My Dad suffered deeply from Depression. He was sexually abused by a neighbor as a young child. Surrounded by religious judgment. Guilt. Conditional love. He wrestled with these demons his whole life. Ultimately, he committed suicide a day before his 62nd birthday. 15 years ago this month.
The last words we received from him: “I love you all, but I hate myself.”
Thanks to a neighbor who recently shared this video with me - found on a VHS tape in an attic - I just heard Dad’s voice for the first time in 15 years.
Oh, his way with words. His tone. Silky flow. Weather worn. Southern drawl. It could sooth just as it could cut. Eloquence colored by the language of a sailor.
I remember as a small child his reading me Cinderella and the sound and vibration and depth of the clock striking midnight as he slowed for dramatic effect - BONG! BONG! BONG! - my head resting against his chest. Feeling the vibration.
His life was brutal within - those vibrations - but most never knew it. He was charming and gregarious and made you feel like you mattered - no matter who you were or where you’d come from. He knew others’ darkness in ways no one else could understand - ways others didn’t even understand about themselves - and loved them for it. He also fought for those people, his people - in schools, in the neighborhood, anywhere he found them.
He took on challenges - in court as an attorney and in life as a Dad and Husband and as a community activist with my Mom in rebuilding our neighborhood - that just begged him to fail. I actually sometimes think he wanted to fail. It would have proven him right about himself. Fulfill the darkness.
But, he didn’t fail.
Yes, he had failings and weaknesses and flaws like any of us. But, somehow, he transformed his deepest demons into a life of beauty.
Today, amid the noise and all of the activity of our daily - often transactional - lives, we look but we never see. We do but we rarely just be. I am as guilty as any.
There is no nuance. There is no suggestion. We are missing the thrilling contradiction of bold humility, the creativity of belief, and the acceptance and ownership of the battles between our demons and our best selves. We are missing beauty.
But, we cannot have beauty without honesty. We cannot have beauty without vulnerability. We cannot have beauty without tragedy.
This is the truth of the human condition.
This is the truth of my Dad’s life in hyper-focus. This is the truth of my memories. Our lives. This month. A suicide and a birthday. The contradiction. The tragedy. The beauty.
Dad’s words in this video about our violent, crumbling, and forgotten neighborhood - an undeniable metaphor of his inner life - ring profound today as I reflect on it all:
“You’d have to be blind not to see there was some beauty there.”
Last weekend, I went hiking with my wife and daughters. We headed to a familiar trail knowing from previous hikes that the bridge was out where we needed to cross the river. But, we also knew that a couple of trees had fallen previously and created a very workable bridge that we’d successfully navigated before.
But, as we approached, we realized those two big trees were no longer lying across the river. They were gone. It’s early Spring now and we weren’t planning on swimming and didn’t have any water shoes and the water was high and quite cold - but it was the beginning of the hike and we had to get across.
Given that our trees were gone, the next obvious thing to look for were stepping stones - some pattern for us to get across without getting wet. No luck.
So, then we walked up and down the bank a bit looking for options. And, low and behold, there was actually another fallen tree reaching all the way from bank to bank. The problem was that there was no way any of us had the balance to climb across it. That wouldn’t work either.
Ultimately, we all shed our shoes and teamwork-ed it across the river - my kids were total troopers as we slipped and slid and stepped on rocks of all shapes and sharpness while our feet slowly transitioned from painfully cold to numb.
It was not easy or particularly pleasant, my daughter hurt her ankle for starters as her foot slid deep between two rocks, but we crossed and continued on a wonderful hike (albeit with a bit of a limp) that included a picnic at a waterfall.
On the way back, we approached that same crossing and that same skinny tree traversing the river - and a totally different idea came to mind. What if we didn’t try to walk on it but rather used it as a balance rail? After all, the rocks had been even more slick and more treacherous than we realized the first time. We’d still go barefoot but we’d at least have something to hold onto.
As we mulled this option, we also noticed that the river bed was markedly smoother - pretty much one solid rock - at this small section beneath this tree.
We shed our shoes and were across in no time - no slips, no falls, no ankle injuries.
This all left me curious as to why we hadn’t seen this tree and this section of the river as the solution when we first faced the problem that day of crossing the river without a bridge. We had looked right at it!
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
1. We initially doubled down on our problem-centric thinking. We needed to cross the river and the bridge was out, and now our familiar fallen-tree crossing was out too! We unconsciously processed this as two problems (1. Need to cross and 2. No trees) when really it was still the original problem and the absence of a previous solution. And, we unfortunately started solving for the absence of a previous solution: we needed a tree to walk across because that’s how we’d solved this before, but the one flimsy tree we saw just wasn’t going to cut it.
2. We jumped too quickly to a new solution without creatively adapting the resources we already had and knew. The tree was key to efficiently solving our problem all along - at least on this day - but when we couldn’t find one to walk across, we threw it out as part of the solution. We jumped quickly to the stepping stones strategy and then to the straight-up wading strategy without thinking creatively about how the tree could still be used in a different way to help us across the river.
3. We didn’t fully evaluate all of the variables and possibilities available with a new strategy. We knew the water was cold and we weren’t exactly excited about getting wet at the very beginning of the hike. But, once we believed that was the only option, we just made it happen. We looked at the depth of the water. We looked at the speed of the water. We knew about the cold of the water. We knew the rocks were slippery (not that slipper though!). We knew they could be sharp. But, we didn’t consider the alternative possibility of finding a smooth, solid rock floor that was just 30 feet from us - beneath that tree.
Problems and solutions both build inertia, and sometimes this is critical for efficient and quick decision-making. But, sometimes this inertia sends us on the wrong path or on a more difficult path to the same spot or perhaps even derails us altogether (my daughter’s ankle could have been a lot worse) all because of the initial ease of not thinking much or the comforting familiarity with a known version of the problem and/or solution.
So, if we can start recognizing and feeling inertia in our work and in our lives and committing to pausing just for a moment to take in the situation anew, to make sure we’ve thought of all of the variables, seen them fresh for today, and built our best options from there - rather than yesterday - we will find small moments each day that can transform how we create our way through life.
My Dad committed suicide 15 years ago this month.
He didn’t ask for Depression.
He didn’t have any control over his sexual abuse as a child.
He had no way to prevent his MS.
He did what he could for as long as he could - until he couldn’t anymore.
Since he died - the day before his 62nd birthday - I’ve been ever more conscious of time and of the things I can control and the things I cannot during my time on this planet.
Choices versus just life.
I have been hyper-aware of my own mental state wondering if and when that chemical imbalance of Depression - surely marked somewhere in my genes - might show up and throw me into a tailspin. Just life.
I’ve been ever cognizant of my aches and pains and weaknesses in my joints, dizziness in my head, wondering if and when MS might show itself. Again, life.
I am grateful every day that I have not yet experienced the physical brutality of MS or that dark hole of Depression. But, I also know that their absence in my life is no more because of my choices than their presence in my Dad’s was due to his.
The last year has been rough on all of us as we daily face new questions and determinations of what is in and out of our control, what is really a choice - doing our best to get through the day either way. We have been stressed and stretched in new ways and like never before. We have proven we are bigger and more expandable and flexible than we ever knew and at the same time more vulnerable.
Nobody asked for a pandemic.
Nobody had any control over a tornado or a derecho or a flood or a damaging 70 mph hail storm.
Nobody could have prevented 2020 in all of its trauma (and 2021 has been mostly more of the same).
Yet, we have done what we can do to get by - and for me, as long as I can do it.
For the first time in my life, I met a mental breaking point in December. I was never Depressed and certainly not suicidal, but something in that experience awoke my Dad’s ghost.
I rebooted for a few days and went back to work and life just as I’d left it. Back to grinding. Nothing changed. Nothing newly controlled. No new light.
I learned that as I kept pushing myself and kept grinding that something in my psyche kept getting ever so slightly darker and dimmer. Will this growing darkness awake those sleeping genes somehow? How long can I stay in this trauma before something in my biology gives?
A shadow sits just over my shoulder. Just out of sight. Just out of reach - telling me I best be mindful of where I come from.
And yet, as I openly and willingly talk about mental health with my children and with others - encouraging them and helping them get help - I find myself tested for the first time and failing. My hypocrisy around my own mental health adds another layer that dims the day further ever so slightly.
I must step up. I must control what I can control. I must practice what I preach.
I must listen to the ghost of my Dad and live the life I can while I have it. I have no idea if or when Depression or MS or another pandemic or anything else may come knocking.
Who knows what tomorrow may bring?
Today, I am fortunate to have choices.
I simply must have the courage make them.