How do you become a Freemason?
That’s the question I asked my grandfather in his living room in early 2012. For years, I had been fascinated by this secret society he had devoted his life to. I remember seeing the symbols all over his office as a child and it always made me star eyed and full of wonder as to what my grandfather knew and participated in.
After I asked this question, my grandfather simply stared at me and slowly a huge grin appeared on his weathered face and from the side of his mouth he simply responded, “you just did.”
You see, just by asking, I had just become a mason as this is the custom bestowed from year and years of this secret society adopting members. He led me to his study and closed the door behind him, I took a seat and had butterflies in my stomach wondering what came next. Would he bring out a sword and knight me? Would he pull a secret lever at his desk and the entire wall would turn, revealing a secret lair like Bruce Wayne’s Batcave? Probably not, but I couldn’t help but feel excited as my grandfather was about to share with me all the answers to questions I had had growing up.
For two hours we sat in his study, he showed me awards he had received along with his fez and other keepsakes he had acquired along the years. After we finished up and we walked out of his study, he told me he would contact the lead office and schedule a time for me to be initiated and start my First Degree.
In the car ride home, I started to sweat. What the hell did I just agree to? I had always been vehemently against fraternities and the type of alpha male-forward thinking they promoted. Why would I want to waste my time being hazed when I could be playing Final Fantasy Tactics instead? My sweating intensified as I started to realize that I had absolutely no idea what the hazing would be and/or what kind of commitment this was.
A few weeks later the day had come, I put on a tie and dress shirt and my grandfather and uncle picked me up. I remember that car ride very distinctly as it was one of the last times I spent with my grandfather one on one. We joked and laughed and I felt connected to him in a way i had never before. After all, we were heading toward a temple of a secret society I was soon to join. We were “brothers” when before we were simply grandfather and grandson. This meant a great deal to me and I know it meant a great to him.
What happened over the next few hours I can’t talk about as it’s part of a secret ceremony and I’m not going to lie, I’m a little worried they might track me down and kill me if I do divulge that information. So let’s just say, I saw some shit and leave it at that.
The car ride back to the house was a bit different. I felt like I had just bitten off more than I could chew and the mood was….heavier. There was a sense of responsibility now. We pulled up to my house and I said my goodbyes.
The next day, the phone rang and it was a member of the Fraternal Order. He asked how I was doing and then told me that I was being assigned a mentor to help me memorize all of the information for the next ceremony. In order to continue in the program, I would have to do A LOT of memorization. I started to think about how my grandfather was a 32 Degree and how much he had memorized in his noggin. I also thought about how badly he wanted to be 33rd Degree but no matter how many donations he made or meetings he attended, he just couldn’t get there. A life dedicated to a fraternity and still unable to reach the highest pinnacle, this made me a bit sad to think about.
Fast forward a few weeks and I was sitting in a strangers’ living room whom I had just met. We started memorizing passages from a book and I was reciting words that made little sense to me. Now, I’m a horrid memorizer, it takes me FOREVER to remember just about anything. I’m akin to Mr. Magoo in a 20-something year old’s body. This was no different. The man kept repeating lines and I kept forgetting them. I continued this a few times over the course of a few months before I started getting more and more discouraged. I started to forget how important this was to my grandpa and focus more on other projects.
In late 2012, September or so, I got a call from my Grandmother.
“Ryan, this is Grandma”
“Hi Grandma, how are you?”
“Im doing well, I had a question for you.”
“Sure, what’s up.”
“Grandpa and I were wondering how the memorization was going?”
At that moment my stomach dropped, I had completely forgotten about the Masons. I had chocked it up to a spur of the moment idea and had no intention of continuing. I loved being close with my grandpa but figured I had years to come back to it if I needed to. I mean, I was 25, I had a whole lifetime to do it. I heard my grandpa shuffling in the background on the phone as I responded to my grandmother, “You know, I just don’t feel like this is the right time for me to join. I tried but man, it’s a lot of memorization and work has been super busy.”
I still remember how I felt after saying that to her, I heard a slight silence almost as if she was shaking her head “no” to my grandfather and then I heard footsteps in the background as if he shuffled away disappointed in my answer. He wasn’t the kind of guy that would ever say he was upset, he hid his feelings as most men of his era do. They were the Greatest Generation but definitely not the greatest at expressing their emotions.
My grandma responded something of understanding but you could tell they were both upset. I shook the feeling as I hung up the phone, telling myself again that I would have a lifetime to decide to join again; it wasn’t a big deal.
Less than two months later my grandfather was brushing his hair and hit a brain tumor, causing him to collapse. He was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with lung cancer that had spread throughout his body and into his brain.
As soon as I got the phone call, my entire life stopped. I rushed to the hospital and tried to be around family as much as possible. He spent the night there and returned home the next day. To add insult to injury, during his stay at the hospital overnight; someone had broken into his house and robbed him of all of his gold, jewelry and more. There was no sign of forced break in so all I could think was that it was someone related to us. Tragedy does that, it brings the worse out in people and unfortunately, when he fell, someone only saw his belongings and how much they wanted them. It sickens me to this day.
We got to spend one last Christmas with my grandpa. It was a surreal day sitting there watching my cousins open their presents and watching my grandpa every second I could. Noticing how his movements were getting slower, his laugh less lively and his eyes less intense. He was slowly fading from us in front of our very eyes. This man, this patriarch of not only his family but all of his kids’ families too; was disappearing right in front of us. I got teary eyed more times than I could count on that day. I’ll never forget it.
In early February, I got a call that hospice was coming. I had no idea what that meant but the phone call sounded serious so I made the hour trek out to his house to see him. I got there right when they were taking him inside. Everyone said it had been a long day of him talking and he was tired now, they said he was having a good day but when I got there I couldn’t have known it. He looked frail and weak. As I walked up to the patio, they were wheeling him inside, he waved and said, “Hi Rugger.” They then took him inside and laid him on a bed they had set up for him in the living room.
He didn’t say another word after that. He died the next day surrounded by his family.
That day was hard for me, I saw the love him and my grandmother shared expressed through hand holding and soft touches. I saw how meaningful and impactful his life was in the way that we all looked at him. I also remember him passing and there was a hole in the clouds behind the house and light shone in through the window; his energy passing on to whatever journey is next for our mortal husks. It was sad but peaceful and I missed him immediately. I missed the way he would say my nickname, I missed the way he would always liven up any room oftentimes jumping on a scooter or doing something hilarious and I really missed his laugh; it was infectious and sounded sort of like a Muppet character.
Months of waiting and just like that, he was gone. However, a few weeks before he passed, he finally attained his 33rd Degree. You can could see in the photos how much that meant to him. However, looking at that photo the night after he passed, talking to my grandma about how they met and their life; I suddenly remembered how I disappointed him in his final months by not taking the Masons seriously. This was his life’s dedication and I hadn’t followed through. Even though I thought I had a lifetime to do it, life just proved how fleeting it is; a real slap to the face of my 20-something mind thinking life lasts forever.
I didn’t go to work for a few weeks after he passed, in fact I didn’t get off the couch for a few weeks. I would wake up every day, lay on the couch and only get up to eat or got to the bathroom. I was working two jobs at the time and I eventually lost both of them. I also stopped reaching out my friends. I had one friend left that I was in an art collective with. We made mashup prints and exhibited at local First Fridays in Downtown Vegas. It was fun but very un-introspective work that sold well and reasonably easy.
One day this friend came over and looked around the house noticing things were in disarray and most of the windows were drawn closed. He also noticed that I had dryer sheets in the slider door screen and some of the window screens. He questioned this, asking, “Hey dude, what the hell is up with the dryer sheets?” I didn’t respond at first, too focused on something else. He asked again and I responded, “I just…I need it to be clean in here…I need it to be purified.” I didn’t even know what it meant at the time, I look back and wonder if I was trying to purify the emotions I was going through and not dealing with or maybe I was just trying to not be sad anymore. Either way, that friend stopped coming around for a bit; not knowing what I was going through. It’s hard to be friends with the “sad guy” who doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions.
You see, I never really had a shot though. I come from a family that doesn’t deal with their troubles, but simply sweep them under a rug. A very conservative family that believes boys should be boys and girls should be girls. If you have mental health issues, just don’t talk about them and they’ll go away. This isn’t exactly a fruitful environment for figuring out you have depression and anxiety issues. I was the kid that would cry after his birthday because I would just think about the fact that i would never get to experience that day again. I would think that over and over again until my head hurt and it drove me to cry just to get the pressure out. It’s easy to confuse this behavior as simple sadness and tell your kid to “stop being sad” or to “get over it” but man, some empathy would have been nice.
All of this led to the predicament I was currently in, I kept telling myself to get over it. I kept telling myself to stop being sad. However, nothing ever worked and I fell deeper and deeper into myself. Without friends calling anymore, without jobs and without purpose; I felt lost and alone.
One day I decided I wanted to do something creative. I had a beautiful piece of gold leaf paper in the garage that I had found the year before. It had an amazing sheen to it and I was excited to approach the canvas and work out some demons. So, I took it outside in an old frame and brought some paint out too. I remember starting to paint and looking down at the finished piece and it had a purple monster in the middle with words in red that said “FAILURE” and “Give Up” with scribbles all over. I dropped the frame as started crying finally realizing that this was it, I couldn’t continue doing this anymore. I needed a change.
After that day, i started doing self portraits in watercolor every day as a way to cope. I started drawing little monsters that depicted how I was feeling; something that made me feel like I was being productive. I then started sharing them to social media which made me feel like i was assimilating to society.
One night I went to my drafting table, put on a movie and started doing self portraits again. I drew two eyes, a mouth with two pointy teeth, two horns and brown fuzzy fur. I creaked my neck back and stared at this painting for a good ten minutes. This was it! This was exactly how I was feeling; this little yeti fully encapsulated my depression.
I shared the image to my twitter with the poem, “Yerman was a forest dweller, forest was a beat. Yerman was a sad feller, Yerman was deceased.”
At the time I didn’t know this, but Yerman was my escape; he was my sanctuary.
I decided that day to fully focus on this character after seeing how individuals online were responding to him. I then started leaving my house and going to a local coffee shop called Grouchy John’s to get back to normal. I would only spend an hour or so there, sitting with my headphones in and drawing or writing screenplays or doing ANYTHING creative to not focus on my life-crippling depression.
This continued for a few months and then I started applying to jobs again and then I found my rhythm eventually and overcame this period of depression.
A year later, I decided to print the original Yerman design on a shirt. I also shared my story of where the character came from to my blog and twitter. Individuals who had enjoyed this character had no idea where he had come form and instantly connected with the story. The first run of shirts sold out. So I printed more. Then I was contacted by Jed Foundation and Clinton Foundation and flew out to Brooklyn to work with The Moth at a storytellers event where I first publicly told my story in front of a crowd at Saatchi & Saatchi. This was when I decided I wanted to become a mental health advocate and help those that felt helpless.
Since then, I’ve been able to tell my story with organizations such as Creative Mornings and PeaceLove. I’ve printed many more shirts with many more designs and the clothing is now sold on Zappos.com, 6pm and Amazon Fashion along with my own website, depressedmonsters.com. I’ve also made a designer resin toy that premiered at DesignerCon last year. All of these things were dreams that I had when I first started drawing the character and I truly believe came to be from speaking them into existence because the mind is a VERY powerful muscle.
Now, I’m not saying I don’t still suffer from depression; I do, very much so. I like to think it’s an ocean and depression hits like waves with some days being gentle and others becoming full blown storms. I didn’t have control of my ship back in 2012, but after therapy sessions, I now have the necessary tools to guide the currents of this sea we call life. Depression doesn’t have to be an anchor sinking you deeper into the sea, you can control your ship.