For some weird reason, I have this fascination with listening to creative people have conversations.
Don’t ask me why, because I honestly couldn’t tell you. It’s just one of those eccentricities and oddities we all have, I guess.
That said, I was listening to Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist podcast where he interviewed Batman – the Animated Series creator Paul Dini the other day and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
In 1993, as he was in the process of getting Batman off the ground, Dini was walking home one night when he was jumped by two men and beaten to a pulp. His face was smashed, his leg was nearly broken. He was left for dead and he freely admitted that the fallout from it took a severe psychological toll for more than 20 years.
“I lost my dignity, a lot of my hope, and in a way, it felt like I’d let them play into the worst part of myself, which was I’m worthless because growing up as an artist, you deal with self-doubt. Some artists deal with that idea thinking all they have to speak for them is their art, because inside…I don’t got much,” Dini said. “It made me feel like ‘you’re not anything other than somebody to be hurt and punished,’ and when they started hitting me, it kicked in almost an affirmation that, ‘You’re worthless. The only thing you deserve to feel is pain.‘”
I was driving on the highway connecting my little part of nowhere to a slightly lesser part of nowhere, as I was listening to Dini, his voice cracking in places where the raw emotion accompanying his tale would pop out for a second or two, when I got T-boned by an emotional freight train.
Here was someone I’ve never met or seen. I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, if you’d asked me to. But in the span of about a minute of freeflowing thought, Dini encapsulated how I’ve felt about myself, in one form or another, for what has to be close to thirty years now, and it managed to become exponentially more amplified in the past five.
Dini went on to talk about how, as part of his way of coping with what he was going through in the aftermath of the attack, both Batman and his “Rogues Gallery,” and specifically the Joker, became avatars he used to process what he felt from one day to the next.
Batman was the relentless drill sergeant that always told him to get back up and keep going, regardless of circumstances and consequences, while the Joker was the chaotic one, (as the Joker is wont to do), telling him it was okay to stay down and embrace all the miserable feelings he was dealing with every day.
“We all have that duality inside us,” Dini said. “You can’t allow your self-worth to be determined by brutality, or bullying, or negativity or just the fact that you’re telling yourself that you’re not enough and you have to be something else in order to impress somebody. That is one of the hardest things ever, and as hokey as it sounds, it has to come from inside. You have to be the one who gives that to yourself, who allows yourself to experience it, and to create that for yourself and recognize it, and accept it from other people.”
And as I sit here typing all this out and relistening to what he was saying, the same message keeps getting spit out of the emotional ticker-tape machine that is my Depression-addled brain.
He just pegged you, Dev, right between the eyes. Because that is the one lesson you’ve never been able to learn.
And I haven’t. I can’t deny that and I’d be rightly called out as a bald-faced liar by everyone I know if I ever did, but it’s not for lack of trying either.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself the older I get, it’s that I’ve somehow managed to master compartmentalization. Something happens and I just take all the emotions that are triggered, stick them in a box and put them away somewhere, never to be seen again. Coping means to just become something numb and mechanical. I focus on work and when that’s over, I go home and escape into something else. I play games, read books, watch movies, waste time on the internet, and lately, I’ve gotten back into exercising a bit more.
But I still don’t deal with what’s wrong with me in the moment and the rationale for that is quite simple. I don’t want to feel the pain, the grief, the anger, and probably worst of all, the guilt, fear and regret which often comes with taking the lid off the box again and peering back inside.
That’s what happened five years ago when I had my breakdown on what was theoretically supposed to be the happiest day of my life, except it wasn’t just one box. It was all of them. Hundreds, if not thousands of things I’d compartmentalized all the way back to when I was eight years-old all flew open at once…and in a way, I feel like I’ve been on cleanup detail ever since.
Scooping up the contents of another something I’d desperately love to forget, putting it back in the box, and sticking it back in the vault in the hope that this time, the door will stay shut.
I can’t keep doing that, though.
I’ve known it for a long time, but what keeps me awake at night and what makes me push people away and what continues to terrify me to death is now that I’ve gone through it once, albeit on a slightly diminished level, I know just how much it’s going to hurt when and if I start the process of letting it all go.
I wish I could describe it better, but it’s the only comparison I know of that even gets near how it feels from the inside of both my head and heart.
It will be a 100-megaton thermonuclear bomb going off inside me, and there is nothing in existence which can contain that sort of explosion.
Call me crazy, but I tend to think that if anyone else had that sort of situation to look forward to, you’d do everything you could to make sure it never happened either.
Since I’ve been on my own, there’s been a few times where I thought it was going to finally happen, especially once I got to the desert. I’ve had days, this past Monday being one such example, where I went from functionally a-okay to DEFCON 1 in the time it took me to see one picture and one post on Facebook.
And when that happens, my own inner drill sergeant and agent of chaos start trying to convince me to light the fuse or not, which makes the process often even more exasperating. I imagine it’s the same feeling adrenaline junkies get before they jump off a cliff or out of an airplane.
The reality that this may be the greatest thing you could experience in your life…or it’s going to be the last thing you ever experience in your life because the reality is it’s going to kill you.
If that wasn’t enough, the worst part is the black and white juxtaposition of what I think everyone I know, everyone I care about…everyone I still let myself feel enough to love is going to think, or say, or feel about me when it happens.
In those moments, the enemy actually isn’t the chaostician. It’s the drill sergeant who tells me that if I do this, then I lose what little I have left in the way of relationships I cherish and the tiny bit of hope that I could get back the ones that’ve mattered most to me, which I lost for one reason or another.
It’s the drill sergeant telling me not to accept what I feel for what it is, which is a lifetime’s worth of pain and loss and guilt and anger that I am completely and hopelessly addicted to, because somewhere along the way, I got it in my head that those same people would rather me be this way, than be happy and capable of existing inside this thing that is me.
Just like I got it in my head that I can only exist by the singular definition that was placed on me when I was still a kid. I’m tired of seeing myself through the lens of a monster, a freak, some thing that should’ve never been made to exist in the first place, but after 30 years, the persona is the only thing I know.
It’s the mask I see on my face every day, which is part of why I try so hard to hide it behind the one I put on in the hope that it convinces those same people that I can be what they want or need me to be.
I won’t lie and say that in the time it’s taken me to write this all down, I’ve found myself back in that familiar position more than once, where all I’d have to do is go that much further and detonation is inevitable.
I guess the question I need to answer is can I find it in me to be brave enough to finally do it…and if so, am I strong enough to withstand it?
I wish I knew. I really do.
Anybody got a coin I can flip…?