I’ll spare you the self-aggrandizing horseshit about “finding the strength to talk about this” or whatever. Instead, I’ll just come out and say it— I’ve thought about taking my own life more than once.
Yeah, the guy who can’t go six seconds without making a dick joke isn’t all that mentally sound. Shocking, I know. Thankfully though, that thought is no longer something I contend with.
My intention with what I’m writing here is not to preach or dictate to you any rules for managing mental illness, but to share how I got to where I am, what worked, what didn’t, and hopefully, to give you some motivation to stay in the fight if you’re struggling.
This is difficult to write, as I am an immensely prideful person, and very uncomfortable with exposing the holes in my armor. But, truth is, I have fought a pervasive sense of inadequacy and disdain for myself since before I could read.
In one of my earliest memories, I am four-years-old, pressing my face into the coarse purple carpet of my family’s basement, and wondering why anyone would want me around.
Dark shit, right? Hang tight, this has a happy ending.
I’m not sure exactly why my brain did that. I have an idea, but I don’t think it would prove beneficial for you or I if I were to use the next few thousand words explaining the theories of various mental health professionals. I would very much like to avoid any “woe is me” type sentiment or excessive melodrama. I will likely fail at that, and so I apologize in advance.
I am the son of an immigrant and refugee. My father left Communist Cuba at age 7, with his mother, little brother and nothing but the clothes on their backs. In the following five decades, he went from stealing mangoes for food, to owning a home in the wealthiest county in New Jersey. Being the son of someone who defied the odds in such extraordinary fashion came with a unique brand of pressure.
As soon as I was old enough to comprehend his story, the idea of “defying the odds” was ingrained in me as a virtue. It weighed on me, and I struggled with the idea that I could ever be worth anything to anyone if I didn’t do something spectacular. You know, like get into the NFL Hall of Fame, win six Oscars, occupy the Oval Office, or colonize Mars. Realistic, healthy aspirations.
The pressure was heavy. The internal dislike of myself was heavier. I don’t know if it was biological or the result of some early childhood trauma I can’t recall. Doesn’t matter. It was there.
I became a glutton for instant gratification early. I wasn’t comfortable unless I made someone smile. Ask my family about the kid who ran around Disney’s Wilderness Lodge in nothing but sunglasses and a cowboy hat, shaking his dick and balls.
Smiles, a nod of approval—any sort of positive expression in another, brought on by me, became the fuel my engine ran on. If the tank went empty, the darkness was suffocating. I couldn’t stop.
As I grew older, what I had inside got more difficult to rein in, even if I had everyone in the room laughing. My psychosis, or whatever you call it, morphed. I grew brash, abrasive and aggressive. When other people earned attention, I grew resentful and vindictive. It was no longer about soliciting giggles. I just had to be noticed somehow, otherwise the pain would grab hold of my throat again.
Like most teenagers, I was impulsive, but also, an unpredictable liability— an explosive charge packed with self-loathing, waiting to go off and blast shrapnel in your face. People were starting to laugh less at how funny or goofy I was, and more so at my outrageous and over-the-top behavior.
I would fly into a rage, break things at a house party, and start fights. Didn’t matter if I stood a chance. Being that immigrant’s kid came with a rule that was gospel: don’t let anyone fuck with you, and I was convinced everyone was trying to fuck with me. I sought conflict where there was none.
And then there were girls. In my all-consuming quest to be noticed, I quickly became adept at manipulation and less-than-honest maneuvering. With that came the opportunity to get laid a lot. I lied. I cheated. I became possessive. I got props from the other guys and could send the entire locker room into stitches after practice, recounting the act I’d put on to hook up in the library parking lot the night before. Everyone had to know. I staked my entire identity on it.
Teenage me was the consummate douche. I was always fucking, fighting, or somehow finagling. The delusional bravado became my badge and I tried to con myself into believing I was king shit.
But nobody can keep a con going forever, and when I couldn’t lie to myself, I lashed out further.
I shattered picture frames at home and threatened my family. I pissed on floors at parties. I drove drunk, narrowly avoided multiple DUIs and crashed into a fire hydrant as a young lady fumbled with my belt.
I broke into one of my closest friend’s homes to try and fight her older brother, because I heard he was making a pass at my girlfriend, who had just broken up with me after I’d cheated on her many, many times. I popped open the back door, went after him, and was quickly at the bottom of a pile of his friends. Somehow, that friend forgave me. She is still one of the most important people in my life, and a priceless confidante.
But, most people stopped wanting to be around me.
I left for college, partied my balls off, but without an audience leading up to that first semester, my madness had gained too much steam, and I dropped out before Thanksgiving. My mother, who is my steadfast angel and unquestionably the most important person in my life, drove seven hours to sit at a Bob Evans buffet with me at 2:00 AM. Then, we packed up my shit and left for Jersey, because if I had to sit in my dorm with my thoughts any longer, I might have done something I couldn’t take back.
I thanked her by repeatedly getting drunk in a friend’s basement and playing Wii hockey. I got fired from selling shoes at Modell’s. I think I got fired from Foot Locker too, but I’m not positive. I just stopped showing up after skipping a shift to go on a bender that started in Long Island and ended in a trailer park in Wildwood, New Jersey three days later.
Are you starting to notice a pattern here? I didn’t.
More benders, street fights on college campuses, trying to get laid—the same old song and dance went on and on.
But my traveling road show eventually got to be too much. I couldn't sustain it, financially, physically or mentally, and had no choice but to get help.
I made an effort to be in therapy as often as possible. I stopped boozing as much. I got into a good writing program at a great school. I still wasn’t facing my feelings all the way, but I was doing something.
Then another crash. My inability to deal with myself, and dependence on distraction, left me awake and alone, in the middle of the night, thinking the worst kind of thoughts. Mom says as a kid, I used to sleep with the lights on a lot. I did that in my early 20s as well, because it made me feel less vulnerable to the attacks my own mind was mounting. I tried to lie and bullshit professors into giving me C’s, failed almost every class, and ended up a drop out at home again.
After another stint in therapy, I decided to try something new, and got a job selling comedy tickets in Times Square.
I worked my way into an internship for one of the biggest talk comedy radio shows in the country, sleeping in the studio some nights and hiding in the bathroom of NJ Transit trains when I left the city, because I couldn’t afford a ticket. The greatest mentor in the world saw the hustle in me, and I got hired.
Three years later, fresh off a promotion and earning my seat as an in-studio producer, I abruptly quit. I found some solace in the hustle, but in truth it was just another cover over what was simmering inside. It boiled over, and in my last year and a half there, I spent a lot of late nights thinking about making the grand exit.
The internet sold me on the idea of finding peace in the mountains. I set my heart on heading West and becoming an outdoor adventure writer. After a brief phone call with a guy who was skiing in Canada with his wife, I accepted an offer to enter raft guide training in Montana.
I moved out of the apartment with the exposed brick wall and spiral staircase into a tent across the road from the Yellowstone River, where a dozen other river guides had set up shop in tents and trucks as well. I discovered and fell in love with a subculture I never knew existed. I made friends I’d die for today, including the owners of that raft company, who have had a tremendous influence on who I am, and unbeknownst to them, saved me when they gave me that gig.
In the four years since, I’ve lived in seven different states. I’ve guided commercial whitewater trips on four different rivers. I learned to climb rocks and taught myself to ski. Home has been a tent, a van, a double wide trailer, a 1992 Ford Explorer and your basic standard house. To pay the bills, I worked as a river guide, a dog sledding guide, a wilderness therapy field mentor for at-risk teens, an outdoor ed instructor, a bartender, bouncer, snowmobiling guide, ski lift operator, and flipped free furniture from Craigslist.
I lived on free beans for a few days in Washington, slept on the side of the road in Montana’s Paradise Valley, totaled my van in Breckenridge, and talked to a juniper tree after taking too many mushrooms in the Utah desert.
The new lifestyle increased my happiness exponentially, and I got to call my parents and listen to them tear up when I was published for the first time. But still, I moved from one one-night stand to another, drank too much PBR and left every great place for somewhere "better" whenever the demons’ grip got too tight. The depression was there occasionally, but I took pride in no longer thinking about doing something irreversible
I ended up stuck in Jersey after leaving a stint in Vermont. My father was fighting his second brain tumor, leaving him slightly paralyzed, and requiring around-the-clock care from my mother. I chose to stick around for a while to try and relieve some of their burden. A well-intentioned, but bad idea.
I was 10-years-old again, afraid of the night, wondering why I wasn’t something more. It wasn’t anything my parents did. It was me, looking at anything and everything, and finding a way to make it a reflection of my shortcomings. If only I had written a New York Times Bestseller, or stuck in the entertainment industry, I could buy them peace. If only I was something more, better, anyone but me, I could halt the suffering. But I wasn’t. And for the first time in years, I started to consider that I shouldn’t exist.
I am blessed in that I have friends across the country willing to listen when I’m hurting, and most felt I should leave. I hesitated. But my older brother, the rational mind to my radical, and everything I wanted to be as a kid, told me to go, get out, get healthy and be me.
I packed my truck and headed for Asheville, North Carolina. Another fresh start. Another mountain town. One more time, into the fray.
For the first time in eight months, I consistently felt good. I worked out a deal on a sweet little spot, renovating it in exchange for free rent and really making it my own. I was getting out and doing things, workin’ the usual dating apps, hustling from sun up to sundown on the house, and started work on a book. Things were headed in the right direction. I smiled a lot and when I was alone, the noise wasn’t so harsh. Then there was a girl.
When we first made plans to meet, I thought it would be a casual thing that fizzled out over time. I share a little bit of myself, then usually want to run. I can’t stand pillow talk, rarely do dinner, and hate the empty conversation that flows over drinks, as two people feign real interest in one another, when really, we’re both just looking for a brief respite from the shit sandwich that life can be.
I typically wanted women when I wanted them, then I wanted them gone.
But somehow, some way, I found myself totally at ease with her. Sharing more of myself than I normally would. Comfortable. I told friends about her, saying she was cool, but that I’d have to break things off at some point.
I told them that, because for the first time in a few years, I felt something real, and the sensation terrified me.
She was fierce and gentle at the same time, a powerhouse mother, with eyes that really seemed to see, and diabolical curves that made my heart thump double-time and my blood run hot. Her peculiar giggle tied my stomach in knots, and there was this effortless way in which she seemed to glide through life.
I noticed every little thing about her, and appreciated it. The way she tilted her head whenever our eyes met, how her house was so perfectly adorned and decorated, and the stupid, adorable voice she used with her dog. I tried to rely on my practice of looking at someone as just a way to briefly make life tolerable, instead of seeing her for what she was: an electrifying, independent being I wanted to know and feel every part of. I failed.
Gross, I know. Feelings stink. But they were there, and though I kept telling myself I had to dip out, I didn’t. The last night we spent together, we ate some mushrooms and didn’t leave bed for hours. It was magical, as psilocybin typically is, but even after the trip was over, I wanted to be no place but right there with her. For once, I was present, and okay with it.
I left her place thinking it was time to set aside my pipe-slinging ways and really make an investment in another person outside of the bedroom. As I thought of what to say, I avoided too much contact, not wanting to make the wrong move. I struggled with the idea of giving myself to her after being so cold and detached for so long. But she was in my head every few minutes; her kiss, her hips, her skin, her touch—her wants, dreams, likes and dislikes. Fish but not shellfish, Tokyo trap music, her vintage cocktail glasses, perfect pandemic pillows, the funky couch and that quirky little bookshelf in the living room.
Then a punch in the gut, a boot to the proverbial testicles. I got a text saying she only had the physical and mental space for one thing at a time and couldn’t see me anymore. Suddenly I was 17 again, and riding a wave of rage.
Another dude? I’d see them at a bar, pick his drink up, chug it, then break his fucking thumbs and stomp on his sternum.
Her child? In every photo I’d seen, he brandished a grin somehow even more endearing than his mother’s. I could step up for a kid like that. Get a job. Make him a part of my life, because he was inextricable from she, the best part of her being, and suddenly I wanted to drink up every bit of who she was.
Who was it?
What hadn’t I said?
What hadn’t I done?
Should I have cleaned up my beard and worn deodorant on mushroom night?
What the fuck could be better than me?
Who the fuck could be funnier or bring more to the table than me?
Me? The pinnacle of masculinity? ME?!
The mad man was back, in full battle regalia. What I’d fought so hard to chip away at for so many years returned renewed, false ego draping its arms round my neck and holding me tight.
More than a dozen beers died that night. The woodshed I’d spent four hours building was reduced to a pile of kindling. I did pushups and talked to my dog. We blasted songs by The Weeknd (Never need a bitch, I’m what a bitch need) and furiously swiped through Tinder together. I’d find a chick and fuck my feelings right off. The nagging sense of inadequacy had to somehow be brought to heel.
I drank enough to pass out.
I followed that up with bourbon, Miller High Life and the company of friends the next night, and then finally got my shit together, sobered up, and rebuilt the woodshed. I didn’t want to get drunk anymore, and was thankful I hadn’t gotten laid and used someone again. I let the rage die, but proceeded to obsess over everything I was lacking.
I called a lot of friends. Then, on the advice of one, I shut everything down. I put the phone away. I sat in silence. I quit running. Stopped looking everywhere else and turned inward. And I soaked in the pain.
It wasn’t about her, or she and I together. It was about me, and the noise I never took the time to listen to. I was exhausted now and had no choice but to hear.
I acknowledged all the bad thoughts, all the terrible, fiendish things, but didn’t give them credence. I observed them, heard them, felt them. Then I let them go.
I did this little thing called processing, instead of just gorging myself on distraction and fleeing the hard shit. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t instant. But it worked, and the worst thought of all, the return of which I feared most—it never showed up.
There was nothing but stillness. Me and Me. That’s it.
I wish things had worked out differently between she and I— I think we can all agree that I’m likely the greatest missed opportunity of her life, no? But then again, I don’t wish anything had been different at all. No matter what our brief fling meant to each of us, she was a blessing and a gift.
She showed me I had the capacity to again feel something other than that miserable want for escape. I wish her all the happiness in the world, even if it is with another dude; though I must admit if I knew some voodoo that would curse him with erectile dysfunction from now until the day he dies, I’d use it.
J, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry I finished those bottles of wine and never replaced them.
I hope that decades from now, in your last days at the nursing home, you think back to the nights we had, you think of me…and giggle.
I’m not suggesting that the end of a very short-lived, likely one-sided, casual romance suddenly changed me forever. There will be more battles. I’m not perfect, and am certainly not the most well-adjusted person in the world.
I still want to make people laugh, but it’s less about deriving some sort of validation, and more about just being me. My humor is how I deal with my demons, not how I hide from them.
I do my best not to hurt people I care for anymore, or anyone for that matter. If I hurt you when I was at my worst, I’m sorry. That was never my intention. I was just trying to survive.
But the kid who liked to create a little chaos when he could, is still alive and well. He’s an indelible part of who I am. And I still believe that at times, you must be willing to drop your shit and pop somebody in the fucking mouth. I actively work to stifle dreams of taking teeth from people who would hurt those I care for.
I still want to do something spectacular, but now, for me, that means being the best son, brother, friend, and someday, father and husband, that I can possibly be. To love deeply, provide, protect and practice being present, as I believe every man should.
I also do everything in my power to be there even for casual friends, because I know how torturous it can be to feel alone. But, sometimes that’s exactly what you need. When things go bad or you don’t feel right, you have to sit with the feelings, and, well, feel, them.
For the first time in forever I am completely at peace with myself. She didn’t do it. That’s not what I’m saying. It was a compounding effect after years of effort, little things stacking on top of each other one after the other, and when the right moment presented itself, all it took was for me to stop running, and start feeling.
I’m not suggesting that all you have to do is get a love interest to tell you to fuck off, then stare at a wall till you’re fixed. There is no such thing as “fixed”. The overarching point I’m trying to get at, is all that’s really required of you, is you simply not quit. It will get better.
Because beneath the darkness, there is something burning inside you, and you must refuse to let it be extinguished.
You must press on. You must try things, therapy being number one. Definitely, therapy. Yoga, running, meditation, cooking, gator wrestling, ball tickling—whatever works.
I changed interests, locations, jobs and dreams a thousand times over.
I may have been wrong a lot, and sought distraction more than solution, but I kept trying, maintained that immigrant mentality and never gave in. I kept fighting, kept clawing for something better, and was unwilling to lay down. Everything I did, both right and wrong, from one state to another, built the momentum that led me to the instance in which I was finally able to figure out what I needed to heal.
And now there's a book to write.
Do your best to forgive yourself. Reach out to people you’ve hurt and make things right. When you’re hurting, call someone. Or be on your own for a bit, try to feel it and figure out where it’s coming from, then let go. That worked for me, but different things work for different people. Please, please, call a mental health professional and make an appointment. It can take time to find the right person, so don’t stop if the first two or three suck. And when things feel too unbearable, like there’s nothing left for you to give, no one to talk to, call the hotline listed at the bottom of this. It’s completely confidential, and I can assure you it works, because it saved me on one of my darkest days. And if you’re uncomfortable with that, email me through this website: firstname.lastname@example.org. I give you my word I will read, respond and keep it between us. You are not alone.
There are parts of you that you cannot change. But at the end of the day, you do get to decide who the fuck you are. Too many people care about you, and I, for us to make an early exit. You can be in pain and not be able to change that right away, but at the same time, you can choose to be a warrior, to go to war in whatever manner you must, and to stay in the fucking fight.
Just stay in the fight.
Dedicated to Sharon Milch, who spent many years trying to convince an angry kid that his heart was the best part of him.
I finally listened.
If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline '1-800-273-TALK (8255)' or text TALK to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line.