I don’t know what I don’t know. No amount of classroom training in the most prestigious higher learning institution could possibly prepare me for the intangibles, mentally, which I haven’t personally yet prospered or suffered through. Thankfully, I don’t need to pay thousands upon thousands of dollars to attend these formal learning lessons. Because if I did, my hope is I studied to become a lawyer, so I could take on my own legal case and sue life for cruel and unusual punishment. But I didn’t go to law school, and I don’t have a PHD to become a doctor to examine one’s own mind, either. In all honesty, I barely graduated high school, so if years of schooling are the only gauge to qualify someone to speak intelligently about one’s inner self, I would undoubtedly be near the bottom of that list. I’ve just always been of the belief the only way to fully comprehend life is by living and observing through it, especially when forced to face the internal wars that need to be fought and overcome.
A statistic in the header of a USA Today article titled “40,000 Suicides Annually, Yet America Simply Shrugs” startled me. It stated a suicide occurs every 13 minutes in the United States. Let that sink in for one minute. Forty-thousand Americans lose their life battling nobody but themselves. While you ponder that statistic, someone somewhere is contemplating the meaning of their existence. And by the time it takes you to finish reading this, someone somewhere will have lost that battle. It could be a family member, friend, a coworker, or maybe even…you. I know, because it very easily could’ve been me.
Before I continue any further, I should make one thing unequivocally clear – I love life. I love nature and animals. I even have a soft spot for people, regardless of some of my earlier life observations and commentary on them. I love love, too…or, perhaps, the idea of it, anyway. I mean, can there possibly be anything better than the magnetic force of when two destined souls collide and find each other? I think not. I even love how fate disguises itself, and allows coincidence to take the credit for it.
As an artist, I love to create. Well, technically, it’s more of a necessity to me, like the air we breathe, because deep down inside I have no choice in the matter. But still, whether with a paint brush, video or words, it’s all the same to me. I attempt to find the silver lining in everything – personal or professional setbacks, included. But, not in a way that is so obnoxious it’s fake. So, when I say I love life, I mean I LOVE life. But, it doesn’t mean I am incapable of becoming overwhelmed or hurt by certain components of life that simply living offer, either, especially as I mature, age and become more battle tested.
If there’s one thing that seems to be consistent in most photographs of my childhood, I must’ve been a happy kid, because I sure did smile a lot. When you get right down to it, I really didn’t have much to complain about. Most of my adolescence was spent in an affluent neighborhood living the perceived American dream. We were a typical family with a mother, father, older sibling and me. It was rare that our house didn’t have a dog, or other variation of pet, in our household, too. Both of my parents worked full time jobs, providing above adequate housing along with the necessary, daily balanced meals we need. We always had running water and electricity…new clothes and shoes to wear. What can I say, I am blessed, because there are people who would kill to have the life and upbringing I had.
“…and then, I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?”
– Vincent van Gogh
I knew long ago art would be an integral piece to my journey, and remain a constant factor into adulthood. My love for art began the moment I was able to grab hold of a pencil and put it to paper. I spent those early days drawing sports cars and football players. It’s no coincidence, when I was a child, my dream when I grew up and graduated school was to make a living as a professional football player or an artist. Those were dashed years later once I came to the realization that merely playing backyard ball is not going to get you noticed by scouts. To add, I felt I could knock on Walt Disney’s door, let my artwork speak for itself, ask for a job, and get hired on the spot. Let’s just say, that’s the unrealistic dreamer in me.
Even though my parents were supportive of my art, but making a career out of it was another story. They were just being concerned and responsible, looking out for my best interest so I didn’t become some homeless starving artist on the side of the road selling paintings and other crafts, and barely surviving. They only want the best for me and my sister. And, I can’t blame them for me taking an alternate career path into the sales and service industry, which I’ve made a decent living and have had some success with. After further review, at the time, having a career in art seemed limited, anyway…and just not realistic with someone of my academic background. But, I also didn’t bother to think of the other avenues being creative could take me, and I learned those much later in life.
I’ve always been a dreamer. I preferred to live where I felt most at ease, and the majority of the time it was in my own head – dreaming and creating. Of course, this type of occurrence happened often while in the classroom – elementary school on up, which is not conducive to learning. Because of this, I believe I understand why they chose “Wah wah” as the repetitious sound of the teacher’s voice in the Charlie Brown cartoons; that’s all I remember hearing at the precise moment where my subconscious greeted reality again…a rather embarrassing re-introduction back to planet Earth, might I add.
As I was entering my teens, into middle and high school, things got a little more complicated, as it typically happens about this age. Up to this point, my interests were, in no particular order – art, sports and music, primarily, but girls began entering the picture as well. I was shy back then, and this much is obvious – my chances with women didn’t fare well if I couldn’t speak to them. I always had a close knit group of guy friends, even if those groups changed periodically throughout the years. Earlier in life, the common interest with me and the neighborhood kids were sports. This is what ultimately brought us together, besides the luxury of living close in proximity to each other. Being from the Cleveland area – or Ohio in general – football is in our blood. We played nearly every day after school through rain, shine, sleet, and snow. But, still, no matter how much I loved playing, watching and breathing sports, I never truly felt I belonged specifically to this group of friends, due primarily because of my deep interest for the arts that I kept mostly private. I felt they wouldn’t understand, and there was no point in attempting to explain something that was deeper within me that I even fail to comprehend at times.
A few months into my freshman year, my parents separated briefly, and we moved out of the house we called home for many years into two 2-bedroom apartments. With that lifestyle change, came a change in who I hung out with, as well. I saw those old friends less and less, mostly due to distance, and began hanging out with the skate crowd instead. My music tastes shifted from mostly rap, to alternative, progressive and grunge rock bands and everybody from the old neighborhood made that clear observation known. I was fortunate to know some people who were always in-the-know of some potentially great bands coming out, which helped influence my always expanding music collection. I’m not calling myself a pioneer, but I caught on very early, well before grunge rock exploded on the national scene where it was cool to be and look different. Ironic that it turned so mainstream because everybody became the same with the emphasis solely put on being different – haha. The trend started as a way to promote self-expression and individualism, but seemingly grew to be motivated by how much you can shock someone else. I didn’t like that. It compromised the integrity of the music genre.
All I can say is when the cats are away, the mice will play. Around this time I also began experimenting with controlled substances. The first time I drank alcohol I was in middle school, which was sparked more out of curiosity than anything else. This is pretty common among my friends, and parents should expect it around this age. I honestly don’t know what they could have done different to prevent it. I had to learn on my own, and learn I did! During the summer heading into my freshman year, I woke up, guzzled an entire bottle of 20/20 Purple Grape Mad Dog in less than 10 minutes, and spent the rest of the day hammered, puking in bed. Lesson learned. I don’t believe I took another drink until I was around 20 years old, which means I was oftentimes the designated driver throughout those high school years and beyond.
I had my first real cigarette when I was 15, and started smoking regularly soon thereafter. In hindsight, probably the biggest mistake of all my life. I won’t blame it on the adversity my family was going through, but it didn’t help that home life was getting more confusing too. We were no longer one big happy family, and in some ways it was an act of rebellion…another reason I related to the new music I started listening to. Rap just didn’t and couldn’t capture what I was feeling inside. Over the next 10 or so years after, there wasn’t much I haven’t at the very least tried. Funny because they say marijuana is the gateway drug, but if you look at my timeline of substance abuse, I’d say alcohol started it all for me.
Up until my mid teens, I never considered words to be an art form. I was a terrible student in English class, and I’m sure some of my resentment was due to that. But somewhere along the way, I discovered the power of them, initially in the form of poetry. The poems I wrote were evidence of a troubled, young boy, attempting to discover his own mortality and the true meaning of life. I fell into a dark depression. I remember it got so bad that I didn’t even know why I was depressed at times…I just knew what I felt was not the place I wanted to be. Those were challenging days, because every day I had to give a reason to not attempt to end whatever was causing this imbalance in my head. And I did become suicidal.
“Nice is boring. The sad songs are what sell. And I’m not drawing to sell, I’m drawing what I feel.”
– Derek Hess (from the trailer, Forced Perspective”)
There were more times than I can remember where I sat on my bed with a knife in my hand, contemplating the question “What is there to live for?”…, and demanding a sign from somewhere to continue it. I felt lost and out of place…happiness felt artificial, thus my purpose seemed irrelevant or nonexistent. And my artwork – drawings and writings – reflected this pain. The 2015 Cleveland International Film Festival screened a documentary called, Forced Perspective, about world renowned Cleveland artist, Derek Hess. In this film you get an inside look into the brilliant artistic mind of a man who has suffered through mental illness and substance abuse, controlling his demons through his expressive art, all the while living in Cleveland one interviewee calls the “Great Wrong Place”:
“There’s been four cities in the last hundred years that I refer to as the great wrong place. And living in a great wrong place requires you to express yourself – the void that you’re living in.”
There’s another sound-byte in the trailer by Derek that caught my attention:
“What gets me to there, is my trip. Ya know, so yeah, my trip goes through alcoholism, being sober, bipolar, being high, low…whatever, in trouble, not in trouble, good relationship, bad relationship…whatever, ya know. And everybody’s got whatever. I don’t expect, ‘oh poor Derek, he’s got whatever’. But, you definitely have to feel.” Even though I have never been diagnosed with any mental illness; as an artist, Cleveland area native, and someone who struggled with substance dependency problems, I immediately became interested in this film.
Once I turned 21, after my first two breakups with serious girlfriends, I denounced feelings altogether. I began drinking again, but this time it was nightly with the initial intent to mask and numb the hurt. I suppose in some sense it worked, because I no longer had emotional ties to anyone anymore, choosing to live a little more careless and dangerously. I somehow acquired a professional career type job, which I feel was mostly by accident because I was not qualified, yet somehow impressed them enough to hire me. With this commissioned sales position came a huge increase in my annual earnings, which allowed me to spend more on my self-prescribed therapy. I also scaled back on being creative, mostly due to priorities shifting to drinking and picking up women at the bar with my crew. This lasted until I received my first (and only) DUI, and back into – not quite suicidal, but a brief depression I went.
I never realized how much I depended on alcohol to solve my personal problems. Honestly it never really did solve anything, it just helped me procrastinate and hold them off for the next day…and then another, and so on and so forth. It was here where I had no choice but to get sober…and my interest in creative writing took new shape. I began a screenplay inspired by this period of my life titled “kArmA: a story about friendship, love and addiction“. It was a coming-of-age story where I used my recent implosive behavior of overindulging on alcohol, drugs and women, and how it led my life to spiral out of control. My thought was the story could help others who found themselves in the same predicament, and inspire them to survive another day. I attempted to turn the screenplay into production, assembling a cast and crew, but failing to keep it together long enough to see it through. But my desire to be involved in filmmaking didn’t die.
I then started a documentary, Guilty Til Proven Innocent (otherwise known as GTPI), about Ohio’s 25 year restriction on Pit Bull dog ownership. The film went on to have some success, screening it over 20 times including two official selections to film festivals – SLIFF and KC FilmFest. I started gaining a solid reputation as an expert in the animal welfare field as a knowledgeable source on the issue of breed discrimination. I met many other colleagues who were also championing to end these breed discriminatory laws. It was here where lightning struck and I found mutual love in the least likely place. I’ve written about that failed love interest before in posts “A Love Story” and “When The Storm Ends“, including an even more recent new interest I had with another girl subsequently after, that never materialized into anything of substance. I admit to feeling hurt by that, too, but it was intensified by several other variables that acted as a noose secured tightly around my neck, suffocating me.
The last couple years were tough. The film was completed and making its rounds of screenings around the U.S., so the creativity aspect of my life became null and void. I was concentrating solely on more menial, administrative tasks, and no longer had a productive outlet to channel my frustrations through. I was overwhelmed and overworked in my professional job as well. I would spontaneously pass out early, and randomly wake up in the middle of the night often. This became my normal sleeping pattern. Additionally, I started seeing more and more toxic behavior with animal rescue groups, and it affected my well being. I invested a lot of myself – physically, financially, and otherwise, without much incentive besides seeing the goal be achieved, but saw so much negativity and ego that it felt completely hopeless. On top of that, while my interest was in a new girl, I became close to another well known face within the dog welfare community. The pressure and weight of the world rested squarely on my shoulders to be there for this friend through her trying times. But her feelings morphed into more than I was willing to give her in the romantic way she wanted, especially considering my heart had already started getting an attachment for someone else…and it subsequently ended our messy friendship with a callous retaliation towards me.
All this, and more, made me absolutely miserable, and I had no idea how I got here or how to make it better. Looking back, it sounds like an overreaction, but I contemplated death many times as a solution. Last November, I wrote a blog post titled “Save Me, And I’ll Save You” as my final plea. My plan was to post it, and blow my head clean off. Morbid to talk about it, I know, but that was the plan. I have never been one to conform. When I see bullshit, I call bullshit. But it doesn’t come without consequence. Sure I have friends – outside and inside the animal world, but I guess some can’t take the honesty I attempt to share. I sometimes think people are just spineless, because lying is something I’m subjected to often. I’ve always been the type to say what’s on my mind or what I feel – at times, at the expense of me. At that moment I made my post public, I looked at my dog, Preston…, and I just couldn’t. I nearly lost it.
I have a special relationship with this dog. He was the inspiration to GTPI, and the subject of several of other posts. He is a Pit Bull dog, who had a rough start as a victim of dogfighting, where I later learned his new life began when a rescue pulled him on my birthday two years prior to me even meeting him. His new life started the day we celebrate mine. For that, and many other reasons, he is my souldog. He looked at me with his big brown eyes, and my concerns immediately shifted to how his life would be impacted. Where would he go? How would he live? My dog saved me from acting on a decision I could not take back. I love him more than words can effectively describe, and for that I would feel negligent if I didn’t give a snarky shout out to all the Pit Bull hate groups who call for the destruction of dogs like him – Get a new hobby, folks!
Suicide trends are common in certain social structures and professions, especially those who are supposed to be emotionally in tune with themselves – artists, human and animal welfare, etc. – but nobody is completely immune to it. Everybody I have ever asked has admitted the thought crossed their mind at least once in their lifetime. This tells me people suffer and don’t speak about it. After all, suicide is called the silent killer for a reason. Art stabilizes me. It gives me purpose, sending passion directly throughout the vessels of my beating heart. I’ve found it’s what works for me – which is why I am a firm believer that everyone needs to find what fulfills them and do it, so they always have a productive outlet when nobody else will give their time. And, people need to speak when they are faced with self-defeat and not be embarrassed or feel alone, because there is no shame in being open and honest when it’s a matter of life and death. Last, when faced with your own dark shadow, all you may need to do is turn around and face the sun to see the hope that shines bright on you. And live.