Freckles: Chapter Eighteen

Evan announced that he was done eating by burping loudly in my direction and giving me a half-ass grin, as if to gloat about eating more than me.  For being so skinny the kid put down more slices than I could comfortably consume.  I admitted defeat in our unsolicited eating competition by pushing my plate away from me.  Victory was all his.

He got up and scurried about putting the remaining two slices of the large pizza into a gallon ziploc bag and placed it into the refrigerator.  The empty plates he rinsed off and put into the dishwasher and then he sat down next to me and reached for the remainder of his beer.

He sat there for a moment, both of us draped in silence.  He spun his bottle slowly, staring intently at the label, as if to decipher some sort of hidden message in its text.  In reality though, he wasn’t really seeing anything in front of him, he was only focused on everything inside of him.

I watched his face for the slightest of expressions, hoping to read something about what he was pondering.  Evan had freckles too, just like his brother, but they were smaller and more spaced out, fewer in number.  His hair was brown, on the darker side, his lips were thin and faded.  Little bits of hair grew on his chin, too sparse to actually be considered a goatee, but it was evident that he was hoping to grow one.

I wasn’t sure exactly how old he was, I couldn’t recall if Damien had ever told me.  I knew that he had recently graduated from high school, and that he was very free-spirited, but beyond that – the young man beside me was still very much an enigma.

Unlike Damien’s aqua colored eyes, Evan’s eyes were dark and deep, so dark brown they almost appeared black in the dimly lit kitchen we were sitting in.  I watched them as he studied the label on his beer, still lost in thought but trying to pretend like he was reading something fascinating on the label.  His hair was finally beginning to dry from the warmth put out by the oven as it began to slowly cool down.

His dark brown hair had begun to fall more naturally down to the front of his face.  His hair was longer than Damien’s, and actually was styled a lot like mine.  I smiled, remembering how Damien would brush his hand through my hair when he didn’t like the way it had settled.

I reached out with my hand and brushed Evan’s hair down toward his face, and as he looked up over at me, I asked, “What are you thinking about?”

He slid the bottle away from himself and released a loud sigh and ended it with… “Dad.”

“I see.”  I said, not knowing what else to ask or say.

“You know,” Evan started, “he promised me that one day we’d share my first beer like he did with Damien?”

“I’m sorry man.”  I responded, again not knowing what else to say.

“Fuck dude, he promised a lot of shit that never happened.”  Evan added.

“How old were you when he left?”  I asked, already knowing the answer.

“I was five when he left… without a reason and without a goodbye.  I never really got over it.”  He admitted.

“Damien never did either.”  I reassured him.

“What do you mean?”  Evan asked.

“During our camping trip, Damien brought up your dad and told me about how he just up and left all of you, he’s been carrying around a lot of anger about it.”  I told him.

“I used to be angry too, but these days I’m more disappointed than anything, maybe it’s because I didn’t spend as many years with him as Damien did.” Evan confessed.

Evan went back to tinkering with the beer bottle, which was now nearly empty.  He slid his finger tips along its side, picking at the edges of the label, trying to free it from the glass.  His hands were not as thick and muscular as Damien’s, they were thinner, longer, more nimble, much like the rest of him.  Aside from ego, there wasn’t much that was apparently similar between the two of them.

Again, I reached out to Evan with my hand and placed it over his own hands as he fidgeted with the bottle, bringing him back to the present moment.  He stopped and looked up at me as I felt the coldness of his hands in mine.  His iris’ were as dark as the night outside, large and deep, absorbing any light that dare go near them.  Unlike Damien’s that reflected all the light, Evan’s eyes swallowed it into their eerie depths refusing to let it go.  Hiding it down somewhere hidden, somewhere secret.

“You know, my mom used to say that you could learn a lot about a person by looking into their eyes.”  I told Evan as I removed my hand from his.

“Oh yeah?”  He inquired, “What do mine say?”

Evan swiveled on his bar stool towards me and leaned in close to my face, no more than two feet away.  From that closeness I could smell the soap he had used to shower with and the scent from his shampoo wafted into my face, he smelled of every teenage male I had ever encountered, a strongly scented mixture of woods and spice, with subtle hints of fruit.  Below his eyes his skin was lightly bruised, signs of a lack of sleep.  On his cheeks and across his nose the sparsely scattered and tiny freckles were more noticeable at this closer distance.

Above his eyes his brow was cleanly kept and superbly shaped, in fact I’m certain he must have gone somewhere to get his eyebrows waxed they were so well done.  Their arches perfectly set above his eyes, framing them like windows.  And into those windows I could see and feel their depth and the lack of light.  In them were a coldness, an aloneness, old pain and a new fear.

“If I asked you a question, would you be honest with me?”  I posed.

“Of course.”  He responded.

“Earlier, when I reached out and touched your hands, you trembled and I saw scars on your wrist.”  I said, pointing to his right wrist.

Evan pulled away from me and sat back on his bar stool.  He brought his arms closer to himself, as if to hide them from me.  I reached with both of my hands and touched his arms and kept them there for a second.  I could feel his whole body tremble again from the physical contact.

“Can I see them?”  I asked sincerely.

The tension in his arms released and he allowed me to lift them up so that I could turn them over.  On both wrists were scars a couple inches long, extending away from his hands.  Above his wrists on his forearms were smaller scars, each maybe half an inch at the most.  His left forearm had many more than his right, suggesting he was right handed.  I let go of his right arm, but kept his left arm in my right hand as I touched his scars with my left hand.  Though some of the scars were new, many of them were old.  He clearly had been cutting himself long before Damien fell into a coma.

“This is none of my business, but I want you to know that I have battled with depression and was even suicidal when I was your age.  I want you to know that if you’re willing to talk about how you’ve been feeling, I would be honored to listen.”  I said encouragingly.

Evan turned in his bar stool and slid his fingers into his hair, slumped over the bar and held his head in his hands.  He didn’t say anything for the longest time.  Damien had never mentioned anything to me about this, I wondered if he had known.  Did their mom know?  How couldn’t she have known?  Although, I only ever saw Evan wear long sleeve shirts at the hospital.  Maybe she really didn’t know?  Did anyone know?  If no one knew, why would he allow himself to be shirtless around me?

“After dad left when I was five, and Pa-pa died when I was sixteen, Damien was the closest thing I had to a male figure in my life.  He hadn’t transitioned until I was twelve, but he was always more like me than Claire.  He was always interested in doing boy stuff with me and never cared about girly things.  When he moved out for college I really didn’t feel like I had anyone to talk to about things.”  Evan confided in me.

He continued, “After Pa-pa died I had a really hard time coping with that loss, he was basically the only father I knew.  That’s when I started going to a lot of parties, I became really open to new experiences, and started using different substances.  Mostly to try to keep my mind off things.”

“Have you spoken with Damien about all of this, did he know?”  I asked.

“Honestly, no we haven’t really sat down and had conversations like this, not for a really long time.  Even before Pa-pa died, Damien kind of drifted away, he was spending a lot of time with that bitch, Megan, not sure if you know about her.”  Even responded.

I cringed at the mention of her name, Evan must have noticed as he smirked a little at my facial expression.

“Yeah, she pretty much took up all of his time, she would get mad when he would come out to the farm to see us.  She hated it out there.”  He added.

“She’s certainly not my favorite person, from what I’ve learned about her.”  I stated in agreement.

I continued, “I knew you smoked weed, but wasn’t aware that you tried other things?”

“Oh yeah, I’ve tried acid, molly, shrooms, pretty much any type of psychoactive or psychedelic drug you can name, I’ve probably tried it.”  He confessed.

“Did you know that Damien battled a drug addiction?”  I inquired.

“Yes, I was aware of it, I know that he was seeing a counselor for it.”  Answered Evan

“In some sense the two of you were trying to cope with things in your lives through similar methods.  His seems to have gone a little worse than yours as he was hooked on narcotics, but the two of you seem to have more in common the more I talk to you.”  I suggested.

Evan turned and leaned on the table again, resting his face in one hand, pondering what I had just told him.  He then looked over at me and asked, “Did he ever say if he had cut himself?”

“Um, he never mentioned it to me if he did, but I know that he went through a lot of psychological pain due to his gender dysphoria.  I can’t say I know what that feels like, but I certainly know how it feels to be different than most other people, to feel as though you don’t fit in, to feel like an outcast.”  I admitted.

“Do you think I’m a loser, a deadbeat, or lazy bum because of my lifestyle choices?”  Evan asked.

“No, I don’t think that about you, I find you incredibly interesting.”  I reassured him.

He laughed, “Is that code for weirdo?”

We both laughed at his interpretation and then I responded, “No, not at all, I think there are different kinds of people in this world and different people make different choices.  Some people are interested in being disciplined and having a structured, orderly lifestyle, while others are more chaotic and free-spirited.  I think you are certainly the latter.”

He smiled with a huge grin, “You know even though I have guy friends, none of them have ever really tried to talk to me about this stuff.  I know some of them have seen my scars before, but they just don’t ask about it.”

“Sometimes people don’t know how to ask, especially if they have never experienced something like it for themselves.  I’m sure some of them wanted to say something, but they just couldn’t find the words.”  I told him.

“I guess I can understand that, I’ve never been very good at expressing my emotions, not verbally anyway.  How do you feel about turning in for the night?”  He asked yawning.

“Yeah that sounds like a good idea.”  I agreed.

Evan got up from the stool and stretched, throwing his arms out wide and standing up on the toes of his feet, he staggered to the doorway into the living room, motioning for me to follow.  As he passed through the doorway he flipped a couple switches and the lights behind us turned off as the lights to a staircase ahead of us turned on.

He turned and said, “Currently our spare bedroom has been turned into a storage space, so the two options for sleeping are the couch in the living room or my bed.”

“Oh I could never kick you out of your own bed, I will take the couch.”  I stated, gesturing towards the living room.

“Hahaha,” Evan laughed, “I didn’t say anything about me sleeping on the couch.”

“Haha, oh you were joking, sorry it’s late I didn’t get that very quickly there.”  I conceded.

“Nah, it wasn’t a joke dude.”  Evan countered.

“Wait, what?”  I responded thoroughly confused.

“I’m trying to say that if you want to sleep in my room you can, honestly I wouldn’t mind the company.  It would be nice to not feel alone for once.”  Evan confessed.

“Oh, um, okay I guess that would alright.”  I said hesitantly, still not completely sure what he meant.  I honestly couldn’t tell if this was that child-like behavior of his or if this was him suggesting something kind of sketchy.  As we headed upstairs to his room, I kept telling myself that nothing sexual could happen, I tried to convince myself that’s not at all what this is, I’m in love with his brother, he knows I am, I mean Evan’s attractive, but I’m not about that, for fuck’s sake Damien is in a coma in the hospital, but Evan is a 19 year old young man – why else would he want another man to sleep in bed with him?

Upon arriving in his room I was immediately disappointed to see that he did not have bunk beds, but relieved to see the one bed he did have was at least big enough we both could lay in it and never come into physical contact.  The next thing I noticed was how messy his room was.  Magazines, clothes, and other random objects were thrown about the room, but I was immensely grateful his room didn’t stink – it actually smelled of lavender and vanilla.  On all of his walls were posters of cliche hippie culture, peace symbols, pot leafs, and a very large poster of a Rastafarian lion with dreadlocks in his mane with beads on the ends colored in red, yellow, and green, it had on large aviator sunglasses and a blunt sticking out of its mouth.

I immediately remembered that Damien said Evan had a similar tattoo on his butt, and I blushed when I realized I was looking at his butt as I thought about it.  I shook my head, the voice in my mind kept telling me that I should not be in here, I’m going to have to sleep downstairs, I can’t be in that tie-dye bed with him, this is too weird.  I looked up across the room and saw a poster that read, “Go With The Flow,” I read another one, “All We Need Is Love,” and third one that said, “Why Be Rude When You Could Be Nude.”

I panicked, what if he sleeps in the nude!?!?  I looked over towards the door and wondered if I should make my move.  I was startled by Evan’s voice saying, “Here you might want to use this tonight.”

Terrified it might be a condom or a sex toy, I looked back to see what Evan was trying to hand me.  With fear on my face I turned, but I was relieved to see a toothbrush.

“Nothing better than having fresh breath.”  He noted.

Wait, why?  I pondered.  Was it because he wanted to make out with me?  My head was flooded with images of him trying to kiss me on the lips and give me tongue.  I could feel myself starting to sweat from nervousness, I quickly asked where the bathroom was, he pointed across the room – he had his own personal bathroom.

I made haste and closed the door behind me.  I started to feel sick as I convinced myself he wanted to do dirty things with me.  I turned on the faucet and splashed water on my face to calm myself down.  I took a few deep breaths and talked myself down from my ridiculous thoughts.  I turned to the toilet to take a piss.  Just as I started there was a knock at the door and I jumped, nearly splashing piss on the floor.

“Dude, if you take a shower – and honestly you probably should, you might want some fresh clothes to put on.  This stuff should fit you.  I will leave it right by the door.”  Evan announced.

“Thanks!”  I managed to get out while awkwardly urinating.

I washed my hands and brushed my teeth, grabbed the clothes from outside the door, closed it and locked it, and jumped in the shower.  Evan was right, I needed to shower as I was starting to smell a bit unpleasant.  I could hear a noise outside the bathroom as Evan continued to clean up his room.  I kept telling myself that I had been irrational and that all of this was just him feeling lonely and afraid about Damien’s health.  Since I was involved with his brother, he probably just felt like being close to me would be like being close to Damien.

I climbed out of the shower, grabbed a towel from the cabinet shelf and dried myself off.  As I sorted through the clothes I realized there was a pair of underwear.

“Yo, who’s underwear is this?”  I shouted to Evan.

“Mine!”  He shouted back.

Oh hell no, I can’t wear his underwear, I thought, that’s so weird.  “Why?!?!”  I shouted, wondering why he was giving me his underwear to put on.

“Well, unless you want to put on your dirty ass undies or go commando, I figured you’d need them!”  He reasonably shouted back.

Damn it, he was right.  I quickly slid his underwear on, trying not to imagine his junk rubbing all around in them as they snugly fit against my body.  This was going to be a long night, I told myself, as I slid his basketball shorts on over the underwear.  I slid the shirt on and noticed the sleeves had been cut off.  I took my clothes and wadded them up as I walked out of the bathroom.

“Here, you can put your clothes in this.”  Evan said as he handed me a plastic grocery bag.  “Do you like the shirt and shorts?”  He asked.

“Yeah, I guess, why?”  I answered, scared to ask for further details.

“They belonged to Damien.”  He replied.

My heart sank, but I was emotionally touched by the gesture.  I reached up with my hand and touched the shirt, immediately feeling closer to Damien.

Evan noticed, and smiled at me, “Yeah dude, he left some of his old clothes with us when he moved out and I couldn’t really bring myself to throw all of it away, so I kept some.  Glad it fits you.”

“Thanks man.”  I told Evan, returning the smile.  I tied the bag closed and tossed it to one side of the room.

“Alright, ready for bed?”  Evan asked.

“Yeah man, sure thing.”  I answered hesitantly.

“Well, hope you don’t mind, but I prefer to sleep on the side closest to the door.”  Evan instructed.

“Okay, no problem.”  I conceded and climbed into the bed first.  I slid to one side and faced the other end of the room, facing away from Evan.  The lights went out and I could feel Evan climbing into bed.  I closed my eyes and hoped I wouldn’t feel him touch me.

Several minutes passed and nothing happened.  I waited a while and checked my phone, it had been over thirty-minutes and other than tossing and turning, nothing happened.  I concluded that I had overthought the whole thing and freaked myself out over nothing.  I closed my eyes and allowed myself to fall asleep.

I awoke to an intense feeling of warmth on my back and the slow cycle of warm air on the back of my neck.  Once my bearings were collected on what was going on, I realized that Evan had scooted over to my side of the bed and was nearly on top of me as I laid stomach down on my side of the bed.  His right leg was in between mine, his right arm thrown over top of me and resting at my side.

At this realization I froze in uncertainty, not knowing what to do.  He was clearly asleep and I had no idea for how long we had been in bed like this.  I reached for my phone and turned the screen on, it read 4:20 AM.  We had been asleep for only a couple hours.  I put the phone back down and considered if I should push him off me or slide out of bed and maybe go sleep on the couch.

As I laid there, the warmth of Evan’s body made me not want to get out of bed and into the cold.  While I could do without his breath hitting me in the back of the neck, it was tolerable.  I decided not to disturb him and tried to focus on the fact that he was lonely, afraid, and that he had been through a lot of emotional suffering.  Cuddling with him was harmless.  The warmth emanating from him and the slow steady breaths he was taking, coaxed me back into my sleep and I drifted off again.

I awoke again sometime later, though I didn’t reach for my phone to check the time.  The loss of warmth became apparent to me and I realized that Evan wasn’t there.  I rolled over to see where he had moved to and realized he was sitting up in bed.  I sat up next to him and reached out to touch him on the shoulder.

“Hey, you okay?”  I asked with the utmost sincerity.

“I don’t know.”  he responded in a strange tone.

“What do you mean you don’t know?”  I said, pressuring him to explain.

When he didn’t respond, I reached for my phone to light the room a little so that I could see him better.  As I directed the phone’s light at him, I noticed that he had something in his hands.  I wiped at my eyes so that I could focus more clearly and then I realized what I was looking at.  He was sitting up in bed with a pair of box cutters, the tool with razor blades typically used for cutting up cardboard boxes.  I then realized that he had made a couple small cuts on his arm.

“Evan, stop!” I proclaimed and reached for the box cutter.

“I can’t.”  He said tearfully.

“What do you mean you can’t?”  I asked, as I pulled them from his hands.

“It’s the only way I can get it out of me.”  He cried.

“Get what out of you?”  I asked earnestly.

“The hurt.”  He muttered as he wiped the tears from his face.

“Oh god, Evan…” I said trying to figure out what to do next, “Let’s do something about your arm first, and then I need you to talk to me about what you are feeling.”

He crawled over to his night stand and opened a drawer and pulled out a first aid kit.  He opened it up and took out some sort of cream and two bandages.

“Let me see them.”  I demanded, wanting to see how deep they were.  I continued, “Here, let me take care of it.”  I took his arm in my hand and held it to my phone’s light.  The cuts didn’t look deep, but there was blood so I pulled gauze from the kit and dabbed at them.  He began to cry again.

“You hate me, don’t you?”  He asked, barely getting the words out.

“No, I absolutely don’t hate you, the exact opposite of that.  But I am concerned, I’m upset that you are hurting and you feel alone in your pain.  I am right here Evan, and I am not going anywhere.”  I said, ensuring that I would not abandon him.

He began to cry more heavily as I continued to care for his arm, “I need to flush these with something to make sure they don’t get infected.”

He handed me a small bottle of rubbing alcohol, and when I looked at him for reassurance that this is what he wanted to use, I proceeded to douse it on his cuts.  He flinched and gritted his teeth, making a hissing sound as he drew breath in at the sudden burn.  I dabbed at them a little more and applied bandages.

I put the kit back together and handed it to him to put away into his night stand.  I moved around in the bed so that I was facing him directly and slid myself closer to him, our legs interlocking so he had no choice but to face me directly.

“Promise me you won’t do that again tonight?”  I begged, despite knowing that promises don’t equate much from someone who is facing a mental health crisis.

He sat there in the dimly lit room, his face shifted downward at the bed space between our bodies.  I reached up with my right hand and lifted his chin up slowly so that our eyes could meet.  His were soaked in tears and shame, and as I wiped them away from his face he sniffled and tried to clear his throat.

“Okay.”  Was all he could get out.

I gently pushed him back towards his pillow and he readjusted himself under the covers and turned to his side facing his end of the bed.  I turned and hid the box cutters and dropped the gauze to the floor on my side of the bed.  I then got back under the covers and slid all the way over to his side.  I pressed myself up against him and put my arm over top of him and rested my hand on the bed at the other side.

Leaning in, I asked, “Is this better or worse for you?”

“Better.”  He responded.

I laid my head on the pillow right behind him, lightheartedly apologizing if my breathing on him was annoying, but he didn’t say a thing in response so I assumed it wasn’t an issue for him.  I reached up with my left hand and brushed his hair up and away from his eyes.  I brought it down closer to his chest, as I did so I brushed past his right arm.  I felt along the underside and could feel all of the little scars from past cuts.  Though they were not as numerous as the scars on his now bandaged left arm, I contemplated how each of those experiences probably played out.

Him probably in his bedroom, feeling absolutely alone – even if he wasn’t the only person home.  Feeling like he didn’t belong, feeling as though he deserved it because he was an outcast, different, feeling as though no one truly cared about him.  Not everyone cuts for the same reason, but I suspected he did so because it was the only way he knew how to let out the pain he was feeling.

I pulled him in closer to me and I could feel the heat between us increasing.  I touched his hands to see if they were still as cold as they were down in the kitchen earlier that night, but this time they were warm, something I deemed a positive.  As I lifted my hand away to return to the mattress, he retrieved it and took it in his, interlocking our fingers.

I smiled and wanted to laugh out loud as I thought about how incredibly gay this would look to someone who walked in on us at that moment.  But I held my laughter in because the last thing he needed right now was another reason to feel self-conscious or like a freak.  He was certainly way more emotional and sensitive than his brother, but for some people that’s the type of personality they look for and definitely not something he should feel ashamed of.  As I drifted off into sleep, I wondered what Damien would say about it.


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Liberation and a Return to the Sacred

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” ~Gary Snyder

bodhisattvapanforest

Liberation and a Return to the Sacred

Buddhism has a long history with the forest.  Siddhartha Gautama fled the comforts of the Shakya Kingdom and immersed himself with the lands beyond to better understand the human condition.  In the years that followed he reached enlightenment beneath a sacred fig tree, known as the Bodhi Tree in the Indian town of Bodh Gaya, and frequently gave Dharma talks in and around forested areas such as the famous deer park in Sarnath.

Even today, there are some traditions within the schools of Buddhism that remain committed to continuing the practice of living in and around forests.  A prime example is the Thai Forest Tradition, also known as the Kammaṭṭhāna Forest Tradition.

These traditions reject the modern amenities that we frequently take for granted, believing that they are distractions that prevent practitioners from reaching Nirvana.

More than two millennia ago, Siddhartha outlined his Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path.  In Mahayana Buddhism we teach people to look at the things they are troubled by and to not fight or flee from them.

When you’re angry, acknowledge your anger, do not ignore it by pushing it down inside of you or make it grow by feeding into it.  Instead, just look at it.  Observe it.  Give the ego the attention it demands without empowering it.

With this method you will find the cause of your anger.  Not the superficial cause, but the true cause, and from that understanding you will learn how to tend to your anger and eventually transcend it the next time it arises, without getting stuck in it.

The Four Noble Truths teach us that the ego or the self is a false entity, a projection of ourselves that is not real, a hologram of desires.  Anger is one of the many facets or aspects of this ego or false self.  Others include pride, lust, shame, greed, among many others.

Saying the self is a false entity does not mean that we don’t exist or that we are not real, it just means that we are not separate from the whole.  We are not islands in an empty ocean, not even separate islands within an archipelago.  Mahayana scripture teaches us that just like islands we are all connected beneath the surface, you just have to be brave enough to dive down deep to see those connections.

What is true for human beings is true for all other living things.  If you look hard enough, you will see that all life is connected, and that no one is a separate self.  The trees, nature, we are all part of the whole.

Studying and practicing Mahayana Buddhism aided me in my search for self.  It taught me that the self I was searching for didn’t exist, it was a false vestige of desire and fear, and many other things.  The true self is the collective self, the whole.  The connection is the self.

Sometimes in order to understand what we are facing, we must remove ourselves from our comfort zone or familiar environment to truly focus on our current condition.  Just as the Buddhist monks have done for centuries by joining a sangha or community removed from the general populace.

This is not running away from or escaping from our problems, rather this change in environment can lead to a change in perspective.  Allowing us to see our issues and ourselves differently and more clearly.  Nature is perhaps the greatest sangha to become a part of.

Research on the therapeutic qualities of nature go back decades.  The environment in which we immerse ourselves plays a huge role in how we feel, both physically and mentally.  Just as a chemically toxic environment is dangerous for the body, an emotionally toxic environment is bad for the mind.

Once you understand that we and nature are a part of the same whole, it only makes sense that being in nature provides a deep connection to the self.  The trees, the birds, the smells, the sounds, they are all one interconnected system and we humans are a part of that.

Being removed from this system depletes our energy and our stability, not to mention there are vast amounts of pollution in urban environments.  Unfortunately today, the rural environments are also becoming increasingly polluted with pesticides and other contaminants.

The sanctuary of nature is at risk of becoming a hazard to our health.  Without woodlands we lose touch with ourselves, we become unwell and have difficulty controlling our emotions.  We get caught up in the world we have created, becoming lost to its many distractions and impurities.

Nature is a place that teaches us many lessons, from survival to death, from patience to tenacity.  The very ecology of forests impacts our minds and bodies, from the microorganisms in the soil to the trees that provide oxygen.  Humans evolved to live in the wild, yet we are often so very far removed from it.

Liberation from the ego means letting go of the self and reconnecting to the whole.  This connection cannot be felt more deeply than in nature.  We must return to the sacred.  To learn more about the effects of nature on the human body and mind, check out the included links below.

Links of Interest:

US National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health Publications:

The Perfect Life

Photo credit: Janelle Chapman

The Perfect Life: An Unexpected Loss

In order to protect the identity of his family, I will only refer to the young man in this article as “A.J.”

A.J. was in his senior year of high school, where he was active in sports, playing soccer and lacrosse.  He loved being outdoors, deer and duck hunting, boating and fishing, but especially skiing.  He was always tinkering on his jeep and loved listening to music.  He was a proud member of a yacht club and loved to go sailing in Maine.

His greatest enjoyment was being with his family and friends.  He loved being on the water especially on the family boat and always looked forward to the yearly trip to the East Coast.

He was active across social media, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, sharing posts, photos, and videos of his active and extraordinary life with his hundreds to thousands of family, friends, and followers.

On November 30, 2018, this 18 year old young man, so active and full of life with exceptional athletic ability, enthusiasm, a beautiful girlfriend, loving family and friends, and a promising future, died by suicide.

Why he felt as though suicide was the best option for whatever he was secretly going through, we may never know.  No one seems to have the answer to why he made this choice.

It’s possible someone did, that he mentioned or let slip something to someone at some point, but if so it wasn’t taken seriously.  Sometimes our busy lives don’t allow us to see the suffering in others, or it doesn’t provide us the opportunity to express our own suffering.

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.

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,” does not mean they’re not falling apart in their mind, carrying a huge burden on their shoulders, or concealing a heart-wrenching emptiness inside of them.

Not everyone shows their pain, and such people are often ashamed of how they feel and because of this shame they intentionally hide it from others.  This choice to keep it a secret prevents them from seeking help.  The belief that emotional pain and mental suffering are signs of weakness is the stigma of 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 life (their pain), than tell others how they feel.

By making the two core aspects of behavioral health a common subject in our conversations, in other words mental illness and substance use, we begin the process of reducing the taboo aura that perpetuates stigma.

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, and they can’t see a way out of that pain because they see the pain and their life as one synonymous struggle.

People must make the choice to keep getting up when they stumble and fall.  We have to make the choice to smile again and keep moving on when someone breaks our hearts.  We have to keep choosing to live when those we love have passed away.  When we experience mental health issues, we have to reach out and get help.

Is that easy to do?  No, absolutely not.  It takes several things to get there, from therapy to medication, and physical health by maintaining an active lifestyle.  Our bodies and minds are connected, an ailment in one can affect the other.

What must come first is 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.  If anything is true at all, it’s that the circumstances of our lives are not constant, provided we take the time to lift our heads and look around us to see how things can be better.

Does having a little hope make everything wonderful and allow you to see butterflies and flowers every waking moment?  No, absolutely not.  The point of behavioral health isn’t to take away every negative aspect of life and make it a fantasy-land.

Behavioral health is about learning the best practices for maintaining wellness in a world and in an existence that will bring obstacles, setbacks, and heartache into life.  It’s about having the tools, support, and resources to take on those challenges one step at a time and triumph over them.



If you or someone you know needs help:

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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.


National Helpline

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.


Disaster Helpline

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.


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Crisis Text Line
(text the word HOME 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.


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


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Love Me Not

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Love Me Not:
A Conversation About Mental Health & Relationships

If you’ve read my previous work, you know that I’m often very personal and brutally honest about my experiences and my mistakes.  This essay will be no different.

I want to share with you some experiences I’ve had over the last couple decades and I want to be open and revealing about how mental illness can drastically impact our ability to create and sustain romantic and other types of intimate relationships and friendships.

It’s been a long time since I last wrote about the status of my romantic life or the relationships that I have been in.  I quit writing about it for a couple of reasons.  One being that I didn’t want to share information about that aspect of my life anymore and because there honestly wasn’t anything to write about.

The last time I had feelings for someone whom I was dating, was in December of 2013. The last time I attempted to have sex was in 2014.  I intended to make that statement exactly as I wrote it… “I attempted.”

The status of your mental health, or really your behavioral health as a whole, greatly impacts your romantic and intimate life.  The word romantic is used here in the sense of your love life, the feelings that you express for another person or receive from another person, and intimate life refers to the sexual aspects of expressing that love, or lust in certain cases.

Having a mental illness or as I prefer to say, a mental health condition, such as depression, bi-polar disorder, among others, can have a profound effect on how you approach and experience these types of relationships and even friendships.  Often times in a very negative way.

Such is the case for me.  Experiencing bi-polar disorder and having depression since at least my mid-teens has made love, lust, and even friendship an extremely complicated and quite often heartbreaking experience that has led me to my adult life of chosen-isolation from romance, deliberate avoidance of sexual encounters, and apprehension to appear in social environments.

People are complicated enough on their own.  Having a mental health condition and interacting with other people makes that process doubly complicated, and often times less rewarding.  Mix into that a willingness to explore emotional and sexual intimacy with others of the same gender and suddenly you have a maelstrom of complications.

For those unfamiliar with my past romantic experiences and bizarre friendships, I will revisit those before continuing with the direct subject of mental health and its effects on relationships.  As I go through this, you may find yourself making observations that mental health was clearly impacting these human-to-human relationships without me needing to directly point it out.

When I was in kindergarten, I wrestled with another boy for a photo of a girl that I thought was cute.  She hadn’t given me one of her school photos and I was very jealous of his newly acquired item.  So when I saw him on the bus and he just sat there looking at her photo, I decided to act and jumped into the seat with him and grabbed at the photo.

A tug-of-war ensued as both of us fought for this girl’s photo.  I had the element of surprise on my side though.

Looking back I really don’t remember why I wanted that photo so bad or how much I really liked that girl.  I have no memories of her and I interacting in kindergarten, only that I thought she was cute, but in that moment on the bus I was willing to fight to have that picture.  I did prevail in that battle, as I had a good grip on most of the photo.  It did end up tearing, but the only piece I lost to the other boy was an upper corner that included one of her purple hair-clips.  An acceptable sacrifice.

I remember the other boy’s disgust with me for my theft, he was red in the face and threw that corner piece with her hair-clip on the floor of the bus and sat in his seat pouting.  I considered retrieving that corner piece, but decided it unnecessary.  I never interacted with that boy before that fight and I’m not sure if I even knew his name at the time.

The girl who was in the photo was sitting in the next seat over, observing all of this unfold.  I remember her telling me to let him have the photo because she hadn’t given it to me, but I was selfish and only cared about what I wanted.  So I kept it, held on to it for years as though her photo was a trophy.  What I didn’t realize back then, was that a photo was not worth losing the chance at a friendship with the boy I fought with, or with the girl in the photo who consequently had no desire to talk to me for the rest of the school year.

Elementary school saw my bad behavior continue and my report cards often reflected this in my grades.  Often picking on boys younger, physically weaker than me, or out of shape (chubby).  My bad behavior included name-calling, pushing, throwing things, tripping, punching, kicking.  Sometimes my aggression was even directed at girls and I did not treat them more gently than the boys.

In terms of girls, there were only three in my grade during elementary school, the rest of us were boys.  While there was an ongoing joke that one of those girls and myself would one day get married, it certainly never came to pass as that sentiment was mostly one-sided.  She would, however, be the first girl to kiss me, despite my objection.  During a bus ride home, an older boy held me down in one of the seats so she could kiss me, he thought it was hilarious – I didn’t.

The first time I got to kiss a girl (by my own choosing) was with the one I had feelings towards for a long time during elementary school.  Her father worked with my father, her older siblings were close in age to my older brothers.  That kiss happened in the back of a bus during a field trip, where I presume many first kisses happen.  Years later, she would pass away in a motor vehicle accident at the age of eighteen, the first time I experienced a close personal loss, and one that had lasting effects.

In terms of my behavior in elementary school, I was sometimes the aggressor, but also sometimes the victim – which added to my desire to act out.  I was short, the shortest boy in my class, and while I was athletic and one of the best runners, I was also skinny and perceived to be weak.  Other kids, some older and some just more popular than me, looked to that as an opportunity or justification to exploit me.

You shouldn’t feel sorry for me though, anything negative I experienced was well deserved.  Between the ages of 10 to 12 is when my level of aggression began to reach its climax, not surprisingly the point at which I hit puberty.  There was one kid in my class, skinny, dark curly hair, prominent nose, who I saw as an easy target, bizarrely enough this kid was also often my best friend when I wasn’t being an asshole.

I frequently would trip this kid, push him, tackle him on the school bus, hit his head up against the window, sit on him, called him names based on his appearance.  The worst of these nicknames was “Dirty Jew,” even though I didn’t know what it really meant at that age, he looked stereo-typically Jewish to me.  The other kids laughed when I would call him that, so I kept using it.  Their laughter was a type of approval, they were being enablers and eventually they took to calling me “Little Adolf.”  None of us as Catholic fifth or sixth graders understood the gravity or offensiveness of what was unfolding.

While this kid I picked on was my primary target, he wouldn’t completely submit or go without trying to fight back.  One day he tried to trip me on the playground, so I chased after him in anger.  While he could easily run much farther than I could, I was faster and I caught up with him and tackled him.  I pinned him down underneath me, I spat in his face, pulled up clumps of dirt and grass and shoved it in his face, calling him by the nickname I had given him.

I specifically remember one of my teachers looking angrily in my face and asking, “What is wrong with you?!?!”  I told her I was raised that way.  But that wasn’t really true, my parents did not intentionally raise me to be aggressive.  There were plenty of fights between myself and the brother closest to me in age though, not sure how he and I survived some of those fights, but I certainly carried that mentality of repressed aggression to school with me – where it did not remain repressed.

All of this will likely make you ask the same question my teacher did, “What is wrong with you?”  To best answer that question we should look outside of school.  Francis Bacon perhaps put it best, “No man is angry that feels not himself hurt.”  It means that bullies are often times themselves victims of some sort of abuse, sometimes at school, but often times at home or within their community or neighborhood.  Nowadays that also extends to the internet.  Not able to handle the situation themselves, they begin acting out physically – sometimes towards other kids they see as non-threatening and easy targets – to vent their built up emotional anguish.

So, what was happening in my life that made me behave this way?  Certainly, some of it was mental health related, I was a very active kid and could not sit still.  I climbed all over things, ran around a lot, very rambunctious.  My grandmother can be heard in an old family movie shouting, “Don’t you ever sit still!?!?”  These days, kids get diagnosed with ADHD and are given pills for it.

My hyperactivity or any underlying mental health conditions I may have already had at that point, were still not justification enough for my aggressive behavior at school.  For the most part, I did not behave that way at home.  I believe a large part of my behavior had to do with my father and the lack of relationship I had with him.  While he lived in the home and was a part of our lives in that sense, I spent most of my childhood either afraid of him or hating him, and wanting my mom to divorce him.  I was not comfortable being around him, and especially being alone with him.

My father worked in construction for all the years that I can remember and while he didn’t hate that work he has always been the kind of person who gets easily stressed out and develops anxiety.  After being at work all day he would come home with his nerves already on edge and having kids screaming and running around the house would push him over the edge.  Sometimes my mom had to say to him, “That’s enough,” to bring him back from his own emotional outburst towards us.

I was the youngest of six kids, with nineteen years between me and the eldest sibling.  My mother did not work outside of the home as we were raised in a traditional and religious household.  She cooked, cleaned, and raised the kids, while my father financially supported us.  We lived in a trailer, three of us boys shared a room and had to sleep in the same bed for several years until the last of the three oldest siblings moved out.  The number then dropped to only two having to share a bedroom, while the third upgraded to having his own bedroom.

I grew up on a farm with about 200 acres, but as I mentioned we were not financially stable and lived below the poverty line.  My parents could not afford to have health insurance for us kids so we never went to a doctor unless it was an urgent issue like a broken bone, major wound, or what they perceived to be a serious illness.  One of the ear infections I had as a kid did not warrant a costly doctor visit, and that resulted in major damage to my eardrum due to the bacteria eating away at it, I am now mostly deaf in my left ear.  As kids we were only able to go to the dentist because the gentlemen we went to was kind enough to not charge my parents for seeing several of us kids at once, even though my parents had scheduled the appointment for only one kid.

While some of these things sound borderline neglectful, my parents did the best they could with what they had and made sure we never starved, had clothes to wear, and were in school.  My father dropped out of school at the age of 14, my mother at the age of 16.  This of course was during the 1950’s and early 1960’s, in the American Midwest, where a high school diploma wasn’t considered necessary to find a job and earn a living.  My father was already 45 years old by the time I was born, establishing yet another hurdle to our relationship.  At school, kids would ask if I lived with my grandparents, not realizing that they were actually my parents.

I can remember being jealous of the other boys in my class, as they talked about their dads and the things they did together.  Their father-son relationships seemed strange to me, I could not relate to them, but wanted to know what that felt like.  My two eldest brothers were both nearly old enough to be my dad, so I often looked to them as father figures instead of my actual dad.  While I can’t say that I was necessarily emotionally close to them, I certainly preferred their company over my father’s and so I spent a lot of time with both of them.

These two brothers have always been very different people.  My eldest brother would let me ride around with him while he did farm work.  That may not sound very interesting to some, but for others it’s a father-son activity and all these years later I still hold on to those memories.  The other brother was a little more wild and free, he enjoyed giving rides on his dirt-bikes and ATVs, and he owned a ’69 Chevelle which he would take us fishing in and to the local Dairy Queen afterwards.  Again, activities that fathers typically do with their sons.  I have more father-son memories with my older brothers than with my real dad.

My father has stated that he and my grandfather never had a close relationship either, and that he spent a lot of his time with his mom while growing up, which remained true up until his father passed away in 1981.

My aggressive years would fade away once I left elementary and junior high school behind and entered into high school, leaving behind the private Catholic school I had attended and nearly every one I knew.  This transition changed me and I became extremely introverted, not making any attempts to make friends for the first three years.  Unless people spoke to me directly, I rarely spoke to anyone else.  While girls asked to date me, I made no such attempts of my own to emotionally connect with anyone.  My grades improved dramatically during this transition, hiding the fact that all of my anguish was now entirely within me.

Instead of acting out in anger, I held everything in and it started to eat away at me slowly.  Other students saw me as a quiet kid who was smart, but I was filled with so much self-hatred.  At times I was taunted by older students, but nothing serious, I tried to disappear into the background as I did not want to be noticed.  Lingering questions about my sexuality exploded inside my head and haunted me 24/7, expounding my desire to fade into the crowd and not be seen or spoken to, terrified that other people would find out about these feelings growing inside.

Ages 16 to 22 were the worst years of my life, layers of depression and suicidal thoughts buried the moments of happiness I experienced.  The only bright moments from that period occurred at the age of 18, during my senior year of high school.  I had finally made friends.  I actually spent time with these two guys outside of school, and I became close to both of them.  Multiple factors prevented me from taking my own life, but these two people deserve a lot of the credit.

At the age of 22, I finally came to the realization that I would never be at peace until I stopped worrying about what other people thought of me.  I knew that I needed to stop pretending like other guys didn’t interest me, I had to face the fact that I was more than just a little curious and needed to let go of my self-hatred and my fear of the unknown.  I took small steps and I came out as bisexual, but soon after breaking up with my then girlfriend – I came out as gay on social media.  This single choice had wide sweeping consequences, from the literal loss of “friends” to opening up a door of judgement and criticism from people I didn’t even know, who felt it necessary to tell me how I was wrong or confused and was making a mistake.

Young and rebellious, in some sense, they weren’t necessarily incorrect about my actions.  Once I opened that door, there was no going back in the proverbial closet and closing the door behind me to hide.  That door was broken now and there would no longer be any refuge.  Looking back at that decision ten years later, I probably should not have been so open and outspoken about that aspect of my life.  It soon went from being my sexuality to being my identity and I got lost in it.  I went from being Kephen, to being “Kephen the Gay.”  My conversations became hinged on my sexuality, my posts on social media were usually LGBTQ related, people would befriend me solely because I was “gay.”

It’s a mistake I see a lot of young men make, they allow this one small aspect of who they are, to become the sole piece of them upon which every other part of their lives pivots and they confuse their sexuality with their identity.  It took me about eight years of going through different identities based on various sexualities before I got to a point where I was tired of it.  I stopped calling myself gay and referred to myself as pansexual, then I went back to calling myself bisexual, and then I stopped talking about it all together.  I was finally able to put that piece of me in its place and re-establish my identity along the spectrum of interests and characteristics I have as a person.

I stopped having conversations about LGBTQ issues, I stopped having conversations about men I was attracted to, I stopped posting or sharing posts from gay-themed websites, and I stopped writing articles about it.  In some sense, this act was another type of freedom – this time a freedom from the social pressures of the LGBTQ community to conform and assimilate into their ranks.  Finally, my sexuality returned to where it belonged, my private dating life and my bedroom.

Those eight years in between breaking down the proverbial closet door and realigning my identity in the wake of that decision, is what this article is mostly about.  And now that you know the back story, the heavy stuff involving mental health can be discussed.

When I ended my last relationship with a girl, I thought that dating a guy would somehow be easier.  I also thought that my uncomfortable feelings toward intimacy would no longer be an issue.  In my experiences, dating a guy and dating a girl are not very different, many aspects are exactly the same.  However, I’ve never had sex with a girl, so I cannot speak on similarities or differences between them and men in the bedroom.

My first six months of exploring my sexual attraction to men, was mostly through gay apps and websites.  Living in a rural community, most other guys interested in men were closeted, and those that weren’t closeted had already moved away.  I knew very little about what it meant to be “gay” and knew even less about how to be it with other men.  All I had to go one were my feelings of attraction, both emotional and sexual.

These apps included such gay classics as Grindr, Scruff, and Jack’d.  While some gay and bisexual men certainly use these apps for serious dating, they are also heavily used for meeting other men for sexual encounters.  I expanded my inventory by adding websites to find other men, these included typical dating sites like Plenty of Fish, OkCupid, and even the notorious personals section of Craigslist.

Those first few experiences were mostly messaging back and forth, exchanging photos (nudes included), and phone calls.  I was not yet comfortable meeting these people in person, most of them just wanted in my pants anyway.  When I was finally able to meet a guy in person for dating purposes, it turned sexual fairly quickly.  This would be the pattern for all future dating experiences, and generally by the second date – one or both of us were at least partially naked.

These sexual experiences started out as you would expect them to go, hands being placed on certain areas of the body, cuddling, spooning, but usually didn’t go very well once they progressed beyond that.  Most of these men liked kissing – something I found deplorable.  I really struggled with the idea of kissing men, I did not enjoy it and it made me uncomfortable and frequently turned me off during sexual situations.  This disdain for kissing men has continued throughout my dating experiences.

Other issues arose during these intimate situations that further hindered my experiences.  Frequently, I found that these other men were very easily aroused to the point of erection by a touch or even a conversation, but I on the other was not.  Even during sexual acts of foreplay, I would still not get an erection.  Obviously this began to concern me as I did not have issues when I was alone with myself, but every time I engaged in sexual acts with other men I either could not get aroused or if I did it would go away as soon as I got hard.

The fact that I did not enjoy kissing other men, the fact that I either could not get an erection or keep an erection when engaged in foreplay with other men led some of them to conclude that I was not gay or even bisexual.  This was not easy to accept as true.  I knew that I was emotionally and sexually attracted to men.  I had been crushing on or falling for men since I was eleven years old, I’d been sexually fantasizing about men and jerking off to those fantasies for just as long, and yet here I was in my twenties and things were not going well for me.

If my body was working fine while I was alone, why was it not working while in the company of someone else?  Why was I so uncomfortable in physically intimate situations with other men?

My mental health was affecting me in ways I hadn’t expected.  My issues were not arising due to some sort of physical impotency, but because of psychological issues – a form of performance anxiety.  Despite years of therapy and medication, my issues never went away and still remain with me today.  This lack in sexual gratification with male partners is what drove me to walk away from attempting one-night-stands and even eroded my interest in dating.  As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, 2013 was the last time I dated anyone, I was 27 years old.  2014 was the last time I attempted to have sex with a guy, and I say attempted because that experience did not go well.

In fact, none of my sexual experiences with men have ever really gone well for one reason or another since 2008, and I’ve never even tried to have a sexual experience with a woman.  I have never had an orgasm during sex with another man, though I have during foreplay.  The last time I attempted anything sexual with another guy was in 2015, and I never got an erection or even removed my underwear for that matter – it was all about him, not me.

I cannot speak for women, but as a man – being sexually dysfunctional does not feel good, it does not lead you to a positive state of mind.  It makes you feel embarrassed and as though you are less of a man.  It’s easier and less shameful to just avoid those situations all together by not allowing anyone to come into your life, to just prevent that awkward conversation of, “I’m sorry I can do me, I just can’t do you.”

To learn more about my thoughts on human sexuality:

“The Choice That Never Was”

To learn more about my journey with mental illness:

“Out of the Darkness”

Chasing the Westward Sun

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Chasing the Westward Sun: One Week and 3,500 Miles

In the summer of 2017 I went on a one-week 3,500 mile road trip through Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota. The road trip had spawned after the death of my mom the year before and my need to come to terms with that loss, it also formed from a growing dissatisfaction with my career and the sensation that I was trapped in a cycle. I felt as though I was living life on repeat and I desperately needed to get out of that loop and away to a place that could offer me some peace.

Growing up on a farm shaped not only my childhood, but also my character. My parents lived in poverty for most of their lives, my mom never worked outside of the home and never finished high school. She dropped out and married my father less than a month after turning 16 years old. My father had already dropped out of elementary school at the age of 14 to begin a life long career in the labor industry. Farming never provided the opportunity for more than subsistence living, therefore, being employed somewhere else was mandatory to support his wife and the six children the two of them would have over their 55 years of marriage.

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My childhood was spent roaming through woodlands that covered the mostly hilly farmland that had been passed down from my grandfather. My grandfather owned the staples of the idyllic American Midwestern farm, including horses, cattle, and chickens. When my father inherited the land he tried his hand at pig farming as well, but lost any hope of profit when the hog market collapsed in the mid 1990’s.

My memories of that time and place are peppered with hot summer days in hay fields, and damp but brisk summer nights with the stars spread across the sky overhead. There were bullfrogs and tree frogs croaking and chirping in the distance, coyotes howling in the hollers that surrounded the farm, as it lay within a valley. In the early evening you could hear whip-poor-wills making their iconic calls echoing through, or owls hooting from the treeline.

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A creek ran right through the middle of the farm, often flooding during heavy rains. As much time as I spent in the woods, I also spent a significant amount of time in and around that creek. As a kid, you don’t stop to think about all the pig and cattle manure that washes down into those waterways or all the dead animals that find themselves swept into its current, or when cattle are standing up stream urinating right into the water. You still walk barefoot through it, stick your hands in it, or even at times jump right into the deep pools that form from the carved out boulders that make up its bedrock.

I have more than a thousand memories of my time living on that land, so many that time has taken many of them away and yet my mind still feels full of them. While I’ve never been fond of the smell of hog manure, cattle manure does oddly trigger memories of my childhood. From throwing clumps of cow shit at other young relatives, pushing them into it, or sticking bottle rockets or firecrackers in them to watch them explode and splatter everywhere, these are defining experiences that color the childhoods of many Midwestern boys.

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For me, scent has always been a heavy trigger for memories and nature is full of them, beyond just the cow manure. Cedar and walnut trees, the creek, freshly cut hay, ponds, the organic decaying matter that makes up dirt, these are just a few of the things that have their own unique smell and they coalesce to create the experience of nature, an experience that feels like home. Perhaps Gary Snyder said it best, “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”

Other senses play a role in the things we remember, from prickly cocklebur that stick to your pants and shoes, tossing square bails and getting cuts and covered in itchy dust, to touching cedar limbs and needles and getting sticky hands, your feet slipping on the slimy algae that covers rocks in the creek, hearing the sound of the leaves rustling in the trees as the wind blows through them, crowing roosters, squealing pigs, the bellows of cows, the humming cicadas in summer, the chirping crickets in the evening, the many different bird songs throughout the seasons, the babbling water as it runs over and between the rocks in the creek and the many streams that form it.

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Nature is a full sensory experience and growing up on a farm provided me with that phenomenal opportunity, one that I would never trade for anything. So it is no wonder that as time passes and my opportunities to visit and experience that type of nature decreases, I yearn to return to it. At the time that I began contemplating my road trip west last year, I was working a job that required me to sit in front of a computer all day. A type of job that would make any man restless and yearn for something more.

Of the different landscapes that I find beauty in, wooded lands and hilltops are my most beloved. Hiking through woodlands can only be topped for me by hiking through a conifer forest in the mountains. With this in mind, I knew the land I needed to escape to, the place that would give me the most serenity or solace. Of the many different types of trees here in the Midwest, the tree commonly called the cedar or red cedar, is probably the tree that I gravitate to the most due to its aromatic smell and my childhood history growing up around it.

Ironically, the Eastern red cedar tree of the United States is actually not a cedar tree at all. It’s a species of Juniper (species: Juniperus virginiana) and is what’s known as a false cedar, belonging to the cypress tree family. True cedars are not native to America, but are naturally occurring in Africa and Asia. All are conifers, however, and this classification of trees are certainly my favorite. Some of the largest mountainous conifer forests in the United States are in the west and the north of the country, part of the Taiga biome or boreal forests of the world. Oddly enough, a large subtropical lowland conifer forest exists in the wetlands of southeast United States.

My love for conifer forests and the mountains established a pretty clear destination for my escape from the world of glowing computer screens and posture-destroying office chairs. While my desire to just get in the car and drive off after the westward sun was strong, I had enough self-control to realize that I needed to plan a budget and map out my route, and choose the places out west and in the north that I wanted to stop and spend some time in.

For anyone wanting to take a road trip, whether it’s across the country or just through a few states, knowing how much money you have to spend and how or where you’re going to spend it is critical. You need to take into account the supplies you will need, including food, clothing, hiking or camping gear, and the cost of gas for your vehicle – you need to know how many miles to the gallon your vehicle can get. Knowing this will help you plan out your fuel budget to cover the distance you will be driving.

You should also have a plan for when things go wrong, such as if your vehicle breaks down or you have a flat tire. The terrain you will be facing is another matter of consideration and whether or not your vehicle can traverse it. Will the roads your traveling always be paved, will some be dirt roads and rough? Will you need a lifted vehicle, what type of tires will be appropriate for the season and the climate that you will be driving in?

If you’re not driving a large van or RV across the country, where will you be sleeping? If you plan to camp outdoors, you will need to pack according to the climate in the region you’ll be staying in. If you plan to stay in hotels along various stops you should book in advance to get the best prices and the best rooms. Popular locations such as National or State Parks are difficult to find hotel rooms near because people often book them up to six months in advance of their trip. When booking hotel rooms, consider amenities such as free parking, free breakfast, to try and save on your costs. Also consider offers of free cancellation in case something happens and your trip gets cancelled or your planned route changes and you will no longer be traveling through that area.

Whether you plan to bring all of your food or plan to eat at local joints, you will need a budget for meals. This aspect of spending has been difficult for me as sometimes I eat more than expected, and sometimes less. What sounded appetizing when I packed it, has at times not been so appetizing when it came time to eat it. I chose to mostly eat locally while traveling and slept in hotels, which I booked weeks in advance. I set aside a lot of time to read reviews, compare prices, and picked hotels near my destinations. Generally speaking, plan to spend more than your initial estimate suggests on most of these budgetary costs, especially on gas.

It’s a good idea to round up by $50 to $200 on each of your cost estimates. By the time my trip ended and I was back home, I had spent more on food, gas, and sleeping arrangements than I had originally budgeted, in fact I over spent by $500. So, just realize things don’t always go as planned, and you may fork over more money than you budgeted. If you don’t have the financial safety net that I had, consider that you may have to cut your trip short if your spending has taken up too much of your budget early into your road trip.

As I did my research to figure out what National and State Parks would be best to see the kind of scenery I was yearning for, and any other opportunities along the way, I compiled a list of places to visit. My list consisted of Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and Glacier National Park in Montana. To get there and back I also had to drive through Kansas, Colorado and North Dakota. This trip was planned for July due to it being a great time of the year in northern Montana, my main destination.

My road trip was planned to last a week, which meant that I would not have an extensive amount of time spent in each location. Though my budget wouldn’t allow for extended stays, I wanted to see all of those locations and so I accepted the scenario of not getting to spend a lot of time in any one location.

Colorado was the first stop on my trip, though I knew I wouldn’t be exploring any of the parks there as it was an overnight stay only. This was my second time in Colorado, I had visited there in 2002 with my family, and back then we stayed in the Vail region. This time around I stayed in Parachute, so I did have the opportunity to drive through parts of Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and White River National Forest. As this was July and I was driving in from the east, most of eastern Colorado was dry and it wasn’t until I got closer to the Rocky Mountains did the land begin to appear more beautiful.

For the overnight stay, I had a room booked at the Grand Vista Hotel. My experience there was pleasant and they earned a 5-star rating from me. For dinner I went to the Mexican restaurant just up the block, called El Tapatio. I was hitting the road early the next morning, so I did not have time to explore too far from the hotel. I did take some time to walk around the town, spent some time in the hotel’s hot tub, and then just settled in for the night.

The next stop was Grand Teton National Park in northwest Wyoming. While the scenery driving up from the south was similarly as dry and arid as Colorado, the closer I got to the park, the more things began to fill me with awe. Some of the photos I took there can be seen in the below slideshow. Jackson Lake was a major part of my exploration, and was one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited in my life, I highly recommend visiting. During this phase of my road trip, I slept at the Baymont by Wyndham hotel in Pinedale, which I give a 5 out of 5 star rating to also.

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Aside from exploring the region around the lake I also enjoyed lunch at Leek’s Pizzeria located at the marina on the lake. I sat outside on the deck, the service was fast and the pizza was great, but the view was unbeatable. I really cannot stress how great Jackson Lake is (minus the hungry mosquitoes), even if you’re like me and have no desire to be on a boat out on the lake, the view from the shoreline alone is breathtaking. Certainly a highlight from my trip and ranks a close second behind Glacier. I had honestly never heard of Grand Teton National Park prior to this trip, so it was an extraordinary experience.

Grand Teton National Park is connected to Yellowstone and so exploring one park offers the opportunity to explore the other if you’re willing to keep driving north. If you plan to visit Yellowstone only to see Old Faithful, you’re wasting your time and money. Yes, it’s historical and iconic, but it’s crowded and there’s really nothing exciting about it. There are far more beautiful things to see and do. In the slideshow below are my photos of Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake in the park. Also you will see Lake Yellowstone Hotel, a massive hotel along the shoreline overlooking the lake, whose initial construction dates back to 1891.

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Yellowstone National Park was my third favorite place to visit and I regret that I did not spend enough time exploring the park. I only had one afternoon to spend there, which is why Yellowstone Lake was the focal point of my exploration. I also regret wasting my time at Old Faithful, it was either that or Mammoth Springs and I wish I had chosen the latter. Regardless, I had the opportunity to hike around a bit and explore. The aromatic conifer in the higher elevations was soul touching for me, there’s no better air to breath.

From Yellowstone to Montana was going to be an all-night drive. Along the way I passed through the city of Bozeman, with the town of Choteau (pronounced “show-toe”) being my destination for the night. The mountainous drive between these two points took three hours and I arrived in Choteau at 12:30 AM. It felt like the longest drive of my life as I was fighting off sleepiness and everything all around me was pitch black. Most of the time there was not even a single light in the distance from human civilization and very seldom did I ever come across another vehicle on the road. I don’t think there has been another time in my life that I felt so alone.

I’m certain that the drive during the daylight hours would have been spectacular and I kind of regret having not just spent the night in Bozeman, but I was on a schedule and I had to be in Choteau to arrive on time for my hotel reservation at the Stage Stop Inn. I spent two nights at the hotel and my experience there was very pleasant. Due to being so exhausted from the drive, my first morning in Choteau found me with no energy to drive up to Glacier, so I spent the day exploring the town and speaking to the local residents.

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One of my stops was at the Old Trail Museum Inc., where there is a wide array of things to see in a centralized location. The exhibits here are ideal for kids as it does not require a lot of walking to be able to see everything. I’ve included several of my pictures of what the museum has to offer in the slideshow above. There is also an ice cream parlor on the complex that offers a good selection of flavors and options for how it’s served, and there’s a diner across the street called the Outpost Deli, I included a photo of the front of the building at the end of the slideshow.

Service at the diner was top-notch and the food was excellent. I was so impressed at how hard everyone was working that I tipped the young gentleman that was my waiter an extra $20. I spent some more time afterwards walking around the town. I stopped at the visitor’s center and spoke to an older gentlemen, we had a good conversation about my trip, the things he’s down around the area, places he suggested, he gave me a map and some tips about the road north to Glacier National Park. It might seem odd to say, but it felt like I was having a conversation with my grandpa.

The people I met in that town were nothing but kind and welcoming people. According to the 2000 census, the average income for households was only slightly more than $25,000, with nearly 20% of the population living below the poverty line. While driving through Montana I noticed there was still a lot of poverty throughout the state, especially among Native American populations. The best land in Montana is in the western third of the state, whereas the central and especially the eastern part are prairie and badlands. This part of the state reminded me of eastern Colorado and southern Wyoming – mostly flat, arid and unpleasant.

The morning of my second day in Choteau greeted me before the sun rose. I wanted to be in Glacier National Park before 8:00 AM and before the crowds of other visitors arrived. On my way up to St. Mary at the east entrance of the park, I came upon a hitchhiker at about 5:30 AM walking in basketball shorts and a t-shirt. For those unaware, the climate in this region of Montana at that time of morning is pretty cold. I have seldom stopped for hitchhikers in my lifetime due to the risks of being robbed or worse. However, this young man was clearly not armed and was of a physical build I was not threatened by. I wasn’t too far outside the town of Browning, which was where I was planning on topping off my gas tank before Glacier, and was also the direction this young man was walking in.

I made the choice to pullover and give him a lift. He attempted to get into the back of the car, but I told him he was welcome to sit up front and so he did. He appeared to be in his early twenties at the oldest, and had a large dip in his mouth. It only took a couple minutes before the tobacco smell permeated my entire car. He thanked me for stopping and said that other vehicles had just kept driving.

He made a comment about how cold it was that morning, so I asked him where he was headed and he told me that he had just been visiting family on the reservation and was heading back to Browning. I told him that worked well for me as I was heading there anyway. The Blackfeet Reservation makes up some 3,000 square miles and borders Glacier National Park on the park’s eastern side. There population is more than 17,000 registered members.

The young man asked me if I was headed to the casino to do some gambling, I told him that I had not been aware there was a casino in the town, but that I was actually on my way to Glacier. I asked him if he had ever been to the park, he said that he hadn’t but wanted to go some day. I contemplated on that for a moment, it seemed wild to me to be living so close to one of the most gorgeous places in this country, but to have never visited. I dropped him off in town at the location he instructed and I made my way to the nearest gas station.

By the time I got to Glacier’s east entrance and the Going-to-the-Sun Road at the St. Mary Visitor’s Center near Saint Mary Lake it was around 7:00 AM and there was barely another vehicle in sight. The sun was rising in the east and the dramatic view of the sunlight hitting the landscape was astounding. No words can truly replicate or do justice for the beauty that is Glacier National Park at sunrise. Please enjoy some of my best photos of the park during my visit in the slideshow below.

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I hope to one day return to Glacier and spend more time in other parts of the park. If I had all the time I wanted, I would spend most of my time around Many Glacier, Logan Pass, Avalanche Lake, Lake McDonald, Bowman Lake, and Kintla Lake.

I also have hopes to visit other parks around the country, such as Yosemite in California. Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada are jaw-dropping. Incredibly these two Canadian parks are accessible from Glacier as all three lie just north of each other. Heading north from Whitefish, Montana on Highway 93 will lead you right through the other two parks. It will take you some nine hours to drive from Glacier to Banff to Jasper, but that drive cuts straight through some of the most beautiful terrain on the North American continent. Definitely on my bucket list of things to do.

Returning to the Midwest I drove east through Montana into North Dakota. Eastern Montana and western North Dakota are similar in their terrain. There’s not much to see as it’s mostly arid land. The closer you get to central and eastern North Dakota the land transforms into the plains grasslands and you begin to see more trees. My dinner that night was at the Texas Roadhouse in Fargo. Absolutely no complaints. I spent my final night on the road at the Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham. Hands-down one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in. I had a good night’s rest which was well deserved and desperately needed after the long thirteen-hour drive from Glacier.

The morning after I headed home to Missouri. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to explore Fargo, but the city looked as though it had a lot to offer. Anyone traveling through the area looking for something to do, will surely find it in Fargo.

After my 3,500 mile week-long road trip I returned home sunburned and short one pair of ASICS sneakers, and two-grand, but it was one hell of an experience and I would highly recommend anyone else to take on the same kind of adventure. Life is short and there’s so much to see and do out there. You learn so much about life beyond your front door, about people in other parts of the country, and you learn more about yourself.

Life After

Old Letters Library Handwriting Old Letter

Recovery for me is a multi-faceted term. It means acknowledging my behavioral condition, understanding it and understanding that I and it are not one in the same – that I am more than my condition. It means that I recognize the signs and symptoms of episodes or relapses, or the risk of those states.

It means that I understand and practice the steps I need to take to rise above my condition and live a life that not only benefits me, but those around me who depend upon me. Finally, recovery also means I accept that it doesn’t equate perfection or panacea – there will still be struggles, but with the tools I have learned to utilize I can and will live a better life experience than the one I once knew.

For more than a decade I have been sharing my personal experiences with mental health issues with others who are also struggling, through the platform of writing and through private communication. I have also stood in front of a group and told my story and I have allowed a newspaper article to be published about my very personal experiences.

All in the belief that by sharing what I have gone through and felt, it will assist those who are in a similar situation to relate to others and understand that they are not alone in how they feel or what they are facing.

Often times our thinking leads us in a very negative direction, hindering our ability to recover. A major part of recovery is shifting our focus and training our perspective on the process of rising above the past experiences that frequently hold us down and back. My recovery heavily centered on altering that perception of myself, establishing goals that were attainable, believing that change was possible, and finding the courage and inspiration to achieve recovery.

So, every recovery begins with perception, the perception of pain, the perception of self, and perception of life beyond the obstacles and setbacks we face throughout our lives. By having this self-awareness of my thoughts and behavior, this shift in my self-perception, I have been able to focus my attention on personal wellness, the well-being of others, and my future.

Awareness, both of myself and of others has been and continues to be a key factor in living life beyond the issues I have faced. A life of service aids in one’s own recovery because it adds value and meaning to our lives. Helping others recover, helps us recover as long as we understand and maintain a healthy balance between the two.

Awareness for me involves observing my own behavior, paying attention to my thoughts, practicing meditation as I’ve learned through the study and embrace of Mahayana Buddhism, and perhaps the most important key for me has been writing. Writing about my thoughts, feelings, experiences, aspirations, this has been a very therapeutic practice for me since I was fourteen years old.

Other key factors in recovering from mental turmoil includes patience. If I’ve learned anything over the past ten years of training high school and college students and adult employees, it’s that patience can mean the difference between success and failure. The same holds true in regards to mental health.

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 will be good or at least fine, but neither life nor mental health work like that. It’s a process and that process takes time, energy, and commitment.

As I’ve mentioned, writing has been invaluable to me. I consider the skill of writing to be a strength. Without writing I’m not sure how my life would have turned out. When I was 14, an English & math teacher convinced me to never stop writing. I believe that her advice later saved me, as writing for me was an outlet during my most difficult experiences with depression and suicidality, and it continues to be.

This release valve enabled me to let go of some of the emotions that had been bottling up inside of me, reducing my angry outbursts, reducing the risks of self-harm, and allowing me the opportunity to navigate through myself via expressive journaling and creative writing.

While I had always been physically active, I took it much more seriously when I was in my late teens. I credit exercise and weightlifting as a critical component of my recovery. My willingness to commit to this type of activity is a strength in my opinion, because not everyone has that capability or willingness to commit to physical health.

Mental health and physical health are inseparable parts of living well, and maintaining physical well-being helped carry me through some of my roughest days because it provided a way to both release built up emotions and allowed me to focus on something that didn’t revolve around the emotional pain I was burdened with.

Another major piece of my recovery was being able to bond with someone else who was experiencing a similar hardship to my own. Having support of this kind requires a willingness to open up and spend time with another person and discuss things that are immensely personal. This does create a sense of vulnerability, but what many see as an exposure of weakness is really just a statement of strength. I’ve long said that exposing our pain to others, gives them a path to emotional connection and the hope for healing – our pain can literally be someone else’s balm.

My primary trigger into relapse is stress and anxiety, but I can also relapse due to feeling as though I or my life lacks importance (meaning / purpose). Having a grip on my perception and being able to gauge what is rational thinking and what is irrational has been very helpful for me. Preparation and planning has gone a long way in mitigating the consequences of stress and anxiety, and focusing more on the things I can control and focusing less on the things that I cannot control has really saved me a lot of unnecessary suffering.

I would say the final component is knowing myself, my abilities/talents, strengths, accomplishments, it builds me up when I’m facing adversity because I know I’ve been through hard times and difficult experiences before and still came out on top in the end.

I have been training teens and adults on the skills they need to succeed in specific jobs since January 2009, this task also required me to oversee their work performance, productivity, and cohesiveness. For me it never was so much about the work, but the people I encountered during the experience that established it as an enjoyable experience.

I lived a very sheltered life as a child, I was taught to fear things and people that were different. Despite this, I was always very curious of the things that I was unfamiliar with or didn’t understand. Becoming a somewhat rebellious teenager provided me the opportunity to grow and learn beyond the bubble a small-town community attempts to keep you in.

My career of engaging with others from all walks of life (ages, religions, races, politics) has granted me a continuation of that process of personal growth. You learn a lot about yourself and others when you become part of a group, especially when you are in a leadership role.

In addition, I’d like to state that teaching teens and adults grants the opportunity to help others improve their skills. This enhanced skill-set builds a foundation upon which they can create a brighter future for themselves if they’re willing to stick with it and not give up. As someone who teaches professional development classes to adults, I know that not everyone understands things the same way, or even has the same desire to learn something new. But when they do, you can see their confidence build – they become a stronger person because of it.

Teaching is a hard job, perhaps the hardest aspect of the career I’ve had, but it’s also been the most rewarding because of the people I’ve met and the change I’ve been able to witness as they’ve learned. Helping give people the opportunity to make a better life for themselves, what could be more rewarding than that?

I’ve worked in retail, construction, data entry, legal services, and professional development. I’ve volunteered in disaster relief in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, and I became an advocate for behavioral health awareness and suicide prevention. I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and I became an inter-faith minister. Out of all the things I’ve done or attempted to do, of all the choices I’ve made, and the experiences I’ve had, I think the common thread that runs through them all is my attempt to make a difference in other people’s lives, whether it be big or small.

It is fundamentally the most important thing we can ever hope to do with our own lives. A life of service is one of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose. I’m only 32 years old, but in my lifetime I have seen in other people a lot of suffering, a lot of loneliness, a lot of obstacles and setbacks, and a loss of hope. Understanding and compassion, these two things make the world a little less dark.

Since I was 19 years old, I learned that reaching out to people and opening up about my experiences in battling bi-polar disorder creates two responses. Either they become uncomfortable and don’t know what to say due to a lack of understanding, or they begin to tell you their own story of battling some form of a behavioral health condition. In either case, there is an opportunity for understanding and in understanding there can be compassion. Through compassion we can build emotional connections with others.

By telling others about my own experiences over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet and communicate with others who have shared in similar suffering. When I was younger, knowing that other people were hurting too and that I wasn’t alone changed everything for me. Every person that I’ve ever met and communicated with due to this process of sharing, those people are my support system and because there are so many people out there suffering, these opportunities do not end.

For about a decade, my closest friend was someone else who was battling a mental health condition. We became each other’s brace during the hard times. I fondly recall a time when she called me at 2:00 AM, waking me up and asking if we could go get breakfast from a 24-hour diner. It might seem crazy to others, but that small adventure and time talking was exactly what we both needed that night.

I want to help people who are in a similar situation to the one I’ve been in. I want to help them the same way that people once helped me. I wouldn’t be here today if someone hadn’t reached out to me and allowed me the opportunity to relate to them and their experience. Understanding and compassion, again these things make a world of difference.

My many years of sharing my own story of living with a mental health condition and my eagerness to create an opportunity to create an environment or platform where others can relate to one another, as well as my career training has all afforded me the experience and skills to lead, teach, and support others. But each of us can take or create the opportunity to make a positive impact in the lives of others.

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

The Past That’s Not Forgotten

[Warning: this article discusses the sexual assault of men and boys and may not be appropriate for readers under the age of thirteen]

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The Past That’s Not Forgotten

According to the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, 54% of reported sexual assault victims in the U.S. military are men.  Most people would find this surprising as the narrative in the news and media compels you to believe that women are the only victims of sexual assault.

When people learn that men are sexually assaulted, which is a term that also includes prolonged abuse and rape, the conclusion is drawn that the victim must be gay and that the perpetrator must also be gay.

Again, this is a perpetual and cultural narrative given by society that does not reflect the data in cases of reported sexual assault against men and boys.  In fact, while most cases of sexual abuse on boys and teens under the age of 16, is perpetrated by heterosexual men, about 15% of perpetrators are women.  If you include cases of boys and men over the age of 16 who were victims, that percentage of female perpetrators rises to nearly 40%.

In some cases the attack occurs where the victims are made to penetrate the attacker, this type of sexual assault against boys and men accounts for nearly 7% of assaults or abuse.  This type of sexual assault can be more easily reasoned when one better understands the male anatomy.  Being sexually aroused is not relative to the situation or environment in which a boy or man finds himself.  Even under duress or discomfort, erection and orgasm can occur against their will.

This may seem like a phenomenon or oddity, but unwanted or unexpected arousal and ejaculation is experienced by most teenage boys during puberty, and does happen to some male victims of sexual assault.  This is true, regardless of the gender of the attacker or the sexual orientation of the victim.  Erection and orgasm are automatic physiological responses and do not occur by conscious choice.  To learn more, I recommend this LivingWell article.

The main focus of my article is on the sexual assault (including abuse and rape) of boys and men by other boys or men.  From this point forward, when I use the term “male,” it refers widely to pre-teen boys through to adult men.

Male-on-male sexual assault almost always involves a heterosexual male or group of males attacking another male who may be gay or who may be straight.  According to data from various sources, anywhere from 94% to 98% of all male perpetrators of sexual assault and abuse against both genders, are identified as heterosexual (straight).  What sexual orientation the victim is, however, often depends on the environment and the circumstance surrounding the attack.

The terms “victim” and “survivor” are sometimes held in disdain by boys and men who experience sexual assault in childhood or adulthood due to the subjective connotations.  Therefore, the terms are used in this article solely for the purpose to differentiate between attacker and the attacked, and not in reference to the perpetuation of the state of victim-hood nor to gauge the severity of the incident by deeming one a survivor.

Other types of assault and abuse occur when males are congregated in large enough numbers where personalities clash and social order or hierarchy is challenged.  These types of attacks are about power, dominance, and sometimes revenge.

A single straight male, or a group of straight males in instances of gang rape, will attack the victim who is seen as a threat to social standing either because he’s another alpha male or due to his popularity.  It can also be over such issues as loyalty or the desire for subjugation.  This type of attack rarely has anything to do with sexual intimacy, but with asserting dominance and control over a perceived rival or dissident.

You may find it difficult to believe that a male or group of males who are straight could sodomize another.  However, you have to understand that this particular type of sexual assault has nothing to do with sexual attraction to a person, it is about sexual attraction to power, dominance, and sometimes even violence itself.

These males are not turned on by the physical appearance or attractiveness of the victim, or by the fact that he’s biologically male, but by their control and dehumanization of the victim who represents another male in a position of power or prestige.

It’s the forced removal of that power and control, the forced vulnerability and perceived weakness or inferiority and shame that they are inflicting on the victim and their perceived dominance over him that sexually arouses the perpetrators.

This type of male sexual assault frequently occurs in prisons for the same reasons as I have mentioned, with an estimated 70,000 men experiencing rape in U.S. prisons each year, perpetrated by both fellow in-mates and corrections staff.  Accounting for almost 22% of all rapes that occur in the United States annually.

The idea that you can break another male by taking his “manhood” through sodomy is not a new concept.  Tracing history back thousands of years reveals that ancient civilizations practiced this behavior regularly during conflicts.  It was not unusual for prevailing combatants to sodomize their captured opponents as a way to break their will to keep fighting.

This act wasn’t reserved just for the battlefield, the humiliation continued into cities and villages under siege.  Any man or boy old enough to swing a sword, was subjected to the same demoralizing assault to show dominance and strip away any sense of pride or will to resist.  These types of ancient sexual assaults are even discussed in the Bible and are mistakenly quoted as referring to homosexual (same-sex) relationships.

The most common instance in which male-on-male sexual assault is practiced includes sexual attraction, impulse, interest or curiosity to a resistant, unknowing, or confused victim.  This sexual experience can be brought on either through manipulation and coercion or by force.  When sexual advances are denied or rejected, a perpetrator may force his desires on another male, who may or may not even be interested in the same gender, or even be old enough to understand what is happening.  This type of forced experience may include sodomy, forced masturbation, or oral sex.

As the most common form of sexual assault or abuse experienced by boys and men, unwanted sexual experiences can occur against victims of all age ranges.  Every year some 60,000 American children are sexually abused and 90% of the abusers are family members, teachers, friends, or someone else the child knows.  Of those who are sexually abused, a third are abused by another juvenile under the age of 18.  One in every six men have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime, some reports list this ratio as high as one in every four.  One in every twenty boys will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center.

Children who are abused are nine times more likely to grow up and become involved in illegal activity:

  • 30% of abused children will later in life abuse their own children
  • 50% of inmates in American prisons were abused as children, according to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Human Rights Watch, nearly one in every twenty male inmates are sexually assaulted by other male inmates or corrections staff
  • 80% of 21-year-old Americans who were abused as children currently suffer from at least one mental illness

The resulting consequences of childhood and adulthood sexual abuse on males are staggering.  Those who report having experienced sexual abuse, report long term symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety / Fear / Helplessness
  • Depression
  • Dissociation / Loneliness
  • Guilt / Shame/  Self-blame
  • Hostility / Irritability / Anger
  • Homophobia
  • Impaired Relationships
  • Low Self-esteem / Self-doubt
  • Masculinity Issues
  • Questioning of Sexual Orientation
  • Sexual Dysfunction / Intimacy Issues
  • Sexual Promiscuity
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Substance Abuse
  • Suicidality

These symptoms can occur immediately following a male-on-male sexual assault and last decades or for a lifetime if the victim does not seek professional help.  Based on the research, it is generally accepted by the psychology industry that many victims never seek help or report the incident(s), hindering the data available on just how widespread sexual assault and abuse is on boys and men.  Based on reporting statistics, men who experience sexual abuse as children will refrain from telling anyone for 20 years on average.

There are three main causes that prevent reporting of the assault/abuse and reluctance to seek professional help, these are:

  • Perceived social shame or consequence of being both a male and a victim of sexual assault ( rape or abuse)
  • Manipulation by perpetrator that the victim became aroused or even experienced an orgasm and therefore must have liked it or is gay
  • Threats by perpetrator to retaliate (such as assault the victim again)
  • Experience of or expectation for denial

The denial mentioned here is multi-faceted.  A victim may feel so strongly about the incident that they compartmentalize the event and the emotions attached to it – pretending as though it never happened.  This type of denial is the result of a collection of responses, from fear of facing the incident to humiliation that it occurred in the first place.

Even when a victim reports the incident to their parents or other loved ones, there may be a denial by those he is confiding in.  A denial that the event “could” have or has happened, especially when the alleged perpetrator(s) are family members or family friends, which is often the case.

For male children and adults who have experienced sexual assault or prolonged sexual abuse, therapy is recommended and encouraged.  This treatment may include group therapy or support groups for adults, but the process of opening up for children or adults will not be easy and may take time.  In some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder or other forms of behavioral or mental health conditions may play a role and additional treatment such as medication may be required to work through the trauma.

This article came into being after a conversation with another man who had experienced sexual abuse during childhood.  Throughout my life I have met men who had similar stories of sexual assault and abuse at the hands of both men and women.  While we should not turn our attention away from women and girls who experience the same kinds of sexual assault and abuse, we should not allow men and boys to continue to be invisible, ashamed, and unheard.

 


For more information on the prevention of child sexual abuse, the Children’s Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services produced a short PDF with important tips for parents.

Resources for this article and the data it contains were collected from:

 

 

 

 

[Disclaimer: this article is not intended to treat any mental or behavioral condition, nor is it a replacement for the advice of medical or psychological professionals, this article has been provided for the sole purpose of bringing attention to a topic that is far too often invisible]

In the Twilight of Memory

In the Twilight of Memory

Calling to me in the distance, I can hear them all say my name. Reaching out from the past, from moments that used to be. I drift beyond the precipice of wakefulness, I let go of my consciousness and slip behind the veil.

There is a brisk coldness in here, the pitch black swallows the light that broke through behind me, and I am left to walk blindly through the dark. Events and people of yesteryear play out in the distance, auditory memories of joy and pain.

I can hear laughter, a voice that is young and vibrant, I think it’s me, the old me when I was still innocent. There are other voices, repeating themselves like a recording, replaying conversations I once heard and once had.

I remember them, I remember those walks, those car rides, those late-night heart-to-hearts. These memories have smells, scents of summer, autumn, winter, and spring.

They smell like apple crisp, of coffee and cigarettes. They smell like perfume and hairspray, like angel food cake. Like fresh cut hay, cattle and pigs, manure, damp clay, and feed sacks of grain. They taste like cream soda and trail mix, like hard candy, and fruit punch. They smell like fish and taste like DQ milkshakes, and feel like car rides home in a 69 Chevelle.

I follow them to remember, to feel them again, I reach out into the darkness, I want to feel them all again…

The pitch black is transcendent, taking me to places illuminated in memories, projected like film strips, holograms of what was once life, now lost to a time and a place I cannot return to, too faraway to go back to.

Other smells permeate, triggering flashes of days gone by, sensations of sun and heat, the touch of soil and grass, the humming of cicadas, the taste of french toast, of curly fries and homemade BBQ sauce, of dry spaghetti and parmesan cheese, and Lipton instant iced tea.

I can feel objects in my hands, things I once held that have now claimed meaning they never had before, things made of plastic, things with colorful buttons and cords, of plastic animals, trucks, and tractors. Action figures with swords and bows, cups and dishes, and a yellow brush with frazzled bristles.

Voices call out louder and I leave behind these memories in search of others, my senses invaded with triggers, I can smell burritos, chili and dinner rolls, I can taste chocolate milk, nasty carrots and old peanut butter, I can feel tiny pieces of gravel between my finger tips, I can hear the ping of an aluminum bat making contact with a softball, I can smell the leather of worn out baseball gloves, the smell of incense, the taste of wine, and the sight of flickering candles.

I can feel cold wood on my palms, the hexagonal shape of No.2 pencils, the smell of chalk, a used rubber eraser, of markers, I can hear the bell ring at recess, and I can smell the awful odors of the school bus.

I hear voices here too, young voices I once knew, from a girl on the school bus who once made me listen to a Faith Hill song while we kissed, I can taste our shared McFlurry with the tiny M&Ms, I can taste purple Skittles, and see Zero brand candy bars, I can hear her speak, and I can see into her blue eyes.

I can hear the swish of track pants, I can feel the cotton of the sweat pants I had on almost every day because I hated jeans, I can smell sweat and deodorant, I can see him, that guy I had a crush on before I even knew that sort of thing could happen, I can remember what it felt like when neither of us were watching where we were going and bumped into each other in the cafeteria, turning just in time to make face-to-face contact. I pretended like our lips touching was the nastiest thing ever, but actually I liked it.

In another direction I can hear the scuffling of dried leaves caught in autumn’s wind, I can smell them rotting, I can smell walnuts, acorns, and baking pecan pie. I feel the slimy insides of pumpkins on my hands and I can see flickering lights inside Jack-o-lanterns. I can smell pumpkin pie and hear high-pitched voices shout “Trick-or-treat” and the sound of candy being tossed into colorful plastic buckets.

I can smell doe pee and dirt, frying bacon, eggs, and deep fried fish. I can smell beer and cigarettes, I can see cards and orange hats and vests, camo and flannel, I can feel early morning walks in the cold, I can hear birds chirping while watching the sunrise. I can taste chili with saltine crackers, I can smell chicken nuggets, and taste birdthay cake.

Attracting my attention further in, is the sight of a table cloth with plates and silverware, the smell of baking turkey tempts me closer, I can hear the sounds of a parade on the television, the sounds of an electric carving knife. I can taste mashed sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top, my favorite, and I can see stuffing in a large dark green bowl. I can see white and dark orange bowls across the table with many other things like corn, mashed white potatoes and gravy in a pitcher, canned gelatin cranberry sauce cut into slices, I can smell dinner rolls baking, and can see red jello in a square container.

Wafting from elsewhere in the dark I can smell candles of spruce, fir, cedar, and pine. I can see twinkling lights of red, blue, green, and yellow. I can hear cassette tapes playing Christmas carols sang by the Chipmunks, I can taste green-dyed wreaths made of corn flakes and melted marshmallows, sugar cookies shaped like bells, stars, santas and snowmen. I can taste balls of peanut butter and crushed graham crackers covered in chocolate, squares of fudge with a walnut on top.

I can hear “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World” in the echoing walls of a church, I can hear wrapping paper being torn asunder in the living room of my childhood home, I can see the flashes of cameras, I can taste egg nog, I can see outside the dining room window where snow is falling so heavily and piling up so deep that I could jump into it and disappear.

Glistening like stars twinkling far away, my eyes are seduced by tin foil covered chocolates in the distance, nestled inside colorful baskets with shredded slips of green plastic. I can see dyed hardboiled eggs, I can smell baked ham and pineapple, I can taste potato salad, candy coated malted balls in blue, yellow, pink, and white, and I can taste pineapple upside-down cake.

These are only but a few of the things hidden away here in the twilight of memory, they are mental photos and recordings of a place that still exists along the arrow of time, but is too far behind for me to return to. A version of me is still back there though, living in each of those moments, frozen along the filmstrip of my childhood, forever young and forever innocent.

Out of the Darkness

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My name is Kephen Merancis and there’s really no easy way to start the conversation that we need to have. It takes a lot of courage to break the wall of silence that stigma builds. It takes at least a little bit of hope to begin the process of walking out of the darkness. And it takes support to rise above the pain caused by mental or behavioral health conditions.

In the following three thousand words or so I will be painfully honest with you, I will be vulnerable about my own personal life experiences with a mental health condition.

From my willingness to be open about this, I hope that you will feel an emotional connection, perhaps even to your own story. If you are experiencing depression right now, I hope that by learning of my story that it plants that small seed of hope inside of you if you don’t currently have it, and I hope that by telling my story it encourages you to reach out for help.

To begin, I want to share with you a journal entry I wrote when I was 25 years old, it will help you begin to form an idea of what I experienced.

“For the last six months I’ve been everywhere and yet nowhere. Inside of me I’ve been throughout the wilderness of my own consciousness. Traversing the bad places that I had never wanted to go back to. It’s almost humorous to think that I was naive enough to believe that I would not return here. Such is the nature of the beast. To be done away with, only to be reborn again. I should have heeded my own advice, remembered that it is not a battle with one win or loss, but a war forever raging.

These hours are days and the days like weeks, these weeks passing like months and soon the leaves will fall again, the breath of life will wisp away into the cold wind of autumn. Normally the darkness settles upon me in the dead of winter, but this year I’ve been feeling it since last winter. It has not gone away with spring and summer.

I often ponder if it is noticeable to other people. That question was answered a few months ago when someone pointed out to me that I have not been myself. That I was different. I suppose it is true that we are what we feel.

I look in the mirror and into my own eyes and I wonder who is there staring back. Who am I? Is this me? If not, then where have I gone to? When am I coming back?

It’s like feeling sick, like you have the flu or something. You’re tired, forever tired. You don’t want to do anything, or go anywhere. Nothing interests you, nothing matters anymore. You don’t care about anything, sometimes not even other people. You become self-absorbed, like your drowning in yourself. You hear people, you see them, but their words pass through you and they look like characters in a film, a movie that you’re not a part of.

I could sit for hours staring at a wall. Just sitting there, blank faced. Not seeing what’s in front of me, but seeing everything that’s inside of me. Lost within my own self. Treading across the wasteland I feel within. Encountering bad things, bad memories and failed attempts, reliving things that I’d rather not. Completely and utterly disconnected from a social existence. My body is here, but I am not.

I’ve been doing what I have to do, but nothing more. Walking, talking, working, eating, sleeping and repeating. But I’m on autopilot. Most of the time I cannot remember what I did the day before. I am not here. I am not here.

I have grown quite good at pretending to be okay, faking my smiles and my laughs, it’s easy to do, especially when people want to believe that everything is right with the world. Sometimes optimism is it’s own blindfold. At times it seems as though I am trying to fool myself into thinking this is not really happening. Hoping that if I pretend long enough, that even I will believe it.

Some days are better than others. Some days I can walk outside and I can feel the sun. To feel is to know that I am alive. But these are just momentary glimpses of life, flashes of organic connections, a clear picture forever followed with more white noise.

These things used to scare me. I’ve been here enough times that this place is now familiar to me, these walls have imprisoned me many times before.

It is here, deep inside of me that the real understanding of depression can be made. What people see on the outside is a mere raindrop to the ocean that swallows me from within.

I’ve spent most of my time here distant, withdrawn, depressed, unmotivated, emotional, aggressive, irritable, uninterested, sleeping when I should be awake and awake when I should be sleeping.

All of these things and many more, make up the walls that keep me here. I do have brief grace periods, sometimes lasting days. Those feel like waking up from a nightmare, they make you wonder what is happening and how much of it was real.

On the worst days I am my most silent. So much is happening inside me that I cannot exist outside myself. These days are marked with the worst kind of thoughts. Thoughts of dying. Thoughts of sleeping and never waking. Thoughts of ropes and pills. Thoughts that make me glad I don’t own a pistol.

No one wants to die, but some people don’t want to hurt anymore.

Hurt is a complex concept. We grow up thinking that hurt is a physical feeling, that falling off a bike is the meaning of hurt. And then people hurt our feelings and we realize that hurt is more than the pain of flesh. So too is it a pain of the mind.

I wrote those words on September 18, 2011. It was one of many writings I did while I was experiencing the ups and downs of my mental health condition.

You see, I have bi-polar disorder, and the first time I became suicidal I was a teenager. When I was 14, I started venting troubled thoughts in a private journal. I started opening up about my feelings in this journal because a teacher encouraged me to keep writing after enjoying something poetic I wrote during a class project.

Little did she know that one day in the future, writing would help save my life. But not yet, because the first time it could have saved me, the words were overlooked.

My parents found that journal when I was 15 and asked me about it, but I pretended like it was nothing and so my parents never asked about it again. Those words in that journal were the first warning sign that something was wrong, a sign they chose to ignore because they wanted to believe that I was just being a moody teenager and that everything was fine.

Like most parents, mine were not well versed on the signs and symptoms of depression, let alone a more serious mental health condition like bi-polar disorder.

My first experience with attempting suicide happened three months before my 17th birthday. I waited until my parents left the house to go to the grocery store, and when they did I placed my letter of apology on their bed, it was a suicide note that I had written in advance.

I then walked out of my house for what I believed was the last time. I can remember how different everything felt. I felt lighter, like the burden of choosing to live and suffer, or to die and be free, had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt as though I was ready to let go of my struggle and my life, which to me were synonymous.

I was acutely aware of everything around me for the first time in a long time. The colors of things looked brighter and crisper, the sounds more sharp, the smells were stronger. Some seventeen years later I can still remember what the yellow grass at my feet and the humid air from the overcast sky smelled like that August evening.

I walked down the hill behind my fathers shed, far enough to be away from the house, but not so far that someone wouldn’t find my body.

In my hand I carried a small off-white colored cup the size of a pill bottle. Inside of it were a mix of ingredients that I had put together myself. In my poetic mind I felt like dying by poison seemed appropriate, and was inspired by the Greek philosopher Socrates who was forced by religious authorities to take his own life by hemlock.

I felt like I was being forced to take mine in order to be free of the mental pain I was experiencing.

I remember holding that small cream colored cup to my lips, just holding it there as the murky liquid touched my mouth. Many thoughts raced through my mind.

Thoughts of people, of events, of feelings. Of anger and pain, of regret and guilt, of shame and loneliness, feeling as though I didn’t belong anywhere nor deserved to belong anywhere, so many emotions that tears started streaming down my face. And in that moment the land around me fell silent, as though I and nature both held our breath together.

As that little cup slipped out of my hand and away from my face, I watched it in slow motion fall to the ground. I watched its contents spill out into the grass.

I didn’t drink it though. I never allowed it beyond my lips. No matter how much that voice in my head told me to do it, I couldn’t drink it.

I remember falling to my knees behind my father’s shed in defeat, while the overcast sky began to release a soft rain. I yelled out in tearful anger that I was too weak to end my own life. I blamed myself, I blamed god, for I was angry that I was stopped by my fear of death.

My fear… it was stronger than my pain in the beginning, but my fight had only just begun. When I was 18, I once again became suicidal and began having impulsive desires to take my life.

After realizing that suicide by poison would be too slow, too painful, and not likely to be successful, I began contemplating more efficient methods. I started thinking about more violent things like intentionally crashing my truck on my way to or from work. Other times I’d think about shooting myself.

The thoughts would even rush into my head sporadically without my control. I’d just be driving when all of a sudden I would feel this immense desire come over me to just swerve to the right and flip my truck into the ditch. Or while eating lunch, the thought of holding a gun to my head would just creep in. Even if I wanted to I couldn’t make these thoughts stop.

In January of 2005, two months after my 19th birthday, I reached my next breaking point. The feelings inside, the desire to end my life, were so strong that on the morning of the 28th I knew I would never see the sunrise again. After an argument at work, it became apparent that I needed help, my coworkers offered to take me somewhere, but I decided to go home to tell my parents they could either listen and save me or they could keep pretending everything was fine and let me go forever.

This time, they listened and I spent a few days in St. Mary’s hospital in their psychiatric ward on the 4th floor, while my father removed the firearms from our house.

I spent the next two years seeing counselors, psychiatrists, social workers, and taking a half dozen different kinds of pills. Some of those pills helped, some hurt, some caused hallucinations, some did nothing but make me sleep a lot.

Eventually I found one that worked well and I stabilized, and like many people do after feeling better, I was convinced I was fine and stopped taking my medications.

For six months I remained well, in fact I had not been that well for years. In 2007, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.

After a few weeks at bootcamp, the shin splints I that I had been developing before I left home had begun affecting my training. As the rigors of training wore down my body, that new found resilience of my mind collapsed and awakened once more was the power of my disorder and it returned with all of its previous influence.

I became suicidal while in San Diego, California as the belief that I was weak, a failure, a burden, became embedded in my every waking thought. The scissors they gave us to keep our uniforms free of loose threads suddenly found their way into my thoughts with a different purpose.

One night, I cut myself on the thumb to see how much it would hurt, but it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. There was more blood than I expected so I wrapped it up and when one of my Drill Instructors saw it during inspection, I told him that I had just cut myself with a shaving razor by accident. Little did he know, I was having impulsive thoughts of where else I could stab or cut myself.

In my letters home, I tried to not mention these things, but I was being swallowed by the darkness of my own mind. I knew I needed help, but I was caught between feeling ashamed and embarrassed of my mental health condition and feeling like a failure and a weakling.

While I was at boot camp, I met other young men like me, who didn’t respond the way we were supposed to. Instead of our DI’s being able to break us down to be rebuilt stronger than before, we were broken in so small of pieces that we could not be rebuilt without serious professional help.

While posted in the barracks of another platoon, I was ordered to watch over a recruit who was deemed a flight risk, meaning they thought he’d try to runaway.

When I walked in, I saw him curled up in a fetal position in the corner sobbing uncontrollably, his arms wrapped around his knees. After the DI left, I tried to console the recruit from the door where I was ordered to stand guard. The kid could not have been older than 17, and at this time I was 22. I knew he heard me speak to him, but he never turned around and never responded to my attempts to reach out.

When I saw him in his state of mental crisis, I saw myself, not literally curled up in a corner like him, but as equally mentally unstable. I was stationed there with another recruit from my platoon who told me to stop talking to the kid because he wasn’t one of ours and wasn’t our problem. But I didn’t see him as a problem, I saw him as someone who needed more help than a Drill Instructor was trained to offer.

I still often think of that recruit and wonder what events had led to him being in that condition before I got there, and what became of him after I left.

On a different occasion during a visit to medical, a recruit from another company than mine was sitting next to me, he asked me why I was there. I decided to be honest and told him I was bi-polar. He then began to describe to me what he was experiencing, which were clearly symptoms of a serious mental health condition.

After that conversation I found the willpower to seek help for myself and I confessed to my DI’s and to a Naval psychologist that I had bi-polar disorder, something that I had not reported when I first enlisted. I had seen various different doctors before enlisting and so my medical information was scattered all over the place.

During enlistment I didn’t report nor give them the contact information for the physician who diagnosed me with bi-polar disorder because I knew it was a disqualifying condition. I deeply believed in joining the military, and there was nothing I wouldn’t do to make it happen, even if that meant illegally withholding important medical information.

My commanding officer recommended I receive an uncharacterized discharge due to my condition, rather than see me receive a dishonorable discharge for withholding that medical information.

While waiting to be discharged I spoke to a recruit who had asked me why I was leaving. Most of the other young men there never cared to ask why I was leaving and those who did ask didn’t know what being bi-polar meant. But this young man was different, he told me his sister had bi-polar disorder and that he loved her no matter what.

Those words felt very heavy to me. It was the first time that I understood that having a mental health condition didn’t mean that I was less than or not good enough. That being broken didn’t mean that I was worthless. On day 47 of boot camp, I left that place, but that place has never truly left me.

It’s been more than ten years since that event. To assume that everything has been great since then would be a false assumption.

Having bi-polar disorder or any other mental or behavioral health condition means that there is not a cure, a magical pill or therapy that will take it all away. It’s a process that begins with therapy or medication, or both, it’s a learning process where you and professionals figure out what the best treatment is for your personal circumstance.

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. The hope that tomorrow will be different, and maybe even better than today.

People used to ask me why I wanted to end my life. It wasn’t that I wanted to die, it was that I didn’t want to hurt anymore and I didn’t see any other way to end that suffering. Not enough people noticed that I was suffering, not enough people knew what the signs and symptoms were in order to recognize that I needed help.

Those reasons are why awareness matters, people need to understand how to identify someone who is suffering from some form of mental or behavioral illness, whether it’s some variance of depression, an anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, or any other serious condition.

Part of awareness also means we become aware of the language we use to discuss mental or behavioral health. There is a reason why mental health advocates and organizations are trying to end the usage of the word “commit” when we refer to those who die by suicide. Criminals commit crimes like theft and assault, people who die by suicide are victims and not criminals. They complete suicide, they die by it, they are victims of suicide.

While suicide itself can be an impulsive act, the process that gets a person to that point, for the majority of victims over the age of 15, can be a long drawn out process, ranging from weeks, to months, to years, or even decades, and often includes several suicide attempts before they are successful. The culmination of that process is suicide, that’s why we now say someone “completes” suicide.

It is the endpoint of a process where there are signs and symptoms that something is wrong, and so we must begin to learn what to look for, what to listen for, how to ask directly if someone feels suicidal and how to act when faced with someone who is. Awareness and prevention, those are my goals with this advocacy project, and together with others who share the information and resources collected here, we can achieve those goals.

In the words of Margaret Wheatley, “Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.”


This writing is available as an audio track on SoundCloud:


U.S. Behavioral Health and the Workplace

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According to the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, employees with depression miss on average 31.4 days per year and an additional 27.9 days of unproductivity when they report for work, but are unable to focus due to the symptoms of depression.

Various studies show that 30% – 50% of all adults in the U.S. will experience mental health issues at some point in their lifetime. It’s estimated that 20 million Americans currently have a substance use disorder and that 7.9 million have mental health issues and a substance use disorder such as alcohol and drug addiction.

According to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety alone, globally costs one trillion per year in lost productivity. This number is expected to reach six trillion by 2036. Globally, more than 300 million people (18% of which are in the U.S.) suffer from depression, many of which have some form of anxiety.

Negative work environments can lead to physical and mental health issues, substance abuse, absenteeism, and financial losses due to lost productivity.

The World Economic Forum proposed five responses to these issues:

  • Implementation and enforcement of health and safety policies and practices, including identification of distress, harmful use of psychoactive substances, and physical and mental illness. These policies should include resources to manage such issues.
  • The dissemination of information to employees regarding available support.
  • Involve employees in decision-making to convey a feeling of control and participation, and involving them in organizational practices that support a healthy work-life balance.
  • Programs for career development of employees.
  • Recognizing and rewarding the contributions of employees.

Cost-benefit analysis research on strategies to address mental health, concludes net benefits. Every dollar put into enhanced treatment for common mental disorders such as anxiety, results in a return of four dollars.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that only 36.9% of those who suffer from anxiety ever seek treatment.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducted a national U.S. survey that was published in 2014, revealing that anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders are the most common mental health issues.

In an August 2013 article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and 125 other contributors, titled The State of U.S. Health, 1990-2010: Burden of Disease, Injuries, and Risk Factors, neuropsychiatric disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States.

The World Health Organization has declared depression the leading single cause of disability globally, and the National Institute of Mental Health has declared this single disorder the leading cause of disability in Americans aged 15 – 44 years.

According to a study published in February 2015 in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, employees with major depressive disorder costs the U.S. economy more than $200 billion each year, and 50% of those costs are incurred on the employer. That exceeds the total economic costs of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and obesity.

The Depression and Anxiety Journal of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (DAJ/ADAA) reported in 2010 that 1/3 of the costs incurred by employers from employees with these types of mental health issues are a direct result of lost productivity. In 2010, the DAJ of the ADAA published another study showing that reduced productivity of depressed employees had capital costs of $2 billion per month in the U.S.

More than 50% of those suffering from moderate depression and 40% of those suffering from severe depression, never seek treatment.

According to three separate studies, there is a direct connection between suffering from physical illness and mental illness, in that one often leads to the other, what is known as comorbidity or multi-morbidity (British Medical Journal BMJ Sept. 2012; Journal of American Medical Association – Psychiatry Oct. 2007; The King’s Fund Think Tank 2012).

This comorbidity doubles or even triples the costs of treatment according to a 2014 report by the American Psychiatric Association in conjunction with Milliman Inc.

A study published in the Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience (2007), those suffering from depression were twice as likely to develop coronary artery disease or experience a stroke, and were four times more likely to die within six months after a heart attack.

Former U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy M.D., M.Sc., wrote in the Harvard Business Review (Sept. 2017), “Our understanding of Biology, psychology, and the workplace calls for companies to make fostering social connections a strategic priority.”

Dr. Murthy laid out the case for addressing workplace loneliness, an often overlooked but equally important factor in workplace mental health, by making these three points:

  1. Lonely workers are unhealthy – greater risk of cardiovascular disease, compromised immunity, increased risk of depression, shortened lifespan.
  2. Isolation in the workplace is costly – mental sluggishness from a lack of social supports leads to impaired productivity, loss of creativity, and interferes with decision-making. This impacts an organization’s revenue, spending, and performance through increased “sick leave” and health insurance claims.
  3. Modern workplace contributes to the challenge – with a focus on productivity and task completion, little time is spent on building social connections (team building).

Dr. Murthy recommends the following strategies to create workplace social connections:

  • Evaluate the organization’s current state of social connection by asking employees whether they feel valued and whether the corporate culture supports connectedness.
  • Build understanding at all levels about high-quality relationships at work.
  • Make strengthening social connections an organization-wide strategic priority.
  • Encourage employees to seek help when needed and to help each other.
  • Create opportunities for employees to learn more about each other, including personal experiences and interest outside of work.

A Missouri edition of this report in PDF format is available for download for free:

U.S. Behavioral Health and the Workplace