“Dad, I don’t even think that’s a real thing!”
“THREE!” Slam! “Pinned you again!”
“Alright, let’s go again,” I’d respond, knowing that there wasn’t a chance I’d ever win.
This was the common refrain that echoed through the Bradshaw family room after dinner on an almost-nightly basis, drifting up the stairs into the kitchen where my Mom was likely cleaning up after another delicious, home-cooked meal that she had crafted. Dad always said he needed time to digest, but I’d pester and bug him until he’d rise up out of the recliner acting like he was too full, and then in a super sneaky sweep, he’d catch me off guard and the evening wrestling match would begin—no entrance music or bell needed.
For a little, skinny kid who realistically had no chance at ever winning a wrestling match (or any physical competition for that matter), it’s perplexing to think that I actually challenged my Dad to wrestle so frequently. Must have been early-onset-Napoleon-complex. A board game would have been more of an even battle, and even then I’d still be at a disadvantage; but a wrestling match between a seven year old and a 30-something year old wasn’t that evenly matched. While I was wrestling against my Dad, I’d try to emulate the moves that I had seen from my all-time favorite WWF superstars….even though I wasn’t supposed to know what a WWF superstar was.
Mom never let me watch wrestling—rightfully so. Have you seen what happens on an episode of Monday Night Raw? Wait, is Raw still a thing? The name might have changed, but the lack of actual “wrestling” likely has not. The stuff is pure trash. There’s rarely a punch that lands within three feet of someone’s face (I will applaud the acting, however), and there’s more time spent talking into a microphone than there is jumping off the turnbuckles. It’s essentially a soap opera with simulated violence and more fake blood.
Although, a few of those steel-chair-smashes to the cranium did look awfully life-like…
Yes, I have to admit that against my Mother’s absolutely-justified and entirely-well-advised orders, I did sneak in a few episodes of WWF* wrestling from time to time (*that’s right, I liked wrestling when it was a “Federation” in the days before they admitted it was pure entertainment and changed the name). I’d quickly flip the channel if I saw her come into the room, but then it’d be right back to The Undertaker getting stunned by Stone Cold Steve Austin, or The Rock delivering a dramatic People’s Elbow to the solar plexus of Triple H with Good Ole JR screaming “OH MY GOD! HE’S KILLED HIM!” from the ringside announcer’s table.
Okay…maybe it was more than just a few episodes.
On occasion, I’d watch Monday Night Raw in my bedroom with the door shut, telling myself that I’d need to keep quiet if I wanted to throw Mom off the scent of the electric mayhem and debauchery on the 14-inch television set atop the dresser in my bedroom. Around 9pm, the festivities would begin, and I’d be able to keep quiet until about 9:07. By then, some ridiculous plotline would have been introduced (I SWEAR I SAW VINCE MCMAHON EXPLODE INSIDE THAT LIMO!!!), and I’d be jumping up and down on the bed from pure excitement trying my best to hold in the shrieks of enthusiasm.
Panic would set in as I’d hear Mom coming up the stairs. “What are you doing in there?!” Mom would yell through the closed door.
“READING DR. SUESS!!!” I’d scream back as I jumped up and down on the twin box spring, just as Mankind shoved Mr. Socko down the throat of a guy who was definitely going to need some Listerine.
I’d always, inevitably, get caught and I’d be banned from watching wrestling again. Fortunately, I was able to recreate my own matches in the basement with Dad (minus any steel chairs, ringside graves, or beer trucks equipped with firehoses of course…). Looking back, I enjoyed those matches way more than any match I ever watched on television. No ridiculous WWF plotline could ever entertain me more than a wrestling match with my Dad. Our family room floor was better than any sold out arena because my Dad was a supreme entertainer.
I can always remember the laughter when Dad would have me jump off the couch like I was jumping off of a turnbuckle (sorry Mom, but this is why the armrest cushion padding was always a bit smushed on that one side…). He’d pretend like he was asleep or mortally wounded until the very last second before I would jump. Somehow, he’d spring up and catch me in his arms, spin me upside down, and pin me on the ground without doing too much cranial damage. I’d laugh, even though I was losing—frequently.
Aside from the fun, Dad would also challenge me to “get mean” and toughen up while I was wrestling with him, making sure that I never gave up even though he rarely (if ever) let me win. I wasn’t a very “mean” kid, and I think in some respect, my Dad never let me win because he wanted to toughen me up and have me prepare to wrestle in bigger battles that would inevitably come my way throughout life. When all was so seemingly perfect in my childhood, I don’t think either one of use could have ever envisioned the toughness we would both need to build to face what was looming for our family on the horizon.
I couldn’t have guessed that wrestling would define so much of our lives—both my Dad’s and my own. And it wasn’t the physical wrestling that ended up defining us. It was mental wrestling—and it’s still going on to this day.
It wasn’t until I learned that my Dad suffered from severe, clinical depression that I realized how much he struggled and grappled with his own emotions. He was constantly wrestling inside his head with fears of inadequacy and doubt. In his darkest moments, he was plagued with questions of whether or not he was enough, even though God and everyone in his life tried to encourage him. Mental illness is a unique enemy. I won’t say it’s any more or less difficult than other things we all face in life; I’m just acknowledging that it’s unique. If you’re struggling at work or school, you can go home and find rest. If you’re struggling with a friend, you can distance yourself. But our heads are always with us, and for the individual who is mentally ill, there’s no off switch. Those feelings can be so unrelenting, and at times, it can feel like there’s no escape. I honestly believe that’s why my Dad’s response when his depression reached its peak was to physically escape from the world around him—even though that approach offered little hope of long-term success or wellness.
I believe the most difficult part of my Dad’s wrestling stemmed from the fact that he was facing off against an invisible enemy and he didn’t always ask for a partner to tag in and help. As I grew older, I learned not to blame my Dad for his mental illness, and I was fortunate that at the time of his death, I never dealt with feelings of blame towards my Dad for the way he died. Don’t get me wrong—I was angry. But not at my Dad. I was angry at depression, mental illness, and a disease that cut his life entirely too short.
But just because I didn’t blame my Dad doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t do things differently if given the opportunity, and at the top of the list is a wish for my Dad to have reached out to get the help that he needed and deserved. My Dad would take medication to help with his depression, and then when he would start feeling well again, he believed he no longer needed the medication to help him (a vicious cycle that many, many individuals struggling with mental illness deal with). Because my Dad was a strong guy who could fix just about anything, he also didn’t seem to have it in his DNA to go and see a therapist or professional counselor who could help him talk and work through his illness. My Dad was a helper in every area of his life, and I think that led to him not being able to ask for help himself when he needed it most.
I hate that my Dad often wrestled behind the curtain. I hate that he felt such unbelievable shame that he couldn’t bring it upon himself to share his struggles with others or seek professional help in the form of counseling or psychological therapy. It’s like watching that tag team wrestling match in which the guy in the middle of the ring clearly needs to tag his partner, but he just can’t bring himself to admit that he might need the assistance.
Watching my Dad wrestle has taught me a lesson—a lesson I never thought I’d need to learn about how we deal with mental illness, but also how we deal with grief.
Since losing Dad, I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling as well. Unfortunately, I think it’s the burden that many of us who lose a loved one to suicide are dealt. Could we have done more? Could we have said more? Could we have loved more? What could we have done to build a shelter for the storm forming on the horizon? It’s a difficult place to be that’s riddled with guilt, sadness, and perpetual questions.
However, I believe there’s great growth in the wrestling that happens in our lives. It isn’t always pleasant, and we often leave bloodied and bruised, but time and life circumstances can provide perspective if we are willing to seek it out.
I firmly believe that when it comes to our thoughts and beliefs, we have to wrestle with them in order to understand why we believe them in the first place. That’s why I think so many people struggle with Christianity in America—it’s always been something that’s just there and accepted, which means we often take it for granted and don’t wrestle with the deep tenets of our faith to understand what they mean and why they are important. I’ve seen this principle play out in my life in so many different areas. I firmly believe that the best lessons I’ve learned in the college classroom have been the ones that I’ve had to fight hard with to comprehend. The best books I’ve read have been the ones that have challenged me with complex characters, extensive vocabulary, and elaborate plotlines. And even when I think back to my own childhood, my Dad was my greatest wrestling partner because he was stronger than me and because he didn’t let me win. I learned something in the struggle.
And wow, have I wrestled with my Dad’s death. In the dark night of the soul that often accompanies our weightiest grief, I’ve struggled to come to terms with how a loving God—in control of every aspect of the universe He created and every son or daughter who lives in it—could allow mental illness and suicide to defeat my Father. There are some moments of wrestling in which I can answer that question quickly. I can accept the fact that God loves me, loves my Dad, and in no way intended for this to be the way his life on Earth ended.
But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to more difficult moments of wrestling. Sleepless nights full of tears when the answers are elusive have been a regularity in the months and years since losing Dad. Maybe you’ve been there too. Maybe you’re there now.
God, in my opinion, calls us to take those burdens that we wrestle with and let Him carry the weight. That doesn’t mean that we stop wrestling. It doesn’t mean that we stop the questions with the clasp of our hands in prayer, but it does mean that we trust Him to eventually help us find the answer, and we believe that there’s a purpose to our confusion, grief, and lack of understanding. The answer may not come when we want it, and it may not come in the form we hope for—and we should be grateful for that. It will come in a way and at a time that is more perfect than we could ever imagine.
The result of our wrestling is not automatic or instantaneous peace—it’s a path forward. That path may look difficult and be quite unwelcome. That path might include regular counseling, medication, a dedicated health regimen, forgiveness (both for ourselves and others), or confession. But any path towards health is better than a wrestling match that never has a resolution. I’d rather risk a loss or misstep here or there, or even brief momentary pain, than to be caught in a perpetual state of not-knowing.
When it comes to mental struggling or emotional wrestling, God never puts us in a tap-out position. We might be in pain. We might be hurting. We might need to reach out and tag in a partner to help us. We might have to ask our ringside coach for a bit of advice or wisdom. But God never wants us to tap out. He gives us all the strength and resources we need in those instances if we are just willing to admit that we need it.
For those of us who struggle with mental illness in any of its forms and manifestations, we must believe that there is a purpose to the wrestling. We don’t need to welcome the pain with an ever-present smile, because that’s phony. I don’t trust people who act like they embrace pain—there’s a whole different set of clinical disorders to describe that. But even though wrestling can be painful and might not yield an immediate victory, we realize and recognize that there’s a deeper purpose and more intricate plan tied to every aspect of our lives that will, eventually, reveal itself to us. With that perspective, like any good athlete, we learn to welcome the wrestling even if it’s difficult work. We learn that our greatest beliefs will only be strengthened if they are challenged and grappled with. Most importantly, however, we acknowledge that wrestling is worth it when our teammate—God—always provides a way out, even if we can’t see it in the midst of our struggle. The wrestling isn’t always fun, but it’s worth it.
When we wrestle well—meaning that when we recognize that in our struggles we are never on our own and when we are willing to admit our difficulties and ask for help—we learn and we grow tremendously. We build spiritual and emotional muscle that helps us to overcome some of life’s greatest difficulties. Even though my Dad might have eventually been overtaken by his mental illness, I’m confident that he did wrestle well throughout his life. He is not defined by that one failure, but he is defined by all the years within which he lived healthy and happily. He is defined by the wife he loved, the son he raised, the people he helped, and the God he served. One day on my Dad’s record of life cannot and will not erase the fact that for fifty years before that, he wrestled victoriously. And as long as I live, I’ll remember those lessons that my Dad taught me in his everyday life, as well as in our mock family room Wrestlemanias.
And even thought you might not always win, never forget….jumping off of a couch “turnbuckle” is a ton of fun. When your significant other or parent isn’t home, give this one a try.
Dad, Remember how much fun we used to have wrestling on the family room floor and laughing as you constantly beat up on me?! It doesn’t sound like as much fun as it really was, now that I write that. Dad, I appreciate that in wrestling, and in a lot of areas of my life, you never just let me win. You always made me earn it, which made me value the struggle and see the purpose of it. I’m glad that, for so long, you wrestled well. I know there were probably many days when you felt like your depression would overtake you but, somehow, you found the strength and the purpose to fight on. I’m grateful that you modeled that kind of strength, and I want you to know that when I think about your life, I think about these types of victories—not the way in which you died. I think about how proud I am of you for fighting as hard as you did for so long. Thank you for always allowing me to see the purpose in wrestling well and fighting through those difficult moments. It’s ironic that the lessons you taught me were preparing me to navigate life after losing you. I don’t always do it perfectly—I fall well short on most days, in fact. But even in your death, you have been a great Father to me. Thank you for loving me enough to teach me how to wrestle well. I miss you terribly, Dad. There have been so many moments where I just wish I could be back to those moments of being your young son again. But I know, in my heart, that we will have those days again. Until that day, seeya Bub.
“We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us—they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character in us and helps us trust God more each time we use it until finally our hope and faith are strong and steady. Then, when that happens, we are able to hold our heads high no matter what happens and know that all is well, for we know how dearly God loves us, and we feel this warm love everywhere within us because God has given us the Holy Spirit to fill out hearts with his love.” Romans 5:3-5 (TLB)