This is going to get personal. Perhaps uncomfortably so. But this has been on my mind a lot recently. Bail out now if you must. I won’t judge you.
One of my most dominant memories of my dad was how no matter how early I woke up, he was already there, sitting in the dining room in the dark. He was one of the first things I saw when I padded down the hallway towards the kitchen. Sometimes he’d have music playing quietly, and my morning would be set to a soundtrack of Vivaldi or Beethoven or Dave Brubeck Quartet. He would sit alone in the dining room, a cup of coffee in his favorite mug, stolen from a diner in Denver when he was much younger, maybe a Camel filter or two, which he stubbed out in this salmon colored motel-style melamine ashtray, or maybe the abalone shell he reserved for just such a purpose.
Dad liked silence–quiet time with his books, or sitting in the sun on the back porch.
I owe a lot of who am now to him. Until the last few years, I didn’t realize how much. While mom took a very active role in our lives, dad’s aloofness left a different fingerprint.
When I was in 8th grade, I started having pronounced problems with school. At the time, I think they were viewed as a problem with authority, which I know has been an issue for me time and again. But there was a certain self-destructiveness that I couldn’t understand. I failed assignments I was perfectly capable of doing. I just didn’t bother putting in the work.
It drove my 8th grade English teacher crazy.
At one point, as I was in danger of failing the class (despite acing all the quarterly tests), she suggested in a parent teacher conference that maybe I had a learning disability. Dad was outraged and I remember him kind of exploding at her. But he was frustrated at me because we all knew I could do the work. I just wasn’t doing it. My parents even sent me to see a psychologist for two unfruitful sessions.
I didn’t know what to tell her. She didn’t know what to tell me. We were back at square one.
I failed 8th grade English.
It was devastating. I knew I let my parents down. But I didn’t know why I couldn’t just handle my shit. I felt broken. Useless. I wanted to die, but in saying so, in saying I wanted to kill myself because I was such a fuck-up, my kid brother started crying because he didn’t want anything to happen to me. That was a bit of a wake-up call.
I don’t know if I actually would have killed myself. I doubt I would have. But it was the first time I actually thought about it.
I was 14.
I failed 8th grade English the second time, too, for the record. I don’t know if it’s possible for a teen to have a nemesis, but that particular teacher has been one of only two that I every truly cultivated. By my senior year, I was in AP English, a class in which I did quite well.
But I never quite figured out what was WRONG with me.
Then my dad died eleven years ago, and with that came a certain kind of distance that my mom felt comfortable sharing things that had never been shared before.
One of these was that my dad had struggled with extreme depression for most of his life. He generally woke up in tears and needed an hour or two by himself in the dark, steeling himself to go out and face the world. Sadly, that information was kept secret, even from my brothers and I. When I finally found out, I was halfway through my 40’s. I’d known several people quite well who were being treated for severe depression, but hadn’t seen the symptoms in myself.
Of course, once I knew, my deep funks and long, dark tea-times of the soul started to make a lot of sense. Knowing I was predisposed to depression made it easier to deal with, made it easier to take preemptive self-care as needed.
A few weeks ago, I read something about how depression manifests in complicated ways. It isn’t just sitting in the dark being sad. It’s also a messy home, or failing at work that you’re 100% capable of doing.
Just like I had in 8th grade.
Apparently, my parents were looking out for what they thought of as warning signs for depression, and they didn’t realize there were a lot of signs they missed. If they had been upfront about the history of depression in the family, maybe those two sessions with the psychologist would have gone differently.
But they didn’t. I continued to fail and flounder and wonder why I was broken for decades.
Around the time my dad died, maybe a year or two later, my son started having severe problems in school. There was only so much I could do about it, as he lived with his mom half-way across the country at the time. I could tell that his mom was at her wit’s end because she turned to me to help find out what the problem was.
The thing was, I didn’t know what the problem was.
See, I still didn’t know about the depression. I didn’t know about the role it likely played in my academic dysfunction. So ultimately I ended up as frustrated as my dad did.
Looking back, all the signs were there.
I’m proud to say that my son pulled it together, despite the burden of our blood. He’s a brilliant young man with a bright future, a spirit for adventure, and a real talent in the kitchen. And he knows the pitfalls that we’re dealing with because we’ve discussed depression since then.
Depression was something people kept hidden in my dad’s time. It was viewed as a flaw of character, a sign of weakness. And that’s bullshit. Depression is just like every other mental illness: an illness. It can be managed. There is a wealth of resources that weren’t available three decades ago. Part of what really helps me, I’m discovering, is being honest and open about it. And I’ve got good people around who I can talk to. I’m doing well now.
Maybe not NOW, now. But I know this comes and goes. There are bad days, and for me at least they’re greatly out-numbered by the good ones.
And that’s enough.