Oct 26, 2016
This content contains explicit and sensitive information that may not be suitable for all ages.
As a kid, I grew up in a household where comedy was king.
My father was a real life Foghorn Leghorn and my brother and I were the baby chicken hawks he was always trying to impart his sometimes flawed wisdom upon.
We laughed and joked and generally had fun. My dad was always smiling. Except when he wasn’t. I was pretty young the first time I noticed that sometimes my dad would sit very still at the kitchen table and not move for sometimes hours at a time. If I got close enough, I could hear his tears splash on the plastic table cloth. I would have done anything to make him laugh then. I would do my cartoon voices, I would dance and sing (badly) anything to make him smile. At the time my mom told me that everyone cries sometimes and that it was okay. My dad would be okay. And then the sun would come out in our house again – all was well.
And then the sun would come out in our house again – all was well.
It wasn’t until my late teens, when my parents had to be honest with me. I had been suffering with my own symptoms for a long time, but didn’t talk about them. I put on my own smiley face even when it almost crushed me. But when I was 18, my dad needed rides to the hospital for his shock treatments. Shock treatments? Wait. What? My dad was clinically depressed and had been since he was a teenager. His first episode was in 1957, when at the age of 17 just couldn’t cope and would hide for days at a time. They explained all this to me at the same kitchen table where I watched my dad sit and cry many times over the years. My mom was working full time and my older brother was away at university. I had to drive dad. There was no one else.
Seeing my larger than life, boisterous and fun-loving dad after his shock treatments is an image I will never forget. He was ashen faced, slack jawed, and his prematurely grey hair stood on end. He was shown to the door of the hospital and I would lead him to the car. I’d buckle him in safely as he did for me as a child so often. I would have given anything at that time to make him laugh. Even though I knew that wasn’t how it worked. I still tried. I would always try.
Now, at age 48, looking back, I understand a lot of how my dad tried to manage his depression. I was diagnosed with bipolar depression and I confess, I felt a certain amount of guilt that I was sick and my son (now 14) might have to witness some of my symptoms. When he was diagnosed a few years ago with severe anxiety and panic disorder with OCD, I understood at that moment why my dad felt guilty when I was diagnosed and couldn’t shake the guilt.
It is not who we are or who we are meant to be.
As illogical as it is, as parents, we feel that we should have some measure of control over our kids’ health and if we’re sick and then they become sick, it is somehow our fault. Another layer of despair gets added to an already heavy load. Over time and with the advocacy work that I am passionate about, I’ve come to realize that mental illness is just a part of our family. It is not who we are or who we are meant to be, but it is something that we manage and even thrive in sometimes.
My father would be so inspired to see the work that is being done to reduce stigma around mental health. For him, there was no conversation. There was no support. I believe in the work that’s being done so that my son can have even better conversations with no shame.