Robin Williams, And Why We Need To Talk About Depression

When I started writing this, I was going to focus on the death of Robin Williams. But looking over all the coverage in the last 48 hours, I’ve realized that such an article would just be repeating the same stories already out there. I could talk about watching Mork & Mindy reruns on Nick at Nite as a kid, or how I saw Aladdin, Jumanji, and Mrs. Doubtfire enough times to memorize every line. I could talk about how legitimately creepy I found him in One Hour Photo and Law and Order SVU. I could talk about how the phrase, “It’s not your fault” still makes me tear up. But you’ve read – and likely experienced – all of that already. It’s amazing how one man can bring together millions of strangers with a common experience of laughter. I wish I had a better story to tell you, that I was trapped in an elevator with him for an hour, or that he held a door open for me one time. But I don’t. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 30 years, but I never met him.

And now I never will.

If there’s anything positive that can come out of this tragedy, it’s that more people are talking about depression and suicide. It needs to be discussed. Our culture has many proverbial elephants in the room, but depression is one of the biggest and deadliest. Psychology has developed leaps and bounds over the last century, but there’s still so much we don’t know. Lobotomies aren’t a form of treatment anymore, though all the medications and their innumerable side effects aren’t much better. Most folks haven’t bothered to learn anything about depression; if something’s uncomfortable, it’s much easier to sweep it under the rug. There’s an unspoken stigma – especially for men – about mental health. Oh sure, we all know it’s there, but who wants to think about that? It’s so much easier going about your daily life, catching a movie, playing a video game…whatever it takes to keep you distracted from the darker, lesser-known aspects of our existence. Because there’s no way anything like that could happen to you, right?

I know better.

I know what it’s like having that little twinge of doubt consuming your every action and decision. It builds with each passing day, filling and weighing your down like molten lead. I know the burn of stigma and shame, that sense of worthlessness and isolation. That no one could possibly understand. That you’re different, broken, maybe a lost cause. That you shouldn’t bother asking for help, because it’s nothing, it’s all your fault, and no one would want to help you anyway. That you have to pretend and put on a smile, and how exhausting it is. That you can’t fall asleep sometimes, because your brain is spinning like a tire stuck in mud. That you occasionally dread getting up in the morning because it’s yet another day bereft of meaning. That every aspect of your life is conspiring to make you more miserable. That things are so bad now, and the future is a terrifying prospect.

Look, I know you’re out there. You’re sitting in front a screen somewhere, and you’re feeling trapped and alone. I don’t know you, your background, age, sex, gender, ethnicity, circumstances, none of the above. I’m not going to pretend that I get everything about what you’re going through, but I know enough. Depression isn’t just a habit you can kick; it’s there, and it’s a serious, potentially deadly problem. It doesn’t make you a bad or weak person. But leaving it untreated is like putting a rock in your shoe and running a marathon. So, let me ask (and you don’t have to answer, but just think about it): What’s stopping you from getting help? Is it fear of rejection? Insurance coverage costs? Guilt? Whatever it is, are there ways around it? Also, let’s make one thing clear:

There is nothing, nothing wrong with asking for help.

I’m not going to romanticize therapy, either; it’s difficult in ways you’d never expect. It makes you take a long, hard look at yourself, and there’s no instant cure. For some, a couple of pills a day isn’t going to solve your problems. But if you’re going to do anything, then at least talk about it. If you can get therapy, go for it. If not, talk to your trusted family and friends. If not them, support groups and hotlines. Possibly all of the above. If you need to call someone, there are plenty waiting to listen. People can and will help you, but they’re never going to know unless you tell them. And for those of you who know someone in need, be there for them. It’s not about politics, taboos, or whatever else; someone you care about needs your help. I don’t think you’re going to leave them hanging. If you want to learn more about depression and suicide, there are several resources online. Try starting with the entries on WebMD, Wikipedia, and TV Tropes.

I don’t know if this post is going to make any difference. If it helps someone struggling out there, then I’d consider it a success. I’m typically reserved and quiet, so all of this preaching about seeking help from others and whatnot might sound hypocritical. Despite that, I am living proof of my argument; I wouldn’t be here otherwise. I’m not an optimist, but I’d rather fill an empty life than throw it away. Look, I’m not idealistic enough to think that we can change everything about depression overnight; despite all our advancements, we’re barely scratching the surface. But the first step is talking about it. Too many people have lost their lives in the silence already.

I’ve been on the soapbox long enough. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on a Robin Williams movie binge.

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Zero To Hero Day 16: The Reputation Spectrum

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about reputation. The funny thing about reputation is how wildly it differs depending on who’s perceiving it. It’s a matter of an individual’s background or beliefs; we judge each other based upon our own expectations. A reputation is just an impression of only a part of someone’s personality; it’s like assuming a person’s whole identity based solely on their musical or literary tastes. Or their sign and Myers-Briggs type, for that matter; I’m an INTJ Scorpio, but such classifications have limited relevancy. Human beings are more complex than that, and everyone needs to be mindful of not cramming each other – and themselves – into little, stereotypical boxes.

If everyone I knew were to attend my funeral, no one would be able to agree on the exact way I’d be remembered. My reputation spans a whole spectrum of social expectations. Everyone would I agree that I’m intelligent, with a knack for observation and planning. Weird and quiet, too. But beyond that? It’s up in the air. Part of my family would disgustedly declare that I was decidedly unmanly, just because I don’t conform to their idea masculinity. They’d say my love of literature, humanities, and style was…interesting, but they couldn’t fathom why I’d rather be alone instead of going shooting, getting drunk, or watching sports for hours. Another part of my family would argue that I was an ungrateful, blasphemous rebel who left everything behind. They’d say I was just a distant, morose shadow who blatantly disregarded the rules, asked too many questions, and should’ve gone to church more. Other family members would claim that I was kind and thoughtful for keeping the house running, helping them when they were sick, and making them laugh when they needed it most. A few might even whisper about my fiery temper in hushed tones.

My coworkers and classmates would say that I was efficient, responsible, and withdrawn. Maybe a little insane. They’d all talk about how I’d traveled the world, and actually camped under the stars the old fashioned way. That I’d always somehow grab everyone’s attention despite being so shy. There would be anecdotes about how I seemed always able to explain something in simple terms. That I wrote papers and solved puzzles with reckless abandon. And switch from serious to snarky at the drop of a hat. They’d say I was crazy for not owning a smart phone, but admit bringing homemade lunches every day was clever and healthy. The higher-ups would say I was either a great mentor, a good sounding board, a vicious debater, arrogant, sarcastic, frightening, or intimidating. That I preferred stating awful truths instead of pretending. That I refused to play politics, for better and worse. Some would concur that I was a total charmer, despite my protests otherwise. They’d say I had warm, boundless energy and a knack for making people smile.

Certain circles in gaming community would say that I was an awesome reviewer with high writing standards. There would be tales of enigmatic emails featuring advice on critical writing and video game history. They’d mention how I’d always lurk somewhere in the background, surprise everyone with a new article, and vanish again. Some of the old timers would reminisce how I worked my way up from a crappy newbie. Anyone I’ve played against online would accuse me of being a flagrant trickster and a completely off-the-rails strategist. They’d moan about how I didn’t take anything seriously, yet somehow managed to beat them on several occasions. Very few could claim they ever spoke to me personally.

See what I mean? Reputation isn’t set in stone; it’s based upon others’ perceptions of you. A single person could have dozens of stories levied against them. The real danger is when you start buying too much into the expectations; if you focus too much on how you should act, you end up losing sight of your real personality. Everything I mentioned in the previous paragraphs has a bit of truth to them, but they’re ultimately inaccurate. They’re just like jigsaw puzzle: small pieces of a larger whole. I’m not sure what I kind of reputation I’m developing on WordPress, but I hope it’s a good one.

A Style All My Own

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about style. This one’s pretty awkward for me, because my personal style isn’t exactly…normal. I could never afford anything really fancy growing up, so the designer/label fads meant little to me. Instead, I’ve always focused more on simplicity. I’d take a good, sturdy pair of walking shoes over the latest Nikes any day. If I’m traveling somewhere and need to carry some extra gear, I’ll usually stick with cargo pants and a backpack. I typically wear a t-shirt as an underlayer, then have a dress shirt partially buttoned and untucked over it. The sleeves are always rolled up in case I need to do something potentially messy, or if I start sweating. No patterns or loud colors; I just mix and match my plain-colored clothes depending on the weather and how well they go together. I stick with combinations of green and brown shades to complement my olive skin tone and bring out my eye color. If I want a more formal look, I wear mostly black, but bust out a maroon dress shirt just to keep things interesting. During the winter, I use my black trench coat – which has a removable insulated layer for warmer temperatures! – and a nice, long scarf. Such ensembles are simple, elegant, and (most importantly) comfortable.

Alucard being one of my favorite game characters might have been an influence.

For some reason, such outfits make me stand out. I think it has a lot to do with expectations and stereotypes. As much as we all like to think we can see past physical appearances, such beliefs are still a huge part of our culture. Hey, here’s a little game to play the next time you’re watching prime time television: during the commercials, keep track of how many of them use beauty, age, or sexuality within the subtext. Remember that Nespresso ad? Because caffeine is supposed to be sensual and alluring. Gee, I sure wish I could have glamorous coffee time like (and hopefully with!) Penelope Cruz…and I don’t even drink coffee. There are similar commercials for eating yogurt, bathing, clothes shopping, cleaning the kitchen, etc. Forget being valued as a person; there’s nothing more important than being “perfect” in every way! Commercials are similarly condescending to men, albeit in different ways. Of course you want that new truck! Your worth is based on virility and ownership, so of course you want the most powerful, impressive thing out there. Of course men just wanna drink beer and act stupid. No self-respecting man would ever dare know about hygiene, cooking, culture, responsibility, parenting, emotions, or, you know, pretty much anything.

Sarcasm is such a wonderful thing.

Needless to say, I’m not comfortable with such expectations. That’s why I try to subvert them with my own style. I could easily get away with looking slovenly and mismatched. But I don’t, and people notice. Sometimes stare. “Real men” aren’t supposed to care, so I guess it makes me an anomaly. Men aren’t held to the same ridiculous appearance standards as women, but that also means less variety and individuality. How many bland suit and tie ensembles have you seen today? If it were socially acceptable and physically safe, I could probably rock a skirt and stockings. Since I can’t without risking a hate crime, I try to stand out more with shading and color contrasts. I also grew out my hair to create a more defining appearance. The two feet of curly, wavy hair have gotten me plenty of attention, in both good and bad ways. Women ask me about it all the time. I get called “miss” frequently. Occasionally someone will ask if I’m a rock guitarist, goth, gay, lesbian, or a Captain Hook cosplayer. It never occurs to anyone that maybe, just maybe, I didn’t like appearing as Mr. Another Generic Bland Guy and decided to do something more. Even if it means I’m more beautiful than handsome. If it makes people confused and intimidated, that’s fine. It’ll get them thinking. Ambiguity has a funny way of doing that.

Besides, I look and feel good. When it comes to style, that’s what really matters.

A Hairy Idea

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about ideas. Specifically, the best idea you’ve ever had. This one’s kind of tricky, because it’s not always clear whether the choices you’ve made are good or not. The old saying that “hindsight is 20/20” is totally right. You just don’t know. What seems like a good idea at one point could backfire spectacularly down the line, and some of the worst moments you’ll ever face may have some unexpectedly good results years later. Paying for college by myself felt like chopping off a limb with a butter knife, but it forced me to develop the discipline and focus that I needed. And though I’m currently unemployed, all the savings and lack of loans means I’m doing much better than countless others my age. Since I’ve already talked about it for another prompt, I’d rather talk about a less obvious great idea:

Growing out my hair.

No, seriously. I grew up in a devoutly religious and conservative household. Very traditional…except for being raised by a single mother who was always working. You might know how that goes. I was required to run the household and adhere to the rules and high expectations thrust upon me. And I totally bought into it. I was the golden boy; I always turned in perfect grades, maintained a part time job, and could have the house spotless and dinner cooking on time. I was praised for being so on top of everything. But questioning anything was…well, out of the question. Oh, I asked questions. I’m curious and tenacious by nature. But I paid for it dearly. You obey the rules, all is good. You fail to meet expectations, and you get tons of screechy criticism and passive-aggressive shaming.

It didn’t help that I was shy. I consider myself really introverted now, but I used to be a full-blown shrinking violet. Yeah, it’s not so cute when you’re one doing the shrinking. I was so drawn into myself and afraid of people that I had no social life whatsoever. I was the quiet, smart kid who aced his classes, went home, read books for hours, and did it all again the next day. I was awkward, wore glasses, and skipped a grade. And when you’re a boy growing up like that, it makes you a prime bullying target. You know how a lot of media focuses on the bullying epidemic and how terrible it is? Yeah, no one cared about that 20 years ago; not a single adult helped me. My feminine appearance made it even worse. I was (and still am) frequently mistaken for being female. Physically, I was a late bloomer; kind of short, a soft voice, and a head of thick curly hair. I still hesitate to wear shorts because the other kids used to accuse me of shaving my legs. There were people who’d shout slurs and throw things as they drove past while I walked to school.

My entire childhood and adolescence was like this.

Eventually, I started standing up for myself. Since trying to be nice and praying to God for a good day weren’t working, I began fighting back. And I was vicious. I was suspended exactly once, and it took at least three teachers to physically drag me to the office. Even now, years later, I’m still trying to get my anger under control. Work in progress, believe me. But lashing out didn’t solve the bigger problem: the repression of my personality. I lived to please and meet expectations, but I ignored my individuality and wants. I didn’t ask for much; I was never the kind of kid that demanded everything under the sun. And I was too busy schooling and working as it was. But I had to change something…I had seen some anime where the male characters could pass as women. Since everyone kept mistaking in a similar way, maybe I could do something about it…

Like my hair!

Yeah, I got the idea from watching anime. Feel free to laugh. But it was obviously more than that. So, I decided to refuse getting a haircut. Since my mother was the one that typically did it, she was shocked and possibly disgusted. I had to physically stop her from raising the scissors to my head. I went through years of her berating me for it. She screamed and moaned about how disobedient I was, and why I couldn’t be a better child, why couldn’t I just be normal, and that I’d never make it in the professional world. When I went to church with my hair tied back, I was openly mocked and came close to being thrown out. Rather than supporting me, my mother simply shook her head and said how sinful I’d become. My extended family were no better; I was – and still am – the subject of many jokes and incredulous stares. Some of my relatives occasionally threaten to cut my hair while I sleep. My coworkers just chalked it up to me being eccentric, but I had too many years of seniority for anyone to make a fuss. So I just kept letting it grow.

Skip forward to the present, I’ve got two feet of thick and wavy curly hair. I think it looks awesome, and lots of women – and men – certainly agree. I get questions about it at least a few times a month. Ever have someone ask if they can touch your hair? It’s kind of funny. I’ve got this weird Captain Hook/Kirk Hammett/young Robert Plant look going for me. People ask if I moonlight in a rock band. I’ve never even touched a guitar. And while I’m not exactly tiny, I still get mistaken for a woman constantly. Unlike before, however, I take it in stride. My decision to grow my hair was one of the few decisions I’ve made for my sake. It helped make me a much more confident, assertive person; I’ve been told that I come off as regal and intimidating. That’s a far cry from the mousy bully magnet I used to be. People see my style as a mark of individuality and act accordingly. I’m not afraid anymore; I carry myself with the understanding that this is part of who I am, and not some expectation imposed upon someone else. I may have never been the most masculine guy ever, but that’s okay. If I can’t be handsome, then I can certainly be beautiful.

Daily Prompt: Tattoo….You?, Or: Blank Skin, Too Many Choices!

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is about tattoos. Much to the surprise of anyone who assumes I’m a goth/punk/rock star based on my appearance, I don’t have any ink. It’s not because I’m squeamish around needles. And it’s certainly not because I find them unappealing; an excellent, tasteful tattoo can be really attractive. For me, it always seemed like a huge step in an unusual (though not bad) direction. Some corporate workplaces don’t encourage it, at least if the art is visible. There’s this bizarre, persisting belief that professionalism and tattoos don’t mix, as if they affect an individual’s competency. Considering how companies are supposedly pushing for more individuality, diversity, and creativity, the assumptions about tattoos are paradoxical, if not outright hypocritical. One of the most competent, business-savvy people I ever worked under had ink on her legs, but had to wear tights every workday because visible tattoos were forbidden. Social perspectives are starting to shift in favor of competency over personal appearance, but its extent is anyone’s guess.

My family’s attitude, however, isn’t going to going to change anytime soon. You should’ve seen the ruckus that got stirred up when I decided to grow my hair out. My mother was incredulous. Some of my relatives nicknamed me the CDL: Colombian Drug Lord. I’ve never done drugs, and nor been to South America. I still get half-joking threats of someone sneaking in and cutting my hair in my sleep….But I’ll save those shenanigans for another post. Tattoos are a personal thing; it’s ultimately up to the person, not the family, to choose responsibly. My hang-up is with my general appearance. I’m in much better shape than I was in college – I still hike and wander the city regularly – but I’ve got nothing worth showing off. I’m definitely not Calvin Klein model; I’ve got maybe a one-and-a-half pack on my best days. If I’m that average, would a tattoo really look that good on me?

I don’t know.

What I do know are the kinds of tattoos I’d get if I had the nerve. My favorite animal is the octopus. It’s one of the most intelligent and crafty members of the animal kingdom. Most people associate wisdom with owls due to their connection with Athena. However, octopi excel at stealth, dextrous tool-use, spatial memory, and navigation. They look weird, but undeniably awesome. It’d be cool to get a huge, detailed one spanning across one shoulder, with tentacles going down my arms, back, or chest. But since I’m huge literature geek, I’d probably go with a specific cephalopod: Cthulhu. Forget Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean; I want to have H.P. Lovecraft’s god of insanity on me.

But if I’m going with a literary-themed one, it’d probably be a famous passage drawn on my back. Maybe Hamlet’s soliloquy. An excerpt from Tennyson’s Ulysses, perhaps. The openings to Moby-Dick or A Tale of Two Cities. There’s a cavalcade of literary quotes I could use. Or maybe I could just have a huge stack of of my favorite books along my spine. Or maybe I should stick to paintings, like Van Gogh’s The Starry Night or Raphael’s The School of Athens. A Scorpio-themed one would be fitting, but kind of bland. Or I could get a video-game themed one, like Akuma’s Sky/Heaven symbol, the Triforce or Amaterasu. Samus Aran, Chun-Li, or Big Boss would all be serious contenders as well.

But if I wanted to go really esoteric, it’d have to be an astronomy one. Maybe the Pillars of Creation or the entirety of the Eagle Nebula. That probably wouldn’t translate well to ink and skin, though…

Yeah, I should stop. I’m going spend like an hour looking up cool/geeky tattoos that I’ll probably never get. But I can still imagine.