Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Michael Hudson, who died from suicide 5 years ago, would have turned 25 today

One of my first published articles was for the Lake Orion Review about Michael Hudson, a 19-year-old Lake Orion High School grad who took his life in April 2009.

In August of that year, as one of my assignments for the paper, I covered a bowling fundraiser, put on by Michael's family in his memory. And, upon meeting his family, I was forever changed.

Michael's mother, Karen, and aunt, Sharon Carlile, inspired me to become a mental heath and suicide awareness activist. Without them, this blog, which you are reading right now, probably wouldn't even exist.

I have since written countless articles about young adults who have lost their lives to suicide because the Hudson family taught me that they deserve to be remembered and that their story can save the lives of others.

I must admit that before I met the Hudson family, I believed in the stereotype — that all people with mental illness were loners who wore dark makeup, were failing their classes and were easy to spot. While some people who suffer from depression can be described this way, not all are.

In an article I wrote about Michael for The Oakland Press, his mother Karen said, "People think it can't be the person who's everybody's friend, who's smiling all the time or the star athlete."

Michael was 6'7", graduated with honors, was popular, was a "stud" among the ladies and was embarking on becoming a model and actor. Not the kind of person anyone would guess was struggling with these internal demons.

I will always remember what his aunt Sharon said to me more than five years ago — "(Michael was) a kid who gave back so much to others and who just needed to keep some of it to himself."

And that's one thing I have realized — about myself and about others — that sometimes the people who seem the happiest and have the most friends are the ones who are secretly suffering the most. Sometimes, they think so much of others that they forget to think of themselves.

Today would have been Michael's 25th birthday. And his mom posted this on Facebook, which brought tears to my eyes:

"Can't believe we would have been celebrating Michael's 25th birthday today. So hard to think of what he'd be doing now, what job he'd have, if he'd be married or have any children as so many of his friends have. We miss him more than even imaginable. Yet, one thing we do know is that Michael is celebrating today and being celebrated in Heaven. Hugh's Dad and I would like to ask all of you to join us today in celebrating Michael's life. As many of you know, he loved going out for ice cream sundaes-or was that just a great way to meet girls??? Either way, you're never too grown-up for a sundae! So, get your favorite ice cream and your sundae best toppings and celebrate a memory of Michael. Better still, invite a friend or even buy them a sundae. Perhaps it's someone you can share a memory with or perhaps it's someone you know just needs a friend right now. I like to think Michael did a lot of that too. Or if that doesn't work for you, just light a candle. Just celebrate Michael with us and the love he shared with so many of us! Thanks!"

If I could say something to Michael right now, I would tell him, "I wish I could have met you. I wish I could have seen all the things life had in store for you. But I also want to thank you because, even though you are no long here, you changed my life. You made me realize what's important. And I know you will never be forgotten. Your story will touch the lives of so many people, people who you never even got to meet. And I am so lucky that I got to be part of sharing your story with others."

And I hope that, in Heaven, he can hear me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

'Love is being yourself'

I never truly knew what being "in love" was.

Until now -- when, oddly enough, for the first time in my life, I'm falling out of love.

Okay, don't make fun of me, but I'm going to use a movie quote to describe what I have realized that love is (actually, two movie quotes).

The first is from the movie "What's Your Number," when Anna Faris' character says, "Being in love means being yourself." 

The second is from "The Wedding Singer," when Ellen Albertini Dow, who plays Adam Sandler's grandma, says, "You'll know when you meet the right girl because it's not how you feel about her, it's how she makes you feel about yourself."

I had watched both of these movies dozens of times and never understood these quotes. "Isn't loving someone completely about the other person? How does it have anything to do with how you feel about yourself?"

Now, I understand how wrong I was. Because you could think your significant other is a god among men. But if you don't feel good about yourself when you're with him or her, it's never going to work out.

If you're in a relationship, and you constantly feel like you're pretending to be someone else, then, please, end it right now. In my last relationship, I was not myself at all. I would have panic attacks at least once a week, when before, I would only get them, at the most, once every six months. I had a very short temper when, before, it was almost impossible to get me mad. I doubted everything, especially myself, when I was with him. And the two most used words in my vocabulary at that time were, "I'm sorry."

For people who know me, you know that this is not the person I am. At least not when I'm single.

It doesn't mean that it's the other person's fault that you feel this way about yourself. And it's not your fault either. No, you're not crazy. No, this isn't who you really are. It just means this person isn't "the one."

For the first time, I realize that, when I do find "the one," I will feel confident. I will be proud of the person I am, and I will know that I am exactly who I'm supposed to be.

I know it won't be perfect. When I do find true love, there will be days where I feel down. There will be days when I will cry. And on those days, I'll know it's okay to let it out. I won't be ashamed of my tears. I won't try to hide it. Because I'll know that's just another part of who I am, and that it's okay.

Never again will I ever settle for anything less.

And you shouldn't either.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Just because a person is different, doesn't mean he or she is a 'freak'

"American Horror Story" - FX
From the 16th century until the 1950s, people with unusual physical characteristics agreed to be part of "freak shows" — shuttled from city to city as they were gawked at by audience members.

But, according to History Magazine, many of the people who worked in these sideshows did not feel exploited. Instead, they felt famous and, oftentimes, became richer than those who came to see them.

According to the article, "Both showmen and performers, alike, argued that it was better if (they) were in public, displaying their abnormalities for profit, rather than struggling to live among everyday people without a job and in complete isolation."

But, by the 1950s, freak shows almost complete disappeared.

"In the early years of the 20th century, a rise in disability rights inspired people to turn against sideshows and what they deemed as exploitation parading as entertainment," the article in History Magazine reports.

This serves as the backdrop for "American Horror Story: Freak Show," which premieres on Oct. 8 on FX. The show will be set in 1952 Florida and follows one of the last remaining freak shows in business.

According to a review of this season by Merrill Barr of Forbes Magazine, the characters in this season "take it upon themselves to integrate into everyday life in order to be seen not as monsters, but as the people they truly are."

And I couldn't help but wonder — are people with disabilities and deformities treated better or worse nowadays than they used to be? Are they viewed as monsters...or as the human beings they are?

In the long run, I am honestly not sure if things are better now or not. According to statistics, more than 65 percent of adults with disabilities are unemployed and, of those working, almost one-third earn an income below the poverty level.

And of course there still is, just as there always has been, cruel people who judge others based solely on their appearances.

For instance, until she had surgery two years ago, Stefanie Grant, 25, was called a "freak" by her peers because of her severe underbite.

 "It was really hard to deal with, especially as a teenager, I felt like people didn’t see the real me, they just saw my face," said Grant. "I was called a freak and long face. It was awful."

Others try to make the best out of their disabilities, and, similar to the shows all those years ago, they decide to shine a light on their diseases, instead of hiding and being ashamed of it.

Actor RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy, is known for playing Walter Jr. on the television show "Breaking Bad," a character who also had CP. In a recent interview with the Huffington Post, Mitte said he was bullied before reaching celebrity status

"I had kids that would push me and shove me. I had my hand broken," he said.

I wish that media would focus more on people with disabilities. There is more and more healthy representations in movies and television shows of people of different races and sexual orientations, but as the Huffington Post reports, "The same coverage hasn't been extended to those with disabilities."

Mitte said, "I try to bring awareness, not just to CP but to all disabilities in the sense that it's knowledge. My disability gave me so much knowledge that I was able to take into 'Breaking Bad' and to grow and to learn. You always have to bring in awareness because this is real. This isn't something that people are like, 'Oh yeah, that CP thing...' People live with this and people should see it because it is real. This is our world."

And I'm hoping that, besides just the expected scares and thrills inflicted on its audience members, that this season of "American Horror Story" will raise some awareness as well for people who actually have to deal with disabilities like this on a daily basis. Although the show is titled "Freak Show," I hope it shows that people with disabilities are anything but freaks. They are human beings, just like the rest of us.

Monday, September 29, 2014

People are not meant to go through life alone

As a psychology minor in college, one of the first studies we learned about in class was Harry Harlow's famous monkey experiment in the late 1950s.

Harlow wanted to prove wrong a previous theory that the only connection between mother and child is for food and safety. And so deprived baby monkeys were given a choice — to hang on to a fake monkey, made of soft terry cloth, or one made of wire with a baby bottle attached to it. And although it didn't have any food, the baby monkeys still spent significantly more time with the cuddly "mother" than the wire one.

Harlow concluded, "These data make it obvious that contact comfort is a variable of overwhelming importance in the development of affectional response, whereas lactation is a variable of negligible importance."

I am sharing this because I think, for all mammals, including humans, it's in our basic DNA to need others. No matter how independent and strong-willed you may be, I can guarantee that every once in a while, you get an unexplainable longing just to be held, comforted and told, "Everything is going to be alright."

And I don't think seeking the comfort of others makes you, in any way, weak. The world may tell you, "Toughen up" and "The only person you need is yourself," but we were meant to live in a community. Like the lyrics to the 1964 song "People," sung by Barbra Streisand, "People, people who need people are the luckiest people in the world."

I have always believed that the ability to swallow your pride and know when you do need help makes a person strong — not weak. It is unhealthy to be emotionally cut off from other people.

I know — trust me I know — that it is hard to let others into your life for fear that they will hurt you. Because yes, when you do seek the help of others, there is a chance you will be let down because people are not perfect. But that doesn't mean you should just give up on people either.

Last month, I dealt with a bout of depression. And thanks to the help of my family, my friends and a Common Ground volunteer, I have come out on the other side. Without them, I would probably still be in that dark hole, not wanting to get out of bed in the morning. But they showed me that sometimes, the love and support of others can cure you — or at least make life not feel so hopeless. And it that's not enough proof that we need other people, then I don't know what is.

If you need someone to talk to, call Common Ground's 24/7 support line at 1-800-231-1127. They can refer you to a psychiatrist or a counselor if you need professional help.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Lizzie Velasquez, labeled 'World's Ugliest Woman,' redefines beauty

We live in a world where, sadly, many people judge others based solely on appearance.

I recently went to a wedding and while at a table with mostly guys, they would examine some of the female guests — pointing out imperfections that weren't even visible to me. And I suddenly wanted to hide under a rock as I became acutely aware of my own physical flaws. What did they say about me behind my back, I suddenly wondered.

While living in this shallow world, I'm sure we've all felt, at one time or another, uncomfortable in our own skin. Maybe even on a daily basis.

But how would you feel if, worldwide, people actually knew you as the "ugliest" man or woman? That's what happened to Lizzie Velasquez, 25, of Austin, Tx. As a teen, she was the subject of an online video which described her as the "world's ugliest woman."

For many people, if these three words were used to describe them, it would be hard to even get out of bed in the morning. But for Velasquez, she does more than just get out of bed. Instead of hiding, she has become an author and motivational speaker — traveling around the nation, most recently to D.C. to work with Congress to stop bullying, and to Mexico City, where she shared a stage with Hillary Clinton.

She is also almost done making a documentary, titled "The Lizzie Project," about her life and her mission to inspire and empower a more positive online environment. So far, $214,930 has been donated through Kickstarter for her project — more money than she even needed.

She has used the viral bullying against her to help others. And all the support she's received makes me have hope in the world. With thousands of views on her YouTube channel and almost 400,000 likes on her Facebook page, I know that there are people out there who aren't so judgmental.

Some of the comments on her Facebook profile picture are as follows:

• Anas Goz called Velasquez "The Definition of Beauty."
• Capeic Leon called her "the strongest lady alive."
• Melissa Felvus said, "I think of you EVERYDAY. ... You have helped me so much. You have opened my eyes. You are so blessed, gifted and loved."
• And Leighton Muller and Ellie Broadhead both called her "gorgeous."

Velasquez has a rare condition — she was born without adipose tissue, meaning she has no fat on her body. She has never weighed more than 60 pounds.

In an interview with Mary Fischer of The Stir, Velasquez said, "My parents always taught me never to have a negative thought in my mind and to always be myself. They taught me a little trick to help me get through the difficult times. I would recite a mantra like, 'I'm smart, I'm beautiful, I'm strong ...' and it truly did make a difference."

Whenever you're feeling self conscious, think of Lizzie Velasquez and repeat that mantra in your head. Hold your head high. Be proud of who you are. Stop obsessing over the hardships in your life and instead use it to help others. And when you do that, just like with Velasquez, people will see those things and not your self perceived imperfections.

Friday, September 12, 2014

75 songs to brighten your day

iStockphoto.com
Music can be pretty magical. It's one of the only things in this world that is universal. And, whenever I'm in a bad mood, sometimes all it takes is turning up a song really loud and dancing around my apartment. Somehow, almost every time, I feel better.

According to the website How Stuff Works, a study found that babies as young as five months old reacted to happy songs. Happy music with a faster tempo causes people to breathe faster and music has also been found to boost the immune systems of patients after surgeries and lower stress.

So, I decided to ask my friends and readers of The Oakland Press "What is a song that no matter how bad of a mood you're in, whenever you listen to it, you feel happy again?" The response was overwhelming.

The songs recommended were from every generation — from the Pixies to Miley Cyrus. Some of the songs were — songs from the "Spongebob Squarepants" show, nominated by my boss Steve Frye; "Ob-la-di, ob-la-da" by the Beatles; "Let It Go" from "Frozen;" "Happy" by Pharrell Williams; "All About That Bass" by Meghan Trainor; "Everything is Awesome" from "The LEGO Movie" soundtrack; "Three Little Birds" by Bob Marley; "Everybody" by Backstreet Boys; and "Celebration" by Kool & the Gang.

So I have complied a playlist on Spotify of the songs, so, whenever you are feeling down, just crank up this music and it's sure to put a smile on your face.

Happy songs playlist 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day.

Just yesterday, a suicide victim jumped from an overpass on I-696 around 3:30 a.m. in Farmington Hills. On Saturday of last week, an Independence Township man, who was in the middle of a divorce, was found hanging by a belt inside his closet. And the body of Matthew David Lyzen, 23, of Rochester Hills was found earlier this month, with a self inflicted gunshot wound to his head, after he went missing seven months ago.

Suicide has become an epidemic, and each time I hear about someone taking his or her life (which seems like it's on a daily basis lately), it breaks my heart. Suicide takes the lives of nearly 40,000 Americans every year, according to the organization Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, and is the second leading cause of death among people age 15-29.

I think, in the last decade or so, there has been an astounding step in the right direction when it comes to suicide prevention and awareness. But we are not there yet because there is still a stigma against mental illness.

When the world starts understanding that, just like cancer or diabetes, mental illness is a disease just the same and when people stop using the words "crazy" or "retarded," that's when I think the stigma will significantly decrease. That's when people will stop being ashamed to seek help. And then many of these needless deaths can stop.

If you had a tumor, would you just sit there and wait for it to take over your body and spread? No, you would go to the hospital and fight like hell to survive. Mental illness is the same thing. Go to the hospital. Treat it. Get help and stop thinking you can cure it on your own. It's not something you can just wish away — just like you can't just wish away a tumor or any other disease.

The local nonprofit Common Ground released this statement on their Facebook page today:

"People thinking of taking their life by suicide often feel terribly isolated; because of their distress, they may not think of anyone they can turn to, furthering this isolation. Please help get the word out—anyone and everyone can turn to Common Ground. We will be there for you. It all starts with a simple phone call: 800-231-1127. Or you can text us at 248-809-5550. By sharing this post with all your friends, you are helping us pull together as a community to address this very serious problem."