Up, up, and away from here: A journey of self understanding

Mental health is no joke. Everyone deserves to feel heard and understood. In this editorial, Daily Planet Editor-in-chief Zack Benz opens up about his struggle with mental and emotional health, explains why this battle is affecting the publication, and shares how Lois Lane is partly responsible for him seeking help.

14 mins read

I’ve been going to therapy. I know that this is an intimate statement to start an editorial with, but it’s important for what’s to come. 

I’ve been battling with my mental health for as long as I can remember. Terms like “trauma” and “depression” have rotated around my mind continuously. The implicated weight associated with those words rotted me to my core for decades until I felt numb in many aspects of my life. 

I previously assumed my struggles with identity, religion and sexuality were to blame. This assumption has dissipated into a more broader scope of issues surrounding my mentality.  

So, again, I say… I’ve been going to therapy. 

Audrey Benz

Mom, I missed you

I’ve only experienced a few sessions but they’ve been very enlightening. One of the best things about my therapy is not having any connection to my practitioner. She’s a complete stranger and that provides such a freedom of expression without fear of persecution. Another happy coincidence, she’s gay. 

Upon my very first appointment, my psychiatrist and I explored my sexuality, my battle with identity, and something I didn’t know I struggled with — disassociation. 

There are complete chunks of my life that I can’t depict in my mind’s eye. I remember a lot, but my emotional recollection is lost, so it’s like watching a film starring yourself that holds no personal interest so you just sit and watch everything happen without taking it in. 

I’ve blocked out moments that I feel should’ve held more importance. I can’t recall my feelings for graduations, weddings, birthdays and more. These life milestones were just mile markers that I zoomed past on the freeway. I haven’t felt true excitement since 2011 when the final season of “Smallville” was airing. Before then, and after, has been more complicated. 

Grace and Zack Benz in 1994

I used to see this wonderful world full of bright golden light and colorfully clad surroundings, but everything seemed to have been drained of all life because the color is now missing. My imaginative nature has been suffocated after loss of loved ones and loss of identity, or what I perceived was my identity. 

I’ve always prioritized other’s needs above my own. It’s an everlasting issue that I’m not sure I can overcome. I refuse to allow myself to feel needs, sadness, pride because I perceive them all to be selfish in nature. I don’t see myself worthy of any effort. 

My therapist said it has to do with the loss of my mother. At first I thought she was referring to my mom’s death following her accidental overdose in 2017, the day before I graduated from college. But that wasn’t the case. My therapist was referring to the loss I felt since birth. 

Audrey Benz with her grandchildren in 2016

My mom, the beautiful Audrey Ann Benz, suffered through addiction for most of her life. I can recall family members stating that my mom was first introduced to addictive substances right at the end of high school during the first serious relationship she’s ever had. 

Following school my mom gave birth to my sisters Felicia and Traci, two women in my life that I truly don’t deserve. She battled with the start of her dependence on substances as my sisters grew to be four- and five-year-olds. Then, in comes Zack. 

I was unplanned. I know that for a fact. I’m also a bastard, another well known fact. My father’s identity remains a mystery to me, but I have my assumptions. My mom hinted at who my dad may be, and my DNA has similarities to my sister’s dad, but not enough to be my father. It’s likely that my paternal parent is a relative of his, perhaps a cousin? Who the hell knows because trying to explain this baffles me. That’s the Iron Range for you. For those who may not know, the Iron Range is a community of mining towns in northern Minnesota. 

Anyways, throughout my time in the womb my mom tried her best to stay off the drugs she so depended on, she also drank with me. I used to blame her for my youthful ignorance but now understand that she was battling her own wars. I’ve forgiven her in my adult life, but it was too late to tell her I no longer hold contempt because she died. 

Her alcohol consumption resulted in my Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), something that affected and still affects my cognitive functioning and social capabilities, according to health sites on the internet. FASD was something I suffered with in grade school, but it’s more inert in adulthood since brains typically stop developing in your 20s.

I don’t remember the first five years of my life, but I’m told that it was a tough time for our family. The first four months were especially turbulent, according to relatives who can remember. 

Zack Benz, Felicia O’Connell and Traci Whitlock in 2017

My sisters had to feed and change me most times. My sisters had to feed and change themselves most times. All while my mom was seeking comfort from narcotics, my siblings and I were craving comfort from our mother. 

A huge legal battle for our protection soon ensued, and my mother eventually granted custody to my grandparents so my sisters and I could stay together as a family, but the physiological damage was done. Something I’ve only recently discovered. 

Since the moment I left my mother’s womb I missed her. According to my psychiatrist, my body needed to know my mom was present. I needed her care and interactions. Nobody’s hormones and chemical compositions matched my requested needs and biological radar. 

A Newswire article from 2021 explained that the chemical exchanges between an infant and its mother are important post birth. 

“Maternal pheromones enhance synchrony between the infant’s and the mother’s brains,” the article reads, “suggesting their role in the development of the baby’s ‘social instinct’ and opening the door to new therapeutic strategies for developmental disorders.”

Premature babies are actually required to have skin-to-skin contact with their mothers for proper development. I didn’t always get that. For long periods of time I cried and called for help with my newborn needs. Sometimes they were met by others, but more often than not my mother wasn’t there, and she’d continue to be absent throughout my entire early development. My brain went into recovery mode here, prioritizing needs over other things. 

This is where my disassociation was apparently born. 

Courtesy of DC Comics

Disassociate to the Daily Planet 

According to WebMD, dissociation is a break in how your mind handles information. You may feel disconnected from your thoughts, feelings, memories and surroundings. It can affect your sense of identity and your perception of time.

This was exactly what I was feeling. Having a trained professional assign a term to your complex emotions is so validating. 

For so long I’ve felt like I was just existing. Moments of importance felt like nothing. When I came out, numbness. When I graduated, I had no sense of success. When I moved to the city of my dreams, my happiness was nullified. Then, when my new niece and nephew entered my life, I felt happiness but then sadness, because I felt selfish for allowing such emotions to seep in.  

I refused to allow myself to feel any sort of euphoria. I dampened the light of excitement because I refused to feel the moments that followed that emotional high. I refused to let myself feel elated because I was convinced I don’t deserve it. 

But the loss of my mother’s presence is not the only reason I’ve been going through this, apparently. In all honesty, I’ve led a pretty great life. I’m privileged. Growing up on a farm under the tenure of my grandparents with siblings I look at as best friends was pretty great. And I did allow excitement to show around them, especially in childhood. Then I just had to grow up gay. 

Our family was Lutheran, and not the “good” side of Lutheran. We grew up in the Missouri (misery) Synod Church. A more conservative branch of faith that not only frowns on LGBTQ+ people, it practically spits on them and kicks them in the rib cage. 

Every Sunday I’d go to church with my grandma Grace and siblings, hearing how God hates gay people, thus hating me. I concealed my feelings and spoke with little to no conviction to keep my shields intact. I poured myself into the church in an effort to cure myself because I didn’t want people to leave me. It’s heart wrenching to know that someone as presumably perfect as God hates you. 

My secret identity was considered a “satan sighting” by my peers. Gay people were physically and emotionally hurt at school and elsewhere. I was unable to trust anyone with my completeness as a kid and missed out on so many opportunities, accomplishments and achievements because of this part of myself. My hometown frowned upon that identity, at least back then. However, considering the amount of confederate flags appearing in the frozen northland I’d say they haven’t progressed much. 

So, when I discovered Superman, then Lois Lane (my hero) and finally the glorious Daily Planet, I found relief. I escaped into the pages of comics and the flickering screens of my TV. The Daily Planet was this monumental place. It was filled to the brim with truth tellers and heroes seeking justice and equity. 

Lois and Clark were also in love, or falling in love depending on the circumstances. It was this fictional place so vital to the community full of romance and adventure and I so desired it to be real. I never wanted something to exist more. I knew it would be a place where I could be myself. I became convinced that I could generate a real world version. So, I worked hard to make it real and escaped into the creation of it. 

After I came out, I began really working on creating the Planet. It’s come a long way since the beginning of my journey, just as I have. I expected excitement as the Daily Planet’s presence became more prevalent, but it never came. I dissociated into the work and felt nothingness when my labor bore fruit. 

This, according to my psychologist, is a way for me to cope. I apparently can’t experience loss if I don’t feel the elation of my achievements. 

So I’ve just been existing. I’ve portrayed this happy and energetic caricature of myself. I allowed myself to feel my feelings of loss briefly and then quickly buckled those emotions away behind jokes and diversions. 

So, when the Planet failed, so too did my emotional state. When contributors failed to meet their commitments or used the resources of the Planet for their own advantage, I allowed them to get away with it. It’s mainly because I held onto that dream of making a place of inclusion and professionalism. I didn’t want anyone to leave because that would’ve meant I failed. 

I held onto my baby too tight because it was this avenue of escape for me. It was so important to me, and still is. I struggled with it being important to others as well. Mostly because I refused to feel a sense of pride from the Planet touching the lives of the outside world, something I refused to recognize in my day-to-day as well. 

This crippling grip has disabled any further growth with the Daily Planet and I no longer can tolerate it. So, recognizing this loss of identity, lack of emotion, and dissolution towards something I love, I sought help. 

Lois Lane showed me it’s okay

Much like the Journalist of Steel, I too sought help to cope with my issues with my emotional and mental health. 

I grew up watching “Smallville” and spent much of my adult life catching up on classics like “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” and watching “Superman & Lois.” In all iterations my gal pal Lois Lane met with psychological professionals. She dealt with Clark’s identity crisis, tragic loss, personal failure and her emotional state. So I felt that I could deal with my own. 

Her bravery to seek assistance motivated me to try my hand at therapy too. Mental health has previously been considered a highly taboo topic. Nobody wanted to discuss the need for increased mental health awareness. But Lois Lane went in the ‘90s, and she went again in the 2010s, and again this decade. So I followed her initiative and looked for wellness myself.

That’s what I said to convince myself, at least. But maybe I’m just disassociating again?

Gerald Benz in 2015

It sucks being unable to trust your own body and mind

I’ve experienced a lot of loss as of late. Since 2016 a number of close relatives have died. Both of my grandparents have passed on, my cousin Moriah died as a young mother of three from metastasized breast cancer, and my mom died from an accidental overdose. 

I never dealt with loss as heavy as those until 2016 when my grandfather died from cancer complications. I sobbed and was rocked to comfort by my mother at that moment. I felt a sense of loss but was at ease in that instant she hugged me tightly, her curly brown hair sticking to my tear soaked cheeks. Maybe there is some truth to the whole biology thing after all? 

I never coped with my father figure’s loss because 10 months later I had to carry my mother’s ashes home from Illinois where she died far away from us all. That was the heaviest box I’ve ever carried. The last time I saw her was when she caught the bus back to the Land of Lincoln subsequently after my grandfather’s funeral. Then I was planning hers. Her obituary is my first published work. 

Her death shook me. She was going to watch me walk across the stage for my Associate of Arts degree, something I needed her to be there for since I requested she not come to my high school graduation years prior after she took her abusive boyfriend back. I felt terrible for that ultimatum and I wanted to make up for it. But then she died, and the weekend of Mother’s Day no less. 

She called me in the weeks leading up to graduation, telling me she “loves me no matter what. You’ll always matter to someone.” Did she know I contemplated suicide then? Because I couldn’t accept my sexuality? I cried after she said that to me. I will forever appreciate that statement. She definitely knew what I was going through and her comment was appreciated, it still is. 

Gerald, Grace and Audrey Benz in 2016

After her death, I came out. I told loved ones that I felt needed to hear it from me first. Then I published an article about it. I honestly don’t remember much because I was pretty happy then, but then I wasn’t. I felt as if I had to conform to this vicious stereotype surrounding the gay community. I slipped into hookup culture and lost pieces of myself with each interaction. It chipped away at my soul slowly because I wasn’t built for that way of life. I was built for companionship but the fear of letting someone know me too well was more frightening so I kept at it, and it still shadows me to this day. That’s honestly a difficult thing for me to admit. I feel such a tremendous amount of shame when it comes to my past as an out gay man. 

It was around this time when my body began to fail me. In 2018 I was diagnosed with a rare noncontagious autoimmune disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, granulomatosis with polyangiitis is an uncommon disorder that causes inflammation of the blood vessels in your nose, sinuses, throat, lungs and kidneys. Basically, my immune system mistakes those portions of my body as inadequate and attempts to kill them off. 

I felt that this was God punishing me for my homosexuality, and I honestly believed I deserved it due to my own personal inadequacies. I think this was the breaking point for my loss of identity. Something I still struggle to recover. 

The next loss I felt was the death of my grandmother. Grandma Grace was tough as nails. We sometimes butted heads, like any parent and child do, but she was my favorite person. I loved her so very much. My grandmother’s mind began to falter soon after I left for college. Little memory losses here and there, but nothing substantial. 

After I graduated in 2019, a pandemic spread across the globe. I took the opportunity of societal pause to move home and care for her. My cousin, aunt and I did that for the next six months. Little by little I watched pieces of this woman who raised me chip away. And little by little, we all grew very close. 

Grace and Zack Benz in 2017

Each day I hugged my grandma tightly hoping she’d stay frozen in time so I could keep her with me forever. But come Father’s Day 2020, she passed away. Her soft hand went stiff as I stayed by her side until they took her remains away. Again, I cried. I sobbed. But my mother wasn’t there to hold me that time. Nobody was. I was now an orphan with no parents to be proud of me. I felt totally alone. Then I sucked it up and hid my emotions in false platitudes and made sure my family was okay, because they derived more comfort than I do.  

I now know I dissociated into the Daily Planet after this because the publication saw its greatest growth in this time, but it wasn’t exactly enough. There was this rippling feeling in my chest as I sat in my childhood home, void of any feelings of comfort since those who built it died. 

One day, after my grandma’s “celebration of life,” which was a social distance funeral, my sisters and I were going through her belongings she left to us. The emotion was too great for me because after they left I went into the woods with a rope and harsh intent. 

In hindsight I should’ve known that I needed help, but I didn’t think I deserved it. Anyway, red puffy eyed I trailed into the woods on our family farm. I strung a rope from a branch and prepared to leave this God forsaken rock, but the clouds literally parted and a warm sensation washed over me. I felt guilty. I left those woods and haven’t returned since. Suicide still haunts my thoughts, but I drown that out with my nieces and nephews. Remembering how much I love them, and how much I want to make them proud. They keep me going. 

Grace and Moriah Benz in 2020

Moriah, my cousin who was 29, was the latest of losses. I really loved her even though some distance grew between us in our adulthood. She has three children, none of which were over 10 at the time of her death. I’m her age now. 

Her death was the final straw. I left my overbearing conservative hometown for greener pastures in the big gay city of Minneapolis after she died. But it didn’t help. My numbness continued. 

Grace Benz in 2019

What’s the point?

If you’ve read this far you’re probably wondering what the point of this article is. Or maybe you understood my meaning. 

In all honesty I wrote this for myself. I needed to let people see what I’ve been going through. There is another angle to the substance of this piece, though. 

I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into the Daily Planet for what seems like a lifetime and I’m tired. The Planet itself doesn’t exhaust me, but my life does. At least right now. And the Planet has been suffering because of it. My consistency is squandered. The publication’s quality is a bit tarnished. I’m really managing everything on my own so my patience wears thin. Beyond that, I also work a fulltime job. My time is more precious than ever, and I’m using it to help heal the collective wounds built over the past decades. 

The point of all this is an apology. I’m sorry to the Daily Planet because I feel like I’ve failed at it. I’m sorry to our readers because I definitely feel as if I failed them. I’m sorry to our past contributors because this place is supposed to be one of freedom, expression and information. 

I want everyone to know that I’m seeking help and it’s okay to feel like it’s not deserved. But don’t ever feel ashamed of your struggles because they’re a part of your journey, and your journey is a story worth telling. This is just mine. 

Call your friends, call all your loved ones. Tell them how you feel. 

Anyways, I’m sorry about the Daily Planet, but I’m working on doing better. 


Zack Benz

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide or has suicidal thoughts, please contact the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

Zack Benz

Zack Benz has been a fan of the Daily Planet since he was eight years old. The Daily Planet has always been a beacon of hope for him and it’s his life’s mission to make it shine in a similar light to so many around the world. Zack graduated with a degree in journalism and art from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2019.

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