Through the Looking Glass: My Father's Illness

by Lauren Harris | 1/8/15 11:15pm


My father passed away the summer before my sophomore year. That’s how I always start the explanation, and that’s often how I end it. When people ask about my father, they don’t expect a tragic story as a response, and I truly do not wish to present them with one. Death is already painful and complicated. Loss of a parent is immensely difficult — the story is already sad, regardless of the circumstances.

One of the main reasons that I tend to avoid talking about my father’s death is that the words themselves are so melodramatic — “My dad committed suicide.” The phrasing makes it sound like a crime and an illness wrapped up in one. There are so many inherent associations with those words that it becomes nearly impossible to conceptualize the phrase as anything that could possibly have happened in my life. Confronting the reality of my father’s suicide has always reminded me of the visceral feeling I had at a funeral when I was younger upon seeing a corpse in a coffin for the first time. It is so grotesque that it seems as though it must be fake. I am seized with an intense desire to escape that mental space.

I was in middle school when I first realized that my father struggled with depression. I don’t remember how it came up exactly, but I recall my mom gently explaining to me that dad’s depression didn’t have anything to do with me or our family’s situation, and that he was seeing a psychiatrist for treatment. I never talked to my dad about it personally — our relationship wasn’t like that. He was quiet, intellectual and introverted — not overly affectionate or gregarious. But we were close and had a lot in common. We shared intellectual discussions rather than emotional ones. He had a dry sense of humor and sharp wit that I inherited, and his mental capacity for factual knowledge was enviable and immensely impressive. He knew so much. Sometimes we would go for walks in a nearby park, and he would teach me the correct names for all the birds we saw. Once he explained to me, on our daily drive to my middle school, how vehicle traffic followed many of the laws of fluid dynamics. On the rare occasions that I was going to leave home for more than a few days, he would embrace me, and we would exchange “I love yous.” But as far as I can recall, we rarely verbally shared our feelings in a substantial way. I don’t think it bothered either of us.

I didn’t think about my dad’s depression much until I got older. Many of his symptoms could be attributed to an introverted personality, so his behavior didn’t seem remarkable. But I slowly began to understand that the extent to which he required time alone, as well as the occasional intensity of his negative emotions, was not necessarily typical.

In hindsight, his depression must have worsened gradually, but it never seemed as though it was overtaking his existence. Though I sensed the distance that separated him from myself and everyone else, I never even skimmed the surface of what may have been an overwhelming and increasing feeling of despair . It’s still difficult for me to understand, because my dad never outwardly or explicitly expressed any sadness to me. There was so much he enjoyed doing — talking long walks on the boardwalk, caring for our cats, cooking dinner and driving me from piano lessons to ballet to horseback riding lessons without ever complaining.

When I left for my first year at Dartmouth, I rarely kept in touch with dad. That was normal for us. We spoke on the phone about once a week, and we emailed back and forth. He would send me links to blues music videos on YouTube, and I would update him with the day-to-day craziness of freshman year: my atrocious grades in Math 11, my deteriorating sleep schedule and getting to know my roommate. He seemed, for lack of a better word, okay. I wasn’t thinking about his depression — after all, I usually didn’t.

When I came home for the summer and started spending time with him again, I sensed that something was different. Though my parents and I were living in the same house, I sometimes felt as if the three of us were leading separate lives. Dad spent most of his time alone, taking walks or listening to music, and he was emotionally even more distant than usual. He got angry about seemingly trivial things — a malfunctioning stove, a stain on the carpet. I didn’t understand what was going on with him or what might have changed that was affecting his psychological well-being so intensely, but I suspected that he had begun using alcohol as a coping mechanism. The realization of this possibility shook me.

It was an immensely difficult few months for my parents and me. As the summer was ending, I finally mustered up the courage to try talking to my dad about what he was going through. I told him that I knew that he had struggled with depression in the past and asked him if he would consider seeing a therapist again. He resisted, noting that his previous experience seeking out treatment felt ineffective and that no one had ever been able to really help him. I expressed my love for him and retreated, deciding that he knew what was best for himself.

Fast-forward a few weeks, and dad is checked into an intensive psychological care unit for one week following an emotional breakdown, which must have been brewing since at least the beginning of the summer. Instead of coming home afterward, he tells me that he is planning on going on “a long vacation.” Maybe to Florida. He’s not sure yet. He avoids eye contact and gives me a hug. I tell him I love him and ask him to stay in touch. I watch him drive away. That night, he attempts to end his life.

When the policeman knocked that night, I was already in bed. I thought it was dad trying to get in. The officer informed us that dad had tried to kill himself, that he had been found and that he was now in a nearby hospital in critical condition. A note for each of us was found.

The following week was a blur of hospital rooms. Though my dad had attempted an overdose, it had not resulted in his death. I tried to wrap my mind around the fact that dad had wanted to die. At the same time, I understood that this drive was the result of his depression. So maybe he wouldn’t have wanted all these doctors to try to save him. I didn’t know. There was no way I could know.

After about five days in the hospital, and the day before I was supposed to head back to Dartmouth for sophomore fall, my dad regained consciousness. We suspected enormous brain damage, but somehow — although he wasn’t totally himself — he seemed to be getting better. It was unbelievable. It was, maybe, a miracle. He smiled, took my hand and told my mom and me that he loved us and that he was sorry if he had “screwed anything up.” We told him we loved him, that everything was okay and that we were so happy he would be coming back home. I promised to keep in touch once I had moved in. The next day, he went into cardiac arrest. He passed away shortly thereafter.

Because of my own profound difficulty with discussing the situation, I rarely divulge any information about my father’s death that I deem “unnecessary.” Until now, I have only shared the full story with mental health professionals and a few close friends. Occasionally I am presented with a specific question pertaining to the circumstances, but when this happens, I tend to mumble something about how he was “dealing with a lot of health issues” and “got bad really quickly.”

I’m still not sure how to feel about all this. On one hand, I realize that no one is ever prepared, when they ask me about my dad, for my response to include suicide. I do not wish to burden someone with any sense of obligation to discuss the circumstances further, but I am conflicted by my own personal conviction that mental health’s stigma in our culture prevents those who truly need help from seeking it out. We need to consider depression and suicide as valid topics of discussion, not sources of shame or secrecy. I share the experience of my father’s suicide not simply to discuss what I went though on a personal level, but rather with a desire to increase the openness of our discourse on mental health.

Grieving for my dad was challenging and painful. Though I was surrounded by an immensely supportive group of friends, I rarely discussed the depth of what I was dealing with internally. I’ve always been rather emotionally independent, and to be honest I wasn’t sure that talking about it with my friends would do any good. That’s not to say that I am not eternally grateful for their support. I could not have made it through that fall without them.

It’s also possible that I was repressing a lot of what I was feeling. I started seeing a therapist at Dick’s House when I realized that I’d been ignoring the symptoms of what were likely panic attacks. She suggested that I plan a memorial service in dad’s honor to help make my grieving more productive, and I found the process to be very healing. But the sadness still came in waves, knocking me down at a moment’s notice when something reminded me of him. I stuttered when I accidentally talked about dad in the present tense. Mom and I spoke on the phone often.

In some ways, understanding the intensity of my father’s mental anguish helps lessen the blow of his death. He was a truly wonderful father, with a sharp mind and a deeply good soul, and he also had been struggling with an intense sadness for most of his adult life. These aspects of his being coexisted. I try to find solace in the fact that, in the final moments I shared with him, he seemed to find clarity. His final words to my mother and me conveyed the deep and true love that he had always felt for us. It seemed as though he had achieved a state of grace. His suffering has ended.

Of course, this is not how I feel it should have ended. I’m not sure what would have happened if he had ever placed a stronger interest in attempting to improve his psychological well-being, either with more intensive medication or new modes of therapy. But I don’t think he ever would have taken either of those routes by choice, as I am fairly certain that he did not actually believe that he was depressed — there was an enormous amount of denial at play. Still, I wish I could have convinced him to try, and I continue to grapple with my inability to reach out to him in that way.

Taken at face value, suicide is a choice. But it is also a result of depression, which is not a choice — it is an illness. And one of its most troubling symptoms is a lessened ability to think in a way that would be considered rational. When someone believes, on a fundamental level, that their life is not worth living, suicide may present itself as an option — and a depressed person may find this conclusion to be singular and inescapable. I refuse to the blame the victim of mental illness for attempting or committing suicide. In the future, I hope that we place more emphasis on encouraging people to seek out guidance to better understand their own psychological well-being, for mental illness’s stigma leads many to refuse to seek out treatment. Only by understanding mental illness for what it is — an illness — can we begin to approach understanding and healing.

I have read many articles that put forward the claim that suicide is selfish. My dad did not choose to end his life because it was the easiest way out for him. He devoted so much of his life to caring for my mother and me that it would be impossible for me to view his death as a premeditated act of desertion. There is a difference between selfishness and hopelessness, and my dad’s death was a result of despair following an intense psychological breakdown. I truly believe that his depression caused him to feel that ending his own life was the least obtrusive way to exit. It is with this in mind that I am able to move forward.

I am not sure that I will ever be able to completely make peace with my father’s death. Though I am usually able to view his depression somewhat clinically through the lens of psychology, I do not wish to give the false impression that I have completely come to terms with what transpired. I continue to grapple with guilt, and I wonder if I could have done anything differently during his life to prevent such a tragic outcome. Another source of guilt is that, despite what has happened, I am pretty much doing okay.

Of course, I think about dad all the time, and I miss him. Some days are worse than others. The only thing to do now is to focus on the positives — all of his contributions to our family, the essential goodness of his being and my memories of our time together.

Editor’s Note: If you or someone you love is considering suicide, there are resources available for you.

Dick’s House: (603) 646-9442 during work hours or (603) 646-4000 at other times.

National Suicide Hotline: 1 (800) 273-8255