My dad was slowly changing before my eyes. He turned inward, he became quieter, more detached. he stopped asking me questions and stopped listening when I told him about my day. Instead of playing with me on the weekends he would take naps. He stopped smiling and the light went out of his eyes. I was 13 years old and didn’t know what was happening to him. He and my mom were always talking behind closed doors or taking walks without us in the evenings. At the time I thought it was weird, and now I know I was scared.
I asked my mom about it and she told me that my dad didn’t feel good because of some stress at work. He was a lawyer in Washington D.C. and had a lot of pressure to perform. Ok, I thought, makes sense. But as the weeks and months went by and he seemed to drift farther and farther away, I felt on a gut level that something more was going on. I asked my mom again and got the same answer. I didn’t buy it anymore.
So one Saturday, I walked right up to him, looked him straight in the eye and said, “dad, what’s wrong?” He looked startled and was at a loss for words. After a long pause he said, “I don’t feel good.” I asked him, “When are you going to feel better?” I will never forget how his beautiful blue eyes filled with tears. I had never seen my dad cry and it scared me. Something serious must be wrong. I waited for a minute but he didn’t say anything else. I ran to my room and slammed the door, waiting for him to come in and talk about it. But he never did. Silence.
Four days later he was dead. He hung himself in our basement and while the rest of my family was still sleeping, I walked in and found him. Shortly after his suicide my mom told my sister and I that he had “depression” and was taking “antidepressants” — things I had never heard of. Why hadn’t I known this before? What did depression mean? Did the medicine make him die? Why hadn’t we all talked about this? So much silence about such an important subject.
Now at age 32 I have major depression and generalized anxiety disorder. I wish I could say that the silence about mental illness ended with my father but it didn’t. For most of my adult life I have hidden it away, even from close friends and most definitely from coworkers. I wanted to keep my depression in a little box that I stored deep inside of myself where nobody could see it. Too many times I have said “oh, I’m fine” or “I’m just tired” when asked if something was wrong. Things my dad probably said. The silence continued.
What was I so afraid of? What was my dad so afraid of? What are we all so afraid of? The stigma of mental illness? Would saying it out loud make it too real? Would other people dislike us or feel uncomfortable or think we were crazy? Would we be unfit for work, or for love, or for life if we had depression, or bipolar or anxiety?
These fears make the anguish of mental illness so much more intense, or in my dad’s case, unbearable. At a time when we deserve the support of other people, we hide away our sickness because we are afraid of rejection. At a time when we deserve to lighten our load, we pile it on even heavier by adding the weight of guilt and shame.
It is time to talk. It is time to share. It’s time to end the silence. Why? Because nothing is wrong with you as a person. Because you deserve support and treatment for your medical condition. But most of all, because your well-being and your health are more important than anyone’s reaction. A lifetime of openness and self-acceptance are worth infinitely more than a few moments of potential discomfort. Say it out loud because keeping it in makes it worse. Say it out loud for my dad who couldn’t. Say it out loud for me. Say it out loud for you.
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