“Dad doesn’t have depression. I don’t care what they say. He’s not depressed.”
I repeated these lines over and over and over again in my head as I paced around my room. “Dad laughs too much,” I said to myself. “He’s too happy. He can’t possibly be depressed. They obviously don’t know what they are talking about.”
This was the very first “bad day” I had ever experienced with my Dad. I came home from high school during my junior year, and there were a number of cars in our driveway. I immediately picked out a few I knew: my Grandpa’s, my Aunt’s, my Dad’s boss. It was a weird collection for a get-together that Mom had probably reminded me of but that I had most likely forgotten.
When I entered the house, I realized quickly that this was no happy get together. The odd conglomeration of family members, friends, and coworkers were sitting in our living room, which was strange because we never sat in our living room. It was a museum, the room of the house that was kept perfect and spotless in case someone stopped over. My Mom has always kept our entire house spotless, but the living room was always perfect. Today, even in the midst of all these intruders, was no different. And to top it all off, they were all actually sitting on the living room furniture! No one sits on the living room furniture! It’s uncomfortable. It’s not broken in like the couch downstairs. Why weren’t they downstairs?
One look at my Mom told me that folks sitting on our living room furniture would be the least of my worries on that day. She had been crying. She cried on occasion, but I could tell from the swollen look in her eyes that this was no ordinary crying. This was a desperate cry, a cry related to severe hurt. She looked at me tenderly, offering a very warm “Hi, honey.” It was a greeting filled with compassion; the type of compassion that you get when you’re about to be hit with something awful. It was the type of compassion that said “Your world is about to change. Your life is about to be more complicated than it’s ever been before. And more than anything I’d wish that I could take you back to the days where you ran around in pajama sleepers and watched Sesame Street all day, but I know that your innocence is about to be taken from you—violently and swiftly.”
My Grandpa spoke first, which is not a coincidence in our family. He’s always been the leader, the mouthpiece, and the voice of our family. It doesn’t hurt his case that he’s naturally loud, but we always looked to him as a leader for more than his volume. He just assumed that role, in both good times and bad, but especially in bad times. Any time that there was bad news to deliver, my Grandpa just naturally did it. And he often did it in a way that would surprise you. On most ordinary days, my Grandpa could be impatient, opinionated, and slightly cantankerous—always caring, but just delivered in a more colorful package. But on this day, he was different—tender, quiet, methodical, and deliberate.
“Ty,” he said, “We don’t know where your Dad is.”
“What do you mean you don’t know where he is? He’s probably at work. Call his cell phone,” I said, starting to wonder whether or not this whole argument of “wisdom comes with age” was actually accurate if they couldn’t even think to call someone’s cell phone.
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” he replied.
Then, Mom chimed in. “I don’t really know how to tell you this, but your Dad suffers from depression. This hasn’t happened in a long time, but when things get really bad, he just…sort of…disappears. He takes off and we don’t quite know where he goes.”
“Dad’s not depressed,” I hit back. “He’s not depressed. Come on, he’s happy all the time.”
They both looked at me with a sympathetic eye. They knew this wouldn’t make sense to me, but they also knew they were right. They knew I would have trouble accepting the fact that my Dad had depression, and knew I probably didn’t even understand what depression was. “This hasn’t happened in a long time. The last time it happened was right before you were born, and we are fortunate that it hasn’t happened since,” Mom said.
Right before I was born? How could I not know about this? How had this never been mentioned in a conversation? Noted in a family history? Brought up at some point, any point? How could I not know something as significant as the fact that my Dad had a random desire to run away from his family?
Before that moment, I had used the phrase “shell-shocked” many times, but never knew what it meant, how it felt. All in all, I had lived a pretty comfortable, safe, and sheltered lifestyle. I was an only child, which meant that nearly any time I wanted the attention of a parent, I had it—many times without even asking. All of my grandparents were still alive, even including a great-Grandmother who was in her late eighties—a feat I knew many of my classmates were not so lucky to have experienced. I think back to those years, and beyond a few members of our church and acquaintances of my parents, I can’t think of one significant, life-altering death that had happened before that moment. I knew I was lucky, but in that moment, hearing that my Dad was missing, I immediately felt like the unluckiest kid in the world.
My Grandpa and Mom continued to talk, but I honestly wasn’t listening. It was like they were talking to me from across an open field—I could hear their voices, but the sounds they were making were too faint, too distant to mean anything. It washed over me, but it didn’t sink in. They continued to talk, and I would catch random pieces: he hadn’t taken his medicine, the police were looking for him, Uncle Lee is driving around hoping to spot him, his cell phone is turned off.
My mind began to spin, much more than it ever had. Where was Dad? Why was he gone? Why did he feel the need to leave? What was depression? Why would he just run off? Would he lose his job? Would we go broke? Would we lose our house? Was he mad at my Mom? Was he mad at me? Was it something I said? Did I tell him that morning that I loved him? Was it my fault?
These questions choked off any ability for me to listen to anything my Mom and Grandpa were saying, and they understood that I didn’t understand. Finally, I had the courage to voice this frustration and lack of understanding. “I just don’t get how he could be depressed. He was fine this morning.”
They continued to talk, offering to answer any questions I had, but I was so confused that I didn’t even know what questions I should be asking. So I did what any high school student would do in a situation where their world is suddenly turned on its axis—I said I was okay, didn’t ask any more questions, grabbed my backpack, and retreated to the solitude of my room. It was a small room that hadn’t changed much since I was a kid. Just recently, my parents had redone it, swapping out the childish baseball theme for a more rustic, vintage, young-adult baseball theme. I loved that room, but in that moment it felt like a jail cell. I shut the door behind me, as murmurs of a very complicated adult conversation were still drifting up the stairway. The famous blue carpet that I had picked out as a kid was still there, and I tossed my things down on it, flopped on the bed, grabbed the remote, and sunk into the mattress.
None of this made any sense at all. It just didn’t compute. Didn’t match the image of my Dad. My Dad, like many Dads, was Superman. He could do anything. Anything I couldn’t do, he could do with ease. And anything I could do? Well, he could always do it better. A carpenter by trade, Dad had a unique talent for building things. Not just any things, but big things. Like the garage-and-foyer-on-our-house things. A maintenance technician by practice, he could fix things that other people had built to be inferior. From little problems like toys and light fixtures, to big things like cars and motorcycles, my Dad was a tinkerer and a fixer. If it was a sport, he could play it. If it was a board game, he could beat me at it. He could outrun me, outshoot me, and outanything me—anytime, anywhere. And I was constantly in awe (and I little frustrated I didn’t inherit more of his genes).
But now, I was confused. Confused over how someone with so much talent and so much potential could do something so seemingly senseless. “If Dad can fix things,” I thought, “why can’t he fix himself? Why can’t he fix his personality? Why can’t he fix his own sadness?” My Dad was too smart for this. He knew better. He knew where he belonged. He belonged here. At home. With me. And Mom. And our dog. And our perfect life. Simple, yes. But also perfect.
In another family, this might have made sense. A family where there were fights and bitter disagreements. In fact, I was surprised more people in those situations didn’t run away. But our home was always a happy one. It was a home where, for the most part, we all got along and supported one another. Don’t get me wrong—we had our share of disagreements. I would get mad at my Dad. And my Mom would get mad at my Dad. And my Dad would get mad at my Mom, and Mom would get mad at me. But we were so tight-knit that those types of scuffles and that type of conflict was inevitable. You can’t have friction unless two items are making contact, and our family, partially due to our small size, was a home where friction led to fights—but that friction never led to fire. The friction never consumed us. We loved one another. We always made up, and we never stopped loving each other.
Until now. Now, I thought, some sort of friction had forced my Dad to run. Far, far away from us. Where had he gone? I really didn’t even know, but it felt like he might as well have been in another country, another world entirely. I had never felt so distant from my Dad. Someone getting lost unintentionally was one thing—but someone running away intentionally was an entirely new feeling. I felt rejected by him. I felt abandoned, even orphaned in that moment, even though deep down I knew he would return. I just didn’t know when, and that uneasiness was a feeling I had never felt before—and never wanted to feel again.
But eventually, he came back home. You would think that the details of a moment so significant would be burned permanently into my brain, but there are so many details that completely escape me, including the amount of time my Dad was gone. I know for certain that he didn’t come home that night, because I remember my Mom trying to help me sleep, containing her own sadness in a way only a mother can in that moment. I remember waking up the next day, and saying to myself (as most people going through a severe personal shock will say) that the day before was nothing but an imagined nightmare. And I remember going downstairs, seeing my Dad’s truck was not in the driveway, and seeing that his work boots were still not strewn near the front door. I knew in that moment that yesterday and this new life were as real as real could be.
But beyond that realization, I don’t remember much about those next few days. I remember family members and friends treating me as if I was a toddler who was too young to deal with bad news. Family members offering to take me out for ice cream. Friends offering to take me out “just to get my mind off things”. I appreciated all this extra love and concern so much, but I probably didn’t show it because I was so upset. I remember a general feeling of emptiness and wandering, attempting to navigate my new world. It was the world I had always lived in, but it was now so severely altered by earthquakes and storms that the landscape was completely unrecognizable.
And then, who knows when, I remember my Mom telling me they had found him. He was in his truck, somewhere a few hours away from our home, and he was safe—uninjured and unharmed. He would be home before the night’s end, and our family, although shaken, would be put back together.
In that instant, this feeling of loss and confusion completely morphed into a deep and unbending rage. A fury I had rarely felt wash over me flooded every piece of my body. I wanted to hit someone—even hit my Dad. And I was a fairly wimpy teenager, so hitting someone was not a natural reaction. But in that very moment, I felt the need to injure, even if my muscles lacked the capability. There was a vitriol that coursed through my veins, unfamiliar and unyielding. I was hurt, and it was my intent now to hurt someone else.
I was downstairs, fuming, when I heard a click. A door swung open, and then swung closed. Shoes were removed and thrown to the side, as was customary in our house. A low, hushed murmur of conversation. The rocking chair in the living room creaked as someone found a seat. More hushed conversation between my Mom and my Grandpa, who were in the room with him. Until finally, my rage could simmer no more.
I made my way up the stairs, and there he sat. My Dad. Superman. But he didn’t look like Superman. He looked like a dog that had just been scolded. His head hung low, and his eyes were glazed over and empty behind his glasses. His shoulders were hunched, and his legs looked weak, even though he was seated. I could tell there was not an ounce of physical damage to his body, but he looked more wounded than I had ever seen him. The smile that always graced his face was long forgotten in that moment, and there was no sense that it would ever be found.
Until he saw me. And although I didn’t see a full smile, I saw a trace of it—a familiar grin crossed his face. It wasn’t a sadistic grin of a mischievous troublemaker, but the only grin that can emerge when a smile has been beaten to a pulp by the worries of this life. He looked at me and instinctively, reflexively, greeted me the way he always had, even if the same emotion was absent: “Hey bub.”
How dare he, I thought. How dare he run out on me, and come home like nothing happened. How dare he put my Mother through this, after all she had done to make our home a happy one. How dare he make everyone worry about him unnecessarily for the past few days.
I didn’t explode in the way I expected to, but I also didn’t cry. I felt my anger fade back into the recesses of my mind, but it was still there, and still very real. I stood there, somewhat frozen, staring at him. Maybe I was trying to let my stare do all the talking. Maybe I was trying to show him, visibly, how hurt I was without saying a word. Maybe I was trying to make him feel guiltier than he ever had in his entire life. In that moment, I didn’t know what I was trying to do, so I just stood there.
But then, the anger, although more controlled, bubbled to the surface. Although my memory fails me in so many other moments related to this episode of life, my words to him, because of their hatred and desire to wound, are never forgotten—no matter how hard I wish I could erase them. In my best adult impression, I tried to punish him the only way I knew how—by withdrawing my love.
Pointing at his face from the other side of the living room, I delivered a stinging and sincere threat. “So help me God, if you ever run out on us ever again, ever leave us again, I will never talk to you. Ever again. I will never forgive you if you do this to us again. Got it?”
His arms, probably still awaiting a hug from the boy he held as a baby, the boy he cradled into existence, the boy who he had picked up after so many failures, limply hung by his side. He looked down at the floor, and nodded yes. He understood. The threat had been delivered, and he agreed to the terms. Having established a new contract for our relationship moving forward in this new, unstable terrain, I passed on the hearty welcome. It was unnecessary, in my opinion. Why welcome someone home who had voluntarily ran away from it? I lowered my hand, stormed up the steps, and slammed my bedroom door in a move that was all too teenager-ish. What may have been said or happened in the moment after that door slammed is a mystery to me. Did my Dad cry? In that moment I hoped so. Did my Mom and Grandpa tell him how upset and scared I had been? I hoped so. Was he hurting? I hoped so. I didn’t want to hurt alone. And if anyone deserved to hurt, it was him. That door, for tonight and many nights to come, would remain shut to him—and so would the door to my heart. And the echoes of that slam, which replay in my mind more than I would like to admit, haunt me in ways that I’ll never be able to overcome. I will live with that guilt forever and ever.
I look back on that moment, and even as I write it, I would do anything to change it. I would do anything to go back to that moment and not be such a predictable teenager. I would go back to that moment and, instead of hurling hurtful words at him, I would have given him a hug, told him I loved him, and tried to understand the sickness he must have been confused by.
I am thankful that I look back on that moment and want so desperately to change it, however, because it shows that my perspective on depression and mental illness has evolved so much. When I first found out about my Dad’s depression, I blamed him. But as time went on, and I read more and learned more, I blamed depression. I blame depression for attacking my Dad’s mind. I blame the physical processes for making him feel like life was just too much. I blame the forces I don’t understand for hijacking his thought processes. And as Dad went through seasons of depression (although rare) in the years that followed, I offered a much more empathetic and loving response. I was a son of a father who suffered from depression, and when I understood what depression was, I could love him unconditionally—the way he had always loved me.
Too many people in our world, adults and children alike, look at the depressed and immediately fault the person. Just like my perspective has evolved, so must our culture’s view of this illness grow as well. We must create a world where depression is viewed as an illness, not a personal flaw or character weakness. It is time we begin to treat the mentally ill as sick, and in doing so, give them the freedom to talk openly about their feelings, and most importantly, seek treatment when it’s needed. We must abandon the view I first had of depression and simply begin to understand that if those who were depressed could simply “snap out” of their darkness, they would do it in a heartbeat. Nobody welcomes these feelings. No one embraces depression with open arms. Reacting to those who suffer with the love and compassion they so desperately deserve is our only appropriate response. Be mad at depression, not the person it ruthlessly attacks. Ultimately, we all must believe that a warm embrace and an “I love you” do more to heal than a slamming bedroom door.
Dad, I would do absolutely anything to go back to that moment when you came home and change the way I acted. I know you don’t want me to feel guilty, but now that I know more about what you went through, it pains me that I treated you the way I did. It breaks my heart to know how alone you must have felt in that moment, and now that our time together on this earth has ended, I would give anything to have it back. Had you been able to simply “snap out” of your depression and never suffer again, I know you would have. I want you to know that I would never judge your love for me and our family based on an illness that periodically overtook your mind and senses. Although I’m so thankful you don’t suffer from the darkness you once felt anymore, I wish I had just one more opportunity to hug you and tell you that I’ll always love you. Someday, I know I’ll be able to hug you once more. Until then, seeya bub.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. Revelation 21:4 (NLT)