, we still base our understanding of manhood on the same basic principles we learn as children. Because I was born with the ability to be attracted to other men, when I became a teenager my interest in males reflected my perception of self and of manhood in general. Now that I’m an adult, my interest has not changed.  I’m drawn to men who reflect my childhood and teenage perception of manhood.  Physical and psychological traits that I associate with masculinity.  They don’t have to be big and buff like Conan or have the skills of a ninja, but they still have to meet my perception of what a real man is in their appearance, the way they think, and how they behave.

Based on research into the cause of homosexual feelings in men, as I explained in my writing “Ubiquitous”, the theory about the hypothalamus suggests that varying degrees in testosterone during prenatal development causes varying degrees in male behavior later in life. These variations in the hypothalamus not only explain differing orientations, but also differing personalities in the men within those orientations.

Being subconsciously and now consciously aware of these differences, I fully understand why I’m more attracted to certain straight and bisexual men than I am to most gay men.  They reflect something that I was drawn to growing up, both outside of myself and within myself. Why am I trying to get into a relationship with a male that reflects my childhood ideology of manhood? For love?  Without a doubt I can and do develop feelings for men that I’m drawn to.  When I think about what I want from a relationship with a guy it really cuts away all the nonsense that people fluff up romance with.  Regardless of orientation, everyone has this idea of what life would, could, or should be like in a relationship, or especially marriage.

I don’t abide by the standards of other people, I walk my own path and live my own life.  As I said before, I follow my heart and my heart doesn’t feel like it’s been leading me down the path of what society stereotypically deems a relationship between two men to be. Mostly because society depicts that type of relationship to be exactly like that of a man and a woman.  Even with gay couples, there seems to be this need to fulfill that male and female dichotomy.

When I was a kid and played alone with my action figures, of course they had girlfriends.  Sometimes the girl would be the damsel in distress type who always got captured by the bad guys and I had to go and rescue her.  Sometimes she was the kickass heroine type who would fight alongside the guy.  Sometimes the guy and girl would be married and have a kid or two and live out the happy family fantasy.

Regardless of the initial dynamic, there was also always another male action figure involved.  A best friend, a side-kick, a loyal companion who would fight beside the other guy and even be willing to die for him. As I grew, this two-male dynamic became more prevalent in my action figure fantasies.  The girl action figure ended up staying at home or at the hero’s base of operations or hideout with the kids, while my main character and his male pal would go out and fight crime or go on adventures together, whatever my imagination created.

Eventually, the girl action figure no longer got played with unless she was the bad guys’ prisoner.  Even then she was no longer the girlfriend or the wife, just some random hapless victim that needed saving. Sometimes I would even make her the villain, the one that came between the two guys and tried to separate them by trying to seduce one of them.  For some reason I became fixated on the two guys being together against the odds they faced.

In cartoons, games and movies I experienced this same fixation.  I would focus on two male characters that appeared to be best friends and thus very close to each other.  I would become upset when one of them died or when they were forced apart for whatever reason, or would even become angry when a woman would come between them and cause conflict in their friendship. Perhaps this obsession was some form of prepubescent subconscious desire for deep and intrinsic male bonding?

Whatever the reason, it was the turning point for everything after.  As I went through grade school, the action figure scenarios were reflected in real life.  I sought that same male-to-male friendship where two guys were inseparable, and faced things together. By the time my teenage years came around, my interest in having a best male friend became more than us just being best pals.  I wanted to go beyond that.  Best friends was no longer enough.  I wanted to know all of him, emotionally and physically.  To swear absolute loyalty, to never let anyone come between us, to be unequivocally honest, and to finally cross over the forbidden boundary and be the source of each other’s physical release.

I was too scared back then to actually find or create a relationship with another guy that involved sexual experimentation, but years later I would eventually find a group of males that I became very emotionally close with.  It definitely helped me grow in the understanding of what I wanted from a male-to-male relationship and how to go about nurturing that type of close friendship.

Sometimes friendships are the best teachers in showing us how we should approach relationships and what kind of people we should be in those relationships with.  I’ve always sought after a guy who I could see as my best friend.  To this day, I haven’t found that guy in my relationships, only in my friendships with heterosexual men have I found that type of emotional connection, where trust, loyalty, honesty and love were present.  But without need for mention, they were not interested in becoming anything more than just friends.

A culmination of childhood and adulthood experiences led me to this point and even though I find myself with yet more questions, such as why do I see male-to-male relationships more important than male-to-female relationships, I have at least found some sense of resolve in the fact that I’ve yearned for male companionship since I was a kid and that it’s not just some phase or momentary fracture from who I’ve always been.  It is in fact who I’ve always been.

Even if I were to get into a relationship with a girl, I still would not lose my intense desire to form an unconditional bond with another male, inseparable and primary to any other relationship within my life.  No girl I’ve ever met wants to get into a relationship with a guy who considers his relationship with her secondary to his relationship with another male.  And I suppose for that reason alone, it is in my best interest to continue searching for a male worthy of my companionship.

Love between two guys is real.  My friendships with straight guys over the years has proven to me that two men can love each other just as much as a man and a woman.  One of the best places to find and understand the bond between males is within the military or some other similar profession.  These guys spend a lot of time together, face profound struggles and traumatic events together, and in-so-doing get to know nearly everything about each other.  In some cases they know each other better than their own spouses.

It’s been a long and arduous journey trying to find a guy who understands all these things the same way I do.  Who has traveled through his life with the same perspective shaped by the same experiences that I have and wants the same things that I do.  A guy who realizes that love between two guys is more than the superficial nonsense that society tries forcing on us such as the notion that we have to behave the same way a man and a woman act in a relationship, where at least one guy needs to be effeminate or where both guys somehow lose their manhood by becoming physically close.  Or in more modern times how gay men are assumed to act.

I’ve loved men before, we never held hands and skipped down the side walk.  We never did anything that people stereotype gay men to do.  In fact we weren’t in a “gay” relationship at all because he wasn’t gay and apparently neither was I.  And yet he loved me and I loved him and we both told each other as much.  My aspiration is to find the same kind of love with a guy who’s willing to commit to one another and not let anyone come between us.  The final complexity for me is in crossing that love over the forbidden boundary of physical contact through whatever ways both guys are comfortable with.

Conforming to what other people think or want you to be is no way to live your life.  Whether you’re an effeminate gay man, a masculine gay man, or you’re a straight man or a bisexual man, or if you’re not even a man at all, just be who you feel that you are and look for someone who just tries to be who they are and that has the same perspective on life and love that you do.

I want to spend a lot of time with the guy I’m involved with, be his best friend, the first person he’d confide in. I want us to play around, horse around, lounge around, go on adventures. Be loyal to him and defend him unquestionably. I want to be the most important person in his life. I say this outright because I don’t like wasting my time or other people’s feelings by talking to or getting involved with someone that I already know can’t meet me where I’m at in terms of my perspective.

At times I go years without going on a single date and I’m fine with that.  I avoid physical intimacy outside of commitment. Only once in my life have I done the one-night-stand thing, I learned that it’s not my style. I view such things as pointless and meaningless, fleeting primal desires that weaken one’s integrity and dignity.

My sexual orientation is unknown to me and I’m not concerned with being labeled anymore. Most of the girls and guys I’ve been involved with in my life couldn’t figure me out. I’m a mystery, even unto myself, but one I no longer concern myself with solving. I’m content to be as I am.

What I do know, without a shadow of a doubt, is that since childhood, my heart has compelled me to seek another male’s companionship and loyalty.  And I think I’ve established that not just anyone will do. I’m only interested in men who behave a certain way, but they can label themselves as gay, bisexual, pansexual, str8, truly straight, or FTM’s (female-to-male transgender), labels are irrelevant to me. I mention all of those orientations because I believe human orientation is ubiquitous.

However, any atypical femininity in a guy will not attract me. I mean no offense, I’m just merely being honest. I am not physically or sexually or emotionally attracted to men who display effeminate traits, mannerisms, or behavior. It immediately turns me off.  There are plenty of other guys out there who do like that sort of thing.

What does “dating” a guy even mean to me? I hesitate to use the word “dating” as it may not be the right word. My perception or perspective is a little archaic. Like 11th century archaic. When I notice a guy, I see his body structure first and the way he behaves, how he carries himself, his attitude and mannerisms. I look at his height and if he’s physically fit. If he passes that test, I look at facial features to see if I find him attractive.

My perception is archaic because I look at a guy to consider whether or not he would be good in a fight, if he’s healthy and strong enough to hold his own or defend others if need be. I prefer men of my own fitness level. I want to be impressed by his abilities, but not be outdone, I’m competitive like that. I’m kinda bizarre really. I choose my partners in life the way I would choose a partner in a video game. What is he good at, what skills does he lack, do our strengths and weaknesses compliment each other? Do we make a good match in standing against adversity? How badass is he, do I like the way he presents himself, what’s his attitude like, what are his interests? What kind of fighting style does he prefer, stealth, warrior, or mage?

That last question may not transition directly into real life, but you can learn a lot about a guy by the way he chooses to fight in a game or what type of characters he chooses to play as. In all seriousness, can I make his life better? Can he make my life better? These are important questions. Dating is such a trivial word, open to opinions and interpretations. After the experiences I’ve had at attempts to find romance with other men and women, I’ve realized that modern society’s concepts do not fit me.

To me, gay romance is overrated and probably unrealistic. For some, it may happen, but most of what I’ve observed for the past 12 years is that it usually ends in cheating, lies, open relationships with multiple sexual partners or bitter break ups. Even straight couples these days seem to meet this same endpoint. I’m not okay with any of those. I see dating more as a brotherhood, or a pact if you will, where two males become inseparably close, both emotionally and physically and transcend modern concepts and go beyond any traditional male friendship. I’d give a historical example, but I really don’t know one that didn’t involve the men also being married to women.

Most guys like me are not open about their deep interest in other males. Either they express their interest discreetly through one-night-stands or they repress it and spend their entire lives pretending like it doesn’t exist and just get married to a woman either because they’re lonely or because they finally find one they have an emotional connection with. And those that are open, or who pursue discreetly, only seem to just want to fool around in some type of friends with benefits agreement. That’s not what I want. But I’m also not looking for a gay romance.

Being with another male for me doesn’t mean holding hands and skipping down the sidewalk while kissing. It doesn’t mean having a glass of wine while we pet our lap dog in its cashmere sweater and pink bow as we discuss recent romance novels we’ve read, Lady Gaga’s latest album, or how much we’re just dying to go see some new musical. It doesn’t mean that we spend excessive amounts on clothing or look like we just finished a GQ photoshoot, go tanning, or carry make-up in our handbags just in case. It doesn’t mean we wear thong underwear, jockstraps, or dress like we just walked off a New York fashion runway. It doesn’t mean we discuss our latest sexual encounters with men we met on Grindr or Tinder, harass straight men about how we want to see their dicks and then cry homophobe when he gets offended, complain about how people judge us as we only moments later judge everyone we know, or scold those who support masculinity and not promote the feminization of men.

Why not? Because I don’t do any of those things and I wouldn’t want to be involved with someone who does. When it comes to holding hands with and kissing other men, these things are of no interest to me.  Why not?  Because they’ve not been generally effective on me.  What does that mean?  They turn me off, make me uncomfortable, like I want to crawl out of my own skin, they do not reinforce any sense of bonding or affection.  When guys want to do this stuff with me they transform into girls right before my eyes, and suddenly lose the thing that once attracted me to them.

I dated a guy once who whispered in my ear that he wanted to give me kisses and the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I wanted to vomit. It just gave me the creeps. Femininity in males repulses me.  When it comes to kissing girls and holding their hand I have a completely different physical and emotional response and actually like doing these things.

You won’t find me referring to any guy I’ve sworn my companionship to as “babe” or “baby” or “boo” or any other related pet name that heterosexual and stereotypically gay couples use, nor can I stand being called them by another guy, as it makes me feel incredibly awkward and emasculated. Those names are fine when a woman is involved, but when it’s two dudes, no thank you. You also won’t find me in gay bars, gay clubs or at drag shows. Not comfortable at those kinds of places or anywhere else gay men flock like pidgeons.  Again, not saying there’s anything wrong with that stuff or the people who like it, just saying that I personally have no interest in them.

So how does a man who doesn’t fulfill a gay steretype “date” another man? The only way he can, by becoming his best friend and allowing his genuine and down-to-Earth friendship-based love grow into something even stronger and deeper, without the fear of breaking physical barriers. If you remove the awkwardness that society forces on male-to-male relationships, you’ll be surprised at how deep, strong, meaningful and fulfilling they potentially can become. Two men do not have to act like a man and a woman or two women to be together.

Guys that are drawn to hands-on work are usually the type I’m interested in the most, mechanics, construction workers, redneck country guys, blue collar, but I also like social outcasts and rebels. I also appreciate a guy who is intelligent and can acknowledge he has emotions and can express them one way or another without fear.

With candid honesty, when it comes to physical intimacy, I’ve often not been sexually aroused by the men I’ve dated, or I simply just lost interest in them, because they turned out to not be as masculine as they initially led me to believe they were. I’ve been alive long enough, been out long enough, dated enough girls and guys, to know who I am and what I’m looking for. I’m not going to settle for the first person that winks at me, that’s how mistakes are made. I’ve made enough of those.

I’ve gone beyond looking for delusional momentary lust-based romance where it only involves getting naked every time we hang out. That’s not love and in the end it will mean nothing. If a guy is after that, he’s come to the wrong person. In the past I’ve gone several years without so much as touching another guy. I have no qualms with being sexually abstinent either, butt sex is such an awkward and complicated thing. There are better ways to find physical release.

I want something deeper, stronger and longer lasting. Let me explain what a real bromance is because it’s more than that “friends with benefits” stupid shit that too many gay/bi guys get duped into or have delusions about. Love only exists between two guys that are intensely loyal to each other, who make each other their number one priority, that confess their fears and dreams to each other, who protect each other, spend their free time together, who laugh together, endure sorrow together, who form a committed bond that cannot be undone by others or broken by time.

The best male relationships I’ve ever had were with straight guys, but I’m pursuing one that crosses over that physical boundary few of them would even consider crossing and pushes the relationship to that final step of physical connection. I also believe in marriage, not for religious reasons, but as an act and testament to commitment and loyalty.

One of the guys I’ve connected with the best in my lifetime on a personal level was, of all people, a self-described straight Christian Evangelist. He was the first man to ever tell me that he loved me. He was a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps, is now married to a woman and has kids. That might sound wildly unbelievable, but the reality is a lot of men yearn for emotionally close male friendship, and over the past twelve years I have ran into them time and time again.  But they are often afraid to pursue bonding of this type in fear of being labeled by society as having gay feelings.

In the end, what exactly do I want from another guy? To share life. Someone I can go hiking and camping with, lay on the couch and be lazy with, sleep til noon with, go out to eat with, go see movies with, go to the park with, someone to join me when I spend time with my family, go on trips with, laugh with, endure pain with, bond with in ways others only dream of.  A life-long male companion, my partner in crime, my final best friend, another man worth dying for.

Recovery: Hope is the Spark

My personal interest in behavioral health started two decades ago, through the things I began to experience at the age of 14.  I’m sharing this because that teenage version of me would have benefited from someone else defying stigma and having the courage to speak up and be open and honest about their own struggles with mental health.  I’m here to remind you that you are not alone.

Throughout my teen years and early twenties I went through the mental health gauntlet that many others experience.  Suffering in silence, convinced I was alone in my struggle, imprisoned by shame, fear, guilt, and worst of all a loss of hope.  My experiences include ongoing suicidal thoughts, an abandoned attempt at suicide, voluntary admission into a hospital, years of therapy and countless medications, and an eventual diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which is a mood disorder that generally involves alternating phases of major depression and mania.  I can’t say all of that is behind me and that everything is fantastic now because recovery is not a destination, it’s a life-long journey.

I have heard similar stories of struggle from many others over the years.  From teenagers to adults.  Each involving their own mental or emotional suffering, traumatic experiences, loneliness, obstacles and setbacks, and loss of hope.  Understanding and compassion, these two things make the world a little less dark, but if we want to practice these two things it takes a lot of courage to break the wall of silence that stigma builds. Even if we are able to break through the wall of silence, it takes at least a little bit of hope to begin the process of walking out of that darkness. And it takes support to rise above the pain caused by behavioral health conditions.

Sometimes our busy lives don’t allow us to see the suffering in others, or it doesn’t provide us with the opportunity to express our own suffering.  Just because someone appears to be on top of the world from the outside; highly successful, popular, attractive, all the things we attribute to “having it all,” doesn’t mean they’re not falling apart on the inside, or carrying a huge burden on their shoulders, or concealing a heart-wrenching emptiness within.

Not everyone shows their pain, some people hide it very well, and such people are often fearful or ashamed of how they feel due to stigma. Because of this shame they intentionally hide their suffering from others and it prevents them from seeking help.  The belief that emotional pain and mental suffering are signs of weakness is the very core of the stigma in behavioral health.  And it’s this stigma that kills.

Some people are so embarrassed and ashamed of how they feel that they’d rather end their own life than tell others how they feel.   Suicide does not discriminate.  Anyone can die by suicide.  No matter the gender, age, race, sexuality, financial status, employment status, perceived success, popularity, or happiness.  Suicide transcends all demographics.

By making the two core aspects of behavioral health (which are mental health conditions and substance use) a prominent subject in our conversations, we begin the process of reducing the stigma that leads many to suffer in silence.  It needs to be understood and accepted that it’s okay to ask someone if they are feeling depressed.  It’s okay to ask someone if they are considering self-harm, it’s okay to ask someone if they are thinking about or planning ways to complete suicide.  No one wants to die, people just don’t want to hurt anymore.  When they can’t see any other way out of that pain than through suicide, it’s typically because they see the pain and their life as one synonymous struggle.

When we experience mental health issues, we have to reach out and get help.  Is that easy to do?  It certainly doesn’t feel easy.  So what does it take?  Well, it takes self-awareness, it takes compassion, it takes education, it takes action, it takes time, it takes faith in something, and most of all it takes hope. Even the tiniest little bit can make a difference.  The hope that maybe, just maybe, tomorrow will be different and possibly even better than today.  Sometimes that hope can be born from the truth that change is the only constant.  Hope is the spark that sets us forth on the path of recovery.

Every recovery begins with perception.  The perception of pain, the perception of self, and the perception of life beyond the obstacles and setbacks we face throughout our lives.  By having this self-awareness of our thoughts and behavior, by activating this shift in our self-perception, we are able to focus our attention on personal wellness, the well-being of others, and our future.

Awareness, both of ourselves and of others is a key factor in living life beyond the issues we face.  Awareness involves observing our own behavior and paying attention to our thoughts and our feelings.  Perhaps the most important key to recovery is expressing how we feel through whatever medium you feel comfortable with.

Recovery at its core is about learning the best practices for maintaining wellness in a world and in a life that will continuously bring obstacles, setbacks, and even heartache.  It’s about having the tools, support, and resources to take on those challenges one step at a time and triumph over them.  Our recovery centers on establishing goals that are attainable, believing that change is possible, and finding the courage and inspiration we need to move forward.

It means acknowledging our behavioral health conditions, understanding them and understanding that we and they are not one in the same – that we are more than our conditions.  It means that we recognize the signs and symptoms of episodes or relapses, or the risk of those states of mind, and we put into practice the tools we’ve learned to overcome them.

It means that we understand and practice the steps we need to take to rise above our conditions and live a life that not only benefits us, but those around us who depend upon us.  Finally, recovery also means we accept that it doesn’t equate perfection – that there will still be struggles, but with the tools we have learned to utilize we can and will live a better life experience than the one we’ve known for far too long.

Focusing more on the things we can control and focusing less on the things that we cannot control can really save us a lot of unnecessary suffering.  Knowing ourselves, our abilities or talents, strengths, accomplishments, builds us up when we’re facing adversity because it tells us that we’ve been through hard times and difficult experiences before and still came out on top.

Another key factor in recovering from mental turmoil is patience.  Patience can mean the difference between success and failure.  Finding solace, establishing a network of support, getting to a point of stability through medications or therapy, all of these things take time.  We all wish that we could wake up tomorrow and everything would be good or at least fine, but neither life nor mental health unfold like that.  It’s a process and that process takes time, energy, and commitment.

Mental health and physical health are inseparable parts of living well in recovery, as maintaining physical wellness helps to carry us through our struggle with a mental health condition.  When we become sick or experience a physical injury, we don’t think twice about going to a doctor to seek help, but when facing mental health issues we seem to hesitate or even outright avoid seeking help.  It’s stigma that causes this apprehension to seek help, but it doesn’t make any sense to allow ourselves to be controlled by it.

Aside from speaking to our doctor about our mental health, we should also seek support from those we would otherwise consider ourselves to be close to.  This does require a willingness to open up and spend time discussing things that feel immensely personal and this may create a sense of vulnerability, but what many see as an exposure of weakness is really just a statement of strength.  Exposing our pain to others gives them a path to emotional connection and if they too are suffering, then sharing our pain can literally be the threshold for initiating someone else’s healing process.

When 19-year-old me found out that other people were hurting too and that I wasn’t alone in how I felt, it changed everything for me.  Every person that I’ve ever met and communicated with, due to this process of sharing, provided opportunities for understanding and compassion.  These things make a world of difference.

Every small gesture and every endearing question can open that door of understanding and compassion.  These things make life after a mental health crisis or prolonged emotional suffering, a surmountable possibility.  Hope is born from acts of kindness and concern, and through hope we bear witness to a better life.