Saturday, October 19, 2013

What Halloween Means To Me '13 Day 19: Ryan Lieske

At the after party of 2011’s Buried Alive Film Fest, Philip Nutman (RIP) introduced me to Ryan Lieske.  I had just watched his short Down To Sleep and loved the tale of “Life/death, incest… and goldfish.”  He told me all about his next project, an adaptation of Elizabeth Massie’s story Abed.  At the Buried Alive 2012, I got the pleasure of calling Ryan to inform him that Abed had just won Best Feature.   It was also #4 on my Best Flicks of 2012 list.  Abed is an intimate, hardcore, and disturbing take on the zombie formula that actually adds something new to the subgenre.  I can’t wait for this one to get wider distribution, because more people need to see it.  This one is a little different, a little darker, and a little longer than the other entries on this countdown, but I think it’s gonna resonate with a lot of readers (maybe even help them) and I applaud Ryan for bravely addressing some stuff a lot of folks don’t like to talk about.  So, Ryan, what does Halloween mean to you?

“There's no use beating around the bush, so I'll just come right out and say it: I haven't truly enjoyed Halloween in years. Too many years, possibly close to two decade's worth. You could argue, and I'd be right there in concurrence, that I have no business writing anything about this beloved holiday. But, please, stick with me here a second.

I love Halloween, I do. With every beat of my tired, curmudgeonly heart. Just because I confess to no longer enjoying the holiday, doesn't mean I don't want to. If I could, I would say to Halloween what I've heard several of my ex-girlfriends say: “It's not you, it's me. I've changed. But, can we still be friends?”

So, what's the problem here?

 Well, first off, I refuse to fall back on that old excuse, “Halloween has become too commercialized.” Yeah, of course it has. That's what we do to holidays. Hell, as of this writing, I've lived through 38 Halloweens and I can't think of a single one of them that wasn't commercialized. Even a few short years after being pulled from the primordial soup of my mother's womb, I remember going into supermarkets and seeing row upon row of prefab ghost and goblin costumes, trick-or-treat bags made in Taiwan, and DIY pumpkin-carving kits. Shit, every sitcom and cartoon series in the 70s had a special Halloween episode, and don't even try to tell me that cheapie plastic Dracula fangs are a new thing. No, the second someone realizes they can make a buck off of something by peddling convenience to the masses, they will. And no holiday ( authentic, or otherwise ) has ever been immune. ( I mean, come on, those General Mills Monster Cereals we all love so much? They're an excuse to sell sugar to kids, nothing more.  And, yes, I still buy them every fucking year., even though they've haven't tasted any good since 1983. )

So there is no disdain on my part for the commodification of Halloween. If anything, it's the one reliable constant of the holiday for me. I know that every year, come July, the Independence Day merchandise will disappear and Halloween decorations, costumes, and packaged candy will hit the shelves and I'll get a wistful smile on my face ( which, of course, only lasts a week or two, because the Christmas stuff has to be out now around Back-to-School time. ) Cheap and chintzy as it all is, I love it. Costumes for my cats? Love 'em! Skull-tipped egg-beaters? Gotta have one! Sexy werewolf nun costumes? Ooh, baby!

(  The one thing I can't stand at Halloween? Haunted Houses. Well, at least the ones that invade my neck of the woods every year. Look, clowns covered in neon pink spray-paint, flailing around to Rob Zombie's greatest hits are NOT scary, never WILL BE scary, and need to go the FUCK away. )

But even this, this crass, corporate stab at All Hallows' Eve-ery is just a fleeting moment of joy for me. I can't maintain the macabre mirth anymore. And every year, I vow to myself that I will embrace it, and revel in it, no matter what else may be going on in my life. Every year I make a pact with myself that this year I will learn to enjoy Halloween again. And every year, I fail. Miserably.

Like I said: it's me, Halloween, not you. And I blame a lot of my autumnal ennui on the depression I've been struggling with for the last twenty years. Truly, this is a psychological condition I have been living with my entire life, but I didn't know that until I finally confronted it, and named it, in my mid-20s. Once I was successfully diagnosed with depression in adulthood, I was able to retroactively diagnose my entire life. And man, did it explain a lot.

The ravages of depression are well-documented. Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Wurtzel now share shelf-space with thousands of memoirs detailing the sundry horrors of living with the disease, each more “harrowing yet hopeful” than the next. Pharmaceutical companies spend ( and rake in ) billions of dollars a year by pimping their panoply of mood-regulating drugs in magazines, on TV, and along the borders of our Facebook newsfeeds. If you're reading this in a coffeehouse or restaurant, look around you: if you aren't currently medicated, then you're probably in the minority. The Pod People outnumber you, Mr. Sutherland. I should know: I'm one of those Pod People. I've been on Paxil ( and briefly on Zoloft ) since the mid-aughts, and I was shocked when I came out about it how many of my friends were on them, too. I never wanted to be on one of these drugs, but I'd be lying if I told you that they didn't save my life.

All I'm trying to say here is that depression is no longer some occult malady, hidden away in some dim, Victorian mansion where the shades are always drawn. You've heard all the stories, you've seen all the movies, and listened to all the Nine Inch Nails albums. It's almost passe – fodder for the Louis C.K.s and Dr. Phils of our world. Hell, you know how it is. You've got a friend or a sister or a etc etc...

So what new insights can I share that you haven't heard a hundred times already today? Probably none. But what I can tell you is that my personal struggles with depression are intricately entwined with my loss of enjoyment with Halloween. And since we're here to talk about Halloween, that darkest of holidays, well, maybe you'll find my particular case of interest. Because there's reveling in the Dark, as all of us lovers of Halloween and Horror delight in. And then there's another breed of Darkness, one more insidious than all the ghosts and zombies and vampires cavorting about in the fog-shrouded necropolises of this most wonderful time of the year. There's a Darkness even darker, and trust me, it can suck all the fun out of loving the Dark.

Depression's greatest strength, it's most lethal skill, is its stealth. It enters like a breath of burning leaves and lies in wait, tickling your mental nostrils one minute, and then the next has you gasping for breath in the night, clutching at your chest and staring wide-eyed into darkness. You can almost see it. You can almost taste it. You can almost feel it tickling your skin. But just as soon as you think you've caught it, it's gone; it's mist, it's vapor, it's a thousand mocking giggles just around the corner. It knows the fears that you weren't even aware you possessed. It lurks around every smiling face, hurtling those fears at you without a moment's warning. You can be anywhere, it can be any time of day. It doesn't care. It's a cold, dead, emotionless thing, unfettered by decency or respect. Surrounded by family at niece's birthday party, or alone in your home, its only strategy is to throw those fears, that darkness at you when you are least capable of defending yourself. And anyone who's suffered with depression will tell you, you're always least capable of defending yourself. It's hard to combat an enemy you didn't even know you had, much less one that has no concern whatsoever about motivation. It's the proverbial dog chasing the car ( so eloquently soliloquized by the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight ), that has no idea what it will do with the car once it catches it. “Hey, pal,” it says, “that's your problem. I just fucked your mind up big time, and I have no idea why. You deal with it.”

I had no idea I was being attacked that first time. I didn't even know I had been attacked until years later. And by then... Well, the damage was severe. And I'm still figuring out how to repair it.

Essentially, at one point during the early 90s ( I can't recall which year ), I slept through Halloween. Slept right through the entire holiday. I don't remember entirely why I did, only that it had something to do with the phase I was in back then where I beating myself up on an hourly basis regarding every little mistake I'd made in my life up to that point. I know that sounds vague, and sort of cavalier, but it's the truth. There was a point back then where I literally threw myself into an emotional purgatory. I would be lying awake at night, or driving to work, and some memory would flit into my head, some cross word I'd said to somebody, or some lie I'd told somebody back in junior high school, or whatever,  and I would be immediately stricken with an overwhelming urge to either fall down on my knees in prayer to a God I wasn't even sure I believed in, or slam my car, full-speed, into the nearest oncoming semi. It was like being smothered by a thick, transparent blanket. I would go cold, tears would tickle the rims of my eyelids, and I would just stare into space, cursing everything about myself: the Gift of Life had been wasted on me; my poor parents had brought a complete waste of flesh into this world and I wished  I could just disappear and be wiped from their memories, so that they would never have had to live with the shame of me. It didn't matter that the infraction I was berating myself over might be something as minor as having lied to get out of a family dinner, or that I once stole a candy bar from a kid's desk in 3rd grade. It was a collection of things, from my entire life, that added up to one big reason why I didn't deserve to draw breath. I hated myself so much back then. And everything I saw, heard, thought, or felt was my depression telling me that I'd better hurry up and die, so that the world could get on with itself. Oh, and try not to leave too much of a mess, it would say. No one's ever wanted to clean after you, anyway, you know?

I know it was getting close to Halloween at this time, because if there was one positive thought fighting for space in my head, it was that I was going to enjoy the holiday this year, no matter what. I remember that the previous year's Halloween had been a bit of a disappointment, and I was determined to make up for that. But no matter how much that pleasant reverie might blossom, it would only last for a few minutes, maybe an hour at the most. Because my depression was right there waiting, reminding me that I had no business hoping for anything.

So, whatever it was on that particular day that was eating at me like a psychological staph infection, I remember crawling into bed sometime in the early afternoon, and not waking again until around the same time the following day. That day had been Oct. 31st, and I'd totally slept through it. I don't believe that I was even cognizant of the fact that it was Halloween. In my depressed delirium, I knew it was just a day like every other day of late, and that there was no use participating in it. It's the first time in my life I can recall using sleep to escape from my life. And I don't just mean a little catnap to get rid of a headache, or something. No, this was a full-on Escape from Reality, that had nothing to do with rest, and everything to do with “checking out.” I'm sure I hoped that I wouldn't ever wake up, that some dream would guide me to my death, and I wouldn't ever have to face my thoughts again.

Naturally, when I did awaken the next day, I new exactly what holiday I had missed. I had promised myself that I would enjoy it this year, and I had failed. The depression had been right. I couldn't even manage to put on a festive facade for a few hours with my friends, for a holiday that had always been my favorite. I was useless. The happiness that filled my life up until that point was the lie; this current state I was in was the Real Me. Obviously.

And, of course, I made the same vow that next year I would enjoy Halloween. By then, I just knew, and hoped ( but didn't believe for one second ) that this wave of depression engulfing me would be over and I would have my life back. By then I would have fought it off, and returned to being Ryan Lieske, who dreamed of being a horror novelist and filmmaker, who loved movies and books and music and friends, who grabbed life by the hair and forced it to his will. Yes, by this time next year, I will be that Ryan again, and nothing is going to get in my fucking way.


A year is a long time. And, as with most things involving depression, it can seem paradoxically longer and yet shorter than it really is. Time means very little in that suffocating fog of fear, doubt and self-loathing.

Over the course of that year, things only got worse. Though I continued to feel as though I was better off dead and buried, I began to desire life even more fervently. In what was one of the most indescribably nightmarish periods of my life, I was suddenly seized by the irrational fear that if I thought too much about Death, I would, without trying, will myself to die. I would literally lie in bed for days on end, repeating the word “live” in my head, for fear that if the word “death,” or even an image of the word “death” appeared to me, I would die. I lost a job over this. All I did, for months and months on end, was lie in the dark and repeat that word in my head, hoping to somehow hypnotize myself into falling asleep. For those five or six hours of fitful sleep, I had some reprieve; but the second I awoke, the word “death” would enter into my head, my defenses momentarily compromised by my slumber. I would feel my skin tingle as though ice were leaking from my pores. My head would swim and my vision blur. “Life!” I would scream in my head. “Life! Life! Life!” and eventually the ice would melt, and I would breathe. I would sit, holding my chest, staring into space, “Life!” resounding in my head, though what I was living then was anything but life.

I looked forward to nothing. I only hoped that maybe somehow, some way, this obsessive affliction would pass, and I would return to normal. But months passed. I somehow managed to find a new job, and I still managed on occasion to hang out with friends and family, but I have no idea how. I have no idea how I must have appeared to them, then.

What I certainly do remember, of course, is that I slept through another Halloween. Probably through Christmas and birthday, for all I know. And if I wasn't actually physically asleep during those days, I was certainly asleep in every other way. Enjoyment for anything had been taken from me, for how could I possibly enjoy eating, or watching a movie, when those very things I used to love would cause my guard to slip, and that word, “death”, would sneak into my thoughts and take it all away?

By this point in time, I had lost all sense of direction in my life. Any dreams I had once had had been extinguished. I was existing ( subsisting, really ) on a second-by-second basis. Who has time to think of the future, when at any second your present could snatched away by am infuriating, terrifying little word?

Writing this now, I know I can feel the dread and weariness of those months and years, but I don't know that it comes off as anything but silly here as I put it all down. Hell, it even seems silly to me, now, all these years later. I conquered it one morning by simply giving up. I laid down, told myself “fuck it,” and thought the word “death.” Just like that. I couldn't go on like that anymore, and I figured that if my body was going to somehow will itself to die, then so be it. It would be better than spending the remainder of my life going insane. I thought the word “death”, over and over, and let the ice run across my skin, my vision go blurry, and my head swim into the dimness of unconsciousness. It almost felt good.  About an hour or so later, I sat up. I was still there. My head didn't hurt. My skin felt fine. I got up, walked around the house, ate some dinner. I think I even went and rented a video. Sure, every once in awhile there was a discomfiting aftershock, and my head would start pounding, or my heart would skip a couple beats as I thought about “death” again. But it would pass.

It was around this time that I told my parents I needed help, and that I wanted to find therapy. And I did. Now, this was a tiny step forward, in what would be a very long journey. And I'm still on that journey. There are a hundred more stories I could tell about that journey; triumphs, setbacks, relapses, etc. etc. It's never been easy, and I still struggle with it every day of my life.

But you know what had always given me hope, after all this time, after all these years of fighting the demons in my head? Yep, Halloween. Those two years of horrific panic attacks and obsessive terror really caused me to slip from my life's groove, and I'm still trying to find my way back. I don't know if I ever will. But I have latched onto Halloween like a talisman, and kept it very close to my heart for all this time. I have never enjoyed it the same since. It pains me to say that, but it's true. But that's why I hold on to it like I do. It is a symbol of everything that I almost lost in those bleak days, and even if I never truly enjoy the holiday again, even if every year it feels more like a burden than a day of macabre mirth and merriment, damn it, I'm going to try!

Because I now understand that that is what coping with depression is truly all about: trying. You can't really beat it. You have to learn to live with it. You have to let it become a part of you, and you have to learn to embrace it as part of you. And no matter how many SSRIs you swallow, no matter how many hours you spend in therapy, no matter how my friends or family members tell you they love you and support you, even in your darkest moments, it will never let you go. If you are brave, you can harness some of that Depression's power, and make it work for you. Never all of it; it's too strong to concede too much of its authority. But if you are brave enough, you can learn to carry it with you, to hold it up against every hope you ever have, if only to make that hope shine even brighter.

Traditionally, Halloween is a time for facing the dark spirits that share this world with us. Whether you believe that metaphorically, or literally, it remains the same: Halloween is that time of year when the world begins to wind down. Plants wither and die. The sun shows its radiant face for fewer and fewer hours of the day. The cold creeps over the land and sends us burrowing into the warmth of our homes. In this dim time of year, the spirits of evil come out to play, to revel in the dampness and decay. And Halloween is our time to face them, to don costumes that echo the horrific visages of those nightmares beasts ( yes, Miley Cyrus masks count ). It is a time exorcise those demons. To hold them up against the dying light, to make that light shine just little bit brighter as it slowly tucks itself away for the year.

And Halloween is the time to remind myself of the demons I have faced, and continue to face. Every year I hold Halloween up before my eyes and say “I may not enjoy you like I once did, but whenever I think of that, I think of all the other stuff I do enjoy. And for that, I thank you.”

You see, Halloween? It's me, not you. And I want so badly for us to be friends again. Until then, I have a life to live. A wonderful, horrible, blessed, cursed life that I wouldn't trade for all the Happy Halloweens in all of history.

But let's see how things go when we meet up again, okay?  Because I promise you, Halloween, that next year...."

12 days ‘til Halloween, Halloween, Halloween.  12 days ‘til Halloween, Silver Shamrock.


Zombie Guru said...

That was an eloquently intense essay on both the ravages of depression and it's effects upon the psyche, and on his efforts to initially fight the inexorable riptide before realizing that in order to survive a riptide, you must NEVER fight against it... you HAVE to ride it wherever it wants to take you... only then do you have a hope of swimming back to the craggy shoreline of survival. This resonates deeply within me as I write this, and I salute the strength of the man behind the words.
Skot Pierson,
Zombie Guru

Anonymous said...

Shut up.

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