My friend Jamie Righetti wrote a piece this past week called That Time The Movies Saved My Life. As I do so frequently with her stuff, I’ve re-read that piece several times since she posted it. I like the clarity and the economy of her writing, and of course the message. I can relate to that theme. Movies, and the friends I’ve made through a shared love of movies, have saved my spirits — if not my life — time and time again.
But this year, 2016, the hardest year of my life by any measure, has found me watching less movies than I have probably since I was an infant. I haven’t been able to sit through movies without my mind wandering, or shutting down entirely due to sleep from exhaustion. Writing, the other great savior for me normally, is another thing I’ve done less of in 2016 than I’d like to admit. I’ve been wondering why that is — no, that’s not accurate. I haven’t had much time to wonder about it. It’s just the way things have been. I move through the day with limited purpose. If I happen to see a movie or write a few sentences, good. Sometimes it’s all I can do to remember to eat.
Life gets in the way.
Death gets in the way.
Movies haven’t been enough to save me. Writing hasn’t been enough to save me. I can’t do movies because I can’t focus on any narrative for two hours at a time. I can’t write because to me, writing is opening up a vein, and I just haven’t been able to risk that this year because if I start the bleeding, the bleeding might not stop.
This hasn’t been the ideal year for me to check out mentally. On top of working a day job and having all the constraints and demands of a personal life, I’ve been editing the website Daily Grindhouse for a couple years now. Recently we’ve taken incredible strides forward and the site has grown exponentially, which is a wonderful development but not so convenient when you’re a husk of a former self. I’m near-constantly copy-editing submissions and answering emails, and even still I’m constantly behind. I call this the Year Of A Hundred Thousand Apologies. Lately I feel like all I do is make apologies. Everything’s late. Everything’s still pending. Everything’s coming soon. I’ll get to that, I promise. No really, you’re important. I’ve been telling so many truths they start to feel like lies.
The reality is that I don’t really want to be here. I don’t say that in a way that anybody needs to worry about me. I’ve had a hundred long dark nights of the soul, and I’ve made it through them all. But that lowness, that aloneness, the more dire feelings Jamie speaks to in her essay, I’ve been there. A lot. And recently.
Mainly it’s about my cousin. Charlie died just about eight months ago. Some of the people closest to him had a sense it was coming, but I didn’t. Being four years older than him, I always figured I’d be gone first. I literally could not conceive of a world without Charlie. I still can’t. It’s wrong. He’s like my little brother. He’s not like my little brother. He is my little brother. We were supremely close. We talked by phone or texted every single day. We saw each other regularly, even during the darkest times of either of our lives. If you’re any one of the scores of people let down by me personally or professionally in some way during my Year Of A Hundred Thousand Apologies, you know I’m not generally that great at staying in touch with anybody. But Charlie, I was always there for. Because he was always there for me. And now he isn’t. And I have to reckon with that, somehow.
Though I make awkward stabs at it here and there, I’ve never been fully comfortable with airing out my feelings, and Charlie in particular is a subject I’ve always kept close to the vest. He didn’t like to be talked about, so I didn’t talk much about him. He was my secret identity. Charlie and I shared the silliest in-jokes, the most humiliating stories, the sources of our deepest pain, our anxieties, our crushes, our resentments, our prejudices, and our greatest causes of fury, and together, we came up with solutions. How do you get through the day with all the pain of being a sensitive human being in this vicious world? Charlie and I, we did it together. We talked it out. And what we couldn’t solve, we put a cap on with the most absurd humor. When all else fails, get silly. He understood that, like few others. I love many people profoundly, but him I needed.
Charlie and I talked about movies, we talked about comic books, we talked about toys. As similar as we were temperamentally, we weren’t the same guy; he got more enjoyment out of nostalgia than I did. I’m always looking for the next thing to obsess over, but he found the most comfort in happy memories. Still, I was fine with going there with him. It’s just that now, going there without him is painful. So maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to find as much pleasure in the activities I used to enjoy so much. Because I can’t tell Charlie about ’em. And there’s a part of me that relishes denying myself joy. That’s always been there, but it’s back with a vengeance, because now there’s a part of me that’s very angry at myself for not saving him. I couldn’t have, I don’t think, but try telling that to my subconscious mind.
When you lose a person, if you love them enough, they become a part of you. I believe that, but it takes work to get there. Long story short, that answers the question some have posed as to why I changed my social media handle across the board to Jon Zilla. It’s something Charlie would have enjoyed. It’s probably something he called me at some point. He had all kinds of fun nicknames for me. In fact, come to think of it in text messages he used “Jon-Ra” a lot, and it’s a lateral move from Mothra to Godzilla so there you go. In 2016 I needed a bit of a disconnect from “Jon Abrams.” Jon Abrams is a guy who’s been through the wringer; he’s endured a whole lot of pain both physical and emotional, and he’ll continue to do it because he has no other choice, but as an idea, maybe he needed some time off. I’ve had almost no time off in 2016, very literally, so in a weird way I had to give my very identity a little break. As if I hadn’t had enough stress and loss in my life for one year, there’s also been plenty of tension between me and the guy whose face and surname I carry, but I don’t really want to write about that publicly. Point is, for a while there it was a bit of a drag even for me to look in the mirror and to read my own signature.
I wouldn’t be writing this if I couldn’t bring it to a happy ending of sorts. You’re reading the words of a guy who has faced down his demons every minute of every day throughout this godforsaken year, and as of press time, I won. There are a lot of good reasons to appreciate the time we’re given on this planet, as difficult as that time can be. There are people who really do need me. There are things I really do believe I was meant to do while I’m here, things I haven’t done yet. I will not shirk my duty. I will not deprive myself any longer. As hard as 2016 has been, I’ve also taken control of my physical health, having lost twenty pounds and having been enjoying dating more than I have all decade. Every time the darkness has come for me in my head, I’ve beaten it back, with the power of my own better thoughts and with the strength I’ve gotten from my support system — some who are still with me, some who are no longer but will always be. Again, my cousin Charlie is a beacon. Whenever I voiced how I felt overweight and sloppy-looking, Charlie would say to me, “You look like a movie star.” When I called myself stupid, he called me “the smartest person I know” (and he knew a whole lot of genuinely brilliant people.) There was no deep dark pit of despair I threw myself into that Charlie could not get me out of, in just a few words. Charlie is still with me; that’s a fact. He said things that saved me. If he’s not here to say them to me anymore, I have to say them to myself now.
So I saved my own life, with help. I did it today, and I’ll do it again tomorrow. I am the king of monsters.
Love you brother.
— JON ZILLA.