Mental Illness, Stigma, and My Dad

Twelve years ago my father died of pancreatic cancer. I got to spend many evenings with him in the month before he died. In the last week of my dad’s life, he shared with me one of his greatest fears. It’s probably one that most fathers, if they are good fathers, fear at the end of their life:

“Was I good enough?”

“Did I give my kids what they needed?”

He expressed it, at times, as a desperate lament:

“I know I failed in so many ways.”

“I could have done better.”

“If I knew then what I can see now…”

I was the baby in the family. The child that came much later than my brother and sister. My siblings joke (or maybe not) that I had it so much easier than they did. I got away with everything. Perhaps I wasn’t there for the more turbulent times. It’s true, things seemed pretty calm and stable in my childhood. Its also true that as a parent of a twenty and fifteen year old, I look back with some regret at those early years or parenting, or the first time through parenting a teenager. I am certain of one thing. If I am given the opportunity to know of my last days, I will wonder the same things my father did. I will ask the same questions he did.

“I hope I didn’t fail or hurt you too much.”

“Especially in those years when I wasn’t well, when I didn’t have my shit together.”

“I hope you understand.”

“I hope you don’t repeat my mistakes.”

“I hope you get help if you need to.”

I was in high school when my dad got help. It was for something I never knew he struggled with. I never saw him returning to the banks we cleaned to make sure the doors were locked, multiple times, at 2am, 3am. I was with friends or in my room listening to music when my dad agonized over whether the pothole he hit in the road was actually a person. I knew my dad stayed up late to watch sports, any sports for hours. He hinted on a few occasions that he was just a ‘melancholic’ kind of person. He said that some days it was just more intense than others. I certainly never saw what my siblings probably at least saw signs of.

In the late sixties and early seventies the local printing press my dad worked for, a significant employer in our town, the press my grandfather worked for, began implementing the practice of ‘swing-shifts’. This was before studies were done on the effect swing shifts had on the circadian rhythm of a person, and the subsequent effect on mental and physical health. In the seventies it was also very much NOT okay to talk about mental illness, depression, anxiety, especially for a man. Doctors prescribed amphetamines and barbiturates, ‘uppers and downers’, a ‘respectable’ way to deal with the problem of not being able to sleep, or not being able to get up or have energy for work. My dad was prescribed with these. They didn’t help.

I wasn’t there, but, in my teenage years I started hearing about this really difficult time in my dad’s life. He was also a typesetter at the press, which required a great deal of precision and detail. From the parts of the story I’ve pieced together, this combination of irregular sleep patterns and high stress/detail work, amplified by chemicals led to my dad’s first breakdown. It also led to his first very courageous move. He left his job. He left the ‘good factory job’ that any ‘good son’ would gratefully take. He left the job his father certainly helped him get. In small town Indiana in the seventies I can’t imagine the courage this took. I believe he did this because he saw what the effect of staying at that job would have on his family.

I didn’t see my dad’s second breakdown. I’m not sure whether it even was a breakdown. I bet no one but my mom knows the deepest details of any of this, and that’s just fine. What I do know is all I needed to know. My dad started going to a psychiatrist while I was in high school. My parents invited me to come along for the ride to some of the appointments. We’d usually make a day of it, go get dinner, maybe hit the mall or something while in Indy.

At some point my dad was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Anxiety. He went on medication. He talked about it. It helped. The biggest thing, it seemed, was knowing what it was. The worries over locks, or having accidentally done harm, or the ‘melancholic’ times, or the insomnia and ‘not being able to shut the brain off’ were not things that needed to be treated by masking them, or things to be ignored and just ‘pushed through’. They were thought processes and patterns that could be treated, maybe not ‘fixed’, but treated with medicine and therapy.

The stigma, at least for our family, was gone.

That’s a big deal, and it took courage.

My dad mentioned once to me that if getting help and talking about his mental illness did anything, he hoped that it would make it okay for other people, especially his kids, to get help if and when they needed it. When I remember my dad, I can say for certain that among the important things he taught me, this is in the top five. In his willingness to get help, to risk standing against the stigma still present in our culture, for the sake of his family, he demonstrated something profound. He showed that to be a good parent, spouse, or friend, one is not required to be without struggle or weaknesses, but rather one needs to be willing to admit need and at least try to get help. In fact, it is a toxic myth that to ask for help, to admit need is to be weak. The same myth also says that to cover over struggle and need, to mask it, is to be strong. To be clear, I’m not speaking of a narcissistic notion that one must wear one’s every need or struggle on their sleeve, demanding acknowledgment for it constantly. This was certainly not what my father did. The difference was that it wasn’t just about him. For him it was about his family. He stepped out courageously and got help. No doubt this was because the personal pain was too much to bear, but I believe (because I know my dad), even more so because he wanted to have done right by others around him, most importantly his family.

My siblings and I had a good conversation last Sunday about dad. It started with some joking over whether dad would have been on social media if he were still alive.  It turned, still with laughter, to some of dad’s “issues”. It was okay. We talked about some of our own issues, and how dad’s example has helped us be aware, but also know it’s okay to get help if we need it. I don’t struggle with the exact same things my dad did, but I know I’m his son. Just knowing what some of those “issues” I might be susceptible to are has kept me more vigilant than I would have been had he never talked about it. I’ve gotten help several times in my life for my own struggles with depression and anxiety. It’s okay. I don’t worry about what people might think, or about any stigma that still lingers about mental health issues. I give credit, in a large part, to my dad for paving the way.

I never got to tell my dad “thank you” in person for this, but I believe the best thing I can do to honor him is to continue to speak out against the stigma of getting help for mental health issues. Please don’t wait or feel ashamed to get help. It’s okay to get help because the personal burden is too much. But if not just for yourself, for the people around you who love you and depend on you. You don’t have to have been without struggles in this life to have done right by your family, friends, spouse, kids, loved ones, community. You don’t have to cover over those struggles for the sake of others. In fact, the best thing you CAN do is to get help. You are not alone.
RESOURCES: 1-800-273-8255

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One thought on “Mental Illness, Stigma, and My Dad

  1. Thank you, Father, for posting this beautiful and heartfelt article.

    I am a psychologist and I have also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, though with somewhat different symptoms. I will never say that I am “cured” because I know my brain’s tendencies, but I have been blessed to experience long-term remission (i.e. no significant symptoms in years). I offer this as encouragement to anyone who suffers from OCD or any other mind-based struggle.

    I also firmly believe that mental illness or psychological struggle is no cause for shame. We do not treat physical illness this way – and many mental illnesses have a significant genetic component. We cannot separate the mind from the body.

    It is also normal to find life painful at times and to not be able manage its challenges alone. We are not meant to handle them alone. God created us to thrive as community, giving and receiving from each other in many ways.

    I am actually grateful for my earlier years of suffering (though I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone) because they taught me so much in understanding and compassion for others.

    Again, thank you, for spreading the word (and the Word).

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