Giving Until It Hurts
In the Marvel universe, superheroes rush into perilous situations, defying the laws of nature and rescuing ordinary human beings from certain doom. All these comic book legends who we revere are highly trained, have developed high-tech tools and gadgets to protect themselves, or are naturally endowed with special physical or supernatural abilities. As a society, we’ve come to have certain expectations of first responders or those who work in the armed forces. If we are in trouble or need help, they are the ones we will cry out for. “Send in the troops” is more than a battle cry, we are asking normal everyday people to swoop into danger and make things better. Police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, soldiers, EMTs — these are human beings made of flesh and blood, carrying the same burdens and deep feelings as you and me, who are called upon to face gut-wrenching situations that will forever sear themselves into their memories. Death, atrocities of war, great loss, injury, and trauma can play back pictures in a person’s head on a constant loop. Imagine reliving your worst pain and devastation over and over. Since it is a hero who rushes in when darkness strikes, it is also a hero who bears the burden of living in those pain-filled moments.
The John Hopkins Medicine website defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as something that occurs after a traumatic event and leaves sufferers with anxiety that is more intense and keeps coming back. The trauma is relived through nightmares, intrusive memories, and flashbacks, causing vivid memories that seem real. The symptoms of PTSD can cause problems with relationships and make it hard to cope with daily life. No matter what type of conditioning a trained professional has gone through in order to react when a dire situation presents itself, they are still going to have an emotional reaction to things that are disturbing. Science and medicine are only now beginning to consider the effects of PTSD and devise ways to help those who suffer from it. One person who is delving into the many forms of treatment currently available, is a well-known former resident of East County.
“HE FOUNDED HEART OF A HERO FOUNDATION, ACHIEVING CELEBRITY-STATUS ACCLAIM AND WAS HIGHLY SOUGHT AFTER AS A BEACON OF HOPE AND INSPIRATION TO NEARLY 15,000 FAMILIES LOCKED IN A FIGHT TO SAVE THEIR SICK CHILD’S LIFE.”
Ricky Mena donned a Spider-Man suit and visited countless critically ill children, internationally and locally, from 2014 until March 2020. Inspired by a dream in which his deceased grandmother encouraged Ricky to dress as Spider-Man and help kids, Ricky was compelled to start an organization to gain further reach and effectiveness. He founded Heart of a Hero foundation, achieving celebrity-status acclaim and was highly sought after as a beacon of hope and inspiration to nearly 15,000 families locked in a fight to save their sick child’s life. It was during his many public appearances that he met a sweet, like-minded volunteer named Kendall, who would become his wife. Ricky says, “I never thought I’d find a future partner who would have the same conviction for helping others as I do. She started out by handling presents for the children and filming the interactions. Gradually, I introduced her in costume as Spider-Gwen. Kids who have suffered abuse, especially sexual abuse, tend to feel more comfortable with her visiting. It’s been amazing working side-by-side with her.” But dealing with the tremendous loss they have witnessed while delivering love to critically ill kids has taken a greater toll on Ricky.
“I remember sitting in my barber’s chair in 2017. It was just prior to Pediatric Cancer Month, and I had just held two children, two weeks apart from one another, while they died in my arms. That back-to-back pain compiled with the loss of three more during the month, I believe all came to a head in one instance. It was noon, I was sitting there getting a haircut, and the next thing I know, I felt like my body was just shutting down. It was a complete collapse. I felt like I was in imminent danger and losing my life. It was a wave of fear times ten,” shares Ricky. All this happened during the height of Heart of a Hero’s publicity, making interviews and fundraising efforts extraordinarily taxing. Ricky says, “I had to put on a smile and suffer through it, all the while gritting my teeth and sweating, feeling like I was going to come out of my skin.” The anxiety of PTSD had fully engulfed him. It was then he started his long journey toward fixing the damage that being the strong support for so many had caused.
Ricky knew he needed to seek help to quiet the storm that brewed inside his mind and body. He became so close to some of the kids he met, that their families considered him part of theirs. Nine-year-old Zamora Moon was one of those children. When she passed, her family included Ricky as a family member requiring grief counseling. Says Ricky, “At the time, I thought I was experiencing all these physical symptoms for various other reasons; I wasn’t eating right, I was working out far too hard, I wasn’t sleeping well, etc. But that diagnosis of classic PTSD accompanied by depression and anxiety, finally gave me something to target. I had an ailment that I needed to fix.”
In conjunction with the effects of PTSD, another symptom that Ricky had been in denial of for most of his life was a high sensitivity to sounds. In fact, he was so sensitive that it could send him into a rage internally. Certain repetitive sounds are maddening to him. “To others, the sound of chewing might be a little annoying, to me it almost rattles my brain. I want to escape it and run away from it,” says Ricky. This condition has a name and is much more common than anyone would guess. Affecting over 40 million people worldwide, misophonia has been described as both a neurological disorder and a behavioral disorder. It is defined as the triggering of an emotional response to specific sounds which may lead to anger, fear, or annoyance. Misophonia triggers the fight-or-flight response in some people. People living with this condition, also known as selective sound sensitivity syndrome, describe feeling like they are going crazy when they hear the triggering sounds. Ricky has noticed his misophonia kick into high gear now that it accompanies the other symptoms of PTSD. “Really I feel as if it’s to the point of debilitating. In fact, it came to a head so strongly during the COVID-19 lockdown that we had to move. We were living in Pittsburg, and my neighbor had loud parties at all hours of the night. I tried to talk to him about it and got nowhere. It became unbearable. We moved to Colfax to get into the more serene mountains and found out we moved next door to a drug house. Our next move was to the outskirts of Las Vegas, where we later learned the neighbor has loud motorcycles. The constant revving of the engines sent me into overdrive. Pushed over the edge, I finally expressed to my wife that I was having suicidal thoughts. When you can’t escape the pain you are suffering inside, when all these mental flashbacks are happening and you are reliving pain over and over with no relief in sight, you think there’s no other way out,” Ricky revealed.
Kendall Mena was not going to let her husband suffer or lose his battle with depression and succumb to suicide. She drove him to a facility to try to help him. Ricky describes the suicide intervention facility as a prison. They were going to take away all his belongings. There were cages around everything, even the TV. He wasn’t going to have any interaction with his wife whatsoever. To him, it felt like a cold prison. He begged his wife not to leave him there, and instead, sought different places that could help. His path to effective treatment began there.
Ricky worked with cognitive behavior therapists, learning Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR is a psychotherapy treatment. During EMDR therapy, the client works with their emotionally disturbing memories in brief, sequential doses while simultaneously focusing on an external stimulus. EMDR therapy facilitates reliving the traumatic memory so that information processing allows new associations to be forged between the traumatic memory and more adaptive memories or information. Any form of mental health therapy is not covered by traditional insurance. Many out-of-pocket therapies were sampled in an effort to reach relief. A GoFundMe was started in order for the Menas to afford extensive brain scans to try to narrow down a plan of attack for helping Ricky with his mental state. The scans clearly showed blood flow issues to the temporal lobe and lack of activity in the amygdala. After paying $5000, they have concrete evidence of why the fight-or-flight response is so drastic in Ricky. Key medications have been added to his therapy, and Ricky is holding out hope for improvement. Says Ricky, “People want to villainize medication, but it’s exactly those therapies that pack the powerful punch needed to keep people safe from hurting themselves or ruining relationships.”
Ricky has experienced strong repercussions since becoming forthright with his illness. “You know, the hardest part of this battle has been in sharing what I am going through. Being in that Spider-Man suit and visiting those kids and seeing the impact I made on their days was an overwhelming joy for me. Sadly, it left me with a few scars that I am looking to mend. It was all so unexpected. I wanted to be the strong superhero those children needed to lift them up and give them strength in their fight. Now, when I express my own human condition, I have been met with some very condescending criticism. Commentors on my social media used to cheer for me to come out and visit. Now, some say things to the effect of ‘suck it up’ or ‘why don’t you go get a job?’ I tried working at a car dealership; I lasted two days. I just can’t do it. But the support for my foundation has even suffered, and to me that is the worst. I want to still be here for the kids. I only took a very small salary to cover expenses for my appearances.
I was trashed for that as well.”
“RICKY IS HOPING TO KEEP SLIPPING INTO THE SPIDER-MAN SUIT, DESPITE ALL THE HEARTACHE THAT IT BRINGS WHILE WITNESSING COUNTLESS CHILDREN IN THE THROES OF DISEASE.”
“Ricky knew he needed to seek help to quiet the storm that brewed inside his mind and body.”
Ricky feels that sharing his battle with mental illness is important. Society is only now beginning to grasp that emotionally debilitating diseases can be as crippling as physical ailments. Ricky adds, “When I see memes picturing, for instance, a World War II man in uniform and the caption reads ‘They don’t make them like they used to,’ that is detrimental to helping people who are struggling mentally. What we don’t talk about enough is the domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, and families torn apart by the effects of soldiers returning from war with PTSD and trying to be the perfect image of a strong man, then acting out adversely. We can change that outcome now, with awareness and proper diagnosis and treatment.”
Ricky is hoping to keep slipping into the Spider-Man suit, despite all the heartache that it brings while witnessing countless children in the throes of disease. His reward is their smiles—even as he is searching for his. Ricky shares, “Sometimes, being a hero means being willing to sacrifice. I have given Heart of a Hero all of me. Now I am hoping to be the voice for others who feel they are spent as well. There is help out there. You can overcome. You can feel whole again, it just takes a planned path forward. Every time I pulled the Spider-Man mask over my eyes, embodying the superhero persona, ready and able to protect all those children from the pain they were enduring, I guess I hoped it would at the same time shield me from taking it all in—it didn’t.”
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