When I found my father’s journals, I knew I had to stop running away from mental illness. They were at the bottom of a box containing his unpublished plays and stories that revealed his struggles during the time I was growing up. By the time I read them I was a successful psychotherapist with a set of interlocking secrets: Mental illness ran in my family. My father was mentally ill. I suffered from depression and bipolar illness myself. I imagined I could run away from the reality of my own suffering by getting educated and treating others.
Then I opened the box and found the journals. I was alternately mesmerized, horrified, and transformed. Here is a small excerpt:
Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers, writers with credits a block long, unable to sell, unable to find work, Yes, it’s enough to make anyone, blanch, turn pale and sicken.
Faster, faster, faster, I walk. I plug away looking for work, anything to support my family. I try, try, try, try, try. I always try and never stop.
A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried. All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education.
I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying. Yes, on a Sunday morning in early November, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.”
Six days after his November 8th entry, my father tried to kill himself. I was five years old. I never understood what happened to my father, but I was told he was in a hospital. Every Sunday for a year my uncle took me to visit him. I can still picture the line of trees as we neared Camarillo State Hospital after the two hour drive north from Los Angeles.
My father seemed strange when I saw him. Not at all like himself. He seemed distracted and distressed and the hospital seemed like a strange place. No one was in a bed, but everyone looked weird. Some people were talking to themselves. Others rocked back and forth. Some were yelling and others were mute. They all looked scary and I seemed to be the only kid that was there to visit.
I asked my uncle about the “hospital” and he explained vaguely that my father had suffered a “nervous breakdown” and he would get better soon. I got the idea that it was part of my job as his son to come visit and it would help him get well and come home. I had remembered that sometime around the time of his hospitalization he had gotten in an auto accident and I remember seeing him with a cut on his forehead. I assumed that his “auto accident” and “nervous breakdown” were related and as soon as the cut on his forehead healed he would come right home.
My mother said little about his condition, when he would come home, or what a “nervous breakdown” was. Every week as we prepared to visit I would get more and more anxious and worried. I felt if I didn’t go, he would get sicker. If I did go I was afraid I would catch whatever sickness he had and I would end up at Camarillo State.
After more than a year of visits with my father getting worse to a point where he no longer recognized me, I was able to convince my mother not to make me go. My uncle continued the visits for seven years, until one day my father escaped. When my mother heard the news she sent me to stay with neighbors. She said she was afraid he would hurt me.
I came to believe a number of things about mental illness:
• People who have it are crazy.
• People who are crazy end up in a “nut house.”
• Crazy people are dangerous.
• Once you become crazy you will never be the same again.
I worried that I would end up like my father, but really had no idea what was really wrong with him, what caused him to attempt to take his own life, or what I could do to keep it from happening to me. But I decided to become a “mental health professional.”
Consciously I thought it would be a good profession. Subconsciously I thought it might help me understand what happened to my father and how to prevent it from happening to me. Becoming a professional helped me better understand, but what really opened me up was finding my father’s journals.
Hearing his words helped me realize that I had been suffering from depression myself. Like him, I struggled trying to get my writing published. Like him I struggled trying to make a living to support my family. Like him I assumed if I couldn’t find work there must be something deficient about me as a man. Like him I tried to keep the despair at bay, but when I reached midlife my past caught up with me.
It was my wife’s love and support and her insistence that I was depressed that finally got me to see a doctor. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (manic-depressive). I was prescribed medications and began weekly psychotherapy sessions. My doctor told me I might need to take medications my whole life, but she was willing to work with me to get off the medications if I wanted to do so. After six years and a lot of therapy I was able to finally live medication free. I’m clear that if I need to go back on medications I would, but I’ve learned other ways to deal with my ups and downs and the stresses and strains of life.
Gradually I’ve opened more to friends and even my clients, sharing my own experiences when it seemed helpful and appropriate. I look forward to hearing from others about their experiences with mental health and mental illness. I feel “coming out” has allowed me to be a better therapist as well as a better man. Thanks for letting me share this with you.
Jed Diamond, Ph.D., is the Founder and Director of the MenAlive, a health program that helps men live long and well. Though focused on men’s health, MenAlive is also for women who care about the health of the men in their lives. Jed is the author of 14 books including his latest: The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best is Still to Come. Since its inception in 1992, he has been on the Board of Advisors of the Men’s Health Network. He is also a member of the International Society of Men’s Health and a founding member of the American Society of Men’s Health. He blogs for The Good Men Project, ThirdAge, Huffington Post, BeliefNet, Scribd, and other venues. He is the only male columnist who blogs for the National Association of Baby Boomer Women. His homepage is MenAlive.com.