Interview by Paul D Houston
I first came to know of Mike Tolento as a small press comic book maker during the early 1990’s. In the early 90’s there was still a busy and bustling mail order industry as far as small press comics and zines goes. It was lively and fun and being a comic or zine creator during that time, it felt like you belonged to an exclusive underground club. And all we did was buy, sell and trade comics and zines, back and forth. We also wrote letters to each other, and made creative packages filled with homemade comics, zines, stickers and any other manner of ephemeral stuff we had worked on. We built friendships out of that kind of give and take. At the time, post office prices were cheap to affordable, so it was no big deal to drop a package of comics in the mail for a friend or critic, on a whim.
During my heyday of mini-comic collecting, I would send out and receive three to four packages almost every day through the mail. It was a glorious time and I met all manner of person through the early 90’s that way, Mike Tolento being one of those people. Mike was a somewhat regular mini-comic maker during that time. Not only was he sending me comics, I would see his name or one of his comics pop up in all manner of places. Sometime his work was humorous, sometimes auto-biographical and sometimes just plain weird for the sake of it. But, I always liked them, as they were different and didn’t mine the same story matters over and over again, like some artists did. You could feel his struggles in his art, the desperation, the bewilderment and the joy.
So, when Facebook became a thing in the early-mid 2000’s, I believe, Mike’s profile came up suggested as a “Friend” on my timeline, because he was already friends with mutual people who I was “Friends” with on Facebook. And since then, we’ve renewed our acquaintance, as much as you can, in an online sort of way.
Now, recently this past year or so, Mike had posted repeatedly about his struggles with life, drugs, depression, jobs, money and the like. He would post honest and very real thoughts about suicide, drug usage and his loneliness. As a person, who also deals with depression in an almost everyday manner, I found Mike’s Facebook posts, as something very brave. Some people might have thought of it as weakness, but he was reaching out to anyone and everyone, unlike me. I was bottling it up, pushing my depression down, hiding it, pretending everything was going to be ok, but Mike was out there, blatant with his feelings and while it was hurting to read his posts, about how much he was hurting, I still couldn’t but think of how amazing and how strong he was, by being absolutely real.
Then Mike, disappeared from online activity for awhile and I wondered what had happened to him. So did many others who were Facebook friends with him. We certainly were wondering, did he finally do it? Did he take his own life? And I remember thinking as I saw people post on his profile, asking where he was, that I wouldn’t fault him for doing it. I wouldn’t blame him for ending his pain. I can’t say, I knew his pain, but I knew my own and that the pain doesn’t stop. I kind of felt a bit of sorrowful relief, that this poor tortured man, had found his escape.
Then, out of nowhere Mike, posts again on Facebook. He had put himself into rehab and finished the course and was now taking some meds to help him figure it all out. And he began to share drawings about his time in rehab, very abstract, labyrinth doodle-esque kinds of things. And as he posted one after the other, I couldn’t help but see a bit of therapy in his drawings and I began to really become curious about what exactly he went through. How he sees the world nowadays and that is what led me to this interview.
Hi Mike. So, you’ve gone through quite a bit in the past year or so and I thank you for letting me dig around in your noggin!
Thank you for reaching out to me. Let’s proceed with the dissection. Ha ha.
So, depression, in your opinion, what were some of the causes behind your particular case?
One event really messed me up in late 2012. I fell hard for a younger woman who approached me. She made it clear from the start that she didn’t want a relationship. I did, however, and I promptly forgot her desire not to commit. I bugged her one too many times and she broke up with me through texts. She called me “clingy” and a “bummer to be around”. I took her words to heart and they rattled around in my head for a few years. I talked myself into believing I was a worthless loser who was unable to love or be loved. I crippled myself with constant negative self-talk. Our brief fling was nothing to her, but it was everything to an introverted social anxiety case like me. When she ended it, I fell apart. All I did for a long time after that was chase oblivion. I didn’t want to live. I felt like I was inherently flawed and I’d hurt anybody who got close. I isolated myself and I didn’t want to do anything but play video games and get high.
You ended up going deeper into drugs during your battle with depression, what kind of drugs were you using and were you searching for relief or answers in your repeated drug use?
I’ve been an enthusiastic proponent of mind-altering substances since I first smoked cannabis at eighteen or so. Certain drugs, like cannabis and psychedelics have made me a better person and were allies in my fight with depression. Others, like opioids and benzos, which do help with certain problems in reasonable doses, as do all drugs, were too easy for me to overdo during my period of depression. I was a solitary hermit and instead of running around in the streets finding crack or heroin, I bought my drugs online and had my drugs sent to me through the mail. There’s a whole pharmacopia of technically legal “not for human consumption research chemicals” one can buy online with a credit card or a bitcoin wallet. They’re usually tweaks to existing drugs with much the same effects and dangers as their controlled counterparts. It’s fascinating stuff and I tried to fix my brain by ingesting them instead of working on my deeper psychological problems. I’ve dabbled in research chemicals related to LSD and psychedelic tryptamines, benzo analogs, fentanyl analogs, cathinones (aka bath salts), and most recently a particularly hairy PCP analog. I’d scoured the Internet in search of chemical mind-expansion, escape, and yes, relief from emotional pain. I also just enjoyed researching and experimenting with these untested chemicals. I guess I felt cool being a lab rat. I was Hunter S. Thompson in my mind, a gonzo artist with an epic drug hobby.
When did you realize the drugs weren’t helping, but harming you?
I’d been a functional drug experimenter for years until it began catching up with me. I couldn’t keep a job because I’d get too wasted to function. I couldn’t keep on living off of the kindness of friends who would put me up for a few months or years allowing me to pay what I could for rent. I ended up down and out, unemployed, and deeply depressed in my father’s basement. Around my forty-third birthday, I took some hits of acid, a little more than my usual doses of a few research chemical benzos (I say usual doses because I’d become physically dependent on them) and a massive overdose of 3-methoxyphencyclidine, the hairy PCP analog I mentioned before. I wanted to really see how far I could go. I woke up in a hospital bed seeing, hearing, feeling and even smelling things that weren’t real. The overdose led to a genuine psychotic break.
And this led you to commit to going to rehab?
To make a long story short, my old man found me unresponsive in my bed and called 911. He also found my stash of exotic drugs. He was pretty pissed off. We never had the closest relationship. He and my mom divorced when I was a baby and I only saw him for a few hours a week until I turned eighteen. Yes, I’m one of his sons, but I was also the scary suicidal early middle-aged addict in the basement. When I called him from the hospital where I was detoxing, he told me not to come back. So I had a choice: I could either go from the hospital to inpatient rehab or go live on the street. It was winter in the Northeast, so I took the doc’s advice, got on state insurance, and went to rehab.
So you are now on meds, what meds and is this a lifelong thing, or just something temporary, a kickstart to get you better?
I take sertraline (Zoloft). I’d always been skeptical of SSRI antidepressants. How is this pill that doesn’t even get me high going to do anything to touch depression? There was no way my depression-which I guess I believed wasn’t so much a treatable condition but more an intrinsic part of who I was- could be fixed. I’d been prescribed fluoxetine (prozac) years earlier, but I dropped it due to sexual side effects. When a rehab doctor suggested Zoloft a few months ago, I was thoroughly done fighting and was ready to try anything. The anti-depressant’s effects are subtle but definitely there. I don’t notice any side-effects. My dick works like it should. I still feel low when it’s appropriate, but the edges of the dark feelings aren’t as sharp. I can see the good side of things and believe the good is just as real as the bad whereas before I got on Zoloft, the bad seemed like the Truth and the good seemed like bullshit. If that makes any sense…it’s also helped with my lifelong struggle with social anxiety. It feels easier to interact with people like a normal human. I don’t know how long I’ll keep using an anti-depressant, but it seems to be working so I don’t plan on stopping soon.
And the artwork that you’ve been posting on Facebook, is it a therapy thing or something else?
The art I make now is definitely therapeutic. Making art is a form of meditation to me. It’s something I do because it helps me process emotion or just chill out rather than being something I do toward an end goal of “the next issue of my comic book”. I still work with the thought of turning my sketchbook pages into finished books eventually because I love small-press zines, but it’s no longer the major motivating factor. I’ve always made art for myself before anybody else, but when I was starting out in comics I was concerned with how the reader would relate to the work. I still consider that people will look at my drawings, and I still want them to. Otherwise I wouldn’t share on Facebook and Instagram. I try to find a middle-ground between art-as-therapy and art as medium for a message.
Are you still reading comics?
I don’t buy comics or keep a collection of comics any more. My early recovery life right now isn’t stable enough for me to be able to carry around a graphic novel library like I used to. I enjoy reading the comics that my friends make when they share them online. So many of us are still at it. Once I’m settled in my own place again and have the space for it, I want to get back into the print scene by seeking out people’s work and publishing my own. Maybe even network at conventions again. It really was a lot of fun to assemble and then trade handmade art books with like-minded folks. I just fell out of touch with everything that was going on.
Do you have a support group now? Family or close friends near you?
I talk things out with my therapist and I get along well with the other guys who live in my sober house. But my closest friends are far away. I’m living in Connecticut and the people I love and care about most are in California and Oregon. I have family and friends in Connecticut who I’d be able to call on in an emergency but I don’t communicate with them too often. My family doesn’t want to deal with me, which is fine with me. I don’t particularly want to deal with them. The people who were most concerned about me while I was offline in rehab were my friends out west. They’re more like family than my blood family. They’re the people that kept me from killing myself if I’m being brutally honest. I stayed alive because I knew deep down, they’d be the most hurt if I gave up. I was born and raised in Connecticut, but I felt more at home with the people I hung out with in California and I fully intend to make my way back there in due time.
If you could help others out there, quietly dealing with depression, what would you say to them?
I could say things like: you’re not a burden, you’re not worthless, the world needs you, all of which are true, but I know, when you’re deep down in a dark pit and you feel absolutely broken, there’s nothing anyone can say or do to pull you out. You feel like the only right reasonable option is to annihilate yourself. It’s then when you have to check your most basic needs: are you eating? Are you sleeping? Are you getting sunlight? Are you interacting with other people? You have to force yourself to love yourself especially when it feels wrong. It isn’t. You know your own mind better than anyone else ever will, but sometimes your own mind will lie to you.
To see more of Mike's work check out his page on: