29 October 2011

A Tale of Two Trick-or-Treaters

1982, barely a month before my fourth birthday.  Trick-or-Treating at the Louisville Zoo, I'm posed with...Santa Claus?  Does this make any f'n sense to anyone?  Me, neither.  But it does explain why I've always wanted to dress as Santa for Halloween and confuse the hell out of young children.  I should discuss this in my forthcoming therapy session.
Santa Claus and a confused me as Snoopy
Meanwhile, decades earlier, another little boy dressed as a pirate for Halloween.  He grew up to become the 44th President of the United States.  I suspect no one dressed as Santa Claus to confuse him as a child.
Barack Obama as a Pirate and his mother

28 October 2011

A Baseball Generation With No Sound Bite

It seems peculiar, given that we tend to think we live in an era of mass media driven by sound bites.  Yet it dawned on me last night while watching Game Six of the 2011 World Series that ever since Fox took over the broadcast of the World Series and All-Star Games, an entire generation of baseball fans have been denied the chance to have a singular sound bite represent their era.

Think of the most well-known gems from baseball broadcasts.
"The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"
"I don't believe what I just saw!"
"Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!"
"There's a new home run champion of all time, and it's Henry Aaron!"
"The impossible has happened!"
What, of the last decade-plus, have either Joe Buck or Tim McCarver contributed to this pantheon of quotes?  The point was made clear last night when Buck called David Freese's dramatic walk-off home run in the 11th inning...by quoting his own dad's "We'll see you tomorrow night!"
"How do you spell, 'plagiarism'?"

27 October 2011

My Kind of Town, Chicago Is

This was inspired by a post, "Chicago!" in the blog of a friend of mine.

In sixth grade, I got to on an overnight school field trip to Chicago.  I had never been anywhere like Chicago.  It seemed everywhere one looked, there were skyscrapers and scores of people.  I've always romanticized the hustle and bustle of a big city, feeling bored in the small town where I grew up so it was love at first sight for me.

We went to the Museum of Science and Industry.  I remember three things from the museum: their exhibit of the captured German submarine, U-505; taking the photograph below with a friend of mine; and the two of us defying instructions and ordering some pizza from the Pizza Hut inside the museum.  That pizza came in handy because it took a lot longer than expected to clear out and get us somewhere to eat (a Cracker Barrel somewhere in Indiana, as I recall) and everyone else was quite upset at how hungry they had become.
I have a bad habit of looking at people
who make me laugh while taking pictures.
Beyond the museum itself, though, I remember that the bus drivers and our teachers had a hard time finding the hotel, a Courtyard by Marriot, and we got settled in much later than anticipated.  I remember the Cubs were in Philadelphia that night, because we caught part of the game on WGN that night.  There were four students per room, two per bed.  I shared a bed with the goofball in the above photograph; I don't recall now who our roommates were.  I know I wanted to stay up later than the other three.

The next morning, we all went to the hotel pool.  I recall vividly that the floor of the pool was not smooth and it hurt my feet.  (I generally just stood in the pool because I'm a terrible swimmer and I hate it.  I should have just flaked in a chair.)  Remember that girl who rejected my rose in seventh grade?  Well, she was there and in sixth grade I overlooked her pasty white flesh and the fact she had no business wearing a bikini.  I still think about that from time to time as something I should have thrown in her face.  I'm petty like that, i suppose.

There was a longer return trip to Chicago in eighth grade, but I was only an alternate and everyone who made the list wound up going.  So, instead, I used my saved money to buy my very own VCR.  It was a Magnavox, and the first movie I watched on it was Batman Returns.

In 1998, I was talking with another friend of mine who lamented the fact that would be the first year in a decade he hadn't gone to Chicago for the annual comic book convention (Wizard World Chicago).  I was working at Cracker Barrel by then and had plenty of disposable income and nothing to stop me from up and going somewhere.  So, a week before the convention, we decided we'd go.  It was pretty easy getting that weekend off of work.  The very first shift I worked after we had talked about going to Chicago, my manager approached me desperate for me to work in the kitchen instead of waiting tables.  I told him I'd do it, but only on the condition he take me off the schedule the following weekend so I could go to Chicago.  He didn't even hesitate to agree to my terms.  It was a great bargain for me!

Along with the convention, we took in some of the city.  I distinctly recall the street vendor shown below, who accosted us near the Chicago River, hustling a shoe shine service: "$8 a shoe, the tip up to you!"  I was wearing sneakers so having them shined really didn't make any sense, but they were actually kinda dirty for some reason and since I was bad with money and since I wasn't up to resisting his aggressive sales approach, I paid him $20 ($8 per shoe with a $4 tip) to clean my sneakers.  A complete waste of my $20, but I like to think it was somehow important to him.  Like maybe he took a date to see a movie with that $20 and now they're happily married.
"$8 a shoe, the tip up to you!"
That was the first of three consecutive summer trips to Chicago for my friends and me.  In 1999, we went to the Ravinia Festival for a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing the movie music of John Williams...with the maestro himself conducting!  The following year, we caught Clint Black.  That was a busy day; we left home around midnight, drove to Chicago by morning (stopping along the way to kill time because we realized we were on schedule to arrive too early), then took in an afternoon Cubs game at Wrigley Field.  Somehow, we still had the energy for the Clint Black show that night!  Ah, to be young...

These are all things we saw and did, but what stood out to me most about Chicago was how friendly the people were wherever we went.  Being from the South, I was given to understand that was rare on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line.  Instead, I have consistently found Chicagoans to be friendly and welcoming.  Even overwhelmed cashiers trying to keep a long line moving generally managed to greet me with a smile.  Certainly, my sample size is pretty limited and confined to a relative handful of places whose business relies on providing quality customer service.  But even Chicagoans who weren't on the clock were generally friendly when I interacted with them.  Moreover, they were colorful and did the kinds of things that few around here would have the gumption to do.  Like this cool cat:
In 2006, my wife and I actually took our honeymoon to Chicago.  It amused a lot of Chicagoans to hear that, of all the places in the world, we had selected the Second City.  My wife had never been there, but we discovered that the New York Yankees (her favorite team) were in town to play the White Sox at the same time that Wizard World Chicago took place.  We got a great deal at the Tremont Hotel.  There are numerous little anecdotes I could tell from our honeymoon (and some I can't!), but this post is already lengthy so I'll hold onto those for another time.

"Detective Comics" #2 (Dec 2011)

Cover art by Daniel, Winn & Morey
Detective Comics #2
"Playtime's Over"
Written and Drawn by Tony Salvador Daniel
Inks - Ryan Winn & Sandu Florea
Colors - Tomeu Morey
Lettering - Jared K. Fletcher
Cover - Tony Salvador Daniel, Ryan Winn & Tomey Morey
Assistant Editor - Katie Kubert
Associate Editor - Janelle Asselin
Editor - Mike Marts
Batman Created by Bob Kane
Date of publication: 5 October 2011
$2.99, 32 pages

It seems DC directed everyone to include a romantic/sexual interlude in the second issues of each series; Batgirl and Batwoman both had dates, 'Tec #2's prologue opens with Bruce Wayne negotiating a business deal I'm sure will become relevant later in some way, then having some kind of Sundance Kid/Etta Place tryst with a reporter in his office.  (This, after already hooking up with Selina Kyle in the controversial Catwoman #1.)  Whatever.  From there, it's back to the main plot from the first issue's cliffhanger--namely, that The Joker has had his face removed and then escaped from Arkham Asylum.  Or was he taken?  It's unclear.  By the issue's end, though, Batman comes face to face with the face-removing psycho calling himself "The Dollmaker."

I initially wasn't even going to read any of the mainstream Batman titles, intimidated as I was by the fact there were four of them and I didn't want to get caught up feeling I needed to read four titles about the same character just to keep up.  As long as the stories in Detective Comics stay confined to this series--and as long as they're as interesting as these first two issues--I'll be happy to continue reading this book.  There's a very Texas Chainsaw Massacre thing going on with Dollmaker that I find quite intriguing; he's my favorite of the three antagonists in the New 52 books I've been reading (the others being Mirror and that kidnapping ghost woman from Batwoman).

Despite the gruesome nature of the violence, this is chiefly a psychological-based story that appeals to me; this is the milieu where Batman works best, I think.  Tony S. Daniel has so far written (and illustrated) a very intriguing story that's kept me turning pages with anticipation.  The prologue didn't really interest me, largely because the business deal seemed perfunctory (even if it did take place while free climbing a rock wall) and the tryst with the reporter seemed entirely gratuitous.  Still, I'm definitely looking forward to issue #3 based on the main plot involving The Dollmaker.

Note: Eventually, there's bound to be a collected edition of this story arc.  I would not recommend it be among your mental health facility selections.

26 October 2011

"Batgirl" #2 (Dec 2011)

Cover art by Adam Hughes
Batgirl #2
"Cut Short, Cut Deep"
Gail Simone - writer
Ardian Syaf - penciller
Vicente Cifuentes - inker
Ulises Arreola - colors
Dave Sharpe - letterer
Adam Hughes - cover art
Katie Kubert - assistant editor
Bobbie Chase - editor
Batman created by Bob Kane
Date of publication - 12 October 2011
$2.99, 32 pages
Review of Batgirl #1

I went through my library and purged quite a lot of books, CDs and comics, taking them to Half Price Books.  Being the responsible adult that I am, I naturally spent a small part of the pay on some more comics; I bought Batman #400 and Detective Comics #601 at HPB, and then off to Barnes and Noble where I snagged Batgirl #2 (as well as Batwoman and Detective Comics).  It's been ages since I bought new monthlies.  At these cover prices, and things being the way they are in my life right now, comics are quite the luxury item and the few monthlies I'm reading are on a very short leash.  I say this to establish the context of my scrutiny for what I'm buying and reading these days.

Batgirl #2 picks up exactly where #1 left off, with Batgirl in the hospital staring down Mirror, who has just killed both a Gotham City cop and the leader of a gang that Batgirl apprehended in the previous issue.  Batgirl pursues Mirror across the city, and their battles are ferocious.  Eventually, Barbara ascertains Mirror's identity and why he's become Final Destination personified.

I picked a little about a few of the lines of text in the first issue falling short for me, so I want to praise Gail Simone for nailing it this time around.  Barbara's interior thoughts and verbal quips call to mind the kind of lighthearted adventuresome nature of Peter Parker as Spider-Man; she's not funny to be defensive or to show us that writer Simone has a sense of humor.  Rather, Barbara makes light of things because that's the kind of character she is.  It feels like an organic element and it works very well.

The only knock I have on the story is that Barbara goes on a date with her physical therapist during the middle of the story, and I don't recall any set-up for that guy at all.  They were just on a date all of a sudden, and I felt like I had missed something.  I'm sure most readers just go along with such things but I found it a bit jarring.  Then, I think I just wanted to get back to Batgirl and Mirror beating the hell out of each other.  (Which reminds me: Props to Ardian Syaf, Vicente Cifuentes and Ulises Arredla for the gorgeous art; every page is impressive and each panel kinetic.  This is how superhero action scenes should be done!)

My only nit to pick is that on page 1 it is established that The Joker shot Barbara "three years ago" (in Batman: The Killing Joke); on page 2, Barbara thinks to herself, "And I am woefully out of practice, having jsut gotten back into the superhero biz after a several-year hiatus."  I don't think three qualifies as "several," but this is the only thing I noticed and, again, it's completely trivial.

I'm glad I took the chance on Batgirl so far.  It's a book I certainly intend to follow, based on these first two issues.

October, 2011 Errata

This blog has been dominated by comic books and depression for the last month, and it occurred to me that I haven't really touched on anything else so this is a sort of catch-all post of things that I ordinarily probably would have discussed.


One thing I have been reluctant to discuss with anyone about the severity of my depression is that in the last month, I heard voices.  Nothing actually speaking to me or anything like that; more like when someone else is in another room and you catch the sound of their voice for just a moment.  Well, I awoke nauseated today so I took a Promethazine and went back to bed.  Just as I was about to fall asleep, I heard it again.

"Kirk to Enterprise!"

I heard it three times in a row, then not again.  I went into the storage area adjacent to the bedroom and lo and behold...my Captain Kirk toy from Burger King has been malfunctioning!  I haven't been hallucinating!  Woot!  After twenty years of loyalty, I can't believe Jim Kirk would betray me like this, but he did.  Oh, well.  At least now I can explain what was going on and I feel quite a lot better about myself now!

2011 World Series

I'm a National League guy, always have been.  But my contempt for the St. Louis Cardinals (specifically, Tony LaRussa, Chris Carpenter and Yadier Molina) has compelled me to root for the Texas Rangers, which places me in the unusual position of actively rooting for the same team as George W. Bush.  So be it.
What the hell were they talking about and
why does Dubya look like Nick Nolte?
If Twitter has been any indication, the world at large is fairly indifferent to this year's Series.  There have only been a few baseball-related trending topics throughout the Series; whomever performed "The Star Spangled Banner" has generally trended for about 20 minutes after the performance (longer for Demi Lovato).  Tim McCarver has trended a couple of times...because Twitter hates him.  They pounced on him calling "strike" a "five-letter word" and were still mocking him for that an entire day after the gaffe.

During Game Five, Rangers pitcher Derek Holland did an impression of Harry Caray that Twitter rightly pointed out was really an impression of Will Ferrell's impression of Harry Caray (though by virtue of not being Tim McCarver, Holland was a breath of fresh air during the broadcast regardless of the accuracy of his impression).  Otherwise, the only time I've seen the Series trend was earlier this afternoon, when "Game 6 of the World Series" trended...because it has been postponed due to the forecast.  Given how little interest Twitter has shown in the Series, I'm surprised it not taking place merited such a reaction.

As for the games themselves, I tip my cap to Albert Pujols for bashing three homeruns in Game Four and I suspect that now that Nolan Ryan must feel comfortable about his pitching staff, they'll make a concentrated effort to shore up their defense in the off-season and throughout spring training.

The McRib

It's back, y'all.

Legends of the Dark Knight: "Faces"

Trade Paperback Cover Art
Legends of the Dark Knight #28-30
Matt Wagner - story & art
Willie Schubert - letters
Steve Oliff - color
Bill Kaplan - assistant editor
Archie Goodwin - editor
March-May 1992
Cover Price: $1.75/each
Trade Paperback published 29 July 2008
Trade Paperback Cover Price: $12.99

Sometimes in life, you come across things at just the right time.  Such was the case with "Faces," a 19 year old 3-part LOTDK story by Matt Wagner.  I missed this arc when it was originally published (I can't say now why that is), but managed to find all three issues sometime in the last year and I finally got around to reading it last night.  Harvey Dent (Two-Face) escapes from Arkham Asylum, and resurfaces two years later at the same time that Bruce Wayne is trying to broker a deal to purchase a small island off French Guiana.  Someone else is determined to lay claim to that island, though, and while the Batman hunts Two-Face, Bruce Wayne has to find out who his competitor is.

I rarely discuss spoilers but in this instance I find it difficult to properly explore the reason why this story resonated with me without delving into some of the important material so if you've not read "Faces" you can stop reading now.  Otherwise, I'll assume you're on board.

As it turns out, Two-Face himself is Bruce's competition for the island; he intends to repatriate several "freaks" there to live away from the superficial mainstream society.  His intention is actually quite admirable; this is not a Two-Face trying to punish Gotham City.  Rather, it is Harvey Dent trying to start fresh somewhere else...in the company of people around whom he feels comfortable.  (Never mind that he abducted all of the other people he planned to take with him; that's as incidental to me as it was to Harvey.)

I found it curious that Harvey did not feel comfortable at Arkham in the company of other members of Batman's Rogues Gallery.  One would imagine a sort of fraternity of supervillains might inevitably develop but instead, Harvey wishes to hole up on an island surrounded only by people as disfigured as he is.  I had a much better time of connecting with other patients during my recent hospitalization, but of course I was there voluntarily and not because I had committed major crimes that demanded the attention of the Dark Knight.  In any event, I found myself empathizing with Harvey in a way I wouldn't have been able to a few weeks ago.

Sure, I've always found the character tragic but throughout this specific story, I shared Harvey's desire to just retreat from society and be around only others similar to himself.  Having Crohn's disease, and valuing my online network of other Crohnies, I can appreciate this longing of his.  I wouldn't want to live on an island with just other Crohnies, but I understand why it meant so much to him to be around similar people.  He zigs where I zag, though, in that I was able to connect with other patients and emerged from my treatment desiring to engage society.

Matt Wagner's story is terrific, laden with myriad nuances.  A subplot involving the seduction of the real estate broker and the blackmailing of the island owner isn't much of a mystery but it's well done and there are some surprises in the third act.  Wagner's art is particularly impressive and while I could cite numerous examples (including a costume ball beginning on page 4 full of familiar faces), the one page that stands out most to me is page 15 of issue #28.  Bruce jogs around a track negotiating with the seller and Realtor, and Wagner presents nine panels of conversation within the track.  It's a particularly inspired layout, and one of the cleverer pages I've seen in a very long time.

23 October 2011

NaNoWriMo I: Sign-Up

For years I've heard about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but never had the self-confidence to try my hand at such an ambitious project.  Inspired at present, however, I have just completed the sign-up process (it's free, though they'll gladly take donations from those whose coffers are fuller than mine).  The objective is simple enough: from 1 November until 30 November, you work on writing a novel.  You can plan your novel before the 1st, but you can't begin the actual writing until then.

I've kicked it around the last week or so, but today I finally came up with the basic premise.  My story will center around a high school reunion.  That's the entirety of what I know about my story at this point in time.  Go ahead, steal it.  I don't have characters, a plot or even an objective right now, but I've still got a week before I have to get writing.  I'll still blog in November, I'm sure, but obviously NaNoWriMo will take precedence so things will probably be a little light and a little slow around here next month.  I had originally planned to spend this week working on another short story but will instead focus on fleshing out my novel outline.  I suppose I should start by creating a novel outline.

If you wish to sponsor my participation, you can donate here.  You don't have to donate, but it'd be mighty nice if you did.

Legends of the Dark Knight: "Flyer"

Legends of the Dark Knight #24-26
Howard Chaykin - script
Gil Kane - plot/art
Steve Oliff - colors
Willie Schubert - letters
Bill Kaplan - assist. editor
Archie Goodwin - editor
Nov. 91-Jan. 92
Cover Price: $1.75/each

This is where it all began for me as a fan of LOTDK, actually.  I received issue #24 along with a few other comics for Christmas in 1991.  My mom just kind of randomly snagged a few comics from a spindle at one of the bookstores in one of the various malls, not knowing at the time she was putting into my hands one of the most important comics in my entire library.  Is Legends of the Dark Knight #24 particularly valuable?  No.  You should be able to find copies these days for less than its original $1.75 cover price.  But I had just turned 13 and I had never seen anything quite like this in a comic book before.  Interestingly enough, this was also the first issue for Archie Goodwin as editor of the series.  His interpretation of the series, espoused in the letters column, defined LOTDK for me.

"Flyer" takes place 18 months into Bruce Wayne's career as Batman.  Alfred is concerned that Bruce should have already gotten this out of his system and returned to a more respectable life.  Moreover, he challenges that Bruce is now simply a thrill-seeker, and this becomes the theme of "Flyer."  How seriously does, or should, Bruce Wayne take being Batman?

Someone has been killing bats in Gotham City, clearly sending a message to the Dark Knight.  Soon enough, Batman encounters his predator,whom we discover is Curt Eisenmann.  What appears to be a battle armor suit is instead learned to be more of an exoskeleton.  Curt was a helicopter pilot for the Gotham City Police Department when he was severely disfigured and maimed when his chopper was swarmed by bats called by Batman to cover his escape from the police.  What's more is that Eisenmann's mother, Birgit, is an engineering scientist working rather shadily for the U.S. government...and is an Aryan lunatic intent on breeding with the Batman.

The dynamics between Curt and Birgit are completely screwed up.  He has been denied any encouragement or love from her, shown instead only indifference or contempt.  Neo-Nazis and their ilk are often one-dimensional villains; after all, who wants to even know much more about them other than that they're driven by a completely insane ideology?  Birgit is pure evil, but of a fascinating sort.  She displays no maternal warmth to her own son and is the sexual aggressor toward the captured Batman.  I'm not at all rigid about gender roles, but there is something particularly chilling about this woman and her absence of anything feminine.  I could be mistaken, but it appears to me that there may have been some kind of incestuous relationship between Birgit and her father.

I'd never seen a character like her in a comic book before, and to this day Birgit Eisenmann remains one of the most unnerving antagonists I've encountered as a reader.  This was something entirely unlike the run of the mill, colorful supervillains to which I had become accustomed.  She wasn't at all like The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin or Catwoman.  This was the kind of evil that was really out there, and her motivation and demeanor made me take her--and LOTDK--quite seriously.

Another element I must praise is Howard Chaykin's intelligent script.  Mainstream comics in those days were written for a more "family appropriate" readership; nothing that would incur the scorn of the average parent.  This, however, not only explore more mature themes but also the writing was clearly more literary-minded.  There are references to classic works of literature, for instance, that went right over my head at age 13--and I suspect I was not alone in this.  These little touches are the kind of thing that made Legends of the Dark Knight stand out in its day, and it's why stories like "Flyer" still impress and satisfy twenty years later.

22 October 2011

"The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told" by Various

The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told
Various Writers & Artists
Trade Paperback published 1 September 1989
Cover Price: $15.95
327 pages
Currently out of print

DC Comics published this anthology in 1989 to commemorate Batman's 50th anniversary.  As explained in the foreword by Mike Gold, there were some seemingly obvious choices that were excluded for various reasons.  For instance, some stories had been reprinted and made available in other collected editions and they didn't want dedicated Bat-fans to feel they were re-buying a lot of the same content.  I've had this collected edition in my library for several years now (I can't even recall now how I came to own it), but never quite got around to it until recently.

The night that I agreed to enter the hospital to treat my depression, we were informed that I was allowed to bring books so long as they weren't bound by spiral rings.  I haven't had the concentration to read an actual prose book in months, so I decided to take some comics.  The only one I got to was The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.  (I would have taken Batman: Arkham Asylum if I owned it, just because that's the kind of sense of humor I have.)  You can imagine, then, what it was like to begin reading Golden Age and Silver Age tales of Batman and his rogues gallery of lunatics while in a mental health facility.  I don't know what it says about me, but I found it rather comforting.

Because the aesthetics of each creative team vary, and because the prevailing editorial direction of a given era also varied, there can be dramatic changes in tone from one story to the next.  This has the effect of making some stories--particularly in the middle of the collection--feel a little simplistic.  Still, I'm the kind of fan who digs the Adam West TV show as much as The Dark Knight, so I'm up for just about any incarnation of the mythology so long as it's interesting.  Other fans, however, might find a lot of these stories somewhat tedious and dissatisfying; particularly readers who may have only recently begun reading with the New 52 relaunch.

There are too many stories for me to review individually in a single blog post and I'm not interested in making this a whole sub-series so here are my personal favorites.  Oh, and one complaint: I wish DC had reprinted the cover art with each story.  Some are scattered throughout the introductory and concluding notes, but it's just not the same.

"Batman Versus the Vampire" Parts One & Two
Originally presented in Detective Comics #31 & 32 (1939)

Essentially a re-telling of Dracula with Batman, this story rocked my socks off!  Gardner Fox's narrative may be straightforward, but it's far from simplistic.  Likewise, Bob Kane's art may be primitive by today's standards, but there's something genuinely sinister about it.  There's a panel in the second part of Batman swinging through some trees in Transylvania that's one of the coolest images in the entire collection, and the climax of the story was something I honestly didn't anticipate.  I absolutely loved this story and it's probably my favorite of the entire anthology.

"Dr. Hugo Strange and the Mutant Monsters"
Originally presented in Batman #1 (1940)

Just what the title suggests: Batman versus some mutant monsters.  It sounds rather silly, but there's something about Kane's artwork that keeps it firmly in the realm of darkness; credit also to Bill Finger, whose narrative takes itself seriously and does not invite us to chuckle.  This story clearly took its cues from King Kong, among others, and it works surprisingly well.

"The Origin of the Batman"
Originally presented in Batman #47 (1948)

We all know how Bruce Wayne became Batman, but this early telling leads up to a startling payoff that I don't think has often been retained in subsequent variations of the story.

"The First Batman"
Originally presented in Detective Comics #235 (1956)

A follow-up, really, to "The Origin of the Batman" in which Batman learns there was even more to his parents's murder than he originally suspected.  I can only imagine how stunning this revelation must have been for longtime readers when it was published eight years after "The Origin" story.

"Man-Bat Over Vegas"
Originally presented in Detective Comics #429 (1972)

I've never really been into Man-Bat stories, but this one worked for me.  Perhaps it was because it was the basis for the Batman: The Animated Series episode, "Terror in the Sky" so it was familiar, or maybe it was because after such supernatural stories as "Batman Versus the Vampire" and "Dr. Hugo Strange and the Mutant Monsters," I was into the milieu but this one worked quite well for me.  I'm not qualified to say whether it's one of the "greatest" Batman stories ever told, but it was one of my favorites from this anthology.

"The Batman Nobody Knows"
Originally presented in Batman #250 (1973)

We've seen variations on this premise for years now, but here's the original: three kids all share very different ideas of who Batman really is.  It's a short story, but I'm a sucker for the paradigm.

"Bat-Mite's New York Adventure"
Originally presented in Detective Comics #482 (1978)

This is a short, meta-fiction story in which Bat-Mite pesters the DC Comics staff into writing a Bat-Mite story for the Batman Family comic series.  I dig Bat-Mite and meta-fiction so long as it's well done and I thought this was a nice little inclusion.  "Greatest Batman Story Ever Told?"  I can't imagine it is, but it's a nice addition to this collection regardless.

The final two stories in the collection, "To Kill a Legend" and "The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne" are both quite well done but I must caution new readers that there are some continuity entanglements that may be confusing out of context.  In the former, Batman is given the chance to go to another Earth where Thomas and Martha Wayne have not yet been murdered and to prevent it.  It's got a sort of Star Trek vibe to it, but the imagery is dark and it ties in neatly with "The Origin of the Batman" and "The First Batman."  "The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne" is a wrap-up to the original, Golden Age Batman whose continuity was abandoned when DC revamped their entire universe with "Crisis on Infinite Earths."

I think what surprised me most about the stories I enjoyed in this collection is that I really responded to the supernatural ones--which, typically, I don't favor with Batman.  Maybe it's because the first two stories ("Batman Versus the Vampire" and "Dr. Hugo Strange and the Mutant Monsters") set me into the state of mind to get into such content, but if you'd told me going into this anthology that I would encounter a lot of these kinds of stories, I might not have even opened it.  What this really makes me want to read are the Archive Edition collections of the Golden Age stories; there's an earnestness and darkness to the early stories that I find I really enjoy.

Also, I got the strong sense that when the time came to begin developing Batman: The Animated Series that Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, et al revisited this collection for inspiration.  Maybe not, but it's the feeling I got while reading.

One wonders whether DC can even create a second volume spanning Batman's second 50-year period, given how few standalone stories have been told since the publication of this anthology.

20 October 2011

The Totally Rad Death of Gaddafi

A month ago, I would have had all kinds of things to say about the death today of deposed despot Muammar Gaddafi, but being removed from such topics of late as I have been I really hadn't intended to discuss it at all.  "Good for the people of Libya," "Sign of the times," etc.; the typical cliches that have already become tiresome. Then I checked my blog stats for today, as I am wont to do (partially because I'm narcissistic and partially so I know what topics seem to be more popular).  Lo and behold, today's page views have already exceeded 200 (high for this little blog) and most of them were generated by searches related to Gaddafi.  I had rather hoped my sub-series on depression was really taking off, but that's okay.  I was just about to leave the stats page when something caught my eye at the very bottom.
That's a combined six(!) page views generated by searching for the combination of "Gaddafi" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."  If I was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the word "cowabunga" would make me jumpy.

19 October 2011

"I'm Depressed, You're Depressed"

The question has been put to me recently: "How do I [as someone with depression] talk with someone else who is depressed?"  This may be the trickiest dynamic of all to articulate.  Here are my thoughts on the subject.

Firstly, just as with people who are not depressed, remember that you are not qualified to treat the other depressed person.  You may have unique insights into that person's thoughts and feelings by virtue of your shared misery, and there are uses for those insights that I'll explore in just a bit.  Always think of yourselves as both being out on thin ice; you have a much better understanding of their peril than does someone on the bank, but you're in just as much peril and therefore you should not attempt a rescue.
Photo from North Dakota Game & Fish Dept. "Safety on Ice"
There's always a realm of small talk; things like, "What are you taking?"  You can have a brief conversation about medications ("I took that; it didn't do anything for me," "Haven't tried that one yet"), but very quickly you're left with something I discussed in "How to Form a Support Network" - you've got to have more in common than just depression to hold an interesting conversation, much less build a meaningful relationship.
For our purposes, "meaningful relationship" doesn't mean anything romantic or long-term; rather one in which you both find a personal connection that you value, regardless of how ephemeral your contact may be.  I had very intimate conversations with other patients I suspect I'll never hear from or see again, and I consider those meaningful.  Also, since I'm thinking about it: for God's sake, don't try to hook up with someone else who is depressed!
What, then, to make of your firsthand experience with depression in the context of relating to someone else?  In my recent treatment, I found that my depression gave me the chance to know what to ask or say on an almost instinctual level.  It wasn't something that came to me for every patient; I probably only interacted with about a third of the other patients, at most.  But of that third, I feel like I was able to get them to share things that they wanted and needed to share with someone else.

One of the hardest things about getting help for depression is that you feel self-conscious about even being depressed in the first place.  In a recent post, I likened it to playing a game of Charades, where you're aching to say something but you can't bring yourself to say it, and you just keep hoping that someone around you will say the magic words that let you begin to express what you've been holding inside.  Playing Charades is much easier if you've got teammates on the same wavelength as you.
One person in five knowing what you want to say can mean a lot.
There are a lot of subtleties to discussing things with someone with depression--as I'm sure trained professionals can attest!  You can inadvertently stumble across something that the person finds overwhelming just as easily as you can unlock something they're begging to share.  Remember, you're not trying to treat the other patient.  You're simply relating to them, given them the chance to share with someone else who understands how precarious the ice under them is, or has been.

A conversation, of course, goes both ways and you should feel comfortable sharing your own thoughts, feelings and experiences with the other patient.  It's okay if you don't; again, simply sharing a diagnosis is a flimsy basis for baring your soul to a perfect stranger.  In the course of my treatment, however, it was pretty easy to spot kindred spirits, and I found that it was almost effortless opening up to them.

What, however, if you find the other person simply uninteresting?  This can be awkward because now not only are you stuck in the unenviable position of trying to find a polite exit to a conversation, but you're trying to do it in a way that doesn't tip someone whose emotional state is already fragile.  I don't have any magic words or phrases to suggest, but I saw one patient who simply engaged someone else in conversation.  I thought he had attention deficit problems, but after a while I became suspicious that he just got bored of people.  I can't prove it, of course, but it seemed to work for him.

I hope some of this helps.  If you have any further questions, or requests for future blog posts, be sure to put them to me!  I may not come up with the content you want, but I'll do my best.  And, of course, I invite you to share with others anything you think may benefit them.  My blog is not monetized, so I don't profit from page views or shares; I just want to be helpful to others.

18 October 2011

"How Do I Help Someone Who Is Depressed?"

In the last week as my family and friends have become aware of the true nature of my depression, one of the most frequently asked questions has been, "How can I help?"  This is a difficult question to answer, because each relationship has its own dynamics.  A family member can be freer to say something to you that perhaps a coworker may not, for instance.  And, of course, everyone has their own perceptions of what depression even is.  For the purpose of this post, I will begin with the assumption that you care enough about someone with depression that you want to help and that you are not in the "Depression is a scam/They're not really depressed/They need to man up and get over it" state of mind.

Create a Comfortable Environment
Don't leave your loved one/mob boss alone in a chair.
Depression insulates a person, nudging us to withdraw from our family and friends.  We become self-conscious about even being depressed, which only exacerbates things.  If you know, or even suspect, that someone you know is depressed, one of the single most important things you can do for them is reassure them that they can talk about it with you, and that you're there for them.  It's okay if you don't know what that involves--chances are, neither do they.  Just knowing that you're on their side and that you're informed about their condition can be helpful.

You Are Not a Therapist!
Also, try not to look so bored.
Do not attempt to treat your loved one!  No matter how many times you've watched The Sopranos, you're not qualified to recreate a therapy session.  If you want to read up on depression and become better informed, that's terrific.  But do not make the mistake of trying to pass on what you've read.  I don't care who wrote what book.  It is not helpful to hear someone you know is not actually trained in psychiatry lecture you with the words of a professional.  Let the depressed person hear those concepts and ideas from the pros directly.  Think about how you feel when someone who hasn't done your job tries to tell you how to do it because they've heard something about your line of work on TV.  You just want them to shut up and quit trying to make themselves experts about your world, right?  Same thing here.

You may have genuinely constructive ideas about how the person might address specific issues that are bothering him or her, and you should feel free to share those.  For instance, if I had said to someone that one of the things upsetting me was that it was too expensive to go to movies, they might have said, "On Tuesdays, you can go for only $5.25 all day long."  What would not be helpful, however, would be for you to try to persuade me that not being able to afford going to movies is not a good enough reason to be depressed.  Which brings me to point #3...

Depressed People Can Give Stupid Reasons for Being Depressed
"What the f---?  You're not makin' any f---in' sense!" "I know."
Even we know how absurd it sounds sometimes when we talk about the little things that have overwhelmed us.  Just yesterday, I was talking with my brother and I told him that one of the things that has been bugging me this past year has been that I began to feel guilty for having a good day.  Now, three out of every five days for me are generally miserable with Crohn's, but I got to the point where I felt like I wasn't entitled to those two days that might not suck.  Like somehow it meant I was a fraud, that I wasn't really sick.  That guilt escalated to the point where I didn't even want to have good days.  My brother couldn't understand this; he couldn't even understand how it had made sense to me.  All I could say was that I knew how absurd it sounded, but that he had to just take my word for it that I had felt that way and that it seemed real enough to me.

Don't Let Depression Dominate
Use good judgment about when to put a pool cue in the hands of a depressed person.
I recently wrote about how frustrating it is to be greeted with, "How you doin'?" because it reduces the person being addressed to a condition to be monitored.  This is as true of depression as it is of any chronic illness.  You don't have to talk about depression at all, unless either the person with depression brings it up or if you get the sense that maybe they want to--this gets into the realm of specific relationship dynamics and it's up to you to navigate those nuances.  Even when depression becomes the most powerful part of our lives, there's still more to us than that.  It's nice when some other part of ourselves is engaged.  If we used to talk about movies, then talk to us about movies.  Steve Earle shared this terrific anecdote about Johnny Cash when the Man in Black passed away in 2004:
Johnny was one of the few people who wrote me when I was locked up - he sent me a very encouraging letter saying how everybody was pulling for me, that he and June were praying for me and that he would see me when I got out. I saw him again when I helped put together the band for his song on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. When I got to the studio, nobody was there but John and the engineer. I walk in and there's this old-fashioned picnic basket sitting in the middle of the pool table - you know, gingham tablecloth, the whole bit. John's got his hand in that picnic basket, and he looks up and says: "Steve, would you like a piece of tenderloin on a biscuit that June made this morning?" I was really hungry, so I said: "Yeah." And he said: "I knew you would."
We could've talked about our shared demons (I'd been clean probably a year and a half) but he knew that sometimes it's better to leave some things private and just talk about tenderloin and biscuits.

17 October 2011

How to Be a Patient - Depression Edition

I call this the "Depression Edition" because eventually I'll write a "Crohn's Edition," but depression has obviously been the dominant topic of late so here we go.  We've already explored the importance of acknowledging depression, and I've given you the basics for forming a support network.  But what about your time spent as a hospitalized patient?  Every experience is unique, of course, and each program operates differently, but here are some universal tenets.

It's a Funny Farm/Nut House/Loony Bin

Depression is poorly understood, and this extends to treatment.  People conjure images of white rooms with padded walls, sadistic doctors conducting dubious experiments and lobotomized patients slobbering senselessly.  I'm sure such places exist somewhere, but the truth is that most mental health facilities are just like any other medical facility.  They're (mostly) sterile and orderly.  Food comes round at regular intervals, nurses administer scheduled medications, and doctors speak with you briefly in the mornings.

What's different about being hospitalized for a mental issue, though, is that socialization is often a key part of treatment so unlike recovering from a physical malady, you're encouraged to leave your room and be around other patients.  It's true that some patients don't really want to get help, but for the most part I found all of us at a point where we just wanted better for ourselves, and for our loved ones.  I won't lie: a couple of patients made me uneasy, but on the whole I found myself in the company of people like myself who had simply become overwhelmed by life and needed help.

Be Honest

There's really nothing else as important as this.  You must be honest with everyone: yourself, the medical staff, other patients or anyone else with whom you interact.  You need to be honest about your state of mind.  Some patients simply wished to get out of the hospital, and what we all said to one another was, "Don't leave if you're not ready."  It's tempting to just want to get home, particularly if you feel like the only thing that you can do positive for yourself is to re-engage your life, but it's awfully easy to set yourself up for failure that way.  Better to take some more time and reenter the world a healthy (or at least, healthier) person than to come out too soon.

The medical staff, of course, relies on your honesty to ensure that you receive proper care.  If something doesn't seem to be working right, they can only make adjustments if you inform them.  There's nothing to be gained by "telling them what they want to hear."  They don't really "want to hear" anything (other than to be addressed respectfully, of course).  In my experience, the physicians and nurses who were the most attentive were the ones that I saw being engaged by patients.  People respond to other people, and it's to your advantage to invite the medical staff to respond to you.  (Note: don't abuse this just for attention.  There are other patients who need their attention, too.)

In group settings, honesty is paramount.  You may be surrounded by people whose stories sound much worse than your own, and you may feel tempted to not want to share what led you to treatment.  Or maybe you'll feel the need to embellish, and upgrade your "I lost my job" to "I was in the Peace Corps and my unit was overrun by brutal revolutionaries" just to feel like your reason for being there is "legitimate."  Don't.  It's okay that you haven't endured the same misery as other patients.  It doesn't make your need for help any less real.  Patients can spot liars among themselves, so don't bother.  Just be honest.  Several times I found myself sharing something that seemed trivial relative to what others had experience, but it resonated with them all the same.  I wouldn't have had those moments of connection if I had tried to make more out of my experiences than they really had been.

"Haven't You Ever Heard of the Healing Power of Laughter?"

The Joker nailed this one.  During my stay, there were lots of very intimate, heart-wrenching discussions that led to tears.  Several times, even I just stared with no idea what to say to someone else.  But I also found that most patients wanted to laugh.  It made it easier to be honest with one another--and hence, ourselves.  Sometimes we didn't even talk about our depression or other issues that led us there, but instead just told funny anecdotes and jokes to keep a good vibe going.

I made one patient laugh till she cried when I remarked of the linens that, "They will be towels when they grow up."  Another got the biggest kick out of when I said, "There's a light at the end of the tunnel, and I don't think it's the train."  These aren't terribly original or brilliant gems of comedy, but they were unexpected phrases that evoked a laugh.  I could feel the tension ease once someone laughed, and it was a reminder that I actually am a fairly funny guy, and that there are people out there who need to laugh.  Does it sound simple and unimportant?  Of course it does.  But then I ask you to consider the parking garage Jerry Seinfeld bought to house his collection of expensive cars.  He paid for all that because he could make people laugh.

Cast the Movie
Judy Greer
It's a little thing, but I found a side diversion that amused me (and some of the other patients) was to look around and think of who would play us in the movie version of all this.  I didn't cast everyone, but for starters I would need Rob Lowe as a counselor, Judy Greer as a nurse and Willem Dafoe as a patient.  These kinds of little games gave us something to think and talk about that helped place our hospitalization in a different context from being the embarrassing, big, bad place we went into it thinking it would be.

Talk with Other Patients

In my advice about forming a support network, I insisted that to have a friend, you need to be a friend and that's just as true inside the hospital setting as outside.  The patients who seemed to feel they made the most progress were the ones who socialized and talked with other patients.  We couldn't fix one another, and there were no expectations that we could or would.  Rather, it was important just to have those kinds of intimate, soul-baring heart-to-heart conversations that we couldn't have with people outside of that setting.  It's amazing what someone you've never met will tell you in that environment...and what you'll find yourself sharing with them.  I think those conversations helped the people I had them with, and I know I benefited from them.

"You Should Be All Better When You Leave"

When most people see a doctor or are admitted to a hospital, they leave in better shape than they arrived, and this should be true of your treatment for mental illness as well.  However, the chronic, incurable nature of mental illnesses means that you're not going to be "cured" when you leave.  You should, however, be rebooted in a sense and have a plan for management of your condition that is healthier and more helpful than what you had in place before your hospitalization.  It's a never-ending battle, and people around you may not understand that this isn't a one-stop end to your woes.  Be honest with yourself and with them, and accept that you'll have fights with depression in the future and that's not an indication of failure on your part, or evidence that your hospitalization didn't work.

Ask Other Patients About the Grub

Last advice: ask other patients who aren't first-timers what they think of the food options.  Everyone's taste is different, of course, but it can be nice to know that the hamburgers are actually pretty good and the chicken parm isn't.  Never underestimate the power of having a satisfying meal!

14 October 2011

How to Form a Support Network

Whether we're talking about Crohn's disease, depression or any other subject, it can become important to cultivate a support network.  The particulars may vary, but I think what follows should be more or less adaptable to most people in one way or another.  Because this is October, I've used the Universal Monsters to illustrate my points.

Here's What I've Got Going On
"I've got this thing where I turn into a werewolf and strangle people."
Your first step is to admit to yourself what it is that you need support for in the first place.  How easy or difficult this step is largely depends on how self-conscious you are about the issue at hand.  For instance, I was initially reticent to discuss Crohn's disease but I quickly became something of an ambassador for the disease, spreading information whenever the opportunity arose.  With depression, however, it was quite difficult to 'fess up to anyone; only the unquestioned love of my wife made it possible for me to speak to her about my condition, and she made it possible for me to speak with my doctor, as well.  The rest of our family and friends were oblivious to the extent of my problems until this week, as I informed them after I was discharged from receiving treatment for depression.  Hopefully you have an easier time discussing your issue than I had with depression.

Note that you do not have to be comfortable telling the whole world.  I share my experiences in this blog, but I understand that most people aren't as willing to be so public.  That's okay.  Start with just one confidante, whomever he or she may be.  It gets easier to accept that you have the issue the more you articulate it to someone else.

Who Knows Anything About This?
"Yes, I can tell you all about vampires.  Look into my eyes..."
Once acknowledged, the next step is to seek out people who may know things about the issue.  If it's a medical condition, start with your physician--not only will he or she know stuff, but this is the person who can actually be helpful.  There's no substitute for a physician; only supplements.

Outside of the doctor's office, though, are myriad possibilities for finding other people who know about your issue.  Google is an obvious place to start.  A basic initial query might be, "[name of issue] [your city]" to see if there might be something local that might be of help.  There may be support groups, for instance.  You can remove the localized part of your query and simply search for the topic itself.  There will be countless hits on corporate sites shilling sundry products, of course, but you'll also find web communities devoted to the issue.  You won't find all of them informative or inviting, but if you bounce around the web long enough, you're bound to find one that feels right.

For me, one of the first places I found when learning about Crohn's disease was WeAreCrohns.org.  I "met" several Crohnies there and quickly struck up a rapport with them.  I learned quite a bit about experiences they had had over the years with various medications, foods, workplace interactions and other aspects of living with Crohn's that can only really be shared by people who have lived with the disease.  What I learned there was much more valuable to me than the dry science of how the immune system attacks the digestive system and fistula this and stricture that.
[Sadly, the WeAreCrohns site owners began to neglect the site and it became overrun by malware and spammers, so I do not at present endorse it.]
Also, if you use Twitter, just run a search there.  You're bound to find someone discussing the topic.  You may go through several false starts before you find someone helpful, but often when you find one person who resonates with you, you can find several more through that one individual.

One Topic Does Not a Relationship Make
"Yes, we're both abominations unto the Lord.  But you bug me."
What you'll quickly learn about forming a support network is that having that one issue in common--no matter how dominant that issue may be in your life--is insufficient for cultivating a meaningful relationship with someone else.  You know how, at family get-togethers there's always that awkward point where all anyone in a room talks about is whatever's on TV because no one can agree about anything else?  Even if what's on TV is the most important thing in your world, it's not enough.  It may get you through that family gathering, but you're not really going to call Uncle Joe and catch up with Cousin Stan next week because, frankly, you just don't like them that much.  It's okay.

What you want to find are people who get what you're experiencing.  It doesn't matter if they've had a better or worse time of things; I've identified with Crohnies who have had numerous surgeries and some who enjoy fairly functioning daily lives (I'm somewhere in the vast middle).  From there, you discuss other stuff but you know you can always come back to the common thread.  In fact, what I've found most helpful is not discussing the issue itself with other people who share the issue with me.  It's a reminder that there's more to me--and the other person--than that one issue.  I enjoy talking about movies and politics, for instance, with other Crohnies.  I like to banter about comic books and Mario Kart with other depressed people (we really need a clever moniker).  We don't always have to talk about Crohn's or depression to have a helpful, satisfying conversation.  Just knowing we share those godawful diseases is sufficient.

To Have a Friend, Be a Friend
By "be a friend," I don't mean, "drown the little girl."
Whether in a real life support group or in an online web community, people are all the same: No one wants to be around takers.  If you can't be a giver, then you should work on that first.  The group and its members will gladly indulge you as you regale them with your latest injustice at the doctor's office or let you cry on their shoulder about how something else in your life has gone awry, but if you don't reciprocate you'll find them far less interested in your plight.  You don't have to be nosy and ferret out everyone else's woes on a regular basis.  Just be attentive and supportive of other people in your support system.  You're in theirs, too, you know.

13 October 2011

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Depression

In an ideal situation, a person with depression will still often be incapable of expressing himself or herself in a way that connects with other people.  It can be even harder to discuss with one's inner circle because those are your peers.  For me, I felt inferior to my friends and family already; letting them know this only seemed like it would be the ultimate step in failure.  If you're around "Suck it up, that's life" people, it's impossible to open your mouth and say the words, "I'm depressed and I need help."  Literally impossible.  I may as well have wanted to say it in Mandarin, because my brain would not allow those words to escape my lips.

"You had a problem, you needed help, what's the big deal?" you might ask.  It's a common reaction I've received from supportive family and friends who seek to reassure me that they attach no stigma to my experience.  I have no doubt that if I had articulated my despair to them, they would have been just as reassuring, but at the time I was absolutely certain that I couldn't approach any of them about it.  I could tell them I was taking an anti-depressant, but I couldn't bring myself to elaborate.

I found myself trapped within my own body, my cries for help dying on my tongue and often, someone else's sourness escaping in their place.  Even I had no idea where some of my unpleasantness originated, and I wasn't able to do a damn thing about it except hope that the recipient (primarily my wife) understood that it wasn't really me saying those things.  I didn't really hate my whole life; Mr. Hyde hated Dr. Jekyll's life and I didn't have enough potion to contain him.  I feel I've reasserted myself, but now I have to make amends for what he said and did while I was powerless to stop him.
Notice that the guy around Mr. Hyde isn't happy.
Depression is an isolating disease.  It does not wish its victims to connect with other people.  In this regard, I think we can see that depression does not think of itself as a contagious disease capable of spreading to others, but rather it lives in fear that others may break its spell.  It is right to fear this, as I have learned.  It discourages one from reaching out to others, and it makes sure to strain the affections of those few who penetrate its barriers.  Depression tells you that you don't deserve their companionship, that they would be better off without you and after you keep your secret long enough, it becomes easier to live within that sinister bubble.

Once in treatment, I saw evidence of this still.  Several patients rarely left their own rooms, and they're the ones who worried me most.  Many of the ones who did venture into the social room were initially wallflowers, until engaged by the clique of which I was an active member.  I personally connected with at least three other patients, and I was only able to do this because I had been where they were emotionally.  I knew the same fears and doubts that plagued them, so I was able to say to them what they had longed to hear from someone else.

I can't tell you how many times in the last year that I felt like I was playing a game of Charades, unable to actually say what I wanted to say, but hoping someone around me would magically know the right thing to say to me that would allow Dr. Jekyll to shout through Mr. Hyde's mouth.  People aren't telepathic, though, and no matter how I might try, I just couldn't get anyone to say or ask the magic words that would have allowed me to finally say the things I had been keeping to myself.

I was only able to fight this long enough to speak to my wife about this; it was, and is, a testament to the nature of our love that I was able even to say to her what I was able to say.  I was like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, and she was my Short Round (which is weird, 'cause she's really my Marion Ravenwood, but now we're off topic).  It was impossible for me to reach out to anyone else, and I literally mean impossible.  Had I been involved with someone who was not my soul mate and best friend, I would never have been able to even utter the words, "I need to do something about this."  Time and again, what we tried failed and hearing my own doctor tell me I was running out of options only made it worse.  It felt like I was one of the outliers that medical science could not help.  Depression, of course, only needed to hear that to tell me it really was hopeless for me.  Now an actual doctor had said so.
Your Dr. Jekyll is still inside, even when he appears distant.
If there was one message I want to convey in this post, it is this: Depression keeps its victim trapped within a cocoon of misery.  Please, do not let yourself be swayed by Mr. Hyde--either as victim or as outsider.  It's Dr. Jekyll who is real.  If you're the victim of depression, that means that you're not really the person whose behavior you have exhibited.  If you're the outsider, know that your loved one really is still in there, but he or she is trapped and needs your help to become free.  It is not easy, but it can be done.  Depression will make it as difficult as it can, but with your understanding and patience, your loved one is still inside waiting to share the rest of your lives together without Mr. Hyde.

12 October 2011

Confessions of a Therapy Patient

It may have become apparent to astute readers in this past year that my depression has gotten out of hand.  It has led me to withdraw from family and friends, to take less (and often no) pleasure from the things I used to enjoy and eventually led me to the point that I began to have suicidal thoughts.  I never acted on them, but I honestly don't know how close I was to doing so.  Maybe I was never going to, maybe I was one impulse away.  It doesn't matter for the purpose of this blog post because this isn't about me.

I was finally persuaded to check into a mental health facility last week.  I went in as Mr. Hyde and have come out on the other side as a reasserted Dr. Jeckyll, though I know Mr. Hyde will always be with me.  I have the power to keep him at bay, though, and I needed to be reminded not only that I could, but that I wanted to do so.

There were several patients admitted after I arrived, and speaking with a few of them (in what could accurately be called heart-to-heart conversations I shall obviously not repeat), I realized there were some universal feelings that we all shared.  I present them to you now in the hopes that maybe you--or someone you know--can benefit.  This isn't coming from a textbook or speculation; this is field-tested, firsthand experience speaking.

I Can't Really Be This Bad, Can I?

Mental illnesses are better accepted today than ever, but even now there is a tremendous stigma attached to them.  We imagine insane asylums with padded rooms and straitjackets, with people like The Joker and Hannibal Lecter in one wing and another filled with characters played by Jodie Foster.  No matter what your predilections may be, there's a sense that surely you haven't reached that point.  You just need some different meds, a lucky break for once and maybe some one-on-one therapy but there's just no way you've got any business being surrounded by the kinds of people who are admitted to such places.  I mean, they're the kind of people who aren't salvageable, or have real problems.  You've just let things get out of hand.


There's no such thing as "real" problems, at least not in the context of mental or emotional illness.  Maybe you haven't been the victim of sexual violence or you haven't seen inhumane things in the course of war, but if you've reached the point of despair then you have a legitimate claim on real help.  I had a harder time relating to the substance abuse patients because that isn't an experience I've had, but the depressed patients and I were kindred spirits.  You know what one of the most common things I heard from them?  "I felt like I didn't have a good enough reason to be around everyone else here."  There's a false sense of ranking reasons, that a rape survivor deserves therapy, but the young woman going through a breakup does not.  It's not what happened that matters; it's how you've handled it that matters.  Don't allow yourself to think that you don't deserve treatment because you don't have a sufficient trauma to discuss.

This Is Just Going to Be Lame and I Won't Get Anything Out of It

One of the main speakers we had was Ned Flanders from The Simpsons; an enthusiastic dork complete with mustache.  I thought for sure that my time there was going to be the most mind-numbing thing I've endured since I slogged my way through Economics 301.  It turned out he was a nice guy, though, and I liked him (being someone else who shares my belief that From Russia with Love is the best James Bond movie didn't hurt).

What I discovered was that the lion's share of the therapeutic value of my stay came from socializing with other patients.  We traded "Why are you here?" stories and found nice things to say to and about one another.  We picked up on mistakes that each of us had made and we called each other out on them, in the kind of way that only someone else there can do with credibility.  For once, I was part of the "in" crowd clique, which we formed late Friday night and by the time I left Monday, it had expanded to two tables of patients as we kept drawing in more of the rest.  This carried over into the organized group sessions and what we found was that the speakers weren't necessarily telling us anything specifically poignant, so much as just leading us through the process of continuing what we were already doing on our own.  They gave us themes to consider, and I can't tell you how many times someone would use the phrase, "We were just talking about this" in the course of group sessions.

I'm sure everyone took away different things, but I think what mattered most was that there was something genuinely meaningful for each of us to be in that environment.  Even Ned Flanders, in his dorky way, helped cultivate that environment and their touch was light, guiding us along from topic to topic rather than endlessly hounding us with platitudes and hokey cliches.

Whatever Happens in a Mental Health Facility Stays in a Mental Health Facility

For privacy concerns, this is actually pretty true; I won't share anything that would in any way invade another patient's privacy.  But the greater concern is that whatever progress you might make as a patient won't survive once you leave the campus.  It's certainly true that it's easier to stay focused and feel positive in an environment crafted for that purpose, but you can also find things that you can tether yourself to once you've left.  Each person gets something different from the experience, of course, and I'll share what I got out of mine in forthcoming posts but the important thing is that your time spent can best be viewed as a course correction.  You may have been on the right path and things got out of hand and you strayed.  You don't have to start all over--in fact, you can't.  What you can do, though, is see the sign posts back to the right path and now you know what to look for in the future.  If you've ever driven around lost, you know what it's like when you keep seeing the same landmarks and signs; they let you know you're back in the wrong place.  Your experience as a patient can help show you what those landmarks and signs were that you missed, and it's this knowledge--more than the positive feelings--that you can carry with you outside the facility.

If you've read this and you've been thinking that maybe what you've been dealing with has gotten out of hand, I hope I've helped assuage some of your self-consciousness about seeking the help you may well need.  If this doesn't apply to you, then I hope it has at least made you more mindful of the potential needs of those around you.  It's very hard to be honest about needing help in the best of circumstances, and it's almost impossible if you feel that those around you won't "get it."  Maybe you don't get it anymore now than you did before, but at least I hope you see there's something to get, and that alone is helpful.

Edit to add

You may also find it helpful to read a previous post, "On Depression."  Other readers have indicated to me that they have found it helpful to share with people around them, so they might better understand the nature of depression.

11 October 2011

I've Got Talent

I have come face to face with a lot of important things during the last week, and I will explore some of them in forthcoming posts as I process them but the first issue I want to address is an almost entirely positive one so it seems a nice place to start.  In a fit of irony (as will soon become apparent), I can think of no nuanced way to articulate this specific learned lesson so I place trust in you, dear reader, that you will know that none of what follows is evidence of arrogance on my part.

I have forgotten--or at least, stopped believing in--my own talents and aptitudes.  I suppose part of it has been the skewed perceptions created by the depression I've been fighting this past year, but another part of it, I think, is that my inner circle is comprised of people who are my peers in those aspects.  That is to say, there's not much about me that seems particularly extraordinary among a group of similarly talented people.

My talents consist of critical thinking, writing and speaking articulately and having an above-average intuition for how to reach and help other people.  Those seem like nothing special to me, but recently I spent some time in the company of a group of people who do not share my talents.  This is not to say that I find myself superior to any of them; I certainly do not.  They possess other skills that I lack and my articulate writing won't fix a busted pipe, repair a roof or rebuild a car engine so believe me when I say that what I am expressing is not about thinking I'm better than anyone else.  It's just that I can do those things and not everyone else can.  (Also, I'm a fairly funny guy and I forget that not everyone actually is funny.)

If you glean but one thing from this post, it should be this: you're entitled to feel good about what you do well without having to fear others will take it to mean that you think yourself better than them.  It isn't about being superior; it's about recognizing what you have to offer, and taking pride in that.  I've always been terrified of coming across as self-important to the point that my self-deprecating humor has devolved into self-sabotage.  Don't make that mistake.  (Unless, that is, your talents are the same as mine, in which case go find something else to do.)

Am I a woefully overlooked talent that is one lucky break away from the New York Times best-seller list?  Probably not.  But I have the ability to use my skills to reach and help other people and that has value; it means something.  It's been a long while since I believed in my ability to do that, but I've renewed that self-confidence.  Nearly everything that is written or said is merely a variation on a theme, but we keep churning out new variants because there are always outliers who haven't been reached by all the other variants yet.  I intend to try to reach those outliers and be helpful.

I will take the initiative as I find the opportunity and inspiration, but you can help me, dear reader.  You can do this by responding to posts that you read that resonate with you; maybe you find something valuable or entertaining, or maybe you think I'm entirely off-base and need a course correction on a subject.  I consider all the feedback I receive.  Also, if there is a specific topic or sub-topic you would like to see discussed here, I'm open to suggestions.  So let me know if there's some way in which you think I can help you to explore a given topic or theme.

Outside of this, I intend to commit myself to writing at least one short story per month to submit for publication consideration.  I have already submitted one story and have made strong headway on a second; whether either will actually be selected of course, I have no way of knowing.  But I figure that if I throw enough stuff on the wall, something is bound to stick.  Hopefully, I can sell some stuff and actually make some coin doing what I do well--or at least, better than some.  That would be particularly satisfying.  And satisfaction, friends, is the name of the game.