There were days where I came home and could hear the music erupting before even opening our blue front door. The stereo would be blasting his favorite songs, from Wilco’s “War on War” to The Flaming Lips’ “Fight Test,” as I burst through the door knowing today is a good day. My dad would be up working on a project or just sitting, content hearing the music play as I’d rush into his arms and the song continued “I don’t know where the sun beams end and star lights begin, it’s all a mystery…”
But this is not how most days go. Normally, I come home to find him lying in bed in a dark room, dead silent. It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. That fact makes my mom cry, wishing that my sister and I could recall the days where he was different, the days that she clings to when he was happy and healthy. I may not have the clear memories of what my dad was like before his depression took over, but I remember the feeling; the feeling of warmth and security in his arms.
My dad suffers from major depressive disorder as a result of 20 years of chronic pain. It didn’t become fully apparent to me until I was 11 just how serious his depression was. I watched him sink further and further into his sadness, watching the man who I thought was invincible morph into someone who could barely pull himself out of bed. As you would expect, the suffering of a parent, or anyone for that matter, sends a ripple effect to all those that love them.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, more than 15 million adults are affected by depression in the U.S. You would think that the prevalence would make it easier to talk about, less taboo, but that was not my experience growing up. Instead, much of my life has been spent deterring people from the truth, giving vague answers like “he’s sick” when new friends asked what’s wrong. But now, it’s time to break down those doors and get real.
There’s no easy way to navigate a life when your parent has a mental illness. Because they don’t always look sick, it’s easy for frustrations to build out of a lack of understanding. And at 11, it was hard to understand why he wasn’t getting better, an issue my family still struggles with today. With a lack of understanding of the reality of mental illnesses, I tiptoed around him, afraid to make his hurting any worse, but then would unwarrantedly overflow with frustration and anger.
It’s been tough to feel as though I’m supporting someone who is supposed to be supporting me. I was forced to face reality when I was still too young to fully understand. As our dynamic quickly changed, I would look at my friends who relied so safely on their fathers in a way that I hadn’t done since I was a child with resentment. Growing up, this was one of the hardest things for me to tackle and I would express it in the worst of ways. My moments of insensitivity are seared in my brain, one of my worst I still vividly recall to this day. I remember standing in my kitchen, screaming at the top of my lungs “Why don’t you try? You’ve never tried! You don’t even care to get better, you don’t care about any of us!” I remember how coldhearted I felt as I watched him overflow with tears, so lost for words to explain what was going on inside of him, insisting that he was trying. And I remember turning my back and saying “No, you’re not.”
But now, with time and maturity, I know he is. It’s taken ten years for me to better understand my family and our struggles in light of my dad’s depression. Sometimes, with the stress of what’s going on, I lose sight of all the things he has taught me, despite his internal struggles. He showed me how to be generous and kind, to not underestimate my own abilities and to always keep my chin up. Most importantly, he taught me to remain compassionate and understanding, aware of the fact that you can’t always outwardly see people’s suffering. I appreciate the small moments with him where I can see how loving and smart he is, even though sometimes he forgets to search for that in himself. He will always be the person I turn to in hard times and he will forever be my best friend, despite everything that’s happened.
Our journey hasn’t been perfect, but I doubt many peoples are. Even though I’m older, there are still days where I falter. There are days where I wish he was just happy and healthy, that we had a simple life in our little yellow house with the blue front door, laughter erupting through the walls. But this isn’t our reality, and even though it’s challenging, I know that we are stronger people because of it. We take the bad days with the good and continue to navigate the world, furthering our understanding and uplifting him as much as we can. We stand by his side, my mother, sister and I, because that’s what family is for.
I’ll never let go of the hope that I’ll come home and hear the same music on the speakers through our now weathered blue door and see him smiling and proud. These are the days that keep us all strong, the days where the sun shines and the radio plays, “I don’t know how a man decides what’s right for his own life, it’s all a mystery…”