In My Father’s Shadow

I recently read this article in the Washington Post in which a woman talks about her father’s suicide and refuses to keep her own depression a secret as an adult no matter how scared she feels about talking. The traumatic descriptions of witnessing her father’s depression as a child reminded me of my own father’s struggle with mental illness and the parallels with my own experience. It’s something I’m scared of talking about even though I know how important it is. This is an attempt at writing about something honest in the hope that it will help someone else know they are not alone.

I did not lose my father to mental illness but I came very close. When I was 12 years old, my father had his first psychotic episode. In the year leading up to it, I can remember things got steadily worse. He didn’t sleep normally and yelled a lot, slammed doors and called me names. He was constantly nervous and agitated and his speech became increasingly paranoid, and started selling or giving away our family’s things because “we don’t need them anymore”. The fights between him and my mother were more than usual. At this time, he was at home most of the time writing his dissertation for his PhD. Now I can imagine how much stress he was under but at the time it was just terrifying for me as a child.

This culminated in a full-blown psychotic episode. The first sign I remember was when he was driving me on Tuesday from a piano lesson.  I thought everything was fine until I noticed his driving becoming more reckless than usual. I looked and saw that he was squeezing his eyes shut while driving full-speed with cars all around us. I yelled, “What are you doing?!” and his eyes flew open and we avoided a crash. He told me, “I had to do it. God wants me to prove my faith.” (I should mention that my father is a devout evangelical Christian who believes in the Bible literally, as was I at the time). But I knew at that moment that something was really wrong; this wasn’t normal for my father. My stomach somersaulted in fear the rest of the way home. Luckily we made it home without an accident but my fear of cars persists to this day.

In the following days, things only got worse. There was no more anger like in the months before. A frenetic, divine fervor took its place as my father was drawn deeper and deeper into a delusion that he was chosen as a prophet by god. He went about his divine duties with a sense of dogged purpose. He said with conviction that the apocalypse was coming and the rest of the world had been possessed by Satan. “When you go to school, please don’t make eye contact with anyone. Even the teachers,” he pleaded. “That’s how it spreads. Through the eyes.” One day, he unplugged our refrigerator and my mother couldn’t take it anymore. “You can sell our other things if you want,” she cried, “but don’t sell the refrigerator!” She added, “In case it takes Jesus longer than you think to come back.” He relented.

My grandmother was in the hospital at the time waiting for a hip surgery. We went to visit her and my dad told her, “Don’t get the surgery. Jesus is coming soon. Why bother when you’ll have a new hip in heaven anyways?” There was a look of sadness and confusion in her eyes. Soon after, he removed me from school and kept my mother and I inside the house. “Today Jesus is coming back,” he declared. He raced around the house frenetically in thought about how to prepare. I sat in my room with a hole of utter terror in my stomach. Praying. Could this be real? I was terrified of the End Times and the Final Judgement. How would Jesus judge me? What if he came and took my parents but left me here? And if this wasn’t real, was my dad crazy? Was my religion crazy?

My dad rushed into my room. “You have to come outside with me, now!” he said with a shaking voice. I can’t stand this anymore, I thought. I just can’t. “Why? I don’t want to! Just leave me alone!” I cried. He pulled me into his room and had me sit on his lap. I was angry with him until I saw tears running down his face. “Jesus is coming. Today. You have to believe me.” My mother was watching not knowing what to do. “Please. Just come outside with me. You don’t have to believe me but please do it.” By this time I was crying and filled with utter confusion. I didn’t want to go outside. His voice cracked and tears streamed down. “When Jesus comes, we’ll all go to heaven. And we have to be outside, or else, what if it misses us? I want us to all be together in heaven. Please.” I couldn’t refuse my father’s tearful face. My mother and I followed him outside into the garden.

We stood there. We sat. We paced. Waiting. Wondering if this could be true, or if my dad had lost it. Agonizing about both possibilities. After hours, Jesus still hadn’t come. My mother and I decided to go inside. “He’s not coming today,” we said. “But if he does, I’m sure he won’t forget us,” we reassured him. That day, my father went to our church and climbed to the top of a tower. He was going to jump to prove his faith, but the pastor saw him and called him down. My mother came and talked to the pastor. Together they finally convinced my father to get seen by a professional. “I know it doesn’t seem like you need help and maybe you don’t”, the pastor said. “But it can’t hurt, just in case. Just do it, to make your wife and daughter feel better. They don’t see the things you see, and it’s scaring them.”

So they went to the hospital. I don’t remember where I was at the time but my dad came home seeming a little bit calmer and more tired. They gave him an anti-psychotic medication at the hospital and he had started to question his delusions. They gave him a diagnosis and explained how what we had witnessed correlated with typical symptoms of the illness. I was relieved to have my father back, but an ache lodged itself in my stomach that has never really gone away. I have often wondered how our lives would have been different if he had jumped from the church tower that day.

After the initial episode, my father suffered more throughout the years, as he would periodically stop taking his medication. But these times my mother was prepared and it was never quite as bad or as long as the first one. They continued fighting and my mother often said she wanted a divorce, but my father always said it was against the Bible. I was forbidden to talk about my father’s illness and I was crushed in silent shame and anxiety. And as the traumas of puberty descended on me like an avalanche, I developed a lot of disturbing psychological symptoms myself. After being taken to the hospital for my first panic attack of hundreds, I saw many psychologists and received a variety of diagnoses, but it wasn’t until I was 21 that I was finally diagnosed with the same problem as my father. With the diagnosis came a feeling of relief that comes from knowing truth, but also a deep, cutting dread that I was like my father. After all I felt he put me through, I harbored so much anger and resentment towards him.

Through therapy I learned that I am not my father. My symptoms have never been like his. Although I may have gotten a genetic predisposition towards mental illness from him, how it manifests in me and how I choose to react is my own. Unlike he did, I am very lucky to have friends who I can talk to. Over the years my anger towards my father has softened. I can’t really imagine what it must have been like, being a lone warrior in God’s crusade against evil. Can’t imagine how he felt that day, trying to get us to come outside to wait for Jesus. But I do know that mental illness is very real and powerful.  Artists and musicians have been telling the world about this since forever. Cobain sang,

I’m so happy ’cause today
I’ve found my friends
They’re in my head
And I’m not scared
Light my candles, in a daze
‘Cause I’ve found god

But I hope for a day when not only world-weary artists but also teachers, doctors, stay-at-home moms, biology students, cashiers, waitresses, anyone can speak out about mental illness without fear of judgement and shame. Although I feel anxious even writing this, I’ll post it anyways, for myself and anyone else affected by mental illness. I just want to say: I see your struggle.