Here is a special guest post by Syfer Locke, a member of our global steampunk community.
This is a post by a steampunk to be shared with all steampunks, to help understand, and to help be understood. No matter how this topic affects you, completely or not at all, this is worth reading.
If you would like to contact Syfer directly, here’s his email – firstname.lastname@example.org.
What kills me, makes me want to fly
By Syfer Locke
I usually introduce a panel with: My name is Syfer Locke, Captain of the Airship Banish Misfortune, and some people call me a pirate, but, there are no pirates in the Red Fork Empire, and also, no liars. I will, however, collect taxes for my emperor, and I will bill you for any bullets expended in the collection of those taxes. Today, I am going to tell you that its all crap. Complete and unadulterated escapism bullshit. Its fun, ego stroking, and gives me a brief moment in the spotlight, far away from my day to day reality of coaching customers on how to order a steak to get what they want and juggling twenty different menu items and ingredients, all with different cook times, so that all six plates of this table come out together, while making sure the order that came in two minutes later arrives at their table three minutes after the first.
Escapism has its place. Its not a bad thing. Fantasy can be a powerful defense mechanism, a highly effective coping tool. In fact, Terry Pratchett, in Hoggfather, has the conversation between Death and his granddaughter concerning fantasy and the human condition. His granddaughter asks Death if humans need fantasy to make living bearable, to which Death replies, “No, humans need fantasy to be human.”
The process of creating and adopting a persona for cosplay, steampunk, or a role for stage or screen is a constructive outlet on par with great paintings and sculptures, hit songs, powerful symphonies, and works of literature that span the years. The difference is just in the medium and the audience, creativity always comes from the same place, no matter where it takes you in the end. So I created a sky pirate who takes all he can, and gives nothing back, and I put on steampunk armor, and I found when I put on the post apocalyptic armor with things stolen from everywhere he’s been, from gypsy scarves and beads to cutlasses and six shooters, that I could take the armor around my heart, my inner self, off.
I found people and places where I could let down those barriers, because I was the dapper and dashing swashbuckler not to be trifled with. Where my skills at becoming someone else, at swordplay, made me a rock star instead of a weirdo. For once, I was Nikki Sixx, instead of Gonzo.
And now, today, I am going to wear neither for a little while, stand exposed and hopefully let you into my head. Its often a very dark and confusing place, and it frequently scares the hell out of me. Usually, even from myself, I cast the Wyrd Sisters of Shakespeare as guardians of this innermost self, chanting none shall land upon this shore to sneak or peek or to explore, so be ye traveler explorer or sailor lost, into the sea ye must be tossed. So, foolish mortals, you have been warned. Here, there be Dragons.
By now, I think we have all had to time to hear about Robin Williams. Robin Williams was one of my personal heroes, a man I looked up to a great deal, a phenomenal actor, a brilliantly and hilariously funny man. He had it all, a family that loved him, fame, fortune, talent, skill, class, wit. After it happened there were a lot of touching tributes, and I am willing to bet many of you indulged in marathons of films and stand up and appearances he made, just like I did. A lot of things were said, many compassionate, some cruel.
Apparently, now we can talk about it. Never mind how angry that particular bit of talking head drivel made me, but, since they said its allowed now, let’s do it. Down the rabbit hole. And I’m not a doctor. I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist, not a suicide counselor, so I’m not going to try to talk like one. What I am is a person who has spent most of their life diagnosed with mental illnesses, and tries, every day, with lesser or greater success, to better cope with what that means and the challenges it creates.
I am going to use the term mental illness, because it seems at the same time both most accurate and least offensive, of the ways these challenges are described. Troubled is not unkind, sure, but sick and twisted, insane, dangerous, crazy, unpredictable, these take their toll. When the people around you find out you got dealt this trial, this challenge, this obstacle in life, they get defensive, scared. They act like you are contagious or a criminal. And some people who suffer are criminal, but others understand that we have a responsibility to prevent what collateral damage we can. That its not a license to behave badly, to be not just socially awkward but socially obtuse.
Depression comes in many forms. There are the types that come and go, the types that are more or less temporary, the result of an injury or incident, and there are types that never let up, even if they seem to when you learn to cope with its current level of interference. The particular type of depression I was diagnosed with is caused by biology. The hippocampus of my brain may be smaller then other people, and they know from fairly extensive blood work that there are certain hormones I have either too much or too little of. There isn’t much you can do about this kind of depression. Sometimes, for some people, medication can help. It can help your physiology bridge the gaps from producing too little and too much of the chemicals in the brain that aren’t existing in the correct balance, but if you stop taking the pills, you still have that imbalance.
You can learn to cope, usually through counseling, analyzing, adapting, changing your life, to overcome the pressure, the despair, the hopelessness, the weakness you can’t escape from. You can do things that promote the production of endorphins, adrenaline, and all the other feel good hormones your body can produce to counter the overabundance of stress and other hormones that flood your brain. There is no cure for this. It can be treated, it can be coped with, if I take the responsibility to do so, but I can’t be “normal.”
You have no idea, after helicopter rappelling down the face of mountains, after shooting rapids in Wyoming, after all of the things I have set my mind to do, to conquer, after all my victories, how frustrating it is to come to terms with not being able to do something so simple, so easy, so mundane as being “normal.”
I have been a Boy Scout, a United States Marine, a fencer of at least adequate skill. I have jumped off of mountains, gone whitewater rafting, spent weeks at a time backpacking through the New Mexico Rocky Mountains, conquered Ninja Warrior type obstacle courses, lived in seven states, traveled to or through most of the rest of the continental United States, lazer tag, air-soft, performed on stage, presented panels on several topics, and created art in many mediums and styles, all with some degree of success in affecting what’s wrong.
I have on more then one occasion done the counseling thing, but these doctors can’t offer their services for free, so that doesn’t happen as often as it probably should.
And I have tried the medication route. Unfortunately, meds don’t work for me. They tried a few different kinds, but all of them would lock me into a dangerously dark low, or an equally dangerous manic high, emotionally, and wouldn’t let me out. “Normal” emotional ups and downs just don’t seem to be in the cards for me. Nope, I get the roller coaster that sets all the records for speed and twists and loops and spirals.
In fact, I hated roller coasters for a long time, until I realized that unlike my real life, the roller coaster always comes to a stop, and I get to get off, and I even get to get back on if I want to. Now, I love roller coasters. Every trip to an amusement park I have made since I was seventeen years old, I planned my day and my route around hitting every roller coaster the park had.
Depression is actually relatively easy to talk about, considering the stigma of mental illness. So let’s go all the way back to the deepest, darkest place in my head, and talk about that for a minute.
Paranoid-type schizophrenia is characterized by delusions and auditory hallucinations (hearing voices that don’t exist) but relatively normal intellectual functioning and expression of emotions. The delusions can often be about being persecuted by a person or an organization, or feeling harassed or treated unfairly. People with paranoid-type schizophrenia can exhibit anger, aloofness, anxiety, and can be argumentative, according to WebMD.
It doesn’t just run in my family, it skips merrily with scissors and sadistic glee. Yes, I see and hear things that aren’t there. As the most recognizable symptom, I’ll start there. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper participated in an exercise that tries to make this symptom relate-able to people who don’t experience it. He spent a day wearing a headset that played distracting, taunting, condemning, criticizing, judgmental, angry, infuriated, disappointed, disrespectful voices playing over and over and over and over again.
The video of this experience is on YouTube. He said he had a headache that wouldn’t go away after the first hour. His relief at the end of the experience is palatable. Most people who suffer from this only get relief from the voices with medication, but remember, the medications haven’t worked for me. So, to cope with this, I meditate, I self medicate (alcohol), I started fencing, and I listen to a LOT of music. I have found that sometimes music keeps the voices down to a dull roar, and sometimes, when they get more insistent, at least they sing along. Not really, but it stays bearable. Pandora is both a blessing and a curse. I have found I need to change up tempo, style, message, etc. frequently, because too long on any one kind of music and it loses its effectiveness, and Pandora allows me to build very eclectic play lists that don’t end up looping back to the beginning.
Unfortunately, Pandora also seems to think that because I like The Cure, Depeche Mode, one song from Imagine Dragons, one song from One Republic, that I also like Coldplay, Scott Stapp and Creed, and Nickleback. Skip, skip, skip, why god have you forsaken me, skip, and then the urge to load the phone into the Navy’s new rail cannon prototype so I can launch it through sixteen sheets of battleship steel, four brick walls, a bunker and then sixteen more miles down the road.
There are other things that are wrong with me, too, because the nasty, nasty secret of mental illness, is they seem to be like Lay’s potato chips, you can’t just have one. I don’t know if it’s because the “damage” that causes one mental illness is also the cause of others, or if its like AIDS/HIV, where you become more susceptible to other illnesses when you are already suffering from something pretty major. There is a strong chance of things like adult ADHD and PTSD, and I really should look into finding a new doc, to talk about problems old and new, and get some new tools and support for coping.
So, what’s it like living like this? I am, by necessity, introverted and shy. I don’t go out of my way to meet new people on my own. I do things like attend conventions and go out with friends when I want to be social and meet new people, and hope that the practice of a mutual friend introducing two strangers has not yet completely died out, because I am not comfortable exposing my inner self to someone whom I know very little.
And even then, in a large group, I usually need a few drinks, to relax enough to open up even a little, and I need frequent breaks, although often they only need to be five minutes outside to smoke a cigarette. If one or two people join me, that’s also OK, but I need time away from the larger group just to reset, so that I don’t shut down or accidentally stray into being socially obtuse, rather then merely awkward.
Everyone thinks everything you say is negative, even when you are the most serene, at peace, joyful, and happiest you have been in months, or even years. They ask how are you, and you reply not bad, because right now, today, in this moment, that is exactly correct. Nothing is wrong with your world. That simple “not bad” is awesome on a spiritual level that words can’t encapsulate. But, you used the word bad, and now they pick a fight with you about how negative you always are, and “not bad” went to “well, this fucking sucks” in five point two seconds.
And sometimes, I don’t even think about the social ramifications of what I do. Like the Banana Bolo. At a con in Houston, a member of the group I was with needed a banana, because they were too stubborn/shortsighted/whatever to eat, so I went to hunt down a banana. After finding the hotel had run out, I walked down the street, still in full steampunk costume, to the gas station to see if they had any. Yeah, that steampunk costume. The one with the cowboy hat and two six shooters, and short shotgun, and body armor. They did not.
On my way back, I found a Starbucks, who did have fresh bananas. I got the banana and thanked the clerk after talking about the convention for five minutes, and go to leave. Only to find seven cops from three departments pulling into the parking lot and drawing their sidearms. Apparently, there were a dozen calls to the police about a scary scary armed man needing a banana. So, with my hands in the air, well away from my body, I promise the police that I belong to the nearby convention, and everything I had with me was a costume prop. The police relaxed, played with my props, lectured me about leaving the convention grounds without at least stowing my props at the table, and then detailed an officer to give me a police escort back to the convention.
Like I said, Syfer Locke is a rock star. Meanwhile, Deadpool and the Umbrella Security Services were walking into Chili’s behind them in full tac gear with assault weapons (air-soft replicas). All because, while costumes, and highly accurate props are normal to me, and most of my circle of friends, to greater or lesser degree, I forgot its not normal to all those other people out there, that don’t attend costumed events.
I often feel unworthy to be around others. Unwanted, unworthy, unacceptable, unclean. Sometimes I feel like two people in the same skin, Syfer Locke, the one people like, he’s cool, witty, urbane, dashing, dapper, even a little attractive. Determined, ambitious, resourceful, honorable. And then there is the real me. Dark, twisted, cutthroat, ruthless, vile, contemptible, a demonic monster in human skin.
It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, the fact is I feel it clawing at my brain and my soul, trying to get out. And sometimes, he does. No matter how hard I work at it, there are times the version of me you get is a coin flip. I’ve learned the hard way that the control I tightly wrap around that darker half, like circles of warding and binding is much harder to maintain when I have been drinking, but I usually still manage, because most people still have a good time on a night out with me. Unless there is vodka. Some ingredient of vodka triggers episodes, and because I have been drinking, I don’t have the level of control, of strength of will to contain those episodes. So, now, I don’t drink vodka knowingly. And as I learn about drinks that contain vodka, they go on the list. Sometimes, I know ahead of time, like Vegas Bombs and Long Island Iced Teas, but sometimes I don’t learn until after the fact, like Orange Dreamsicle.
By the way, did you know that cheap imported Czech absinthe is made by adding infusion of anise and wormwood to high proof vodka of questionable quality? I didn’t either, until after a steampunk convention in New Jersey and the infamous Gazebo Incident. I make jokes about it, fairly often, now, but it’s only funny because I am still alive. The scary part of the story, that I don’t get into the details of, is that when they found me Sunday morning, I was unresponsive and cold to the touch, so they brought the convention EMS director/coordinator down. Even he had a hard time finding a pulse at first, and for the first few minutes, he was afraid I was the first person to die at their event. The staff was understandably angry with me, and it almost got me banned from future events, and not just because I didn’t have the foresight to remove my volunteer staff badge before drinking myself nearly comatose.
In the end, because I was OK, and I didn’t harm anyone or anything else, they decided I could attend as a paying guest, and I could still volunteer, with the understanding that if anything even remotely like that happened again, it was done. No questions asked. I think that is both lenient and kind.
There are times I try to discuss this with my parents and my siblings. My biological father is a Southern Baptist Minister, y’all. My mother is Mormon, as are my siblings. My stepfather might understand, and while my biological father tries, and was there at the beginning, he has some strange ideas about mental health. I’m about as heterosexual as a man gets, although I try hard not to be homophobic and offensive, but it would be easier to tell my family I was gay, then it would be to have even this frank a conversation about the state of my mental health.
And, of course, I am single. Dating is hard for everyone, even if they don’t have my baggage. And how can I, in good conscience, subject someone to the things wrong with me? Especially someone I just met, don’t know well, who doesn’t know me, doesn’t know I am not even aware when I stray into obtuse territory until its too late?
And then there is that one thing. That thing that all of this has been leading up to. That thing we never ever talk about in polite company. We try to never talk about at all. That selfish thing. That weak thing. That easy way out. Suicide is often a symptom of depression and other mental illnesses, much like myocardial infarction is often a symptom of end stage terminal cancer. When we think of suicidal people we think of lost, lonely, failed, broken, ill, weak people, but I think Robin Williams showed us that is complete bullshit.
Suicide can happen to rich people, strong people, successful people, famous people, popular people. Like cancer, depression and the symptom of suicide and suicidal tendencies, thoughts, idealizations, can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere. And it seems, sometimes, that creative people are the most susceptible. The power to create is also the power to destroy. Vincent van Gogh famously cut off his ear, an act of self mutilation in an effort to be better understood, by fellow artist Gaugin. Nuclear power, which gives us the ability to create enough energy to provide electricity or destroy an entire country.
Its often said that whether you paint or write or dance or play or stand up front telling bad jokes and hard truths, the ability to do it, and do it well comes from suffering and struggle. Often as kids, these were the people that stood apart for some reason, too fat, too skinny, too smart, too weird, and got picked on and neglected in turns for daring not to conform. And God knows, I’m one, never fitting in (and thus suffering all that entails) at church, at school, at home, even among the majority of my friends. I’m just a little bit off, a little bit different. And, looking at history, we seem to have always known that to create is to destroy. Shiva and Kali, for example, or even Christ.
I have personally survived eleven suicide attempts. I define this as I had begun to make plans, and to take steps to hide those plans from those around me, to end my life. Six of those attempts I had my methodology close to hand, three times I was interrupted in the act. Those are the conscious attempts.
Some of my more extreme behaviors may have been subconscious attempts, and then there are the thoughts, where I am not making concrete plans, but thinking about how or why I would do such a thing. Wanna know another deep dark secret? I ask myself, among other things, every single day, is today that day? That day I decide.
To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveler returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,
And thus the Native hue of ResolutionIs sicklied o’er,
with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action. Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia. Nymph, in all thy Orisons
Be thou all my sins remembered.
So where does that leave us? If I feel that way, every single day, why haven’t I succeeded in ending everything? You can pretend someone in this strait has nothing wrong with them, you can treat them like a leper, you can treat them like a criminal, but if they are determined, you can’t stop them. So what’s stopping me?
I have the good fortune of circumstances to have some amazing friends. I don’t mean amazing in the sense that they are famous, or their works have appeared in iconic films, or accomplished, or wealthy, although, I do have friends who have achieved some of those things. I mean the small things, the quiet things. The comment, the text, the phone call, that reminds you that they are there, and that they think of you, and sometimes, they have problems, too. You might be able to help, you might not, but you don’t suffer alone.
Who has watched the series The West Wing? Its one of my favorites, and I recently re watched the episode that makes it so. Episode nine of season two, guest starring Yo Yo Ma, is titled Noel. The short version of this episode is earlier in the series, during an attack on the President, Josh Lyman was shot in the lower abdomen. After a series of escalating episodes, culminating in shouting at the President in the Oval Office, Leo brings in specialists from ATVA, who coach Josh through the episodes, because his PTSD rendered him only partially conscious during his episodes, which were growing more and more erratic and dangerous. At the end of a grueling hours long session with the specialists, as Josh is finally leaving the building, he finds his boss, the Chief of Staff, Leo McGarrety, had been waiting for him. Leo, when explaining why he felt it necessary to wait, tells Josh this story:
A man falls into a deep hole with steep sides, and can’t get out. After a while a doctor passes the hole, and the man calls up to him for help. The doctor writes out a prescription, and throws it down into the hole. A short time later, a priest passes, and again the man calls for help. The priest writes a prayer down on a piece of paper and throws it into the hole and continues on. Then the man sees his friend passing by the hole. “Hey, Joe! I’ve fallen down here, and I can’t get out. I need some help.” Joe jumps down into the hole with his friend, who says to him, “Why did you do that? Now we’re both stuck down here!” Joe looks at his friend and says, “but, I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
That’s why. Why I keep getting back on for another ride on the yin yang roller coaster of darkness and light, creation and destruction. Why I armor up, climb back on my tired horse, take up my lance and tilt another windmill. Why I lick the wounds of the slings and arrows, the whips and scorn, I pull the bandage tight, and stagger forward once more into the breach.
I stick around because I have friends that sometimes jump down in a hole and show me the way out. And sometimes, they need me to jump down in a hole to show them the way out, too.
And, if you are having problems, and for some reason you can’t get a hold of anyone else, because its late, their phone is broken or out of service, or whatever, call 18002738255. That’s the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, and someone will always answer, even if everyone else you tried didn’t. They are very good and they don’t care what color your skin is, or how you feel about god, or anything else. All they want is to help you find what you need to hang on a little longer.