It Gets Better: A Strange, Mysterious Serious Departure for Cocktails, 365

This post is dedicated to my amazing parents, brothers, wife, and stepson. Without you guys I wouldn’t be half the person I am today. I’d probably be dirty, homeless and shuffling around some random street somewhere.

I’m not very good at the serious kinds of things in life.

I tend to deflect what I see as great injustices through inappropriate comments and gallows humor. It’s not because I’m a twisted person, really. Well, not DEEP down. Just superficially twisted. It’s just that sometimes I get the feeling that if I really thought about some things too long, my brain would devour itself in self-defense. For instance, Glenn Beck.

It’s something my time in newsroom taught me. You can only cover murders, rapes, robberies, suicides, batteries, domestic violence, child abuse, etc. for so long before you create SOME sort of self-defense mechanism. You go mad otherwise.

So, when that ever-familiar duo-tone would come across the scanner on a Friday evening, breaking the somewhat still newsroom, an emotional part of you shut off. Someone was shot. Someone was stabbed. Kid #1 had decided he wasn’t liking the way another Kid #2 was looking at him, so Kid #1 and his friends chase Kid #2 down and gun him down. Feet from his family’s trailer. You crack a sick joke, swallow the lump in your throat and head out to interview the family. Interview witnesses. You ignore the sobbing parents, and you hope you sleep that evening without thinking too much about what just happened.

A local kid goes to serve his country because he truly believes in the cause. An IED explodes right along the road where he was traveling, killing him and several other soldiers instantly. Meanwhile, back in the states, you sit in a funeral home with this kid’s young wife. Their two-year-old son keeps asking why everyone’s crying, daddy’s coming home. The mom, dad and stepdad welcome you to spend time with them. To tell you about their son. Who he really was. He wasn’t just some number, no. He was living breathing human being who was leaving behind a legacy and a child who would never (really) know him.

You sit there, aware of this sickening parasitic feeling. You don’t belong here, in this gut-wrenching scene, among those who knew this soldier. This is private. But again, you learn to swallow it. Force it down, do the story. Everyone has a story. Everyone has the right to have it told. So, as awful and offensive as it may be, when these horrible things come across the news, you find a way to deal with them. You put that distance in between yourself and what’s being read. Yeah, sure, it’s horrible. But that shit happens every day, no use really getting upset about it.

So, it’s something when things begin to bother me. It was hard to articulate, hard to put down into words. Like a piece splinter under your fingernail, it just kept hounding.

As more and more news began to come in across the nation of young people committing suicide because of constant bullying, the feeling of unease continued to grow. I cannot even imagine what these parents must be going through. I have a 12-year-old stepson, who my wife and I love more than words can truly describe. I truly cannot fathom the sense of loss that these parents must be going through. My heart aches and goes out to them.

I was thrilled when Dan Savage, one of the few columnists I read on a regular basis, and his boyfriend began the It Gets Better Project. The goal was to gather people, both famous and not-so, together and create a series of posts, videos, interviews, and articles where they tell these kids suffering in silence that high school and middle school aren’t the be-all end-all of their lives. I believe it was Savage who said it best: When a child commits suicide that means that they cannot foresee their situation improving in any way possible ever. Their future is bleak, they fear, because they will forever be a social pariah. Outcast by uncomprehending parents, politicians who fuel the hate, and religious leaders preaching damnation instead of understanding and acceptance.

Picture if you will:

An awkward middle school kid. Puberty has hit him like a freight train. Shuffling, brown hair in a bowl cut, patches of dry skin across his face, thick glasses on his face. Acne. That goddamn acne. Never entirely comfortable in his own skin, so he becomes a loudmouth to make up for it. He quickly becomes the butt of jokes within the school. He’s not athletic at all. He tries out for track and field, and barely makes any sort of impression. A mediocre runner at best. But then, he discovers two wonderful things. He’s always been a voracious reader, consuming anything that came across his lap. Soon he discovers, holy hell, he can actually kind of put two sentences together! Soon, notebook after notebook is filled with stories. Some realistic, some spectacular feats of fiction featuring princess, barbarians and elves. He’s a Tolkien reader. Page after page after page he writes.

Around the same time he discovers theater. For three glorious hours, actors can go on stage and pretend to be something else. Actors can be brave, they can be handsome and dashing. He throws himself into these pursuits. If you can’t have the life you wished you had (handsome, charming, confident), then possibly you could simply create them. Every time he would put these stories down on paper, it was one more step away from the bullying.

He plays cello.

• Orchestra.

• Drama.

• Writing.

He starts hearing it while he heads down the hall.



Usually he could ignore it. No one ever became violent. The only time he ever got into a fight was over stupid, little kid shit. His parents were awesome. They were always concerned about how he was doing in school, even if they couldn’t always articulate it. They were always willing to listen when he came home. He was thankful for that. But, for those indeterminable hours during the day, he had to endure the slings of his peers. Sure, he had friends. They didn’t fare much better, either. Head down, in the notebook, in the script. Recite your lines, forget. That was the standard procedure for two years.

Then high school came. Things began to improve. More people were interested in drama, and people from the community actually came out to watch the young talent. Once more, he found solace in writing and the theater. Girlfriends came and went. The problem really was that he liked girls just a little too much. His eyes never really stopped wandering. Still goofy looking. Still awkward. Still, those names would persist.



At least once, he’d tried to kill himself. Just once. It wasn’t really a very serious attempt. You hear the term “cry for help,” well, that’s what this kid wanted. He just needed to shout. To let someone know that, for God’s sake, there was a human being somewhere inside that really knew he shouldn’t be this unhappy. He really shouldn’t let these names get to him. He got help, and ended up graduating high school in one of the best moods he’d ever been in.

Thanks to the heavy-handed allusions above, it’s obvious that kid was me. Once in college, things began to get even better. I found people who shared the same passions (and revulsion) as me. I met people who made me feel normal. I fit in. We’re social animals. We need that. It was then that I really began to actually understand who this person named “Mark” really was. I met an amazing woman at the local theater where I’d been acting. While we didn’t really like each other very much at the start, a love blossomed that has been going strong over six years now. We’re married now.

What would I say to these kids?

It gets better. God, it gets so much better. The bully stops, you can leave, and you never have to go back if you don’t want to. I don’t know the sting of being closeted, or how it would feel like every day you’re lying to yourself and to others. But, I have some gay friends who I know that, if they were gone, the world would be a far less rich place. I do understand bullying. I understand that feeling of sitting alone, middle of day or middle of night, and fighting through the dark.

I would tell them, please, PLEASE don’t give up. Yes, middle school sucks. Yes, high school sucks. However, justification for your existence doesn’t come from the acceptance of others. It comes from your own sense of self-worth and your ability to be a useful person. Because some Neanderthal with a sloping forehead and hairy forearms slams you into the locker and lets loose with a slew of profanities, it isn’t the end of the world. It feels like it is. But it’s not.

If you have depression, seek help. If you feel like there’s no one to turn to, you have to know that there is. Someone understands.

And to those like Clint McCane in Arkansas — there is nothing that gives you the right to treat these children as if they are somehow subhuman. You can’t just say this shit. Words mean things. You can’t just get on CNN and say “Oh hey, I didn’t mean it.” If these children have no sense of where to turn within their peer group, how the hell do we expect them to seek solace in adults when their own school board member is saying he’s glad they’re killing themselves.

No one deserves to be told their life is worthless; especially when they’re still trying to even figure out what their life IS.

For more information about It Gets Better Project and the Trevor Project, please don’t hesitate to click on the links.

The bad news: You’re still going to have to deal with assholes.

Sorry for the serious post. I promise we’ll be back to the usual fart jokes for this evening’s column.

Cheers from us both.



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