A Hero Among Us
There comes a time in life when we have to ask ourselves,"What is my purpose? What am i supposed to be doing in life?" You never know when it will happen, but it will.
The first time I ever thought about that came in the office of my high school guidance counselor. I didn't know what I wanted to do then, and I still sometimes question myself now.
For Ricky Mena, the answer came to him in a dream. And because of that dream he has brought joy, laughter, and happiness to over 11,000 children in hospitals all over the world by bringing some light to them during the fight of their lives. We spent some time with Spider-Man to talk about his mission, why he does it, and mental illness.
NON: So tell us, how did this mission start? When did you decide that you wanted to dress up as Spider-Man and go on this journey?
Ricky: I fell from grace financially. And for the first time in my life, I needed to take help from friends. I was sleeping on a couch trying to figure out where my life was heading next. I found work as a trainer at gym. I was always into fitness. It was cool but it didn't speak to my heart. Then one night, I had a dream with my grandma who had passed away was in it. She walked me down this long corridor and turned on this movie projector and this movie of Spider-Man went on in the sky. He was visiting kids in hospital in this gigantic room. All their faces were lighting up. I turned to her in the dream and asked her what that had to do with me. She said, "That is you. When you wake up that's what you will do." I woke up from my dream and my curiosity got the best of me. All I had to my name was a car that I had paid off at that time. It was a Chrysler 300. But, I looked at it and I knew I had to sell it because I felt this is more than a dream. I sold the car to pay for the first Spider-Man suit and a more economical car. I got my first Spider-Man suit in 2014 and to present day I have visited over 11,000 kids all over the world.
NON: Tell us about your love of Spider-Man. Have you always been a fan of Spider-Man?
Ricky: Oddly enough, when I was a kid, I had hundreds and hundreds of comics books. I liked Spider-Man a lot, but my favorite as a kid was Superman. I used to draw Spider-Man over and over again. He's always contorted in crazy positions in the comics, I liked drawing him because of that aspect. I loved drawing as a kid. I liked Batman as well. But, what drew me to Spider-Man was the fact that he was a kid, like a nerd. Even though I was covered in tattoos and was popular in high school because I was an athlete, I was always by myself. I was either writing, drawing, or reading. Just doing things by myself. I loved reading about him and he had such a good heart. He never killed anyone in the comics. Even though he had all these powers, he was still trying to find his place in the world. He still struggled with jobs and was still trying to help his Aunt May, I related to that. He was more real. When the movies hit the big screen with Tobey McGuire as Spider-Man, I loved it. I liked him(as Spider-Man) the best and I loved the first Spider-Man. But, my favorite Spider-Man movie to date is The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with Andrew Garfield.
NON: You love comics and superheroes. But is there anything else in Nerd Culture that you are into?
Ricky: I played video games as a kid. And I still play now, I was always into first shooters like the Call of Duty series. I'm really into Spider-Man 4. That game is so fun. My wife and I would play for hours and we always had to tell ourselves to go to bed because we had responsibilities the next day(laughs.) But growing up I played on all the consoles! I played Super Mario on Nintendo, those were the days where you had to beat it in one sitting because you couldn't save it(laughs.) But, I tried to keep a good balance with playing video games and playing outside. I would spend two or three days on a game to beat it, then I was on to the next thing. Now that games are online, it's a lot more fun. You can beat a campaign in a game, but the game keeps going if you play online with games like Call of Duty.
NON: Let's talk about your actual experience in the hospitals with the kids. What's it like?
Ricky: When its a hospital, its tougher. We see 20-35 kids per visit. We go room to room and spend 1 on 1 time with each child. And, we are only given 5-8 minutes with each kid. I've been doing this for a long time, but I still get nervous before I go into rooms because every family is different. You don't know how they will react to you. You try to administer love and your caring personality to each kid. But, you never know if they will be accepting of that because of the situation they are in. When you go into a room where kids are battling life-threatening illnesses or just have been diagnosed as terminal, its human nature to go into survival mode. I care about every single kid. The first thing I do is I stay at the door, it's my threshold. I let the kid react and see what I can do next. I want to see their reaction, see if they smile, see if they are apprehensive. What I do next depends on their reaction or what they say. Usually, kids can be apprehensive, so we bring lots of toys. We have wagons and wagons of toys. I'll ask and see what toys they want. The toys become a trust building exercise. We take time looking at the toys and opening them up for them to play with. They start to smile. The nervousness goes away because now we are just two human beings playing with toys. That's the magic. You get lost in the fact that it's OK to smile in this moment regardless of what they are going through, we can still smile. We can feel normal still. There's hope. We go to the next room and we start over. What's crazy is that you can from one room where a child just found out about their terminal illness to a room with a kid who just got hurt and is going home that night. It's different every time, I had to learn to be flexible. When I am "myself," I get better reactions from the kids and their families. I'm just goofy by nature. I'm 35 and covered in tattoos but I'm always talking about farts(laughs) and pop culture. I have puns for days. I tap into myself and try to be normal and real. At the end of the day, people can't figure out where "Spider-Man" begins and "Ricky" ends. That's the best part. It allows me to be there for the kids as Spider-Man and keep their imagination going and feel he is real and sitting next to me. The "me" part is there for the parents. They can just know that, this is just a guy in a suit who just cares.
NON: On a final note, tell us about your experience with mental illness.
Ricky: For three and a half years I was visiting kids, that's a lot of pain and hurt to see. It was extremely hard especially when two kids died in my arms just two weeks apart. I wasn't wearing my mask when that happened. I started to suffer from anxiety. It got so bad that I almost fainted in public in the middle of a conversation. It happened in other places also. After trying to figure this out, I thought it was physical, maybe it was my thyroid. I went to the doctor and he told me that there was nothing wrong with me. My doctor put his hand on my shoulder and said, "I think this is a mental thing because of what you do." I didn't believe it because I never bottled my feelings in, I cried whenever I needed to. But, I never really got to grieve. I saw a lot of loss doing this and I had to move on. It's like going from room to room. You just prepare for the next room. That's how I was taking the death I was seeing. I would just tell myself to suck it up and help other kids. Battling mental illness has given me empathy and is the hardest thing I have ever had to deal with in my life. What works for me was lots of therapy that is rooted in trauma. After six months into my therapy, I was at a crossroads on whether I should take meds or not. I took the lowest dose as I could, I wanted to allow myself to be myself. I still have hard days. What gets me through the most is being open with my following and not pretending to always be OK. It's OK to hurt and be myself. It's OK to feel hurt and talk to someone about it. There is a fine line between challenging yourself and knowing when to take a few days off. Eating right as helped. I'll tell you that if I eat just pizza and hamburgers, my anxiety flares up. The biggest step for me was telling people who follow me on Facebook Live that I was taking a month off because of my anxiety. I was crying while doing this video in a hotel room next to a place I was going to visit the next day. I was scared to open up that part of myself to the world. I was afraid to because of the stigma. But, honestly, it was so empowering. I realized it's OK to hurt. I learned to be kind to myself. You are not going to conquer the world in one day.
As a society, we may see superheroes on the big screen or on our TV, but real heroes walk among us. Ricky Mena is a true hero. He might not be able to fly like Superman or shoot spider webs out of his hands like Spider-Man, but his skills are just as powerful. His power to make children smile and laugh, his ability to heal others and instill hope...those powers are what we need today. His bravery and courage make him our superhero.
For more info on Ricky Mena and his journey, please visit rickymena.com!