Monday, 1 September 2014

How Robin Williams Helped Me Come Out of the Depression Closet

The unexpected death of Robin Williams got me thinking – once again – just how tragic depression really is. 

It's frustrating that it takes a celebrity suicide to open our eyes and get us talking.
It fills the heads of its victims with crippling despair, distorted thoughts of self-hate, even the most intelligent, seemingly (outwardly) fulfilled sufferers can’t ignore. Oftentimes it targets our society’s most sensible, talented, passionate creators and producers of society. And worst of all, it's a tragically invisible disability many sufferers can't talk about.

In the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram generation of faux happiness, we’re conditioned en mass not to talk about our bad days, because heaven forbid we be the party buzz-kill.

Well that’s too bad, because it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.

Yes, if you haven’t guessed it already, I very much suffer from bouts of depression likely fueled by bad genetics and a shitty childhood and a few poor life choices. And I want to get this off my chest if I’m going to understand and hopefully beat it. 

Psychiatrists still don't fully understand the causes of depression, so here's my two cents. 
First off, a tiny confession. I almost published a version of this blog post about a year ago, after the tragic overdose of Glee star Cory Monteith. Ostensibly this talent had the life: as the star of a popular show with a loving girlfriend and a hopeful future. But that’s the picture that’s always painted – especially when you have agents, managers and publicists operating the paintbrush.

But then of course I got cold feet. I can’t remember why. I probably got chicken-shit after my mood took an upswing. I certainly didn’t want to shatter the illusion people may have that I’m totally fun and confident, that I’m actually somewhere on the spectrum, bordering on the edge. Eek. Don’t invite that Negative Nancy to the party.

A year later the news of Robin Williams’ death arrived around the same time I’d sunk to an oppressive low of self-defeating thoughts. Then I watched a Ted Talk about the Power of Vulnerability by author and leading social worker Brené Brown. I slurped up her Kool-aid it finally dawned on me. If I truly wanted to beat this, I’d need to open up and be damn honest about even this kind deep, dark shit if I wanted to see positive change.

Brené Brown's Power of Vulnerability in a Coles Notes Nutshell
Maybe you’re thinking: Wow, how more self-centred and self-indulgent can a narcissist get? A celebrity figurehead dies tragically and somehow he once again finds a way to relate it back to himself? Here's the thing, I routinely struggle with seemingly irrational bouts of negative thinking, and I very much work in the TV / film wheelhouse, a bumpy road of feast or famine where uncertain circumstances only trigger or exacerbate the symptoms. Maybe it’s just my hyperbolic nature, but their deaths struck a major chord.

I knew something might be up when I finally started to get my act together – and I’d still manage to spiral into crushing pits of despair. Survival of the Fabulous gets green-lit but that must be a fluke. I got into the CFC Writing Program, the third time applying, I’d still manage to convince myself that I must be a fraud, they’ll figure it out soon enough. Even when I ostensibly attained my personal Holy Grail – an attractive, wholehearted guy who actually liked me back – I’d still have thoughts that it’s an illusion, he doesn’t really like me, I’m still unlovable – and surprise, surprise, cue the downward spiral into Depression Alley. 

Recently an investigation of my family tree for my documentary revealed an alarming, interesting find. Multiple cases of depression and more horrifyingly suicide. My uncle jumped from a high rise about a decade ago. Two great aunts killed themselves via rat poison and shotgun. Apparently another lumberjack actually felled a tree so it would intentionally crush him (okay that one might be an urban legend).

All those black and white portraits are untimely deaths. 
It just so happens depression, alcoholism and drug addiction have reared their ugly heads all over both sides of my immediate family, so it’s certainly hereditary to some degree, so are my demons naturally going to grow up into all-consuming, suicidal Devils?

I sometimes wonder if contemplating the contemplation of suicide even counts. It’s true I probably am too much a drama queen to go out in a quiet fashion. I mean at the very least I’d want to recreate a kill sequence from my favorite Final Destination and make a trashy posthumous reality show out of it.

I used to think I’d dodged the addiction bullet. I’d never smoked a cigarette in my life. I didn’t start drinking until well into university and I’ve never used it to dull the pain. Maybe my family of felons and addicts acted as reverse role models – and saved me from a predestined path of self-destruction.

But let’s call a spade a spade. I may not be addicted to booze or blow, but I certainly do have an addiction for validation, which I’ve chronicled extensively on this blog – and will recap more in part two of this uber-fun depression series, where I try to get to the bottom of why people like us suffer from depression.  

Some addicts "choose" booze or blow. I prefer the Boys, Body Dysmorphia and Validation cocktail 

For the longest period of denial I tried to convince myself that I was in no way like the aforementioned Tortured Artists of the world. I don’t go on partying binge-fests that result in blackouts and shaving my head.

Some of my friends and family even know I have oscillating super-highs and depressive lows. But they think there’s no cause for concern because I’m really just an attention-seeking Drama Queen, too shallow to raise alarm bells. I’d even convinced myself and got really good at concealing my brooding darker side. If you only see me as a vain, vapid pre-law school Elle Woods, that’s because the more confident, more shallow and all-around funner Bryce is clearly more likeable than the real, tortured deal.

It turns out this is Comedy and Depression 101, as this fantastic article by David Wong about Robin Williams illuminates why funny people kill themselves. The seemingly obvious jist of it? Depressed people use jokes as shields to hide their abused souls.  

I’m not crying for help with this post. In fact, I was going to keep all this to myself. Or maybe sugar coat it for a psychotherapist.

But I want to understand the nature and nurture of depression, figure out how it manifests. Maybe even some of the readers out there – you know, all seven of them – would find it helpful to know just how common depression really is, and that it’s okay, in fact necessary, to be candid about it.

Once I better understand this depression business, I’ll formulate a strategic battle plan, so I can beat the shit out of it. The one thing I do know is it’s life-long war, and one that would require a daily regimen of patience, willpower and commitment.

Teaser: if I could go from Chunky to Hunky, I can slay a few pesky mental health demons. 

It’s a bit terrifying that it’s 2014, and we still don’t know the answers. Doctors prescribe anti-depressants like they’re one-size-fits-all cure-alls and psychiatrists disagree whether we should even take them.

But spoiler alert: I know seeking help is possible – and it very much can and does work with time. But it’s an ongoing battle and when symptoms are their most severe, the motivation to seek help wanes, making the vicious cycle continue and the need to talk about it all the more important.

It truly is a tragic shame that Robin Williams and other formidable artists like him never found their answer. But I will say thank you for giving me the courage to speak up.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

My Battle with Elle Woods Syndrome

If you’ve held court with me for more than five minutes you’ve likely heard me bring up or quote Legally Blonde. Maybe you’ve even wondered why any self-respecting writer and filmmaker would cite Legally Blonde as one of his most cherished films.

Story of my life, circa 2001-2013
Part of it is the genuine truth – it’s a brilliantly written comedy with endlessly quotable dialogue and timeless themes. The other reason is perhaps more metaphysical. When I reference Legally Blonde, I’m really subconsciously testing to see if you’ll judge and write me off as vapid and/or shallow, much like the narrow-minded law students of Harvard U did Elle Woods. (If you need a reminder, think Bel Air bombshell in Barbie pink amongst stiff intellectuals in muted, ill-fitting cardigans). I’ve come to identify so much with the protagonist of Legally Blonde, that she’s literally fused into the DNA of my identity, like a parasite, but with blond highlights.

In ironic other words, I’ve developed a meta-disease only Abed Nadir would know how to diagnose. It’s called Elle Woods Syndrome.

Elle Woods Syndrome (EWS) can be defined as the perennial need to cast oneself as the fish-out-water outcast in an intellectual milieu. Usually it involves emphasizing one’s seemingly vapid, shallow and/or douchey traits to lower expectations of one’s ability to perform – so that one can emerge as an underdog-turned-dark horse. The environment should be one where geeks, nerds or intellectuals thrive, so that the stereotypical babe or jock you'd expect to be popular is rendered the outcast, reverse-bullied by the usually dejected.

E.W.S.:  psychological phenomenon affecting dozens of valley girls and hot jocks with untapped potential.

I likely contracted EWS shortly after watching Legally Blonde for the first time during my tenure at Ryerson University. 

I know what you’re thinking: I didn’t go to law school to win back my ex-boyfriend (sadly this was long before I was hunky enough to have a boyfriend) so how could I relate to Elle Woods? As a gay man starved for attention, even (or especially) when closeted, I always stood out and I did sort of decide to go to film school on a whim, when I realized genetically engineering dinosaurs likely wouldn’t be a possible career path. So the next best thing would be to tell my own geeky sci-fi stories, right?

Elle Woods Syndrome is also known to afflict gay writers with delusions of grandeur.

So this freshly and flamboyantly gay science nerd, lover of popular culture, wearer of muscle tanks outside the gym and hopeful creator of Anaconda 2 Anaconda 5 arrived at Ryerson film school. While it was sadly no Harvard (or even the Canadian equivalent of an Ivy League), we did have a pretentious film school in “Image Arts” chock full of stodgy hipsters in muted, ill-fitting cardigans, who wanted to make important art films. 

We had snobby, opinion-recycling Vivian Kensington’s, social-climbing Warner Huntington III’s or Femi-Nazi Enid Wexler’s, all nonconformist conformists. They hated me on first impression impulse because I stood out and not in a good way (at least that’s how I projected it in my head and later Burn Book). Once I decided to embrace my life as Elle Woods – and centre of attention – this track became a self-fulfilling prophecy and full-blown EWS. 

I set a precedent of making people think I was vacuous bumble gum, so I could later prove them wrong. I’d spend my scholarship money on bleach-blonding or perming my hair (a la Justin Timberlake circa the N*SYNC days). I’d wear excessive costumes during my pitches or muscle tanks to my lectures. And I saw links to Legally Blonde everywhere.

Like Ms. Woods, I'd overcompensate with razzle-dazzle.
We had this ruthless film history professor who pinned our eyes open to watch awful Russian films. She made us introduce ourselves via film clips we believed “best characterized” our cinematic taste. After the usual PT Anderson and Coen Bros suspects, I decided to show Elle Woods’ cross-examination of Chutney Windham. After prerequisite scoffing and eye-rolling from the film snobs, the scary professor actually called it a “wonderful example of the village idiot” which I didn’t understand. (I’d later realize our Russian Professor Umbridge was my first Professor Stromwell in a long line of Yoda mentors).

My Professor Stromwell mentor came in a slightly harsher form.
I once pitched a high-concept, high-budget sci-fi short in lab-coat including mock science-experiment for our thesis film (think the equivalent of the prestigious summer internship). In my head, all those ill-fitting cardigans thought I was a hopeless long-shot, but once the list appeared and my film I was selected, this is how I reacted:  

Once I’d contracted EWS, it only festered, especially after I shed my soft-fleshed cocoon and morphed into a douchebag butterfly. Wherever I went, I’d do everything in my power to stand out. Behind the scenes in television production, I was the fit editor who refused burrito lunches with the other tubby editors. Videogame and comic book conventions, where I should be networking, I’d instead be posturing as a nerd-jock in cosplay, so I’d be taken as seriously as the booth babes - only I was neither as hot nor as paid to be there.

What Elle Woods and Bryce get up to when they should be studying.
During my residency at the Canadian Film Centre’s television writing bootcamp, something in me changed. I’d desperately applied to this prestigious program two times before, beginning to fear TV writing was only “for people who are boring, ugly and serious,” that I must be none of those things. But another voice told me I really fucking wanted it. So through perseverance, better scripts and the sometimes reliable need for validation, I finally got in. Immediately it felt like I was back in film school: the outgoing pop-culture guru amongst mostly introspective writer-sorts. I was all ready to prove I write my bubble-gum “genre” TV, while rocking a form-fitting Henley, and probably be judged for it. They even made a 25-cents jar in our writing room for every one of my Legally Blonde references. But each time I added a quarter, it began to dawn on me:

I was stuck in First or early Second Act Legally Blonde, forgetting Elle Woods herself went through a huge transformation. Sure she went to law school to win her boyfriend back, but there she discovered her untapped potential as a bonafied lawyer. Her original motivation was misguided, but it led to an experience that fundamentally changed her.

Elle Woods triumphed in the court room - proving everybody including herself wrong, but where was I?
All these years of embracing an Elle Woods identity, I’d completely missed the point. I was trying so hard to be outcast as different or even inferior, I could never be accepted and never really grow.

But luckily at the CFC I was working with or for the best of the best. All of my mentors were Professor Stromwells with noses that could detect bullshit (and/or the bells and whistles I’d used in the past to hide thin writing). I was forced to dig deeper and to stop being so shallow.

Taken through the ringer at the CFC, I arguably discovered my inner potential for writing drama – something I thought myself previously incapable. I’d always been content with writing derivative knock-offs of Jurassic Park, Anaconda or X-men, but with a little elbow grease, I learned why I really want to write and what I really have to say. I have no delusions that I’ve somehow morphed into a genius writer – I still and always will be learning and developing my craft. But I can say that writing Anaconda 5 is no longer at the top of my career goals.

I'm not the only one to realize the didactic potential of Legally Blonde.
My Professor Stromwell called it right!

The funny thing is, throughout my CFC residency, nobody ever really judged me on all those shallow archetype things – in fact they were embraced and championed as part of my “unique voice.” So look at that, Elle Woods was right after all. Being true to yourself never goes out of style.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

My Dark Days of Dodgeball: Or How I was Forced to Learn a Lesson in Congeniality

Besides storytelling, strong female badasses and videogames, there is probably nothing I'm more passionate about in my simple simple life than Dodgeball, the glorious sport of "violence, exclusion and degradation," made famous and rules defined by the exquisite Dodgeball: An Underdog Story. It's a sport which defined key character building moments of my last decade and led to my one and only concussion.

Now before you go thinking this is my spirited pledge for turning Dodgeball into an Olympic sport, you should grab the kleenex, because this is rather, a very tragic confession of my descent into disgrace and depravity. And to all that have been hurt along the way, my deepest apologies...

The narrative of my connection to dodgeball is a long and storied one. It all began almost a decade ago when I captained a team of underdog artistic oddballs assembled from my Documentary Media MFA program at Ryerson U. We academic wannabe athletes called ourselves Dodging For Columbine and we were as terrible as you could imagine. We were mostly fat or scrawny, some with glasses, and all who threw like girls, except the girls themselves, who were mostly lesbian cannons that should be playing major league baseball.

Our team sucked but at least we were clever.  
We competed against undergrad jock douchebags, all of whom were better than us in most every way. And no team was better looking, more athletic and more douchey than Natural Selection, a cartoon squadron of mega-hot jock bullies who stepped right out of my nightmare wet dreams to antagonize us on the court. But these were villains you loved to hate so hard it was like the living inspiration for Ben Stiller and his Purple Copras.

Aptly named in every sense.
But I must give Natural Selection credit for fueling a fire I never knew I had inside. I’d never played a team sport in my life (unless you count Reaching for the Top), but thanks to their routine, skin-thickening decimations, I learned that while I may not ever be able to throw like a man or a lesbian, but I can dodge, I can strategize, I can survive a dodge-ball catalyzed concussion, I can sure as hell shit-talk like the best of redneck trash, and well, I can also lead. 

We meagre documentarians went from wanting to change the world by finding the cinematic cure to world hunger to having a taste for human bloodshed. After finally learning how to dodge, dip, duck, dive and dodge, we rose up to challenge even Natural Selection a few times (though we never won). And we were once put on probation when a fistfight broke out between out two teams. I kid not, and I realize that this memory should not be fondly remembered, even if it is.

Now fast forward a few years to the Gay Ball Society and the first ever Toronto-set LGBT dodge-ball league. At long last a place where you could meet fellow gays while playing the greatest sport known to man.

We took the fun out of dodgeball!
During the first year, I captained a team called “Cherry Poppers”. Well actually, I should say, I became the captain after I helped orchestrate a mutiny when I realized the first captain wasn’t intense or competitive enough to lead us to victory. The rest of the team seemed to agree, and quickly, week to week we became the team to beat. I had no delusions of being the best or even close to the best player on the team. We were stacked with power cannons and strategic snipers that already gave us an edge. But those like me, who weren’t the most athletic were game and motivated to perfect our throwing, dodging and catching until we were feral animals that dined on bruises, broken egos and bone marrow.

There's no I in team, but there is an I in win.
We left many teams in our dust as we outplayed, outwitted and – forgive this unnecessary Survivor reference – outlasted our way to the top and won the first ever Gay Ball Society championship. The fact that nobody liked our team and that, as one witness recounted, we “took the fun out of dodgeball” didn’t matter, right? Because obviously they were jealous they weren’t on the winning team.

We savored victory and let the cockiness go to our heads. Or at least I did, moving into the second year and a brand new team. I was captain again – this time fairly and squarely – and our team was christened “Red Hot Chili Peckers”. Similarly to last team we had a nice balance of cannons and snipers, and I quickly instructed the noobs on how to be catchers, collectors or dodgers if they couldn't throw. And once again, we were the team to beat and the team to hate.

Take that, Natural Selection!
That is until complaints that we were mean and intense on the court started to come in. I was given warnings to dial it back a notch, because other more sensitive players teams weren’t as competitive and therefore weren’t having fun when they had to play against us. A little birdie from another team told me the one thing our team is missing is a thing called "poise". 

It’s not that I ignored these amber alerts, it’s just I preferred to win, and aggressive passion is just part of my nature right? I can’t be blamed for something I can’t control. Riiiigggghhhhttt?! 

Little did I know, I was fastly becoming this guy.
Alas, after seemingly endless victories, we finally lost our composure during a key play-off game, and just like that we were finished. We came in 7th overall while inspiring a Cinderella Story we'd never live down. The same team, which ironically tried to teach me P is for Poise. Oh, how the mighty had fallen. But it’s okay right, it’s just about having fun, and I’d already won (my first ever) first place ribbon last year.  I didn’t need victory!

But then the administrators of the league pulled me aside after the final game and informed me I would NOT BE ALLOWED TO CAPTAIN in the following year. Why you ask? 

Because apparently I’m “too intense, too competitive" … and perhaps, worst of all, I have a reputation for running my team “like a slavedriver”. A flurry of emotions consumed me: Fury. Guilt. BETRAYAL, from my own people. My gay tribe had rejected me. And no amount of blasting “Let it Go” could make the pain go away. 

But really, me: a Slave-driver?! I sent long-winded inspirational slash instructional emails to my loyal teammates. I encouraged the weak links lesser-skilled players to improve their game. I freaking designed a GODDAMN LOGO FOR OUR TEAM SHIRTS. And this captain was a SLAVE-DRIVER?!

I was about to start a witch-hunt when a wise friend told me, "I’m pretty sure that’s what Hitler said before the whole holocaust thing"

And suddenly it dawned me.

Maybe I did take the spirit of competition a touch too far. Maybe I was a fascist son of a bitch. Maybe I did drop one too many F-bomb-laden shit-talking attacks. 

Dare I say it, but had I, Bryce Sage, former fat-geek underdog morphed into one of the extreme supervillains I used to dread? Forgive my hyperbolizing, but yes, I think I had. 

After being summarily demoted, rank pulled and forced to face my shame head-on, I’m now playing as a civilian on two different teams, in two different leagues one gay and one straight. And I’m doing everything in my power to manage my anger and my liberal dropping of F-bombs and C-units.

My new life goal for 2014.
I’m ready and raring to embrace this whole “poise” thing, too, however fake it seems at first, and win the coveted “Miss Congeniality” sash by end of season. I’ve promised I’ll wear an evening gown if I’m actually crowned, which I know is competitive bribery and probably goes against the definition of congeniality. But c’mon. Baby steps.