If I’ve learned anything from living with severe bipolar disorder over the years it’s that, one, most people seem to have no idea what that means and, two, that it tends to be a blessing and curse wrapped up in a guessing game, like playing emotional Russian Roulette every morning. And afternoon. And evening. And then if you take a really fast jet across the country to the West Coast, evening again.
Bipolar disorder is technically defined as “psychiatric disorder marked by alternating episodes of mania and depression,” meaning that those afflicted have varying degrees of oscillating highs and lows, mentally and emotionally. For some, it’s like a constant rollercoaster, while for others it’s milder with the cycles not having as wide a swing.
For me, I have days at a time where I feel like I’m practically invincible, and then spates of time where getting out of bed to face the world is nigh impossible.
So why am I telling you all of this? I mean, this is still a comic book section of the site, right? The latter answer is, “Yes. Just look at your address bar. If it doesn’t start with something pertaining to Nerdtopia, then you’re imagining this entire thing and that means you’ve got a whole other set of issues that you should be talking to a medical professional about.” In response to the former, “Chill. I’m getting there. Everything in its time.”
In past columns, I’ve made it no secret of my growing up nerdy—which, let’s face it, would make a way more entertaining show than Growing Up Gotti—and how I found myself immersed in the world of comic books.
Talking to people on comic book and pop culture related sites, even this one, I’ve really started to realize more and more that I’m not alone.
And I didn’t always know that.
See, when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, we didn’t have things like Big Bang Theory and www.NerdtopiaCast.com or anything like that. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs weren’t necessarily icons. And reading comics, or playing RPGs, or watching Star Trek and the like weren’t things as socially acceptable, at least not where I was in the Bronx.
I totally know that sounds like an old person gripe, like how back in “my day” I walked uphill in the snow both ways, but it’s true. I did, however, have to kill cats during the winter to put them on my feet in lieu of actual shoes, but that’s another story altogether.
The point is that especially in high school, I had pockets of friend who liked comics, but we didn’t really advertise it. I mentioned in the column linked above that I was a fugly little guy growing up. There’s no need to mince words or play pretend. And I sure as hell don’t expect someone to give me the sympathetic, “Oh, that’s not true. You were just cute in a different way.” Yeah. In the different way that’s ugly. I’m not easy on the eyes, but my eyes work just fine, thank you very much.
It wasn’t until high school I got my first real girlfriend, Urszula, a pretty Polish girl I met at a school dance in November of 1993. We dated for just shy of a full year. When we broke up, I was surprisingly cool with it…until intimations she’d been cheating on me. And, yeah, that’s when shit started to break bad for me.
Granted, I should have known a girl sharing a name with the evil sea witch from The Little Mermaid was going to be bad news, but I was young and stupid. And getting some. So, yeah, that just made me even stupider. It’s a mathematical proof and I totally messed it up.
I’d been running track since the beginning of Freshman year and quickly found myself the fastest of my peers in certain events but right around when Urszula and I broke up, I hurt a muscle in my back and was sidelined. And then I get the news about her infidelity—and I say it like we were an old couple, not some high school morons, but still—followed closely by a rough period in school where the struggle with the one subject that I was never able to get along with, Ancient Greek, was building to a head. Getting your academic ass beaten by long dead poets and philosophizers speaking a long dead language wasn’t what I needed. I wanted less Homer and more Homer Simpson.
What I hadn’t known at the time was that those mood swings and depressive funks were more than just being a fifteen year old boy. Unfortunately, it would take my life nearly ending in order to get it back on track again and to realize I had almost made a huge mistake.
Even while coming to terms that I wanted to actually live after all, I lost a lot of respect for myself and my self esteem was lower than ever, which is hard to believe considering it hadn’t been very high to begin with.
Instead of turning to drugs or alcohol, I turned to girls, just as addictive and dangerous at that time. I was always monogamous but I ran through girls like it was my job, allowing them to define who I was and treat me like dirt and then when I’d get dumped, I’d find someone else to take advantage of me for a while. And, sure, it was a lot my fault, because the ones that were good to me? I was too much of a selfish asshole to appreciate them and pushed them away, so don’t feel sorry for me. I was a dick.
But I also found refuge in my comic books, resurrecting a horrible set of characters I created for an English project back in the 8th grade called the Zodiac, basically riffing on a stock trope for characters empowered by the constellations, each with a different ability and fighting against a demonic madman called Demian. Why Demian, you ask? I’m glad you did, thanks. I had a plot where Sagittarius was going to be killed and the team would be powerless and have to fight against Demian in the story that could only be called The Bo-Demian Rhapsody, culminating in an oversized issue #25.
Yeah. You just read that correctly. I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to the estate of Freddie Mercury and the members of Queen personally, as well as to all of you who just read that, shook your heads, and felt a part of your soul die.
Despite my penchant for comics—and really awful plots—I can’t say I was ever physically bullied. Luckily, I avoided the swirlies or beatings many others endured. But I was verbally taunted constantly and whoever coined that whole sticks and stones nonsense about words never hurting them needs to be struck by a rather larger stone because it’s bullshit.
Words hurt. They do. Being called a loser, or a fag, or a nigger, or a spic, or any of those horrible names humanity has invented for the sole purpose of dehumanizing others hurt. They may not break a bone, but you get enough of those hurled your way and you’re still getting hurt all the same and while most broken bones will be healed in a matter of weeks, those injuries to the psyche and to the core of someone’s being don’t go away all that easily.
But words also heal, they also help, they also provide much needed comfort, and that’s why I sought and found refuge in the comic book world. It was something safe, something secure and constant. At an all male high school, talking about your feelings wasn’t really openly encouraged, and at home my parents loved me but didn’t understand, or at least that’s what I told myself. I felt alone in a world that was stacked against me, so I felt more at home with the X-Men and Batman than in my own house.
To my friends and family, the public Charles was a happy go lucky jokester, always fast with the funny and the first to lend a sympathetic ear. The private Charles cried himself to sleep almost nightly and looked up to the skies in the foolish hopes a Green Lantern ring would come crashing through my wall. Or the Kool Aid man. Because, really, who doesn’t like Kool Aid, am I right?
It wasn’t until talking to some professionals that we realized I suffered from bipolar disease and treatments ranged from just talking in weekly sessions to pills, the latter of which were awful and turned me into a zombie, and not the cool kind from the Romero movies. Don’t get me wrong—medication can work wonders for a lot of people, so don’t think I’m knocking them altogether. I just know what they did to me and I sure as hell didn’t like it.
But talking to someone helped and getting more into reading and writing let me become something else as well. I wrote poetry a lot, some of it really angsty teenage stuff, but it helped getting things onto the page. Of course, when I accidentally left my bag in the cafeteria and the Seniors found it and saw my notebooks and proceeded to read it out loud and laugh, it was less helpful, but still, it had its place.
Through it all, like I mentioned, there was the constant of comic books. They were always there, and they didn’t laugh or mock or judge or jeer. They just entertained. They made me happy, made me smile and forget, and, perhaps most of all, they made me hope. They made me believe that maybe, just fucking maybe, I’d be something someday. For so long I thought of Shakespeare’s immortal line about some men being born into greatness while others have it thrust upon them and how, if that was true, then so must the inverse be as well—perhaps some of us were simply born mediocre.
But characters like Superman and Batman, like Cyclops of the X-Men, like scrawny Steve Rogers becoming Captain America, gave me hope.
I’ll spare you the play by play of getting from high school to where I am today at 33, but I eventually, obviously, did get through the rest of high school and college thanks to some great friends and family and parenting that helped me put things into perspective, even when I didn’t deserve their friendship because I was too focused on myself.
And, of course, there were comic books. I can’t honestly say they were the biggest reason I pulled through, because that would grossly diminish the efforts of my circle of friends, but they were certainly a major factor and I know there were times I was teetering, despite my pals, and a timely rereading of a Jim Starlin space opera or a fresh new issue of Uncanny X-Men gave me that fix I needed to go just one more step forward.
My biggest setback really came with 9/11, having lost some friends, no one I was particularly close with, but still people I’d never speak to again, that would never get the chance for a full life. And with my subsequent recruitment by the Secret Service, I encountered a whole different set of problems. I wasn’t the stereotypical alpha male so many cops tend to be and even in an organization where everyone should have been united in stopping the threats to our country in a troubled and uncertain time, there was a very high school locker room mentality and it wasn’t easy not being the muscle bound specimen of physical perfection or the sharpshooter or the good looking cop making the ladies swoon.
Ironically, defending these United States wound up dividing me from much of humanity, especially after my girlfriend of over five years became more radically leftwing and couldn’t accept the fact that working in President Bush’s White House didn’t mean being his number one fan. Never mind that I was always a political Independent or that I would have defended the POTUS regardless of who it was in office, she waited until I graduated the academy, got stationed, and got prepared for her to move down to DC to tell me she didn’t want me to do it.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long before I met Melony, my wife, and at least on the love front, things were and are stable and we’ve got a wonderfully imaginative and hyperactive little three year old girl, Anastasia. I wound up leaving the Secret Service and getting a book on terrorism and foreign policy published called An American at the Crossroads and now work for the Pentagon.
Things are different.
But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy because bipolar disease doesn’t really end or begin with one issue. It’s something that always seems to be there, even when you’re at your best, just waiting for a chance to say hello like an uninvited parent stopping by your dorm when you’re macking hard on the girl down the hall. Not like that ever happened to me or anything…
I’ve seen a lot of talk on the news in recent years about bullying and while a part of me feels that there’s too much attention being paid to it, that people are too quick to label everything as “bullying,” and that it’s the new kneejerk race card of the disenfranchised, it is a real thing. Sometimes, yes, it is blown out of proportion and we, and the media, give bullies too much power by talking them up, by making them larger than life monstrosities that cannot be defended against lest Congress gets involved to fight back. But, at the same time, for too long, people haven’t listened to those getting picked on, haven’t paid attention to the cries for help or the warning signs of depression.
We’ve all seen the “It Gets Better” videos for gay teens especially, but it’s not just gay teens. It’s not just blacks, or whites, or Muslims, or any one group.
It’s everyone who suffers from depression. We use bullying as the blame when there’s a suicide nowadays almost as a reflex, but nine in ten times, that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back and not the entirety of the load.
I’m a heterosexual white male and I hear it all the time that it’s virtually impossible for me to experience oppression, or sexism, or racism, or any dreaded –ism of the world, that my life is inherently charmed by virtue of what I am. And to those people, I guess I’ve got to say: Go screw yourselves. Hard.
I’m not going to apologize because I’m white, or because I’m a male that was born in America and not some place in Guatemawhothehellknows.
I don’t know what it’s like to be ridiculed and made to feel ashamed of my sexuality. I don’t know what it’s like to be profiled automatically by airport security due to my race, or slapped on the ass and marginalized by a male coworker because of my gender.
But I do know what it’s like to have my poetry stolen and read aloud so people can laugh. I do know what it’s like to walk through a neighborhood and have racial epithets thrown my way because I “shouldn’t” be there. I do know what it’s like to be made fun of for daring to like cartoons and comics or for being physically unattractive.
It’s not a goddamn competition, who can suffer the most oppression or collect the most sorrow.
Going back to Shakespeare, if you prick me, I bleed the same as anyone else; poison me, and I die just the same.
I wrote this piece today, for World Suicide Prevention Day, not because I want a pity party or to downplay the problems others face that are far worse than mine, but rather because I know that there are those out there reading things like this that have had similar experiences with depression, or at least know someone who has.
You’re not alone, anymore than I was, or rather felt I was.
And it can get better. I wish I could tell you for sure that it does or will get better, but the sad reality is that it doesn’t always work out that way in real life. But I can tell you that I believe there is no situation you’re experiencing that is completely hopeless, that there’s at least a chance, and a good one at that.
I write these columns on www.NerdtopiaCast.com and www.ForcesofGeek.com because comics still give me that boost, that much needed escape from reality that keeps finding new ways to get to me, whether it’s a job that’s going nowhere or my dad battling cancer or just having a random depressive episode. This time of year, with 9/11’s anniversary, I’m plagued by horrible nightmares, eleven years later. There are still nights I cry myself to sleep, regardless of the time of year.
But I keep going. Because I know I’m not alone. Because I’ve found the most unassuming outlets—wildly garish costumes on imaginary characters battling in faraway fictional lands—and because I know that the old adage of suicide being a permanent solution to a temporary problem is absolutely correct.
I can’t say I don’t have my bad days. Honestly, since my near miss, that brief feeling of peace is always there, haunting me almost like the remnants of the taste of a drink must haunt recovering alcoholics, almost seeming to beckon and tell me, “Hey. You. There’s an escape to all this shit, you know?” There are mornings I wake up that I can’t honestly know for sure won’t end with me hanging from a beam in my attic. There are nights I’m literally physically sore from crying myself to sleep so hard, entire days I hate myself for feeling like a fraud for cracking jokes and pretending everything is cool when there’s an inner voice reminding me otherwise.
And I have to will myself to shut that voice out without the wielding of a Green Lantern ring. I have to live for my wife, and especially for my Anastasia, who needs a dad to guide her through life.
But it’s there, in the back of my mind, that depression that threatens to undo it all and that’s what living with bipolar disease is like.
I don’t know if any of what I’ve just rambled makes sense, depression blah blah comics blah underwear worn incorrectly blah blah bullies and all that.
I do know, however, that comics offered me a healthy alternative to giving into substances or more permanent solutions mentioned above.
And I want you out there, those of you suffering from these things yourself but too afraid or ashamed to say anything, or knowing someone who does, to know you aren’t alone and it can get better.
Don’t give up, don’t give in.
Come by here and laugh with us each day. Look at this crew here at NertopiaCast. Look at the craziness we write about. We’re not the most well adjusted gang of folks out there.
But we’re a team. We’re friends. We’re family.
And we’re there for one another.
I write for myself because I love it but I also write for all of you, to share this hobby and give you something to laugh about and celebrate when the chips are down. I put on a brave face, but honestly, I’m hurting a lot of the time and this is something of a catharsis to write silly things and make people laugh even when I can’t.
So, please, if you take anything out of this, know that if you’re suffering from depression you don’t ever have to suffer alone. Don’t make the mistake I almost made because as much as life has kicked me in the balls a million times over since that day, whenever I look at my daughter, whenever she dresses up as Batgirl for a comic convention, and whenever I tuck her in and she tells me she loves me, I remember: she’s something that I’d never have had if I gave in, if I surrendered to the helplessness.
And all of the pain, the setbacks, the disappointments, they all become worth it in those moments.
Go pick up some comics and find a little time away. Blasting off into space with the Avengers and cleaning up the streets of Star City with the Green Arrow got me through many tough nights in my life.
Spend some time here on the site, sharing, making friends, belonging to a community.
Because you’re not alone, and it can get better.
Never be afraid or ashamed to open up to someone. Being depressed isn’t a crime, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad or broken person.
Always remember that and, hopefully, I’ll see you next time.