When laughter gets swallowed by the dark

So sad when the demons win. Connie Di Pietro-Sparacino

The creative mind houses all manner of demons, but those of a comedian have sharper teeth it seems. What a terrible loss. Dale Long

Robin WilliamsI remember it vividly, even though it was thirty-four years ago. It was the morning of December 9, 1980, a Tuesday, just like today.

And like today, that long-ago Tuesday was a supremely sad one. I heard from the announcer on the radio that John Lennon had died the night before. And my world changed.

I couldn’t imagine a world without John Lennon in it. Truth be told, thirty-four years later, I still can’t.

Last night, I picked up my phone, logged into Facebook and read

Jesus. Robin Williams died of an apparent suicide.

His family… Wow… I can’t deal with this right now.

And my world changed. Again.

In this day and age, it doesn’t take long to determine the deeper story. It’s one we’ve heard many times. A celebrity, seemingly someone who has it all: wealth, a rewarding career, a loving family, adoring fans…but is dogged by something darker. Addictions. Depression.

Robin Williams, the man that could make almost anyone laugh, couldn’t find enough light in the world to carry on. I can’t imagine that. I can’t conceive of it. Just like I can’t imagine a world without him.

Many celebrities die. God knows we lose enough that there’s website devoted to tracking the latest one to go. And each time, we shake our heads and say, “Gone too soon. So sad. What a waste.” And it’s the case here too.

Right now, I’m sad. I’m hurting. I’m grieving as though this was someone I knew all my life. In a way I did, if only through the television and movie screens.

But most of all, I’m angry. I’m pissed right off.

The difference for me, I guess, is the person. In this case, Robin Williams. He wasn’t just a movie star. He wasn’t just a comedian. It wasn’t a job for him, it wasn’t his career. It was encoded into him. Whether he was on stage, performing for thousands, or standing face to face with one other person, he was always on. He saw the world differently from the rest of us. His brain worked differently from ours.

You could see it in his improv, especially when he shared the stage with someone else. If that other person was smart, they’d simply get out of the way and let Robin go. Because his mind was a finely tuned machine. He made connections where most of us saw nothing. He found humour where there was none to be found. He turned his performance into an Olympic-calibre sport. And no one could touch him.

But, of course, there was the dark side. He had his demons, like the rest of us. But some of us have bigger demons than others, ones that whisper in their ear constantly, always trying to get them into a room alone so they can hammer and beat them down. And there’s no escaping that demon. Many find a way to deal with it, but it never goes away.

Unfortunately, Robin’s demon finally gained the upper hand. A horrible, devastating way for a man that brought joy to an entire world to go.

He’s not the first to commit suicide. Or suffer from addictions. Or depression. He won’t, unfortunately, be the last.

A very smart man that I know once told me that anxiety and depression often affects the highly intelligent simply because they’re capable of reasoning out all the bad things that can happen. They can see the deeper levels of the world and be affected by them, instead of bumbling along, blissfully unaware, thinking all is wonderful.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all happy people are stupid. They absolutely are not. And I think any of us would trade places with a perennially happy person.

I’m also not saying that those that are not as intelligent can’t suffer from depression. I know they can, I know they do.

All I’m saying is, I’ve seen a great many very intelligent people–those people who should “know better” and that should “snap themselves out of it” –dealing with depression and thoughts of inferiority and unworthiness.

All I’m saying is, we’re all worthy of being happy. Of not feeling inferior.

Ed Kurtz, a great man and gifted writer, said something profound in his blog yesterday. He said

ya’ll have only the very best intentions when you implore sufferers of depression to “reach out” or “seek help.” I appreciate that deeply and I can see how kind your heart is to make that statement. The trouble with this sentiment is that people like me don’t always know how, or don’t believe at a given moment that we can, or don’t even want to. We withdraw. We get trapped in our heads. We slink off into the ouroboros of our own solitude.

And, even though I have quite a few loved ones that suffer from depression, I was one of those kind-hearted fools. He’s right, of course. If Robin Williams could have reached out, I’m sure he would have. Instead, he withdrew. He got trapped in his head. He got lost. And we lost him.

I know Ed is right, because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the cries for help. I saw someone cry out on Facebook and no one picked up on it. I went to my wife and pointed out the post. She agreed it was a cry for help. And she was able to help in some small way.

But what if no one had noticed? I’ve lost cousins and friends and, I’m guessing, my father, because no one noticed. Or didn’t notice enough.

So I’m begging you. If you notice something that’s off with someone you love, ask. And keep asking until you’re satisfied. They might reach out if they need help, but if you reach out to them, it just might show them that whispering bitch of a demon is wrong and there is someone who cares. That there is a reason to push that demon aside one more time.

And for God’s sake, and for the sake of your loved ones, don’t treat someone with depression as a pariah. You wouldn’t push them away if they got sick, would you? Well, that’s what this is, it’s a sickness that’s harder to see, but just as real.

I am, by nature, a somewhat optimistic cynic. I expect the worst, but hope for the best, I guess. But there’s no upside to what happened last night…unless we can somehow lift the shroud and expose these demons to the light of day.

Robin Williams

Robin Williams not only made people laugh, he helped people. He helped Christopher Reeve after his accident. He did what he could to cheer the cast of Schindler’s List as they reenacted one of the darkest moments in mankind’s history.

Let’s try and turn this terrible loss into something that means something. Let Robin Williams be the face and the voice of those who find the courage to laugh in the face of depression.

And if you need help, try to fight it long enough to reach out.
Suicide Prevention – Find a Centre


A beautiful boy, a horrible life

Everything about this house was born to grow and die…
And love lies bleeding in my hands.

Love Lies Bleeding – Elton John

Yesterday, my nephew Ryan, a man I didn’t really know anymore, died. He was 28 years old.

And I don’t know how to feel.

Let me go back 25 years.

Back in 1989, I was not yet married, but the woman that would be my wife and I had been dating for about a year. My mother was living a couple of hours north of us.

My brother had a son, Ryan who was roughly three years old at the time. My brother was no longer with Ryan’s mother, Val.

Anyway, Karen had a week of vacation that I didn’t have, as I’d just started a new job. My mother hadn’t seen Ryan in a while, so Karen agree to pick him up and, along with her girlfriend, spend the week up at mom’s.

For a week, the three of them were enchanted by the exceptionally polite and bright little boy that was my nephew. He was a charmer and the sweetest little kid you’d ever want to meet.

However, it was also during that week that all the shit came out. In his own way, Ryan was able to get it across that his mother was locking him in his bedroom and going away all night. He had a couple of small round burns on his leg where she stubbed her cigarette out on his leg for punishment. He told a story about his mother stabbing her boyfriend at his birthday party. My brother backed that one up because he’s the one that drove the boyfriend to the hospital.

Needless to say, my mother and Karen were horrified. Ryan, for his part, seemed to take it in stride. It was his life. He didn’t know anything different. This was his normal.

Trying to play it cool, I called Val and asked if it was okay for mom to keep Ryan for another week. Val didn’t care. And in that week, I almost lost my job because I was on the phone at work with police, with various people at the Children’s Aid Society. I can’t even tell you who all I talked to, but I know I eventually reached the director of the CAS. But all along the way, the story remained the same: Unless Val tries to hurt him, there’s nothing anyone could do. Even though we could point to scars. Even though he could tell them everything. Even though there was a hook on the outside of his bedroom door to lock him in.

Even though he said the most unwittingly chilling things. During those weeks at my mother’s, he once said that, if he could somehow escape his bedroom when he was locked in there, he would go out to the balcony and “fly away.”

Still, for that entire week, I tried. I tried everything I could to help him, but the system was all against me. There wasn’t anything we could do. Our last call had been to the Durham Regional Police, who told us if we didn’t get him back to her, she could have us charged with kidnapping.

I can still clearly remember sitting him down in my living room on a summer Sunday evening, Karen having brought him back that morning. He hadn’t seen his mother in two or three weeks by this point. Karen and I, fighting tears, told him we were going to take him back home. I remember Ryan looking up at me and, while he pushed his finger into my knee, said, “No, I want to stay here. With you.”

I had to get up and leave the room to cry. We knew the hell he was stepping back into, and no one would help Karen and I prevent it.

We drove him back to Val’s and, with him sobbing and hugging us because he would rather stay with us than his own mother, Karen and I dropped him back off with his mother.

A week later, she tried to kill herself.

Luckily, Ryan was with Val’s mother at the time (because apparently Val didn’t ever want to look after him herself). She told the ambulance attendants they might as well let her die, because if they saved her, she’ll only try again, and this time, she’ll take Ryan with her.

Unfortunately, they didn’t listen to her and saved her ass.

Finally, Ryan was taken from her. The CAS contacted me and I was told I would have unlimited access to see him and could speak in court when the hearing regarding her ability to parent him came up.

It was during this time that the CAS representative revealed to me that they had previously checked Val’s apartment and, when they saw the hook on Ryan’s bedroom door that locked him in every Friday and Saturday night, Val explained it away as him having gotten up early one morning, tried to make toast and almost set a fire. They bought it and didn’t demand that it be removed.

The CAS considered allowing me, as next of kin, to take him (my brother was, for all intents and purposes, out of the picture), but decided, for whatever reason, that a foster family would be better. Three days after he was moved to the foster home, I was told I could no longer see him because the foster family had “proof” that Karen and I had had sex in front of him.

Their “proof”? A three-year-old boy that grabbed his crotch every once in a while. Because no other three-year-old boy has ever done that without some sort of sexual prompting.

And, of course, the CAS backed them.

So, I was cut out.

When it came time for the hearing, I remember sitting in the courtroom. The file on Val, with no exaggeration, was a solid two or three inches thick.

The person that could have best championed Ryan, my brother, should have talked, He couldn’t, because he was so stoned. Instead, he slept most of the time in the courtroom.

Long story short, the judge never actually got to hear any of the story because the lawyers bargained it all out. They went from trying to have Ryan permanently removed from Val, down to a year of AA and parenting courses before she could get him back. Finally, they bargained it down to a single session of AA.

She didn’t even do that.

So, the woman that tried to commit suicide mere weeks earlier, the woman that threatened her own son’s life, the woman who never seemed to care if her son was even around, got her kid back.

As soon as she did, she fucked off to BC and I didn’t hear anything from him again until he was 17 and Val called me out of the blue to demand that I take him. He’d been in and out of jail by then and had developed a fairly serious drug and alcohol habit. And I had two very young kids of my own. So, as much as it killed me, I had to say no.

She called me every name in the book and accused me of “not caring” about Ryan. The mother that was calling me to take her son off her hands. The bitch that was willing to throw her own son away like so much garbage. Accusing me of not caring.

Though I never really saw Ryan after that, there were the inevitable stories of him spending the latter part of his teen years and early twenties in and out of jail for various indiscretions. There were the stories of drugs and alcohol.

He seemed to be getting his shit together in the past few years. He had a girlfriend, though it was on and off. He had somehow managed to find a way to deal with his psycho mother. He got in contact with my mother and called her fairly regularly.

He moved out to Edmonton a year ago or so. And in mid-January, his son was born. Apparently he swore he would raise the boy right, not like he had been raised.

Then, last Saturday, his girlfriend found him in bed, not breathing. I don’t know all the details, but apparently his heart had stopped. By the time they had him on life-support, his brain had been too long without oxygen.

Supposedly, my brother, a truck driver now, is going to try and get a load that needs to be hauled out to Edmonton so he can make it out there eventually. Because, hell, Ryan can wait, right?

And yesterday, with some of his family around him (but not his father), they pulled the plug and he died.

So now Val gets to play the grieving mother. His girlfriend has decided that she and Ryan’s son will now move in with her.

It chills me to the bone to think of what that bitch will do to this new life. Somewhere, I pray there’s a special place in hell for all parents like this. And I pray that both Ryan’s parents will end up there.

For me, all I really have is the memory of a beautiful little three-year-old boy pushing his finger into my knee and saying, “I want to stay here. With you.” And somehow I have to reconcile that with an adult that didn’t ever really get a fair shot at a normal life because he had a mother bound and determined to put her own needs first, and a father who was more of a non-entity than anything. He didn’t have a chance, because that was Ryan’s version of normal.

And now he’s dead.

And I don’t know what to feel.

A mother of an anniversary

Cuz I know the kids are well
Yes, you’re the mother to the world.

Genesis – Please Don’t Ask

Twenty-three years ago, I wasn’t thinking about Mother’s Day. I wasn’t thinking about mothers. I wasn’t thinking about the woman I was going to marry that day as a mother.

I remember thinking that I couldn’t imagine being married even five years. It wasn’t that didn’t want to be, I simply couldn’t wrap my head around it.

And yet, here we are, twenty-three years later, and I’m still married to that same woman. And now, a lot of what defines us is our roles as parents.

And Karen, my wife, is an amazing mother that doesn’t get enough recognition for what she does. Let me give you four examples.

The first example is about twenty-five years old. Yes, before we were married. Karen and I were dating, and we were engaged to be married, but it was a while off.

However, my nephew was being systematically abused by his mother and ignored by my brother, his father. The boy wasn’t even three yet, and he’d already experienced his mother stubbing a cigarette into his leg to punish him, he’d seen her stab her boyfriend, and she’d locked him him his room most Friday nights so she could go out to bars. Yeah, not a candidate for the winner of Mother’s Day.

And we were doing what we could to get him out of the situation. Karen was the one that suggested we move up the date of the wedding and adopt him. A child that she’d only met about three weeks before. Because that’s who she is. She had the mothering instinct long before she was a mother.

It’s along story as to why that didn’t come to pass, but I blame that on the misnamed Childrens’ Aid Society. But that’s another story for another day.

The rest of the examples all come from the past year.

The second example comes from last July, when I participated once again in the Muskoka Novel Marathon (quick note, I’m still looking for donations for this year’s marathon, if you’re so inclined. End of quick note).

Anyway, at the MNM, Karen decided to come up with me and, because she was there, offered her services to help out wherever she could. It was with some trepidation (we found out later) that they paired Karen up with the Den Mother, the much-beloved Mieke Byl, who was a one-woman kitchen machine.

I found this funny, initially because, if you know Karen, you know how she is in a kitchen. If you don’t…well, the jokes started with, could Karen even find the kitchen? Yeah, she’s that good.

And Mieke had been doing this for years, with little or no help. She had a routine and she knew it well. Then Karen, this interloper, came in.

And they got along famously. All day, as I sat and typed away, I could hear laughter coming from the kitchen. Whenever either of them came out, they were all smiles.

But more than that, Karen came to have the same love and caring attitude toward the marathoners they both supported. Though Karen didn’t have the Den Mother title, she truly became a mother toward the marathoners, even going so far as to help one with a piece of their story involving a wedding dress. Because that’s who she is. She’s willing to help out others and step into the mother role whenever needed.

The third example was last September, when our son brought home a friend. He was a kid we’d had stay over multiple times in the past couple of years. His mother kicked him out of the house with startling regularity for the smallest and the stupidest of infractions.

This time, he’d been out of the house for three days with no money and nothing but the clothes on his back. The same clothes he’d been in for three days. And he’d had to break into the garage of his mother’s house and climb into the rafters to sleep, pulling some boxes around him in case she happened to see him. This was mid-September. In our part of the world, it can get pretty damn cold at night.

We couldn’t see that happen. Without hesitation, Karen kicked into gear and moved him in with us. She got him clothes, a bed, and furniture for the bedroom. She fielded the ridiculous calls from his mother (“You better not have the school call you when he’s absent, because I need to know where he is at all times”…from the woman that didn’t know where he was for three days). She did it all. Because that’s who she is. She will not stand by while someone is mistreated.

By the way, tomorrow, that kid will have been with us exactly eight months.

And then there’s the last example, from last night. Karen had previously told all the kids, no friends sleeping over this weekend. This is our anniversary weekend and it’s Mother’s Day on Sunday. So, this weekend is for us.

Again, our son came to us. He mentioned that one of his friends had no place to sleep. His mother told him he couldn’t come home (I’m guessing she had a date or something). And his father, who was in Ottawa, refused to let him stay in his house.

Honest to God, I don’t know why we don’t force people to get some sort of licence to have children. There’s so many shitty parents out there.  Meanwhile, I’m sure this kid’s mother didn’t get the irony of not giving her own child a place to sleep on the eve of Mother’s Day.

So, when our son came to us, Karen didn’t hesitate. “Okay,” she said. “He can stay. I won’t send a kid out of my house with no place to sleep.”

Because that’s who she is. She’s always put everyone else’s needs above her own.

And yet, for all of that, she never gets the credit she deserves. I tend to get some attention because I’m the one that types out these stupid little blogs and messages. But it should be known that, if it wasn’t for the woman that I married twenty-three years ago today, if it wasn’t for who she is, the mother she is, the wife she is, the person she is, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

So, this is for my wife, the mother of my children, and the surrogate mother for many others.

Happy Mother’s Day, babe.

And Happy Anniversary.

I love you.

Me and the coolest woman in the world.

Me and the coolest woman in the world.

Books that changed my life: 06 – Cyborg

Note: This blog originally appeared on tobinelliott.com

This is the sixth in a series of blogs where I go back and examine the books that deeply affected me and became part of the foundation of the person I am now.

Click on the titles to read the others

01 – Chariots of the Gods?
02 – Rocket Ship Galileo / Space Cadet
03 – The Illustrated Man
04 – Childhood’s End
05 – Rendezvous With Rama

After digging into the lighter SF of Heinlein and Bradbury, then going through Arthur C. Clarke’s brand of SF, known more as Hard SF because the science was more accurate, I found I preferred it for the most part.

Of course, SF has been known to stand not just for Science Fiction, but also for Science Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction. The difference is, those last two seemed to downplay the science. I liked my science. The more the better. So, I found myself casting about for more hard stuff.

Steve Austin - The Six Million Dollar ManThen in March, 1973, I watched a movie that knocked my socks off. It was The Six Million Dollar Man. For those old enough to remember the television series that ran for five years, no, this initial offering didn’t deliver the same amount of cheese the series eventually did. You saw no signs of Bigfoot here.

Jaime Sommers - The Bionic WomanInstead, Steve Austin was a little darker, somewhat James Bondish…at least in my four decades removed memory. I instantly fell in love with the character and the two subsequent movies. Then, in January of 1974, Steve Austin got his own series. Then Jaime Sommers got her own series with The Bionic Woman. Then Farrah Fawcett starred on the show. I was in frigging heaven.Farrah Fawcett as...ah, who cares, it was friggin' Farrah!

But I digress.

I was learning to be watchful of certain phrases, or key lines on my television screen. And I saw, with this series, something to the effect of “Based on the novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin.

There was a book? Hot damn! I immediately sought it out and, of course, with the popularity of the series, it wasn’t hard to find.

And what I got was a technically more accurate bionic man. A cyborg, or cybernetic organism. I can’t tell you how much I loved that term.

CyborgThe first half of the book detailed Lt. Col. Steve Austin’s horrific crash in a test flight gone wrong, leaving him with just his right arm. And it detailed the operations that then provided him with a new arm, two legs, a camera hidden in his missing eye, a steel skull plate and a radio transmitter built into a rib. The camera did not help Austin see, so none of that boopboopboopboopboop zoom vision the show is famous for, but he could remove it and take pictures. And he also had a finger that he could twist to arm a poison dart to shoot at someone. How cool is all that?

What he didn’t have was the super-strength of the show. So, no lifting a car with that arm (because it would crush the still-only-bone vertebrae in his back), and no running at 60 mph (because, yeah, anyone that’s stuck their head out of a car moving that fast knows what a bitch it is to breathe…and to keep that perfect Lee Majors hairstyle).

So, he wasn’t necessarily the superman they portrayed on television. And I wasn’t disappointed at all. In fact, I preferred the literary Steve Austin. Not only was he more accurate, but he was a lot darker. He would kill without concern. And he got the women. In fact, when he’s teamed with an experienced female operative (who’s also hot) and she demands to know if he can still function sexually, then beds him to remind him he’s still human, well, my little twelve-year-old brain pretty much fried its circuits.

But really, that’s what the book was about. What makes us human? When much of a human is replaced by machinery, can they still be considered human? The title of the novel was Cyborg, not Human With Some Machine Parts. And the story is about how Steve Austin learns to first deal with, then finally accept the new limbs–and the new abilities–he has. He adapts to a new normal.

How did this book change my life?

Cyborg taught me that a lot of the stuff they threw at me on television was junk compared to the source material. Don’t get me wrong, I still watched every single episode of every bionic person on television through the Seventies. Even when they had Bigfoot. Even when they had William Shatner turn into the world’s smartest man. Even when they had Barney Miller, the Seven Million Dollar Man. Even when they brought in the bionic dog.

I watched it all and loved it all.

But not as much as the book.

And Caidin also eased me into stories involving covert ops.

But most of all, he was the first one to give me a story wrapped around the paradox of being a man in a mostly machine body. Something that would come to be explored again and again, through stories like Robocop (the original movie, not the crap sequels or remake), and even, to a point, Iron Man.

And while this was mostly an adventure novel with a science fiction heart, it was also very much an adult novel. Yes, so were the ones I read by Bradbury and Clarke, but I understood all of this one. I got it all. I caught the nuance. I understood the central who am I? question.

And not only did I understand it all and get the core premise…Caidin wrapped it up in a novel that I enjoyed the hell out of. So much so, I went on to read a ton of his other stuff, mostly enjoying it all as well.

So, this book changed my life because, for the first time, I felt I could read adult novels, and not just ones that were science fiction. I had enjoyed this book, even the second half where he was a spy in the Middle East. If I could enjoy that, what else was out there, just waiting to crawl into my mind?Martin Caidin

Though I’d previously had the universe opened to me, I realized now it was a universe with a very narrow science fiction path. This one opened a side door and let me see into an entirely different world. By taking the science fiction aspect and, instead of travel to a planet or distant star, Caidin instead looked inward to what it meant to be a man, to be human. He made it personal again.

Thank you, Martin.

Did you ever read something that changed your life?

Did you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you hadn’t been able to read those words? What if you couldn’t read? How different would your life be?

What if you couldn’t read Facebook status updates? What if you couldn’t read well enough to Google whatever you need to know? What if you couldn’t read to your kids? What if you couldn’t read a street sign? What if you couldn’t read the instructions on the pill bottle? What if you couldn’t fill out that job application?

What if you couldn’t read?

I’m the person I am now because I can read. I couldn’t imagine a life without a constant influx of words to entertain me, to irritate me, to make me laugh and make me cry.

But I know there’s many out there, and I’m trying to help them. Please, if you read and enjoyed this blog, or if it made you think back to a book that changed your life, please consider helping me help those who are trying to read.

I’m participating in the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a 72-hour event where 40 writers try and write as much as they can, while raising money to fund Literacy and Numeracy programs for adults in the Simcoe/Muskoka area. And the program works.

One of the lucky people who went through their literacy program has now joined our group as a writer. How often can you donate money and look at the walking, talking, reading and writing result?

Any amount is sincerely appreciated.

To find out more about the Muskoka Novel Marathon, click here.
To donate, click here.

Please. Help me change someone’s life through reading.

Muskoka Novel Marathon donation page - just click on the pic

Muskoka Novel Marathon donation page – just click on the pic