A long (but still short and incomplete) biography of Mike Tishka

Note: This feature was written for a weekly assignment to profile one of our classmates. I was randomly paired with Mike — whom you'll get to know if you read on. 

Mike Tishka is from Chicago, “not fucking Wilmette, like Joe and Maizy,” he is actually—and passionately—from Chicago. This is the second thing he told me, after requesting to play music while he talks to calm his nerves. He has also told me that I should stop telling people I’m from Denver.

“What’s the big deal if someone doesn’t know where you’re from? If you live in a suburb or in a little neighborhood, what does it matter?”

Mike thinks I’m a poser, someone who’s jealous of his big-city life (he’s right) and insists: “Just be proud of where you come from.”

More specifically, Mike is from the South Side, where he lives in an apartment with his mom, Joanne (that is, when he’s not at St. Norbert College in Green Bay, Wisconsin). Since his older sisters and his dad, Dave, left, Mike has grown closer with his mom.

“When we’re home,” Mike said, “all we have is each other.”

The worst kind of family vacation

Mike was in the house the moment his mom told his dad to leave. He was hanging out with his friend, Luke, and as they were walking from the kitchen to the living room, they walked in front of his parents bedroom and saw his dad’s suitcase open on the bed.

"Dude! Where are you going on vacation?” Luke asked.

All of the sudden, Mike was ecstatic. But he contained his elation; he couldn’t find his mom and his dad seemed too preoccupied to celebrate with him. Before he could find someone to share his happiness with, “it was like ‘No, you’re dad left,’” Mike said.

“Shit.”

“He didn’t know how to be a dad”

Before the divorce, Mike thought he had a good relationship with his dad. They bonded over sports, particularly baseball, even though Mike preferred soccer. But as he grew up, Mike realized that “he wasn’t really a dad. He didn’t know how to be a dad.”

Dave was an alcoholic, one who was able to hide it from his son pretty well because Mike was over a decade younger than his sisters.

“But when I would go visit him for the day or the weekend or something like that,” Mike said, “I would bend down to look under the couch and there [were] just empty bottles of alcohol everywhere. He’d hide it under the couch, hide it under the bed, hide it in the trunk of his car.”

As time went by, Mike’s dad pushed his family, his friends and his responsibilities away to drink.

“He didn’t know what the hell he was doing, he just knew that he needed to keep drinking,” Mike said.

After two DUIs (one of which resulted in a coma after he was hit by a bus), losing two jobs and suffering a stroke, he decided to go to rehab.

“I don’t know what they did to him, but he’s all ‘God has a plan for me,’” Mike said. “He’s making amends… and the last two people he has to make amends with is me and my mom. We’re both like ‘No, you’re not gonna do that.’”

On birthdays and holidays, an unknown caller might flash across his screen, but Mike recognizes the number as his dad’s and denies it. Cards and voice messages are plenty: “I really don’t want to have actual interaction with him.”

“I,” Mike’s mouth started to huff like he was about to say “hate,” but he restrained himself. “I really dislike my dad. I don’t want to sit there and listen to him tell me how sorry he is and try to convince me that he’s going to be a new person,” Mike said. “I don’t believe it, nor do I really want to waste my time.”

“Something happened”

When Mike was a sophomore in high school, “something happened.” He was overwhelmed, trying to make time for his friends, his family and himself.

“Slowly, I just started to ice people. But then I just stopped talking to people in general,” Mike said.

After Mike stopped talking to his friends, he stopped eating. In the span of three months, starting around his birthday in October, he dropped 40 pounds. Before Christmas, he was in the hospital where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, an illness he was familiar with from his sister who was diagnosed when he was a little kid. Growing up, Mike routinely took trips to the hospital when his sister would attempt suicide, become dangerously skinny or stop responding to her medication. The prospect of having to deal with those things himself only made matters worse.

"My life, my way of thinking—that just brought me down a lot further than I wanted to be,” Mike said. “I wasn’t confident in the least bit in myself, in any aspect of who I was.”

But Mike went back to school, a place he said he had fun in at the time, and suppressed the battles in his head. He played soccer (he “really, really, really, really, really” wanted to play in college) and kept himself busy until he was on his way out the door to college.

What makes you roll your eyes every time you hear it?

Once Mike’s dad was gone (his oldest sister had already left), it was just him, his mom and his sister, Beth. They lived together for five years, and his mom “hated it so much” that one day she finally kicked out Beth too.

“Beth,” Mike declared, without hesitation, when I asked him what in the world he finds most annoying. “She’s manipulative, she’s a mean person, she doesn’t care about anyone but herself, she’s very self-centered and she takes advantage of my mom in any way she can, especially when it comes to money.” He stopped, obviously biting his tongue a bit, and shook his head.

So I take it you were happy she was gone?

“I was so jacked.”

Did you and your mom go out and get ice cream to celebrate?

“Actually, we did. Dead serious. Our favorite thing is to get ice cream together. We went to her favorite place, Andy’s, in part to celebrate Beth leaving.”

Maryville

Once Beth was out of the picture, Mike moved into an apartment with his mom; but, within weeks, he was off to college at Maryville University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Maryville was the first school Mike visited when he started thinking about college. “It set the bar pretty high. There were other schools that I liked,” Mike said, “but they were too far for my liking.” Maryville also offered him the most substantial scholarship, so the decision felt like a no-brainer.

Mike didn’t have any friends at Maryville. Actually, he was always set on going to college somewhere where he didn’t know anyone. Mike wanted to make friends on his own, something he felt like he’d never had to do before.

“It failed so miserably,” Mike said. “When I got to college, I was scared because I was on my own. There was nothing to do. I was alone, so I was just in my own head a lot. I tried to kill myself,” Mike trailed off, letting the music in the background void the silence. “That was scary.”

Even before Mike starting thinking about suicide, he “just didn’t feel right being at college.” He was far from home, and his roommate left every weekend, leaving Mike alone from Friday night until Sunday. In that time, Mike didn’t go out of his way to make friends, he didn’t go to campus events or involvement fairs. He didn’t go outside at all unless it was for a trip to class, the bathroom or the dining hall.

Then, his neighbor killed himself. Two days later, his neighbor’s neighbor did the same.

“It was stupid, but I was like ‘Shit, well if they can do it, I can.”

Mike started leaving his room more often, but only to go on walks at night.

“My mind trails so easily,” Mike said. “I would play out the events in my head. What are my resources? What times are good to do what? My walks at night were to see what spots I could kill myself in. They were hidden—out of sight, out of mind—so I was like ‘If I did here, no one would find out.’ It wouldn’t be a big deal.”

Leaving Maryville—and solitude—behind

Mike called his mom right after. “We need to get the ball rolling so I can get out of here,” he told her, but he didn’t mention what had happened.

His mom told him to stay through the end of the year, but ultimately agreed that he should find a new school after he said his friend group was awful and he was spending too much time alone. He finished out the semester (there was less than two weeks left), performing awfully his finals, but passing his classes. From there, he applied at the next school that would offer a hefty enough transfer scholarship: St. Norbert.

While at St. Norbert, Mike met DJ, his best friend and his hype man. They met through mutual friends and shared a lot of the same interests, but their friendship really budded when they started smoking together.

“We would step into the bathroom—it was like our therapy session—and we’d talk to each other about each other’s days,” Mike said. “When we got down, we would just talk it out with each other. We didn’t need responses to each other, it was just someone to listen.”

“Cliché, maybe cheesy, but it’s okay to not be okay,” Mike said. “It’s just taking it one step at a time and knowing that you’re going to be okay.”