From Julian Assange To Simone Biles: Mental Health In The Mainstream

As I write this, I’m in the midst of battling depression. Don’t worry, I’m doing a lot better than I was a few weeks ago. It happens from time to time and is usually triggered by stress & an anxiety overload or a response to a trauma trigger. Depression was the first mental health condition I remember experiencing. When I was 8 we moved to the United States and I was giddy with excitement. When I landed here I had a really hard time making friends. A group of kids told me I wasn’t allowed to play with them when walked up to them on the playground. My first day of school I was dropped on the concrete for being new and different. 

I got really sad because I couldn’t figure out what the hell was wrong me. It wouldn’t be until much later in my life that I would realize nothing is wrong me because I’m just me. I wouldn’t realize until much later that these kids were likely acting out of a fear of the unknown. Or likely in response to their parent’s fears they transfer to their kids. 

Fortunately these days I can recognize my depressive signs. It was a journey to get to this point, but I’m a lot better a recognizing the signs early. I stop eating properly. I’ll usually eat one meal much later in the day, when I’m depressed. I don’t want to get out of bed. I don’t want to hear people talk, which sucks because I love podcasts. But I usually listen to music more though. Usually one or two albums that resonates with me and I listen to those on repeat for a while. I crave isolation. Negative self deprecating thoughts are pretty consistent, even in light of achievements I’m proud of. 

But recognizing it means I can do my best to beat it. For me, working on a new project, exercise, walks, a diversity in music & video games shake things loose (even if for a moment) and I can feel like myself. For most of my life, I built coping skills on my own. I learned to be patient with my brain. Sometimes to get to these steps it takes a minute and that’s ok. 

My family wasn’t great at acknowledging mental health concerns. Emotions were to be buried and not addressed. So I developed skills on my own, with a lot of self reflection (and criticisms, early on mostly criticisms). It’s likely why I need to be alone to recharge & reflect. It’s part of my coping mechanism and if I don’t get that it’s difficult to get over anxiety and depression. The solo recharge allows me to be in the moment when I’m with people I want to be with, instead of constantly overthinking every situation.

These days I’m lucky enough to have a therapist, the support of friends & family and a great list of online resources to learn about skills you can develop to combat negative, intrusive & self-destructive thoughts. I often feel odd talking about my own mental health because I don’t want people to get the impression that I’m crying out for attention. Unless I’m performing or doing a stream, I usually don’t want any attention. Off stage, I tend to be pretty quiet and introverted person. I like one on one chats. That’s where I can be the most me. And even then, I’m interested in what others have to say. BUT our society hasn’t been the best when it comes to being open about mental health, so I’ve been sharing more & more as a way to share what I know, and hopefully help all of us realize we’re not alone. 

Despite growing up in an era where mental health wasn’t openly discussed or addressed in schools & family life, we’re now living in an era where frank discussions about mental health are permeating the mainstream. Socio-political issues are looked at through the lens mental health more and more. This year particularly has seen some pretty major strides in the conversation about the effects of Capitalism on mental health. 

This past January, a UK Judge denied the extradition of publisher Julian Assange to the United States under the defunct & arbitrary Espionage Act. Her reasoning was that American prisons are so terrible that the conditions would drive an already depressed Julian Assange to suicide. Because the Prison Industrial Complex is not really about rehabilitation but rather recidivism. The whole thing is built on compounding trauma. Unfortunately the decision not to extradite Assange has be undone because America has a compulsion to compound traumas. Something the US desperately wants to high-five you over like a college bro who just made a homophobic and sexist joke at the same time. 

Regardless when I read the decision on a cold January morning, it did warm my heart. It was the first time I could remember a major INTERNATIONAL case using mental health as a reason to keep someone out of prison! Right after that Julian Assange was sent back to Belmarsh prison, where he still remains today. It’s almost like the word ‘irony’ was removed from the British dictionaries at the exact moment of the Judge’s decision. Despite the reversal of this decision, the Judge’s terrible hot takes on Assange & his return to Belmarsh, it’s still important to recognize that Assange’s mental health was at one point a determining factor to deny extradition. 

Drone Whistleblower & winner of the integrity in intelligence award, Daniel Hale penned an emotional letter to the judge that was going to sentence him articulating the PTSD he’s suffered as a combat veteran and a drone operator. When the callous US Government was looking to sentence Daniel Hale up to 9 years in prison for the crime of revealing American War Crimes & Obama’s Kill Chain, the Judge took Hale’s mental health into account. He reduced the sentence to 45 months. And as Kevin Gosztola explained on my podcast this is an even lower sentence than what it appears based on various circumstances. 

That’s 2 monumental cases that were decided based on the mental states of 2 very important people in our society. Daniel Hale’s story shows the effects of Capitalist Wars (or just wars, since Capitalism is the only system rooting for conflict) on veterans in this country. I have a number of vet friends that have expressed the depression & anxiety they’ve faced due to the trauma of active combat. They’ve also told me the stories of how difficult it is getting services at the VA. I’ve heard stories of violent outbursts, self medicating to cope and so on and so on. 

For how much weight the phrase “Thank you for service” carries in this country it sure acts like that service doesn’t fucking matter. And that is not an anti-veteran statement, but an anti-imperialist statement. If you serve the rich in their Global plans of Manifest Destiny, they should be kissing your damn feet day in and day out as far as I’m concerned. Instead we see homeless veterans in our streets. This means the system has failed.  

Military service is often not the first decision these folks make. Usually it’s the only option they have when it comes to leaving hometowns with limited opportunities or paying for college. It’s called the poverty draft. It’s when a country manufactures an economic crisis & large bubbles of debt so the only way is out is to service the Empire and its plans for Global Manifest Destiny. The poverty draft is a concept that compounds trauma on an astronomical level.

Julian Assange’s story reveals the effects of a sociopathic system caught red handing committing some of the most heinous crimes and how that system desperately tries to kill the messenger instead of owning up to its bullshit. You know like a petulant child! Actually I know small children with more accountability than the United States Government which makes them far less mature than small children who are not allowed to vote. 

Assange had to seek asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy, living in a small space. Eventually he was dealing with a contentious staff, spied on non-stop by the CIA and was literally sold out by the 2019 President of Ecuador to the tune of $4 billion. Instead of focusing on what Julian Assange revealed to the world, most people leaned into the corporate media’s gaslighting of Assange; claiming he was a Russian spy worthy of a Bond movie franchise or the fact that you can’t have a beer with Assange. 

The real question is whether Julian Assange would want to have a beer with you! Does he even like beer? There’s plenty of people I love that would never a beer with me but would join me a delightful cup of tea. This was character assassination. I can’t even fathom the amount of anxiety and stress someone would face when some of largest media organizations are flat out lying about you and the populous is eating it up hook line & sinker. 

Assange’s mental health was of concern back in 2018. Eventually even the UN Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, said that Julian Assange is facing the same trauma as someone who’s been tortured. Like I mentioned earlier trauma responses can trigger depression and anxiety. To be in that state perpetually would drain anyone, even one with the strongest of constitutions. Yet, Assange keeps fighting for the truth. And thanks to activists, journalists & organizers that have covered his trials & tribulations, he doesn’t have to fight alone. He was our voice, revealing the secrets of the elites and now we can be his. It reminds me that these struggles are hard, but not impossible to beat because we’re not alone.

Now I fully understand that this unfortunately falls into the category of fringe politics. The names Daniel Hale, Julian Assange or Chelsea Manning or any other whistleblower for that matter don’t really come up in daily discourse in America. But sports sure do. This year one of the most visible controversies of Olympics surrounded Sha’Carri Richardson, a black woman runner who lives in Oregon. She tested positive for THC (which is an amazingly strange statement to say and type) and was looking to be banned from the Olympics. She confessed that was using Marijuana for medical purposes to cope with her biological mother’s death. According to Richardson, she had a pretty complicated relationship with her mom and was trying to cope with the pain of loss. 

Now there are those that are going to callously & ignorantly dismiss Ms. Richardson’s reasoning for using cannabis. Claiming “Yeah sure, using weed to cope with pain. You were getting high to get high hippie! GET A HAIRCUT! There are no gold medals for rippin’ the ganj Cheech! Put the joint down and get a job, Chong!” But these people are living with their eyes & lungs shut to the miracle plant that is marijuana. I can tell you first hand that cannabis helped me out a lot this past year. 

I was never really a smoker. I smoked here and there, but it usually tended to make me sleepy. Last winter I faced some deep depression. The likes of which I hadn’t experienced since I was 8. I felt lost, broken and unwanted. Eventually a friend helped me go through the rather quick & easy process of getting a medical marijuana card. I talked to some folks at my local dispensary, described what I’d like to get from the plant and they recommended a strain and thus began my journey in using cannabis as a medical aid to help cope with depression, anxiety, guilt and everyone’s favorite, self hatred. So far I’d say it’s been a pretty great journey.

At the end of the work day I usually have a hard time stopping. I’m plugged it rather non-stop and that’s not a good way to live life. Primarily because what you do is all that you are. It is a part of who you but it shouldn’t be your entire identity. I would feel guilty about not working, because in my trauma ridden brain I don’t deserve that kind of happiness. But I know that’s not true. Everyone deserves to be happy. Cannabis helps me turn the volume way down on negative intrusive thoughts and helps me be more me. It also helps me get motivated to do a lot more things. Like cleaning doesn’t feel tedious. Exercising is easier & more fun again. I’ve gotten back into video games after a decades long hiatus. Hell even reading books is a bit easier when you don’t have drifting thoughts to invade your concentration. 

For Richardson to be penalized for using a medical supplement to help her cope with the death of her mother is ludicrous and down right ignorant. Do we penalize player for taking Benzos or SSRIs? Then why would we penalize someone for taking a supplement that elevates their life naturally. Look I’m not here to shame you for taking any kind of medications for mental health conditions, but it definitely doesn’t work for everyone. The conversation really put marijuana as a medical plant into the forefront of the mainstream. It started a dialogue about the out of date policies that prevent athletes and non-athletes from getting the care they need. 

For a society that is all about science, there’s a lot of ignorance when it comes to the science of cannabis and hemp. And psychedelics for that matter. This wouldn’t even be an argument if the Capitalist society we live in didn’t constantly manufacture instances which compound our traumas. 

The discussion surrounding cannabis always turns towards to the War on Drugs and the expansion of the Prison Industrial Complex. The same one that compounds trauma and was said to send Julian Assange into suicidality. Millions of people have been put into this trauma factory for trying to cope their trauma or just enjoy the full benefits of a plant. Who really cares if its for recreation or medical purposes. People are allowed to have fun, and if marijuana can help, then so fucking be it! As Psychologist Gabor Mate says, addictions are a response to trauma. And using cannabis as a mental health aid is exactly that. Punishing people for trying to help themselves is counter productive, but then again Capitalism is run on being counter productive. 

THC is not a performance enhancing drug. Yes it helps relax your muscles and decreases pain (mental & physical) but it doesn’t help you run faster. It does help you get out of bed to head to training when your mind and body are saying “No thanks, let’s stay here forever!” There have been several mornings over the past year where I’ve woken up with the heavy dread of a new day and used a little cannabis to motivate the brain out of bed. Quite the opposite response I used to get from the plant. When my depression is weighing heavy and I don’t want to eat, a little cannabis perks up my appetite so I can have the energy to go do things I enjoy.  

But Sha’Carri Richardson’s story wasn’t the only person that was making headlines across all forms of media. Gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the US Olympic team due to her mental health concerns. Biles helped the US team score 2 silvers and took a bronze in her solo performance. She talks about how this shed light on looking at athletes as people first. But of course there were people in the American populous that were mad at her decision. “She should’ve put that aside and done her job! She should’ve stuck through it instead of making America look weak!” This is the modern day version of saying “She should’ve done it for king and country!” Proving yet again that America has an oligarchy problem. 

Simone Biles also says that there are points when the body and the brain just say “enough is enough”. This is basically what happens when someone experiences burn out. I’ve experienced this several times in my life. When the pandemic hit, I didn’t stop working. I decided to learn, make comedy political and educational content EVERYDAY. Creating content is a lot of work. Eventually I went from that to writing a new 60-90 minutes of content each week to perform in front of a virtual audience. After 4 months of that, my body and mind said, “enough is enough”. 

It’s saying that now. But there are too many things I’m excited to talk about and share with people these days. And I am listening to my body & mind and taking a hiatus from constant content creation and reevaluating how to approach that. This will hopefully bring more creativity and joy to my work.  

If I can posit a conjecture, I would say that Simone Biles’s burn out surrounds the immense pressure something like the Olympics put on these folks. And America’s arrogant exceptionalism demands nothing but the best. This is where that kind of mentality proves to be counter productive. You train and train and train, and when you get to the event you can’t do as well as you could because your body and mind are exhausted. 

I used to feel that way touring sometimes. There would be some tours that I’d put so much work into to make sure people would come out to see my Stand Up that by the time it came to doing the shows, I’d be too exhausted to enjoy them. My performance would suffer and likely a chance on building an audience and then the self hatred would set it. Instead now I’m trying to focus my tours and take it a little easier on myself to ensure that I can still have fun during the shows. 

And isn’t that what this is supposed to be? Life is supposed to be fun. And if work is part of life then that should be part of the fun. I’m not sure who started this rumor that work shouldn’t be fun, but it 100% can be. Our society has manufactured reasons as to why it isn’t and this is helping no one. 

It’s also encouraging to see mainstream programming talk about mental health too. Directly rather than being coy and hiding it within vaudevillian gags. But entertainers in some fringes have been addressing mental health in art for a long time. One of my favorites is one of my best friends Zach Funk. Zach’s focus in comedy has been to be a beacon of positivity for mental health and I’d say he’s succeeding. Some of the more famous people like Maria Bamford and Kid Cudi have been addressing it to help paint a picture of what they go through. I myself wrote a show about mental health and toured it around for a year, and mental health is a lens I try to see the world around us.

Again, it makes you feel less alone, because the reality is none of us are ever really alone. 

I am genuinely excited for the frank, open discussions of mental health I’m seeing in our society. And I hope it doesn’t stop there. I hope we keep talking but also take action to change the way our society takes mental health into account. I hope we can work together to change this system we are all trapped in together and build a world that doesn’t compound trauma, but rather heals it.