I have a few things I want to say about the Netflix documentary series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, so if you haven’t watched it you should stop reading beyond this paragraph if you want to experience it firsthand, but a word of caution, if you are emotionally or mentally triggered by someone dying (out of view of the camera), you need to reconsider watching it or at least perhaps tread lightly with someone there to support you.
I do hate to use the word “spoiler” in this situation because it feels disgusting, disingenuous, disconnected from what I’m actually going to talk about. It feeds the media spectacle and further removes us from the dark reality that unfolded, ultimately blurring our ability to discern the tragedy and trauma. I’m not so much interested in the show itself, more so a victim of circumstance in it.
This post is going to be about Travis Maldonado. A disclaimer first and foremost, I did not know him, I have no information to present other than what has been publicly put forth by his mom Cheryl, his sisters Ashley and Danielle, and the documentary itself. There is a lot of wild shit to talk about regarding the show, but when Travis died, that became the most impactful event and tragedy this documentary could possibly put forth outside of the animal abuse. In fact, the documentary should have been about Travis, not Joe.
Travis is most certainly important to his family and friends who grieved his loss in 2017, but Travis is also important because he represents a group of young men that are rarely ever discussed or depicted through a widespread televised medium. Caleb Diehl is another good example of what I’m about to discuss, so afterwards go Google Caleb’s story and mysterious disappearance if you are not familiar with it.
Over the last decade of being involved in behavioral health, and of course from my own personal experiences with a mental health condition, I can attest to the fact that sometimes people suffering from or struggling with behavioral health issues, whether we are talking about a mental health condition or a substance use disorder, become victims not just of the things they are struggling with, but also of other people who take advantage of them in their vulnerable state.
From the documentary and from the things I’ve seen publicly stated by Travis’s family, I believe this to be the other tragedy of his story, second to the fact that he died in a terrible accident, viewable on the documentary itself – making it all the more traumatic for everyone who witnesses it. Remember his family watched the show, relived his death, and some of Travis’s family had never before seen the security camera footage of his death.
Sometimes individuals with a mental health condition or a substance use disorder (formerly known as addiction), find themselves in very difficult situations where they become extremely vulnerable to outside influence, persuasion, manipulation, coercion, psychological or physical abuse, among other things. This is compounded when they are also desperate for something they want or need, particularly when that thing is an illicit substance that they have become dependent upon.
If you’ve seen the documentary, you know that Travis was identified as having a meth “addiction” and used marijuana heavily. According to his older sister in a Facebook post, Travis was portrayed fairly accurately in the documentary, so I can only ascertain that he did truly struggle with substance use.
It’s a private matter and I honestly don’t believe it’s really all that important for reasons I’ll state in a bit, but Travis’s sexual orientation remains uncertain and people continue to publicly discuss it. He proclaimed to be straight and this was supported by coworkers who stated he frequently slept with women who worked at the zoo. He was, however as we all know, in a relationship and marriage with another man, Joe Exotic.
Again, this detail is not important in my opinion, but due to the fact that people have discussed it a lot and have inquired as to why the term “bisexual” was never brought up in the documentary, I will say it’s certainly possible he was bisexual, the vast majority of people within the LGBTQ, are actually some variant of bisexual. They make up a significant portion of that population.
In a 2011 American study by Gary Gates and the Williams Institute, some 8-10 million Americans identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. An additional 25 million Americans stated they had engaged in same-sex experiences, 76% of those people identified themselves as straight. While the majority of lesbian women and gay men eventually come out publicly or to their friends and family, when it comes to self-identified bisexual Americans, the study showed that only 28% of them ever “come out” publicly.
Whether or not Travis was “happy” in his relationship with Joe is uncertain, all I have to go on is the documentary footage and his family’s public statements following the airing of the show. Some people say he was, others say he wasn’t. It’s this “relationship” that I want to discuss next.
This is merely my opinion, but I believe the free-spirited and sometimes wreckless Travis has become the most prominent example of a victim of a process known as “grooming.”
Grooming is a process by which a person says and does things to attract another person to them, which heavily revolves around building trust, favor, and gratitude, but eventually leads to manipulation, coercion, and even threats and blackmail if the victim attempts to separate themselves from the “groomer.”
Part of this grooming process often includes money, gifts, favors, and other methods of flattery. Not everyone who finds themselves on the receiving end of this grooming process is oblivious to what is taking place. Some have even purposefully put themselves into the situation because they like the attention. Some are even using the groomer and tricking them, enacting a strange game of cat and mouse, where both become victims of each other.
However, the majority of people who find themselves being groomed are often unaware, especially in the beginning. Typically they are like Travis, looking for belonging, direction, support, attention, connection, a change or a new start.
Victims of grooming are often young males, likely due to the fact they are less guarded, less cautious, and less likely to perceive themselves as potential victims. They are usually under the age of 21 and unfortunately can even be very young children in cases of pedophilia.
Those who are groomers are almost always older than the victim, most of the time drastically older, which they use to their advantage. They are typically financially better off than the victim, can provide a financially stable support system, give them shelter, guidance, employment, food, expensive gifts, the list goes on and on.
Due to the fact that grooming victims are young and often troubled or struggling with their mental and emotional states, they can be easily manipulated, especially if the manipulative behavior includes money, objects, or substances the victim wants or believes he needs. The more the victim wants or believes he needs what the groomer is offering him, the more easily and deeply manipulated he will become.
Groomers almost always target individuals they are sexually attracted to, but the victims sexuality is less important as the groomer gets what they want through the control of manipulation, coercion, and above all else making the victim feel as though they are indebted to the groomer.
Aside from physical attraction or substance use, they may also look for young men who appear to be poor, less educated, rebellious, wreckless, socially rejected, troubled and struggling, abandoned, lonely, without purpose or direction in life, or homeless.
This grooming process almost always culminates in requests for sexual favors. If this is the fate that befell Travis, I must say it is the first time I have ever seen the grooming process culminate in marriage to the groomer, but I suppose there’s a first time for everything.
I genuinely hope that I am wrong about the predicament that Travis was in, I sincerely hope that he actually wanted to be in a relationship with Joe and that he was actually happy and content with where he was and what he had. But honestly, my knowledge of this type of behavior and my experiences in dealing with manipulative groomers, my observations of Travis’s behavior in the documentary and the public statements from his family, make me believe otherwise.
The premature ending of Travis’s life is the real tragedy of The Tiger King, the real injustice in all the chaos that unfolded. I’m not intending to lay blame on anyone involved with the zoo, but his death never should have happened.
Additonal Links of Interest
Travis Talking About His Favorite Animal at the Zoo (skip ahead to the 3:12 mark)
Travis Maldonado Footage from JoeExoticTV Part One
Travis Maldonado Footage from JoeExoticTV Part Two
Ashley’s Memorial Video for Her Brother Travis
JoeExoticTV’s Memorial Services for Travis Maldonado
40-Second Travis YouTube Memorial Video
4:30 Travis YouTube Memorial Video
JoeExoticTv Memorial Video to Travis
Travis Shooting Stuff
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page. A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.
Pulled from the archives and originally written in 2012, updated and expanded.
Please be advised this entry discusses difficult emotions and suicide, it may not be appropriate for those easily disturbed or triggered by such topics. Support resources are provided at the end of the article.
When you’re just a kid and adults, both those that are strangers and those with authority that are trusted like teachers and priests, unknowingly convince you with their misguided words that the thoughts you secretly have are sinful, that it’s against the teachings of your God and your religion, it causes you to become shaken. You are confused and afraid. You feel wrong, you feel sick, you feel guilty as though you’ve done something wrong and yet you’ve done nothing at all, but be yourself.
You try to hide it, that part of you that’s an important piece of who you are. You push it down deep and try to keep it secret so that no one sees it. You learn how to fake things, to do things that prevent others from knowing the truth. You lie and you pretend, just so that no one will hate you, laugh at you or make you feel bad about yourself.
You struggle every day to keep a part of you caged up. Scared to death that someone might figure it out. Scared to death that you won’t be accepted, that no one will ever love you. Trusted adults tell you that religion dictates certain people to be bad, and these unfortunate and damned souls just so happen to remind you of you.
You become convinced they must be right because you don’t know any better. You look in the mirror and you think that you are bad. Even though you never made the choice, you are forced to live with the consequences of other people’s ignorance.
When you go home after school you withdraw inside yourself. You have so many thoughts that you try to fight. You tell your thoughts to go away, you fight against them. You tell yourself that the thoughts are bad and wrong, that you are bad and wrong.
At eleven years old you find a place to hide and cry, you cry out of anger, out of shame, you cry out and ask God why you are cursed, you cry because you don’t want to be afraid anymore, you cry because you don’t want people to hate you for having feelings you can’t stop. You cry because you don’t know what else to do.
You wipe away your tears and you carry on. You smile and you laugh because you don’t want anyone to know something is wrong with you. You try to hide the fact that you are different the best that a kid can.
By the time you are sixteen you have become someone that isn’t you. You don’t even know who you are. You are so messed up from pretending to be someone else. You are emotional, you’re angry, you’re lost, you’re withdrawn and quiet, you’re still afraid and still in hiding.
You don’t even want to talk to people in fear they may discover your truth. You don’t try to make friends because it’s too risky. You still cry when no one is around and you try to be by yourself as often as you can. You learn to write because words set you free, your bleeding heart fills up pages with sadness, self-hatred, loneliness, a blinding and painful misery you never deserved. A choice you never made.
You hear people still saying bad things about other people like you, use it as a slur to make fun of people. Sometimes you even join in just so no one notices you are one of them. In time, you start to blame those undeserving victims for your suffering. You blame them because they are open, you blame them because they are happy, you hate them for it.
Eventually, you fall to pieces and you hate yourself more than anyone else. You hate being alive. You hate that your heart flutters. You hate yourself for wanting to be loved. To just be noticed.
You begin to hate human contact. You don’t want people to touch you, to hug you. You don’t want to talk to anyone. Deep down, you want all of it, but you won’t allow yourself to have any of it. You don’t deserve it. You are filth, you are dirty, sinful, an abomination, you are depraved.
The pain consumes you. The sun stops shining, darkness embraces you. Your heart is dying and human contact evades you. You are falling down into a hole where no one can help you. Not that you expect anyone to want to.
You start physically hurting yourself to see if you can still feel anything other than emotional pain. You cut yourself in the hopes that the pain will bleed out too. You think about dying because you don’t want to hurt anymore. You can’t stand to look at yourself anymore. You keep hiding from everyone, but you don’t think you can hang on anymore.
Eventually you make the choice to kill yourself. You write a letter of apology to your parents and lay it on their bed. You walk outside your home for what you believe to be the last time.
For the first time in what feels like forever, you feel oddly free. Like a burden has been lifted off your shoulders, the choice to die feels like a relief, a refuge from your suffering. That the end of you is the end of it. The colors of the trees and the grass seem more vibrant, the smells more intense than what you’ve experienced for so long. In a strange twist of fate, now that you’re going to die, you feel more alive than you did before.
You walk until you find what you believe to be the place to end your life. You wish it didn’t have to be this way, that death wasn’t your only salvation. You wish that someone could love you for who you are. You wish that you could love.
In the seconds before your plan is completed and you do something that cannot be undone, you stop yourself as the faces of your family flash into your head, along with memories. You try to convince yourself that they will be better off without you as a burdensome worry. You’re no good to anyone.
You turn and look around you, as if others are there, watching you, waiting to see what you will do. Surrounded by woods on every side except behind you, you know that no one else is there, no one human anyway, just the trees and the animals, the only things that still understand you.
Like a tiny distant whisper, a voice seperate from the others in your head, reaches out from nowhere and offers you two words, “What if?” Your head races with thoughts of what if life could be different, what if you could feel differently, what if you could be loved, what if you could love, what if there is hope?
Your hand opens and your instrument of death falls away from you in slow motion, you watch it fall to the ground until it makes contact with the yellow grass. Everything else blurs, everything else goes silent, your legs give way and you collapse to the ground on your knees.
You don’t kill yourself. Instead you become angry at yourself because you believe you are still too afraid to die, you’re confused that a part of you wants a reason to live. You fight on desperately wishing someone would notice how broken you are, that someone would just reach out and ask you if you are hurting so that you could finally tell someone. But instead you remain alone and scared. You are only sixteen years old.
A little over two years later you find yourself without hope again. Unwilling to accept yourself because you think no one else will, you believe that death will come easier this time. You have no more hope. No one even seems to notice you, and if they do they have chosen to say nothing. You’re convinced you don’t matter, that no one cares.
You’re tired of everything. Tired of the pain, tired of the lies, tired of pretending, tired of hating yourself. Tired of wanting to drive your truck off the road every morning on your way to work, tired of thinking of other ways to kill yourself. You decide that shooting yourself is the only way this will end.
On the morning of what you think will be the last time you’ll ever see the sunrise again, you’re angry that still no one seems to notice how much you’re hurting, that no one will miss you, that no one cares about you at all, that you don’t matter, your life doesn’t matter.
Strangely enough your anger is actually your saving grace. Your plans are interrupted when people intervene after an emotional outburst. Your life is about to be forced to change, and though blissfully unaware, they have helped you save yourself from things they do not yet understand. The lock on the door that for so damn long has held you imprisoned within has been broken off the door. You are nineteen years old.
Three more years of emotional ups and downs, of medications and therapy, have come and gone and at the age of 22 you decide that you have nothing more to lose. You decide that you’ve wasted enough of your life and you finally open the door that’s been sealed shut since you were thirteen years old.
You choose to accept yourself and find the courage to tell others who you really are. You realize that living as you is worth more than dying as someone you were never supposed to be.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page. A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.
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 a tube of something 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.
Click here to read more chapters from this novel.
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:
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 is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page. A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.