My Friend Mike, Who is Dead Now

Let me tell you about my friend Mike, who is dead now.

I grew up in a tiny town. A rural area. I had friends, and very good ones I should make clear, but I never really fit in. Southern New Jersey wasn’t the place for me. I can’t remember a year going by during which I didn’t look forward to getting out and never looking back.

It’s not where I belonged. I doubt anyone else thought I belonged there, either.

I say this as context so that you’ll understand what it means that my friend Mike, who is dead now, was never anything but kind to me. Even when I was frustrated by who I was, what I was, where I was. Even when I treated others poorly and didn’t deserve kindness in return. Even when he no doubt knew that we’d graduate high school and move on and he’d never have to deal with me again. He was always my friend. Mike, who is dead now.

Someone described Mike, who is dead now, as a gentle giant. I couldn’t possibly choose two better words myself. He was a big guy. He always was. Physically imposing, but wouldn’t hurt a fly. I’ve seen him laugh. I’ve seen him happy. But I never saw him upset. I never saw him sad. I never saw him angry. I never heard him say a negative thing about anybody or do a negative thing toward anybody.

My friend Mike, who is dead now, was soft spoken. He was funny. He had the biggest God damned heart. People go through life making friends and enemies but Mike, who is dead now, never seemed to get around to the enemy part. He was friendly to everybody. He hung out with the popular kids. He hung out with the outcasts. He hung out with the nerds. He was good to all of them. He was better than most of us deserved.

There was a sincerity about Mike, who is dead now, that it’s difficult to put into words. If you knew him, you’d know immediately what I’m talking about. If you didn’t, you never will, because he’s dead now.

He could have been a bad person. It was high school. He had the stature and strength and popularity to back it up. He could have been a jerk. He would have gotten away with it. It could even have been fun. A lot of people go that way when they have weight to throw around. I probably would have, too. But he didn’t. Mike, who is dead now, was humble. He didn’t think he was better than anybody. He was always there, this friendly, funny presence with the great big heart.

I have a lot of specific memories of friends from that time in my life, but I don’t have many of Mike, who is dead now. I think that’s because my fondness for him can’t be boiled down to a night of video games or a weekend of drinking or some ridiculous mischief we got up to together that we’d never dream of pulling today. Mike, who is dead now, was a more general part of my life. A constant. Someone always friendly and reliable and trustworthy. One who always played along if someone were teasing him, and one who never teased back.

When I left New Jersey, I lost touch with a lot of people. Including Mike, who is dead now. I had a new life to focus on, and they did, too. But time passed, and I started reconnecting with many of my old friends. After I lost everything a few years ago and was barely scraping together the money to rent a room and the energy to earn that money, when I started rebuilding myself personally, I reconnected with even more of them.

Mike, who is dead now, was one of them.

He looked so happy. Well, as happy as Mike, who is dead now, ever looked. He always seemed to wear the same expression. You’d see the real smile in his eyes.

Mike, who is dead now, seemed to be living a stable, healthy life, and of all the people I went to school with, myself absolutely included, I can’t imagine anyone deserving that more.

He had a beautiful family. He didn’t look a day older than the last time I’d seen him, nearly 20 years ago. I’d see him post photos of sunsets and beautiful mornings, better looking skies than anything I’d seen myself when I was in New Jersey, and he’d caption them with positive thoughts. Affirmations. And every so often he’d comment on something I had posted, just to show his support. That’s just who Mike, who is dead now, was.

On Feb. 1 at 6:37 pm, Mike, who is dead now, posted a long status update. He was venting about someone who had clearly treated him poorly. It was longer and angrier than anything I’d seen him post before. But I didn’t see this post until much later. I missed it, or overlooked it. A lot of people did.

That same day, at 11:32 pm, he shared an uplifting video with the caption, “That’s a beautiful story.” I didn’t see that post, either, but that’s more the kind of thing I expected to see from Mike, who is dead now.

On Feb. 4 at 8:34 am, a family member shared the news that Mike, who is dead now, passed away over the weekend. I was sad. A lot of people were. Everybody wanted to know what had happened to Mike, who is dead now. People reached out to me to see if I knew anything. I didn’t.

On Feb. 5 at 9:58 am, I learned he’d committed suicide.

Mike, who is dead now, killed himself.

I’ve had a number of friends die, and of course the old crew crawls out of the woodwork to post condolences. That’s okay. That’s how it should work. But I believe there’s a noticeable difference between those who offer condolences because that is the right thing to do, and those who are genuinely upset and will miss the person deeply, perhaps more deeply than they ever would have guessed. The latter is all I saw for Mike, who is dead now.

I don’t know what he struggled with. I don’t know the situation. I don’t know what he carried in his heart or his mind or what demons he fought every fucking day until he finally decided he couldn’t or wouldn’t fight them anymore. I don’t know because he never told me. I don’t know because Mike, who is dead now, never told anybody. He felt more comfortable taking his own life than he did reaching out for help.

And Mike, who is dead now, had a wealth of people who would have listened. Who would have tried to help. Who cared about him and loved him and are too late to help him push through.

Mike, who is dead now, took whatever he was feeling, whatever he was fighting, however deeply he was hurting, with him.

I’m sad and I’m angry and I’m frustrated and I’m heartbroken.

Because Mike, God damn it, I would have helped you. And I’m not alone. Seeing that you were happy, you were doing well, you were living a great life…nobody deserved that more than you. And just recently you posted kind words to me. And just recently you talked with a mutual friend and had her convinced you were doing great. And just recently you bumped into another friend in the convenience store and he couldn’t have been happier about how well you were doing.

And you killed yourself, Mike. You’re gone now. You aren’t coming back and if anyone knew what you were going through, we would have helped, dammit. If you needed money or a place to stay or a shoulder to cry on, we fucking loved you. And we would have been there. If we knew, we would have been there.

But maybe that’s the problem. Maybe we never told you that we loved you. Maybe you knew you had friends, but didn’t know they were people you could trust. Maybe you didn’t know how much people actually cared and were willing to help. And maybe that’s because we’re fucking idiots and we never told you.

I wish I could have told you. I wish I could step a few days into the past and find that worrying post and reach out. I wish I could go back to high school and give you a big hug. I wish I could do anything at all to change where we are, right now, with you dead by your own hand because you didn’t think there was another way forward.

I hate that that’s where you ended up. I hate that you, of all people, were on the bottom, beneath something so heavy you had no hope of lifting it up. I hate that I’m out here writing about mental health and being open about my own struggles and trying like hell to help people avoid and deal with the shit I have to face every day and my friend, the gentle giant, the sweetest, warmest fucking guy imaginable, struggled and fought and lost without me even realizing it.

Please don’t be like Mike, who is dead now. Please, for God’s sake, reach out. Let someone know. Because somebody out there cares more than you think they do. And if you don’t believe that, then reach out to me and I’ll prove you wrong myself.

And if you’re doing okay reach out to someone today, tomorrow, the day after that, someone who isn’t. Reach out to the ones you know struggle and the ones you assume are fine because why wouldn’t they be. Reach out, damn it. Because people need you, and however open and accessible you assume you are, when they are losing that fight, they’re only going to see one way out, and it won’t be picking up the phone and calling you. So pick up the phone and call them.

Mike was my friend. In our most recent messages he was excited to be going back to school to get a degree. I was excited for him.

He’s dead now. Whatever he was planning or looking forward to, that’s where his story ends.

He was my friend. I wonder if he even knew that.

The saddest part of It’s a Wonderful Life, to me, has always been its ending. Yes, everything works out, but it’s terrifying that had George Bailey actually killed himself that night, his story would have ended there, without him realizing or knowing or understanding that there were so many people out there who would have helped, who wanted to help, who would gladly do whatever they could to help.

He didn’t reach out to them. He stepped out into a cold winter’s night and decided for himself that there was only one way out.

He never reached out. He never knew. Somebody else had to show him.

Understanding the Need for Representation

It’s my birthday today, and every year since this blog began I’ve used my birthday an excuse to write something personal. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it’s not. This year, it’s not.

Whenever people talk about the need for representation in media, I get it. I understand it. I see where they’re coming from. But I never really felt, personally, what it means to go unrepresented.

I’m white. I’m male. I’m American. I’m straight. I was born into a Christian household. So were the vast majority of characters I’d encounter in film and on television.

As I’ve gotten older, the balance has shifted somewhat. Groups of friends get to have a black one, and even a girl one. Maybe there’s a Jewish one if the writers can think of enough jokes to justify it. Of course there are also shows and movies with predominantly female, black, or homosexual casts, but those are always easy to identify by sight and so anybody who doesn’t want to find themselves exposed to such things can keep away easily. Everybody wins.

This past year, I’ve been through a lot. (I won’t even begin to pretend I’m alone in that.) Good things. Bad things. Exciting things. But also something that, as I turn thirty-eight, I wish I went through a long time ago.

In 2018 I came out as asexual. I know that everybody has their own journey. I know that everybody comes out in their own way, in their own time. I know that there isn’t a right or wrong way to come to your own awakening.

And yet, if I can have the privilege of sharing the ugly side of a good thing, I was angry. Angry that I didn’t understand myself sooner. Angry that this is what I’ve always been without the vocabulary to express, understand, or process it. Angry that I wasn’t me.

Let me step back.

I remember one day in high school. My friend Nate had lost his virginity at some recent point. He was the first one in our circle of friends to do so, and he was telling us about it. We were kids. We were curious. We asked questions. I’m sure he was happy to be the center of attention on this topic.

He said, “The bad thing is that once you have sex, you start always wanting it.”

For whatever reason, that stuck with me. Around a year or so later, I lost my virginity as well, to a girl named Amy. Before and as it was happening, I didn’t feel like I really wanted it. I felt curious about it, for sure, and I was turned on, but I wasn’t…desiring it.

I remembered what Nate said. I figured maybe the first time you just sort of fumble your way through it anxiously, and you figure out what you’re doing and what you like, and curiosity gets replaced, gradually, by actual sexual desire.

It didn’t. Not for me. Not then, or at any point since.

But I didn’t know why. I became the next center of attention. Friends asked me questions and I answered them. I doubt I lied about anything but I’m sure I embellished. They wanted a story. I told them a story.

Maybe I just didn’t feel that way toward Amy. I liked her and I was attracted to her, but maybe there needed to be something deeper. Maybe when I was in a more serious relationship, with someone I cared about on a deeper level, everything would click.

I found that person in my next relationship. She was great, and I look back on the time we spend together fondly. We dated through the end of high school right into the beginning of college. I cared about her. I had fun with her. We had similar sensibilities and morals and senses of humor.

We had sex, a good number of times. And I still didn’t want it.

The more I reflect on these early experiences, the more I realize that it’s always been this way for me. I remember having the house to myself frequently with one girlfriend, but I never thought about or looked forward to having sex. I thought about watching movies and playing video games and laughing with each other. I remember another girlfriend saying to me — in a jokey way — “You don’t even like sex.” I’m sure she thought there was truth to that statement well before I did. I remember sitting in my car outside of a college party, listening to the Live at Leads version of “Magic Bus” with a girl who hadn’t heard it before. It was a nice moment. I enjoyed spending the time with her. We went back into the party, and then into a bedroom, and she wanted to have sex. I wasn’t interested. I tried to get interested, but I couldn’t. I felt terrible. I felt as though I’d led her on. I was embarrassed.

Through the years, I’ve tried to figure out what the problem was. It wasn’t impotence, because I could have sex…I just didn’t want to. It wasn’t that I was gay, because I find women very attractive and have yet to be physically attracted to a man. It wasn’t low testosterone, because I paid for a test out of pocket knowing for sure that that would be the reason, but my doctor called a week or so later with the results to tell me that my testosterone was actually pretty high.

I talked to a few people about it. Not many, and probably not the right ones. One thing a girl I was seeing told me is, “You just haven’t had good sex.” I kind of doubted that. Without making any qualitative assessment, I was in the same boat by the time our relationship ended.

So I just kept trying. Dating. Pursuing. Sleeping with girlfriends. Sometimes once, sometimes many times. I kept having sex because I kept expecting something to click. Sometimes I felt obligated to do it. Sometimes I’d do it just so I wouldn’t disappoint someone. It was fine. It felt good. But it wasn’t anything I wanted.

I grew up watching television. Too much of it. I saw the characters there. I identified with some of them. I learned about myself from watching them. I was able to see how people like me failed or succeeded in what they set out to do.

But sexuality was binary. The vast majority of these characters were straight, a rare few were gay. I didn’t desire sex at all. I didn’t see that anywhere. Something was wrong.

A few years ago, Bojack Horseman had an episode in which Todd, played by Aaron Paul, realizes he’s asexual.

I’d heard the term before, but never looked into it or gave any thought to it. If someone identified as asexual, well…good for them. It’s not my business to go rooting around to figure out what it means. They’d arrived at their own truth, and that’s what was important.

Here’s the thing, though. Prior to that episode, I did see something of myself in Todd. I’d rather not get too specific here, as I think I’m putting enough of myself out there as it is, but there was a moment — and then further moments — in his relationship with Emily that felt very, very close to home. To the point that it hurt.

Bojack Horseman primed me for identifying with it, I’ll admit. As someone who struggles with depression, anxiety, self-loathing, chronic unhappiness and as someone who used to have self-destructive tendencies, I see myself a lot in that show. Intermittently. Here and there. In a line or in a decision or in an inability to get one’s shit together.

And that’s okay. In a show covering a topic you’re familiar with, that’s almost bound to happen. As long as it’s written and acted well, I suppose, which Bojack Horseman is.

But I definitely didn’t see myself in Bojack’s hyperactive sex drive. The meaninglessness, sure, but not feeling compelled to have more and more and more of it.

And then Emily confronted Todd, with an openness that hopefully a lot of us can learn from. And, ultimately, Todd’s answer put things into perspective for me.

EMILY: What’s…your deal? I feel like you like me but you don’t like me, but you like me. And I don’t know what that is. Are you gay? […]
TODD: I’m not gay. I mean, I don’t think I am. But…I don’t think I’m straight, either. I don’t know what I am. I think I might be nothing.

I turned the television off after that episode and I just…thought. As silly as it may seem, I hadn’t even considered that as a possibility.

Obviously there are many characters we don’t actively see having or pursuing sex, but the understanding was always that there were parts of their life we don’t see. If we were to follow them beyond the boundaries of a thirty-minute episode, we’d see them pursuing guys or girls and that would be that. There were characters who were horny and characters who were reserved enough that we didn’t get a glimpse into their sex lives. Everybody had a sex life, and the few that didn’t actively wanted one.

There were no characters that openly had no interest in sex.

Emily asks Todd that question because she’s hurt. She feels like she’s been led on to some degree, even if it’s clear she doesn’t think he did it on purpose. I had an Emily. I had a lot of Emilys. I didn’t intend to lead anybody on, but we’d go on dates. We’d hang out. We’d have fun. We’d flirt.

And then I didn’t want sex. And if we had it, I wasn’t pursuing more of it, even if I were keeping them in my life.

And I’ve hurt them. In large part I’m making an assumption there, but in one specific case someone reached out to me after I came out to explain how she felt. How I had confused her. How I’d upset her. She wasn’t blaming me. I had just been open about something that finally made sense to me, and she replied with her own openness about how it felt on her end.

I didn’t want to hurt or mislead or confuse anybody. I just…didn’t know. I didn’t know that was an option. I didn’t know that there were people like me. I thought there was something…wrong with me, and I spent too many years and too much effort with too many people trying to “fix” myself, get myself on the right track, feel sexual desire the way every single other person on the planet obviously felt it.

I later connected with a friend who was also asexual, though I hadn’t known that before. I found a community online that helped me better understand what I am, and that it’s okay to feel the way I do. I started letting people know ahead of time where I stood sexually. These are good things. But I wish I could have done them sooner. I wish I’d had the knowledge that this wasn’t a problem…this was just something I was, and I wasn’t alone. I could have saved a lot of people a lot of pain.

I said above that I’m straight, and I am. I love women. I love romance. Dating is fun and getting to know a partner on a deep, personal level is fun.

But for all of my life I thought it was supposed to build to sex. Again and again and again to sex. And it didn’t for me. That wasn’t what I wanted. I did it because I felt as though I needed to, that I should have wanted to, that this was the way things worked and I didn’t really have a place to disagree.

And I realize now why representation is important. For the first time, I experienced that firsthand. When we see people like us in the media, we know we aren’t alone. When we don’t see them, we suspect we might be. When there isn’t some kind of representative of who we are and what we want and how we feel, it’s easy to believe we’re missing something. We’re broken in some way. We aren’t who we should be.

I’m not saying I necessarily needed to see a character like Todd when I was a child, but I am saying that seeing him when I finally did helped me a lot, gave me a reason to research asexuality, and gave me a push I needed to understand who, the fuck, I was.

I didn’t even know that the thing I was was an option. And that’s terrifying to me. It’s sad that there are children and adults who don’t realize it’s okay to be who they are, so they try to be someone they aren’t, hurting others and themselves in the process, and never being truly happy with who they already are.

I guess it’s about right that here, in this monumentally shitty world that seems determined to get worse every day, that a cartoon about a talking horse would be the one place I’d find some honesty. I just hope it’s honesty that’s easier to come by in the next generation, for people who might need it even more than me.

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