Author: Amuseofire

I am an actor, director, and educator with various interests in the arts, politics, and popular culture. I am particularly interested in film and theatre criticism, social satire and activism, and persuasive essays on a range of topics. I am also a proud geek, whose interests and obsessions include Star Trek, Sci-Fi, Classic & Contemporary Cinema, Sherlock Holmes, Art, Architecture, Victorian/ Edwardian England, Unsolved Crimes, Fin de siècle Paris, Classic Movie Actors, Team Trivia, Shakespeare, Classic & Contemporary Plays, Vocabulary, Cultural Criticism, Chess, Non-RPG Board Games, Vaudeville & Yiddish Theatre, and Antiques & Collectibles. Despite my many geek interests, I also enjoy watching and playing some sports, including football, basketball, bocce, pool, swimming, and skiing. Finally, I am an artist who's just as devoted a critic. That seemingly antagonistic relationship between creator and disassembler is precisely its strength. I am forced to be thorough and rigorous with myself and my art, and hold my work to the same high standards that I demand in others.

#MeToo and the National Reckoning: Is There Room For Forgiveness & Redemption?

Our “national reckoning” is noble and started with just cause and out of a genuine need, but innocent and good people are getting caught up in its takedown. We have to do better at believing people can change and for people having the courage to speak up and be held accountable for their past actions. I think Morgan Spurlock took a big chance coming forward and saying he could have acted better towards women in the past. That took guts. And there are people who have written him off, and will never be a fan again. I look at Chris Hardwick and I see all his exes defending him against this one lone accuser, and I honestly don’t know who to believe. I don’t want to blame the victim, and I want to give everyone the benefit of my faith and the doubt, but the accused should have rights too. We can’t be judge, jury, and executioner to every person who has said the wrong thing, or made missteps in their past or wild indescretions of youth. Yes, rapists and sexual harassers need to be held accountable, and every offense is a serious part of a larger patriarchy and system of violence, but we also need to be sensible. We can’t conflate the actions of a rapist and someone who makes a bad joke on Twitter. There are degrees. We need to discriminate. We need to contextualize. If not, we are truly lost as a culture.

A Letter to a Fellow Sufferer: One Bipolar to Another

Dear T,

I am moving to Boston in just over a week, and I just wanted to say a few parting words… Although we are still technically “friends” on Facebook, we never actually got close in person. I can’t help but think that that has something to do with the things you’ve heard about me. It’s true, I don’t have a good reputation in the theatre community in Bangor. I directed at Penobscot Theatre Company, and I fell out with J. I. and B. N., I acted for Ten Bucks Theatre Company, and I fell out with J. L. I was set to direct at the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft, ended up hastily resigning, and alienating your good friend, A. B. I am not proud of my behavior, and it is just one of the many reasons why I am leaving Bangor and moving back to Boston – where I have a stellar reputation and am much respected in the theatre community. I don’t want to make excuses for my poor behavior, but I do want to put it in context.

We both suffer from Bipolar Disorder, but apparently your affliction does not cause you to have severe mood changes and sometimes be an ass hole. I have noticed you are a beloved member of the community, and everybody loves working with you. That’s terrific. Disagreeable and anti-social behavior is one of the many symptoms of Bipolar, but apparently you have been blessed not to suffer from that debilitating part of the disease. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, I did suffer from that. DID is the operative word. The stories you’ve undoubtedly heard about me all come from 2011/2012/2013. These stories are over five years old! When those people knew me, I had just been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, and my meds weren’t adjusted correctly. I was on all the wrong medications, and I was grieving for the life I had lost. I was cycling between intense depression and mania. I also became addicted to Ritalin, and was snorting quite a bit of it. I was in and out of the emergency room, and I attempted to take my life on several occasions. And yet, I thought I could still do theatre. I couldn’t. I was miserable to be around. I was hardest on myself, but then incredibly hard on the people around me. I had unrealistic expectations of people, and inexplicably took my wrath out on them. I was not a pleasure to be around.

That being said, I can’t tell you the remarkable journey I’ve been on since then. I took a life-changing trip to Portugal, and came back a new man. I started working out, lost over 80 pounds, began to practice Yoga, delved headlong into my recovery/ therapy, took DBT/ mindfulness classes, started to eat healthy, and most importantly, got put on all the right meds, which balanced my moods and all but eradicated the mania and the depression. I quit Ritalin, and have been VERY healthy ever since. I rarely get depressed, and haven’t been manic in years! I am a very different person than I was five years ago.

Sadly, the theatre acquaintances we share can’t see that. They refuse to see that. I’ve tried apologizing on multiple occasions, but they refuse to hear it. They have unfriended and blocked me on Facebook. That’s fine. I understand that I didn’t treat them well, and I can understand why they’d reject me outright. Unfortunately, some people don’t believe in forgiveness and redemption. But I do. I believe in second chances.

My first suspicion that you may not like me was when you turned down my invitation to the Star Trek viewing party at my house. Ever since then, you haven’t once liked or commented on any of my posts, and I haven’t spoken to you in years. But I hoped that we could be friends. We are both actors. We are both writers. We both love Star Trek. We both have Bipolar. And we probably have many other things in common. I’ve found a publisher for my upcoming book, and I hope you’ll eventually read it. Although we’ll be separated by over two hundred miles, I hope you’ll consider truly being my friend. I am here to support you, and I want to be your friend. I just hope that you’ll come to your own conclusions about me, rather than rely on past impressions. Those days are thankfully over, and I look forward to having a second chance at life. I know that’s something you can get behind. I hope you can understand where I’m coming from. Sorry for the long message. I hope you are well.

A Brief History of Disability: A Response to the Teen Vogue article: “Saying Stephen Hawking Is ‘Free’ From His Wheelchair Is Ableist “

I recently read the article, Saying Stephen Hawking Is “Free” From His Wheelchair Is Ableist published in Teen Vogue. Initially, I had very mixed feelings about this article. In theory, I understand the spirit of saying, “The fact of the matter is that Stephen did all of his amazing work with his disability — not in spite of it.” We shouldn’t try and erase someone’s disability, and it is certainly part of them. I fully understand the idea that Ableism makes people unnecessarily ashamed to have a disability, and we must embrace the whole person, not try and strip them of their disability. However, as someone who is ON disability and LIVES with a disability, I would also challenge most people who have disabilities to honestly ask themselves whether they would choose to have that disability. I have no doubt that Stephen Hawking embraced his disability, and was successful with it and not in spite of it, but if given the choice, I wonder if he would have chosen to stand up and walk out of that wheelchair at any given time.

I know I would not choose to live with debilitating mental illness. Obviously, I don’t like the sentiment that death is a noble escape from disability. That’s reductive and diminishing. Clearly, disabled people can achieve nearly anything an able-bodied person can. But there are great obstacles. Huge challenges. I think its disingenuous to assert that people with disabilities would PREFER to have been born with, or develop a disability. Let’s be honest with ourselves. And yes, I’m sure this post will come under fire, and some people may even assert that I don’t have a qualifying disability because I’m not in a wheelchair. Yet, I still qualify as disabled. Doesn’t that qualify me to speak on the subject?

In this increasingly fractured and divisive time of identity politics, I sometimes wonder if  we take these movements too far. To say I’m disabled, and proud is great. You should be. But is saying, “I’m disabled, and proud” the same as saying, “I’m black, and proud?” There’s nothing innately broken, disabled, or wrong with being black. Yet society seems to suggest there is something wrong with being disabled. Granted, no one chose to be black, just as no one chose to be disabled. But in our society, being black should be life-affirming, proud, and wonderful. Obviously, we live in a society plagued by Institutional Racism, and being black is unfortunately a liability much of the time. We live in an inequitable age, where women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and minorities still face unenviable challenges. Many of them would rightfully suggest that racism, bigotry, and discrimination is a prejudice not unlike being disabled.  However, for those of us who can rationally analyze what it means to be any race (as much as any of us can, given our pre-conditioning and stubborn socialization), we would embrace the fact that there is no inferior race, and that we are all human and blessed with an ineffable beauty. The same can be said about gender and orientation. And yet, in many people’s eyes, being disabled is somehow a state of being “half-formed” or “broken.” How could we not feel that way? Why would we be spending billions of R&D money trying to fix us? Being disabled is a social justice issue, just like being black in America is, but it’s not exactly the same thing. It’s hard not to feel inferior when your disability is trying to be fixed. Sure, there are plenty of people trying to “fix” black people or trans people, but no one worth listening to. Those people are just right, just the way they are. And we want to say that disabled people are too, but it is challenging, when to be disabled also means something or someone in need of a fix. It’s hard to directly compare disability with other social justice issues. No one in their right mind would try to fix being a woman. Or being born black. (although many people have tried) Yet, every day, we try and fix being disabled.

If we are truly honest with ourselves, we must also acknowledge that few people – if given the choice – would actually choose to have their disability. That may not be true for all, but I would venture to guess that a good many of us would. At the same time, I also allow that this thinking might be considered “Institutional Ableism” and that I have been socialized to see disability as “lacking,” “inadequate,” or somehow “broken” or “incomplete.” I accept that. I suppose there is a certain degree of self-loathing when it comes to having a disability, and many of us with challenges are “blessed” with the ignominious defeat of shame coupled with low self-esteem. I don’t deny that. I know that I am plagued by shame and guilt. Much of this undoubtedly stems from my disability. (A challenge, I might add, that has undoubtedly been with me since adolescence, but only recently diagnosed.) Does this ingrained and internalized guilt and shame manifest itself in self-loathing ways? Undoubtedly. I have no doubt that society’s view of disability and being in some way “broken” has worked its way into my subconscious. Hell, it’s right there in my conscious mind. I know what it feels like to feel broken. To be half-formed. To be somehow incomplete. Am I part of the problem?

I’ve sometimes wondered if developing a disability late in life may be more challenging than being born with one. That’s not to say that it isn’t as difficult dealing with the challenges from birth. However, I wonder if those who were born with a disability, and have known no other life, have an easier time accepting themselves and their circumstances. I sometimes wonder if it’s like the famous saying, “Time + Tragedy = Comedy.” Does Time + Disability = Acceptance and Self Love? For those of us who developed these disabilities after having lived a life without them (or without being diagnosed with them), it may take getting used to, and there may be an extended period of denial and/or shame. And grief, at the lives we perceive we lost. I may very well fall into that category. Perhaps I haven’t fully embraced my disability, and I am still entrenched in shame. If I truly felt blessed with my disability, perhaps I wouldn’t be so quick to try and shed it or profess the desire to have been born without this debilitating disease. Maybe I wouldn’t naturally assume that those with disabilities would choose NOT to have them, if given the choice. If my disability has in fact shaped me – as has my intellect, my height, or any other characteristic I have no control over – than perhaps I shouldn’t see it as a deficit, but rather, a trait not unlike the others. It is inescapably and indivisibly a part of me, and my identity. Maybe I would choose it.

In truth, Ableism is the stigma that keeps us from talking about mental health or averting our eyes from those in wheelchairs. It is the proverbial albatross around society’s necks, and one thing that prevents us from talking honestly about the emotional toll our averted gazes, furtive glances, and hushed whispers truly betray. As a society, we must grapple with the paradox that as we try to find cures for diseases like ALS or Bipolar Disorder, we are not trying to unduly cure the person suffering from those diseases of being who they truly are. How do we separate the person from the disease? Or do we? Can we love the whole person, while simultaneously attempting to cure them or their “disorder?” Is it even proper to call it a disorder? If “order” is normal and preferable, than surely disorder is broken and in need of a mend. I suffer from Bipolar Disorder. Am I in need of order? Probably. But is my life broken beyond repair, or is my condition just one of the many traits that make me unique and unquestionably loveable? I don’t know the answer to that question. I would hope it’s the latter.

The point is, the words we choose do matter. My initial reaction to this article was wrong. I was wrong to have a knee-jerk reaction to someone insisting it was Ableist to imply Stephen Hawking might choose death over his disability. Perhaps he might have. Perhaps he wouldn’t have chosen his disability. But he had one, and he chose to live his life fully and in a meaningful way. Maybe none of us would choose our disabilities, but for reasons unknown, they chose us. We weren’t cursed or smote by God, but by genetics, heredity, fate, circumstance, randomness, or whatever else you want to call it. It happened to us without our control, and we can either wallow in shame, or embrace what we’ve been given. Should we reject ourselves because of this? No! Is it okay to wish we weren’t burdened with these diseases? Yes. It’s okay. It has to be. We didn’t choose this. But we can choose how we think about our disability. Maybe we wouldn’t choose the disability. But it must stop there. The words we choose to describe our disabilities matter. We must be careful not to assume that someone would choose death over a disability. Or even that they wouldn’t choose it. Maybe they would. After all, it has made them who they are. Those are strong people, and something I aspire to.

What I do know is that I have a difficult time accepting my disability in its entirety, and I would find it surprising if anyone who suffers from a disability truly – in their heart of hearts – would choose to suffer with their disability or live without the pain, inconvenience, and accompanying heartache that disability inevitably brings. Maybe they would. I long to be that person who is so comfortable in their skin, that even their perceived deficits are seen as unique advantages. Perhaps one day, I will accomplish all the things I hope to accomplish not in spite of my disability, but because of it. With it. With all of me.

The words we choose matter. To be disabled is not to be broken. Even if deep down, I still harbor those hateful thoughts about myself. Even as medicine and science tries to cure us of our disabilities, we must cure ourselves…from the inside out. We must learn to embrace our disabilities, and accept ourselves for who we are. Only then, perhaps, we will choose to stay in the chair. Or learn to walk on our own. Society must learn to see us WITH our disabilities, and not be so hasty to change who we are and what we represent. The stigma is real. And if we cannot love ourselves first, it’s hard to imagine how we can expect others to see us fully and embrace us wholly. It’s a reciprocal relationship, and society needs to change, while we need to embrace our disabilities.

Maybe Stephen Hawking would have chosen the chair. Maybe he wouldn’t. But it’s not for us to decide.

We still have a long way to go. Perhaps me more than anyone.

To Belittle is to Be Little: Mansplaining & Our Words of Oppression

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So my mom was just telling me about a man she knows who sometimes talks to her like she was stupid and says sexist things from time to time. I quickly responded that he was “mansplaining” to her. She had never heard that expression. I then proceeded to explain it to her, while also being hyper-aware and vigilant about not doing the very thing I was preaching against.

I realized that this kind of hyper-vigilance is exactly what we all need to practice every day and in every circumstance. No matter who we’re talking to – friend, family, or foe. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about basic human decency and respect. We should always be able to disagree, but it’s about how we do so. 

I honestly think half the problems in this world aren’t necessarily caused by WHAT we say to each other and what we disagree about, but HOW we say it. How we talk to each other matters. It should be discourse built on an unspoken agreement of respect and civility. It’s about empathy.

The next time I talk to a woman, or a child, or a minority, or someone perhaps less formally educated- but no less intelligent, or ANYONE, I hope I remember what I learned today: words matter. Charity begins at home, and the way we talk to each other is the first step towards truly listening. And that’s where true compromise lies.

My Story: Living With Bipolar Disorder & Giving Voice to the Voiceless

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My name is Jon, and I live with mental illness. For over thirty years, I have worked as a professional actor, director, writer, and educator. I have taught high school, university, and adult education. As a writer, I write reviews, political essays, social commentary, and have been published on several websites. Despite my many accomplishments, five years ago – at the age of 35 – I was diagnosed with severe Bipolar I Disorder and ADHD, and it changed my life forever. Tonight, I am here to describe my journey into the abyss, but also to share my resilient story of hope and recovery, and how I am living proof that it is possible to live a purposeful and rewarding life while living with mental illness.

Five years ago, I was living in Chicago, and finishing up a Master of Fine Arts degree in Directing. During my three years of grad school, I had been arrested for DUI, faced jail time and thousands of dollars in fines, lost my driver’s license and totaled a new car, gone through a painful breakup, abused drugs and alcohol, and suffered the deaths of two close friends – one of whom had Schizophrenia, and took his own life. On top of all this, I was put on probation in my theatre department, and nearly kicked out of the program. Not because of my grades – I had a 4.0 and was at the top of my class. It was because I was having interpersonal conflicts, and couldn’t effectively collaborate with my peers. I didn’t know how to deal with stress, and was driven by an unrealistic need for perfection in myself and in those around me. I couldn’t handle rejection and criticism, and often lashed out in defensive ways.

In my final semester of grad school, I was working as an assistant director at a theatre in Chicago, with three very famous actors. I was living the dream. What I didn’t know then, was that I was also living with mental illness. Quickly, the pain and stress of those three long years began to catch up with me, and I suddenly had a complete psychotic break. And yet, I felt greater than I had in years. I was sleeping only about an hour a night, but I was accomplishing so much! I was more creative than I had ever been, and began writing books, plays, and keeping a daily journal –which I would scribble in all throughout the day. I thought I was the next Hemingway. I had delusions of grandeur, and pictured myself writing the next great American novel or a hit Broadway show! I was juggling dozens of creative projects, including painting, drawing, and sculpting, and had transformed an entire room in my apartment into an artist’s studio, where I furiously created art around the clock.

I also started spending all my money on frivolous things. In addition to creating art, I was also buying antiques and collectibles at a local thrift store, and selling them online at a business I had created for charity. Soon, I began working as a head chef at a local bar and grill, and somehow I imagined that I was on the verge of launching the next hit restaurant in Chicago.

But there was also a dark side. I was becoming increasingly erratic. I began to hallucinate and hear voices, and came to believe that I was the Son of God—sent here to save humanity. I let my hair and beard grow, and began walking through the streets of Chicago barefoot, giving sermons on street corners and preaching to prostitutes. I walked alone through some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago, and nearly got shot more than once.

When I wasn’t in the streets, I was preaching crazy ideas on Facebook, and no one had any idea what I was talking about. I was completely unstable, and began fighting with people on social media. I lost a lot of friends during that time. Many people thought that I was just being a terrible person, without realizing I was having a complete psychotic breakdown. The few friends and family I had left were worried about me, but for many, this was the first time they had ever seen someone in crisis, and didn’t know what to do. After several failed attempts to get me help in Chicago, my family finally flew me back to Maine to receive the treatment I needed. There’s no telling how much longer I would have survived in Chicago. By the time I left, I was convinced the CIA were watching me, and planning my assassination. I was a danger to myself.

Within three days of arriving in Bangor, I was at PCHC (Penobscot Community Health Center), and had seen a primary care doctor, therapist, and med manager. Before long, I was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder and ADHD, and put on several medications. I was also referred to the NAMI Bangor (National Alliance on Mental Illness) support group, and a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy class, to receive lessons in mindfulness and dealing with interpersonal conflict. All of this saved my life.

But make no mistake. I thought my life had ended. As scary as my time in Chicago might sound to you, for me, it was thrilling and exciting. Those three months of mania had been the most stimulating in my life, and I had never been so inspired or productive. I thought I was God, and now, here I was back in Maine, on disability, and living in my parents’ basement. All I wanted to do was die.

When I first got back, I attempted to teach and work in local theatre, but once again, I had serious conflicts with my colleagues, and gave up altogether. I became increasingly depressed, withdrew from friends and family, and rarely left the basement. I was overly medicated and could hardly function. I used to be a passionate and articulate person, but now here I was, drooling and could hardly feel a thing. I became suicidal, and made several attempts on my life.

For ADHD, I was put on Ritalin, and before long, I was snorting it for the high. It was the only time I felt creative and alive—like I had felt in Chicago. I was snorting an entire month’s supply in a week, which would make me manic, and not allow me to sleep for six or seven days at a time. My life was spiraling out of control, and I prayed every day that it would just end.

And it nearly did.

But about a year and a half ago, everything changed.

I was addicted to Ritalin, had gained nearly 80 pounds, and had been rushed to the emergency room several times. I finally said to myself: “You gotta get busy living, or get busy dying.” I realized I was trying to kill myself slowly, and things had to change. I decided to get busy living. But I needed to find purpose again. I had been on disability for over three years, and knew I couldn’t work. Yet, all my life, my work in theatre and education had given me all the purpose I needed. After all, I had sacrificed nearly everything—including a wife and kids—for my career. For the first time in over thirty years, I could no longer work, and had to find a new purpose for living. Before I could even get healthy, I needed a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I needed to find something I loved again. One semester during college, I had lived in a castle in the Netherlands, and had traveled all throughout Europe. However, I had never made it to Portugal—the country where my family came from. I decided that whatever it took, I was going to take a trip there.

You have to understand that I hadn’t been on a plane in four years, and was absolutely terrified. I have claustrophobia and severe social anxiety, and I was worried about trying to navigate language, culture, and transportation in a foreign country. I was concerned about breaking from my routine, and becoming disoriented in a strange and unfamiliar place. Every day, I went back and forth between thrilling excitement and absolute crippling terror.

In order to ensure that I was safe and had a good time, I knew that I had to plan this trip very carefully. I spent hours each day pouring over maps, watching travel videos, reading books, researching the culture, and carefully constructing a detailed travel itinerary. By the time I arrived in Lisbon, I knew that city like the back of my hand, and didn’t even need a map to find my way around. My trip was a resounding success! I had no problem with the flights, communicating, or staying on schedule. You see, despite the limitations of my disease, I had managed to turn an unfamiliar place INTO a familiar place, and Portugal became like a second home. Living with mental illness doesn’t mean you have to stop living, it just means you have to plan better!

When I came back from Portugal, I was a new man. I had a renewed sense of purpose, and a feeling of accomplishment. For years, I had been crippled by insecurity and low self-esteem, but after my trip, I had nothing but confidence.

The first thing I did was quit Ritalin. Next, I renewed my gym membership, and started swimming and working out 3-4 times a week. I changed my diet, and lost over 40 pounds. I worked with my doctors to get me off the more sedating medications, and found just the right combination of meds. I started walking several miles each day. And after years of being told I should volunteer, I finally did. Within weeks of my return, I began volunteering for NAMI Bangor, where I currently serve as a Media and PR Assistant, and help the President—Betsy—with outreach and advertising for all our NAMI events—including this one. I enrolled in a training program at Literacy Volunteers of Bangor, and now tutor and mentor adult literacy students, as well as work with children reading and distributing books. As a tutor, I spend hours each week creating lesson plans and instructing adult literacy students.

I also researched and learned as much as I could about Bipolar, and soon realized that having a daily schedule and routine was vital for my survival. I started planning my days, and keeping a strict calendar. Every morning, I wake up at 6 am, do yoga, make coffee, drink a smoothie, and listen to NPR. I work out, relax in the sauna, swim, eat healthy, and attend weekly NAMI meetings and weekly therapy sessions. I devote a few hours to reading and writing, and a couple hours to watching tv. I craft lesson plans, teach students, coordinate NAMI business, and volunteer on political campaigns. The point is…I stay busy. I finally got out of that basement.

I can’t tell you how much NAMI has meant to me as an organization. It literally saved my life. In group, I talk with other people suffering from mental illness, learn coping skills, get advice, and have access to helpful resources. I’ve made deep and lasting friendships, and found fellowship with others who have been where I’ve been. After years of trying to convince my parents to attend a family meeting, they finally did last month, and they loved it. It allowed them to talk with other parents, and get a little bit of perspective about me and my disease. They were finally able to vent, and to grieve, and to seek the advice of others who knew the pain of having to care for a loved one. They are now committed to attending every month, and I’m happy to say that they are here with us tonight.

Recently, I switched to a new therapist, and I’ve made more progress in two short months than I had in over four years! I cannot express how important it is to find a good therapist, and I would recommend it for everyone, whether you suffer from mental illness or not. There is something deeply profound and therapeutic about taking to someone who knows what they are doing. If you’re interested, NAMI can help you find the services you’re looking for.

I’ve also decided to move back to Boston, and return to work again. Over the next year, I plan on applying for college teaching jobs and to start directing again. However, I will never stop volunteering. It gives my life purpose.

I want to say that despite the fact that I have made significant steps in my recovery, I still have bad days. Even bad weeks. In fact, these last few weeks have been tough for me. Every so often, I go through a brief, but deep depression. There are times when I still have fleeting thoughts of suicide. When I don’t get enough sleep, I am always at risk of becoming manic. It’s important to understand that there is no cure for mental illness. Only management. Those of us in recovery are each on our own path to wellness, and realistically, that means times of dizzying success, and times of great struggle. There are relapses and stumbles along the road, and there are times when I honestly don’t know if I’m gonna make it. There is no silver bullet for mental illness, and it’s something I will live with for the rest of my life. I will always be susceptible to the darkness. However, it is treatable, and with planning and vigilance, it is possible to lead a healthy and productive life. It takes work. A LOT of work. But as they say in AA, it works, if you work it.

Since being diagnosed, it has taken a lot of courage for me to admit that I live with mental illness. At first, I was scared and ashamed, and didn’t tell anyone. Over the years, I’ve slowly “come out” to friends and family, and three months ago, I revealed my illness on Facebook, where I’ve received nothing but love and support. Tonight is the first time I have ever publicly spoken about my disease. But it won’t be my last. It’s time we end the stigma of mental illness, and I am personally committed to a life of advocacy. Most people had no idea that I was suffering in silence. And that’s the point. That’s why I’m here tonight. And that’s why I will continue to speak all over the state and the nation, to small groups and large, to community organizations and in front of legislators who have the power to fund mental health care and reform our broken system.

But I’m also here to ask for YOUR help. If you’re afflicted with mental illness, I encourage you to seek therapy, and perhaps attend a NAMI support group. If you suffer in silence, as I once did, I would ask you to consider being open and honest about your condition, and living out loud and proud. It’s not easy. There is still much work to be done. But the more of us who come forward with our stories, the more people will realize how common mental illness truly is, and the easier it will become to accept. The more we normalize mental illness, the closer we get to treating it as you would any other disease of the body. Like every great social justice issue, SILENCE IS DEADLY, and we have lost too many people to mental illness. Every day, in this country, we lose 22 veterans to suicide and undiagnosed PTSD. Over 40,00 people take their own lives every year in this country. For those of you who have friends and family who suffer—and I guarantee you do—I would ask that you educate yourself about their disease, and look for ways that you can advocate for all of us. This is an epidemic, and we need your voice and support. It starts as small as offering aid to a friend in crisis, but it doesn’t have to end there. We here at NAMI have several resources to help, and I encourage you to seek us out. You’ve already made the first step in coming here, and I thank you for listening to my story.

SOME THOUGHTS ON PITTSBURGH, AS MY PLANE TOUCHES DOWN

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Sixteen years ago this month, I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and it changed the course of my life.

I had been trying to make it as an actor in Los Angeles for nearly two years, and I hated it out there. I was profoundly unhappy, and felt superficial and empty. I wanted to give back. So, I joined AmeriCorps National Service, and I was assigned to an inner-city high school in Pittsburgh.
I served at Northside Urban Pathways High School as a tutor and mentor in a program called Knowledge to Empower Youths to Success (KEYS). One of the requirements in my year of service was that I do a community service project. Many of my colleagues in the program were doing things like bottle drives and organizing park clean-ups. As important as those thing are, I felt like I would best serve the community by sharing my art and using my skills in the theatre to try and help the community in some way. Late that spring, I directed my very first play. It was an original work, written by me and the students, covering topics like racism, homophobia, sexism, and other social issues. For many parents, this was the first play they had ever seen. For most of my students, it was the first play they had ever been in! It was an amazing and transformative experience, and the parents and school community were really moved and impressed. I had never directed a play before, and the experience was so rewarding and inspirational, it made me seriously reconsider what I wanted to do with my life.
As it turns out, the school liked me so much, they decided to hire me as their English and Theatre teacher the very next year. The only stipulation was that I earn my teaching certification. While teaching during the day, I went to school nights at a very good small Liberal Arts college in Pittsburgh called Point Park University. I studied Education, and within two years, I earned a Postbaccalaureate BA in Theatre Education, Grades 7-12, with certifications in Theatre and Communications. I graduated Suma Cum Laude – at the top of my class. It was wonderful to be back in school. It also made me realize that I eventually wanted to go on to earn my Master’s degree.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was teaching my first week of high school. I had just taught English to my freshmen, and was about to start teaching my seniors. The school was a small charter school on the tenth floor of a building owned by Point Park University — directly in downtown Pittsburgh. I was told by one of my seniors that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in NYC. Given that he was kind of a class clown, I did not believe him at first. He told me to turn on the television. I did, and we all watched in horror as the second plane hit, and I realized that we were under attack. During a hasty and impromptu meeting in the hall with the Principal and other teachers, we were told that there was a fourth plane, and it was headed directly at Pittsburgh. Authorities believed that it was heading towards Washington D.C., but had no idea if it would get there. All we knew was that it was heading towards us. Given that we were on the tenth floor of a downtown building, we were told to evacuate. Since all the kids were on the city bus system, we sent them all home, and called their parents.
After making sure all the kids were gone, I left the building, and was horrified by what I saw. The entire city was in a panic, and everyone was trying to evacuate. It looked like the scene out of some dystopian disaster flick. Everyone thinks about the nightmare scene in NYC and DC, but not many people know that Pittsburgh thought it was going to be next. If you know Pittsburgh, you know that the city lies at the intersection of three rivers, and that there are more bridges in the city than any other in the world, except for Florence, Italy. As you can imagine, all the bridges were packed, and there was huge congestion. Luckily, I lived in a nice neighborhood called Mt. Washington, which was over the bridge, up a small mountain, and overlooked the city and three rivers. I simply walked over the bridge and took one of the inclines home. The Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines are historic inclined plane cable cars that go up the side of this hill in Pittsburgh. At the top of the hill, are breathtaking views of the city, including the stadiums where the Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates play. Yeah, we lived up there! When I got to the top, I went to one of my favorite restaurants and sat and ate, as I watched all of the news coverage on television. It was — hands down — the most surreal experience of my life. I still have nightmares about that day.
Pittsburgh is one of those cities which gets a bad rap. Almost no one has actually been there, but everybody talks about it like they have. Everyone thinks they know Pittsburgh. They most often think of it as a dirty, grimy, blue-collar steel town, right in the heart of the rust belt. Many people have described a rusty, white version of Detroit, filled with falling down buildings, and soot-covered everything. While that may have been the Pittsburgh of 30 years ago, it doesn’t resemble the place I came to love. While it’s true that there are lots of abandoned industrial buildings, what’s amazing about the city, is what they have done with them. They have turned buildings into artist studios and living spaces, art galleries, museums, performance spaces, and all kinds of mixed-media venues. They have also created amazing restaurants in these spaces.
What people don’t often realize is that all that steel money had to go somewhere, and in many cases, it went to the arts and sciences. Carnegie Melon University is one of the premiere arts and technology universities in the world, and Pittsburgh has many other great colleges and universities as well. That Carnegie money also went into creating some amazing libraries, as well as the extensive network of museums the city has to offer. There are science museums, art museums, history museums, and just about every type of museum you can imagine. There is beautiful architecture all over town, as well as wonderful parks and green spaces spread throughout the city. And of course, who can forget the storied sports history Pittsburgh has to offer? The Pittsburgh Steelers have more trophies than any other team in the NFL, and the Pirates and Penguins have their own share of impressive hardware.
One of the best things about Pittsburgh is that it is thoroughly unpretentious. It has some of the best museums, universities, and sports teams in the country, but it’s still a small town feel. The city is still a very working-class place, with a wonderful arts community and money to support the arts. It has a world class ballet and symphony, and many great places to eat. It is a first class city, at a very reasonable price. The cost of living is very low, and your money goes a long way there.
While I was in Pittsburgh, I also got the chance to act A LOT! I got an incredible amount of work, and developed close relationships with their local theatres — The Pittsburgh Public Theatre, The City Theatre, and the Point Park Playhouse. It was in Pittsburgh where I saw Adam Rapp’s play, ‘Blackbird,’ starring future Oscar nominee, Michael Shannon. The play would have such a profound affect on me, I later went on to direct it as my first full length directing project in grad school. During the month that it played, I must have seen it seven or eight times, and became close to the Artistic Director, and often got to hang out with the cast and the playwright, Adam Rapp. Because I established this relationship with Rapp, I was later able to fly him out to my graduate school and host him for a series of workshops and lectures, and had him screen his film adaptation of ‘Blackbird.’
Even though I was just a young actor of 24, I was planting seeds in Pittsburgh that would later blossom. It was in this city that I directed my first play, and realized my love for directing. I would later go on to get my MFA in Directing from Illinois State University. It was also in this city where I taught my first class, and realized that I had a love and affinity for teaching. Directing and teaching are what I do for a living today, and it all started in Pittsburgh. It was also where I got my second degree in Theatre Education, and realized I loved school, and wanted to pursue my Master’s degree. It was also where I first considered going into Academia.
Finally, Pittsburgh was a place where I found myself. I found love in Pittsburgh, and although those romantic relationships didn’t last, they taught me a lot about myself and the kind of partner I wanted to be. I made lasting friendships there, and it was the place where my best friend, Brendan, and I grew closest. For three years, we shared an apartment together, and shared a lot of memories. His family was there, and I grew especially close to them. It felt like a second home. I will always love Boston, and consider it my one true home, but Pittsburgh might be my second favorite city I’ve lived in. Obviously, other cities have much more to see and do, but Pittsburgh is where I became a man. It gave me my spirit. I’m glad to be back in Pittsburgh, and to catch up with old friends!

A House Divided Cannot Stand, But Should It? Is This Nation Too Broken To Mend?

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In the last two weeks, I have been to a Clinton rally with Bernie Sanders and a Trump rally with Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump, and I must say that I am really frightened and saddened by the state of our nation. We live in two different Americas, and I cannot help but think that perhaps it would have been best if Lincoln hadn’t preserved the nation. What would have happened if we had not fought The Civil War? I know that it’s practically blasphemous or treasonous to even suggest such a thing. And I also know that even with the Mason-Dixon line, there still was no easy way to divide the nation then, and would be nearly impossible today. These days, we have red states next to blue states, and then all kinds of purple states, and then within states, we have large swaths of red rural areas, and dense blue urban areas. Undoubtedly, it would be impossible to somehow divide the country along ideological lines. It’s just not logistically possible. However, in some ways — and on some days — it seems like it would be a hell of a lot easier than healing the divide in this country, which seems ominously close to tearing us asunder.
 
And I know all you eternal optimists will reject my words, and just say we need to all work together, and put the nation first. Sure. I’m sorry, but from what I have seen over the last two weeks, we are not even speaking the same language. We have VASTLY different ideas about which direction this country should go in. WE LIVE IN TWO AMERICAS! And neither side is willing to see the decency and good in the other, and neither is willing to budge an inch. I am not optimistic.
 
I don’t believe Hillary will win in a landslide, but I do believe she’ll win. However, I still think she loses. If we thought Congress was obstructionist and didn’t work under the Obama Administration, I shudder to think about how broken it will be under a Hillary Presidency. Whether I vote for her or not, or like her or not, there is no arguing that she is a deeply divisive and polarizing figure. Just as he is. I hate to say it, but we got the election we deserve. Sure, we could have put up better candidates, folks, but that is NOT what the electorate wanted. That is not who we are as a country at this time. We are a deeply divided and polarized nation of extreme viewpoints, and we nominated exactly who we thought could fight our battles. We wanted two polarizing figures, who were sharply divided on the issues, and spoke our minds. And we got them.
 
Donald Trump will slowly fade from our memory, and eventually be a sad footnote in history. But I’m sad to say, we must share this nation with his supporters for generations to come. He has exposed an ugly underbelly, and given voice to hatred and bigotry. He has somehow empowered the poor working white man, and given legitimacy to their fears of foreigners and other people they see as threats. If you had been at that Trump rally yesterday, you would have seen how scary this portion of the electorate is. Sure, there are good people voting for Trump, and bad people voting for Hillary. There are bad apples in every bunch. But don’t confuse the two parties and candidates. Hillary may have her obvious faults and has clearly made some poor decisions, but Donald Trump is a sociopath, and many of his followers are legitimately dangerous. Don’t sit there and try and tell me that they are two sides of the same coin. Remember, I have been at both rallies. The Clinton rally had no metal detectors, was extremely peaceful, had no protesters, and was ALWAYS respectful. Bernie mostly talked specific policy points, and rarely spoke of Donald Trump. When he did, it was never personal, and it was always respectful. He spoke of why Trump would be bad for this country, but never did he hurl insults or epithets. There was no name calling or calls to “Lock him up!” or “Jail the Rapist” or any other such nonsense. The crowd was rational and even-tempered throughout.
 
On the other hand, the Trump rally was scary. There was OVERT racism and sexism, with all sorts of nasty and misogynistic chants from the crowd. I heard awful and disgusting things yelled in that auditorium, just as we were surrounded by young boys and girls, and their frothing, hateful parents. I saw disgusting tee-shirts with not only hateful and abusive language, but violent depictions of what they should do to Hillary. These were people not only calling for her imprisonment, but demanding she be raped and murdered. Don’t for a minute confuse these two groups of voters. Those people at that Trump rally may not represent all of Trump’s fans. I know there are good and decent people voting AGAINST Hillary, and are admittedly holding their nose, and voting for Trump. But I’m sorry, that’s almost as bad. By voting for this man, you are endorsing him and all his bad behavior. You are giving him your mandate, and you might as well be one of his rabid, frothing followers. You are rubber-stamping a monster. At least with his hateful bigoted supporters, I know where they stand, and who to look out for. I’m more frightened of his silent supporters. If you think it’s just a small segment of the electorate, think again. Consider all the more moderate Republicans who refused to rebuke him or unendorse the man. Men like Paul Ryan. Yes, the Speaker of the House. The third in line to succeed the President, in case of emergency, and a tremendously powerful figure in Congress. He has refused to pull his endorsement of Trump despite blatant xenophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and bigotry. Even in the face of charges of sexual assault and misconduct. I honestly believe Trump could rape and kill someone on camera, and not lose a single supporter. Could he harm a child, and get away with it? At this point, I think so. 
 
We live in two different Americas. And I have very little hope that they will get along and work together any time soon. A victory for Hillary will not end this “election nightmare.” I’m afraid this is just a prelude to a much more troubling road ahead.
 
Sorry to be such a bummer. 😦

Art May Be Its Own Reward, But Artists Need to be Paid

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Art is its own reward.
 
As Shakespeare once said about mercy:
 
“It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.”
 
Now don’t get me wrong. For those of us who make a living in the arts, we want to be fairly paid for our services. Many of my colleagues and I resent the fact that so many artists are not paid for their services, and are expected to ‘suffer’ or ‘starve for our art.’ Many in Congress and in the greater public believe that because we love what we do, we naturally would do it one way or another, and ultimately for free. And the sad thing is…that’s true. We do it for free every day. But for those of us who make our living off our art, it isn’t enough. We have bills to pay. We have rent and mortgages. We have families, and need to put food on our tables as well.
 
The difficult thing about having a career in the arts is that because nearly all of us began painting with our fingers, or sat through piano lessons, or dabbled in writing bad poetry, or maybe even landed the lead in the high school musical, we all think — to some extent — that we are artists. And you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. But you wouldn’t exactly be right either. Everyone has an artist within them, and all of us are capable of expression. To live a life of art is to love wildly, and to throw yourself into whatever you do. As human beings, we make art every day. No one should be denied the right to consider themselves an artist, and to put as much beauty into the world as they possibly can.
 
For some, art is a hobby. And that’s okay. Your mother may take art lessons, and enjoy painting on the side. Perhaps you’ve taken an improv class, and get a thrill every time you perform in your local improv troupe. And what community would be complete, without its share of committed amateur actors performing regularly in community theatre shows?
 
Yet, for those of us who make our living in the arts, we must not be confused with those who dabble. We must not be confused with those who have full time jobs, and enjoy creating art on the side. That is not to say that their efforts are any less than ours, but only that we have dedicated our lives to our craft, and spent countless hours — and money — becoming the artists that we are today.
 
I have three university degrees in theatre. I have worked in the business for well over 30 years. I have been in over 200 productions, and directed nearly 50. I have designed sets, and lights, and worked countless hours building scenery and hanging lights. The writer Malcolm Gladwell once said that to be an expert in any field, you must have spent at least 10,000 hours solely dedicated to the deliberate practice of your field. I have spent well over that many hours in the theatre. I have been doing this practically non-stop since I was six-years-old. I am an artist.
 
For me, art is a way of life. I have spent my life in pursuit of a dream. I have spent my life creating art, and constantly evaluating and reevaluating myself as an artist, and evolving in my craft. You see, that is the sign of an artist. There is nothing wrong with performing show after show, and getting a high off performing for your peers. But what separates the professional artist from the amateur, is that the artist must constantly evaluate, evolve, and hone their craft to perfection. Of course, there is no such thing. I mean, perfection in the way that Plato meant it, and how we as human beings aspire to it. We must allow themselves to be vulnerable, accept honest constructive feedback, and evaluate how effective our art is, and how we can always strive to be better. It takes hours and hours of self-reflection, and the kind of time and resources that others may not have. Or desire to give.
 
For those of us in the arts, we must be paid for our many hours of service to the field. This is not just a hobby for us — this is a way of life. I would never say that someone wasn’t an artist who creates art. But I would say that for many of us, we have committed every fiber of our being to making great art, and constantly having to reinvent ourselves as artists — and as people. We ‘suffer’ for our art, because it allows us to never be complacent, and always working to get better, and to produce more. It is not an easy or romantic life. It perhaps knows more hardship and rejection, than triumph and reward. Yet, we know no other life, and cannot imagine doing anything else.
 
There is art for art’s sake, and art is its own reward. But for those of us who make our living at it, we appreciate your support in helping us continue. By supporting the arts, you are blessing your lives with what we endeavored to create, and you are blessing us with the means to continue putting more beauty out into the world. By all means, keep creating, and sculpting your own piece of wonderment for this planet, but never confuse what some may do for free with what so many do for food. Because like you, we would do it for free. But we still need to pay the bills.
 
Please support the arts and pay your artists. ❤

What’s Past Is Prologue: Why Verifiable Reality Can’t Even Stop Donald Trump

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I was just having a conversation with my friend about how unbelievable Donald Trump is in denying he said and did certain things, that are so easily proven otherwise. Like…um…there’s a paper, video, and audio trail, sir. Nope. Doesn’t faze him. Some might think that he is completely disassociated from reality. I’d like to think that, but I think it’s even worse. At least in that case, he’d have an excuse beyond just being a complete narcissist.

To me, I find it unfathomable that someone who is so skilled at using social media and the press to his advantage, could be so defiant in the face of demonstrable video and audio that is irrefutable and damning. I don’t think he’s disassociated from reality. I believe he knows that cameras have caught him in lies and ensnared him in inconsistencies. I just think he’s a man that has gotten his way his entire life, and flies in the face of reason and doubt, that would most certainly make the rest of us apologetic and contrite. His reversals and refusals would cripple anyone else, but in Trump, they only make him MORE resolute and defiant. He ALWAYS doubles down. He has such a force of will, that he is defiant in the face of inarguable truth. I have never seen an actual human being demonstrate the concept of Hubris more than Trump — like you would find in a Greek Tragedy. He puts Oedipus to shame. He puts Nixon to shame. He is so proud and singularly focused, he doesn’t need physics and reality to get in his way. It’s stunning.

Donald Trump is so convinced of his own greatness, he honestly believes that he can will facts and evidence out of existence. He believes his cult of personality can honestly erase all of his many flaws and inconsistencies. And why not? Despite a media that constantly point out his many gaffes, his own supporters see him as flawless and always consistent in reinforcing his message of hate. Those who love him refuse to hold him accountable, and therefore, he never has to contemplate change, self-reflection, or regret. As he has said repeatedly, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” I honestly believe there could be video of him raping, torturing, or killing someone, and he would probably still not lose any voters. It’s unprecedented.

Trump has the ability to make US all feel crazy for trying to use HIS words against him, and prove that it’s not us who are insane. My friend, Tammi, put it best: “It’s like Donald Trump is Gaslighting the entire nation.” Yup. That’s exactly it.

Colin Kaepernick & Captain America: Two Caps Fighting Their Own Civil Wars

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Have you ever thought about the similarities between Colin Kaepernick and Captain America, who are both referred to as Cap (Kap)? Stay with me. I know it’s a stretch, but if you’ve seen Civil War, you know that Captain America defies popular public opinion, and defends a known criminal, openly defying Congress’s call to register all superheroes and “profile” America’s defenders. His opinion is not a popular one, and this once popular superhero becomes labeled a traitor and demonized by a large portion of America. However, he does have his commited defenders, and this is why the superheroes are split, and the reason the film and comic story arc is called “Civil War.” How appropriate. 

Colin Kaepernick was once a hero of the NFL, and he has decided to stand up to police brutality by taking a knee. He has had an overwhelming majority of negative press, and people calling him a traitor and un-American, but he also has a large group of supporters, not unlike Captain America.

Whatever you may think of Colin Kaepernick or Captain America, they both represent the best of America. It just depends on what you see when you look at our nation. Do you see it as a perfect and flawless nation that we should make great “again” or a great nation in need of improvement, and the ongoing effort to “form a more perfect union” — for every American?

I think they are both superheroes, and saying I support Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter does not mean I hate cops or don’t support “all lives” or “Blue Lives.” 151 years later, we are still fighting the Civil War.

 

Photo Credit: Drawing by Dave Rappoccio