My father killed himself in May 1990 at the age of 40. I was 16 at the time and a junior in high school. Writing about it now, all these years later, my memories are still blurry and feel like the belong to someone else. I struggle to let the shock and the pain in, somehow always managing to keep the emotions at arm’s length. It’s interesting trying to share a story that is 30 years old. I experience it through the lens of being a teenager, while the adult me senses so much she wants to understand.
My father, “Poppy” as we called him, had been depressed through that school year. My parents had separated in September, apparently there had been a long history of infidelity on the part of my father and my mom was finally ready to end the marriage. The separation started out okay, we stayed in our house with my mom and my dad rented an apartment close by. My parents stopped fighting, and my sister and I saw Poppy often. They were united in putting us first and we still spent lots of time together as a family. But gradually, as the new year began and things began to feel more permanent, Poppy became depressed.
My father had always been so fun-loving, almost like a third child as my mom would jokingly call him, but gradually he became sad. And not for a few days or weeks. The sadness and the depression muted him. My mom made sure he had a therapist, but she never felt he took the extent of Poppy’s depression seriously. By March of that year, right after he had taken me, my sister and a friend on a Spring Break trip, things got worse. I remember the first time I heard he was threatening to kill himself. It was a Sunday, we were just home from our trip, and I was in my room working on a painting. My mom got him to the hospital for a psych evaluation but he was not admitted. Writing those words makes me want to scream. Knowing what I know now about mental health and how the system works – his depression would have been taken so much more seriously these days. Thirty years ago mental health was not talked about so openly and there was a stigma to admitting to suffering from depression. Especially for men. The cavalier way his therapist blew off my mom’s concerns, the fact that Poppy was allowed to leave the hospital without a 72 hour hold, I know today he would have had to stay. And maybe Poppy would have gotten the help he needed.
From that moment in late March to his death at the end of May, I do not have a single memory. Not of him, family, school or friends. I wish I could remember more, of spending time with him, of feeling like I helped. But the adult me has enough shared experience that I can connect and empathize with how he must have been feeling. I am also an alcoholic, have suffered from depression and most painfully of all, made decisions that I just could not take back. And those mistakes, the ones Poppy may have made in his marriage, in his life, I believe those were the things that he could not get past. I think he profoundly regretted losing his family, moving out of his home, and being apart from our close knit community and social circle. I think he felt alone and that he could not rebuild from his mistakes. That feeling, the profound loss, made the depression and the drinking so much worse. And so began the vicious cycle of regret, sadness, loneliness and fear.
Two months later the police showed up at our door. It was just my sister and me at home. My mom was getting her hair cut, coincidentally right by Poppy’s apartment. As I frantically tried to reach my mom, she saw the police cars at his apartment complex and she knew. My dad, drunk, had killed himself with a shotgun. We never got to say goodbye and we never were allowed in that apartment again.
Poppy’s death changed everything. We lost our father, our mother drowned her own guilt and grief in alcohol, so we lost her too – for years. Our tight knit, loving family was destroyed. Every special life event that came after was always tinged with sorrow, there was always this pall over everything, and it was Poppy’s absence. Even now, thirty years later, I feel his loss. I ache for my children having missed knowing him, because Poppy would have been the best grandfather. I grieve for the innocence and safety that we all lost the moment he died.
I don’t know if Poppy took medication for his depression, nor to I know if he ever attended AA to try and stop drinking. I do know that it’s so hard to face all those burdens on your own. Isolation amplifies all the problems, and gradually it becomes its own habit. Depression is every bit as serious as any physical disease you can suffer and just as life-threatening. And I think as a society, we are beginning to get closer to understanding and recognizing depression and its symptoms. Yet we still have far to go to address the shame and the unspoken narrative that you should be able to “fix” depression.
In June 2017 I found myself alone in an apartment. I was drunk and depressed. My fiance had rented the apartment for me because he just could not live with me and the uncertainly of my drinking. He had hopes that having some time on my own, combined with attendance to the AA meetings I had begun, would help me get better. I was at rock bottom. I had a DUI a few weeks prior, my children were living with their father, I was not living in my home and it looked like I had lost the love of my life. The regret and mistakes had piled up to the point where I felt like I was choking on them. All I wanted was another drink to numb the fear that I had destroyed my life.
As I was sitting there, a moment of clarity hit me and I realized I was just where Poppy had been. I was unbearably alone and I didn’t see a way forward. That’s what depression does to you, it narrows your world and eventually, if it gets bad enough, it destroys your hope that things can and will get better. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that if I continued down that path, I was going to die. That I would doom my children to the lifetime of pain that suicide leaves in its wake. And I knew then that I had the strength to choose life and the courage to face my fears.
Since that day in June 2017 I have been sober. I went to inpatient rehab a few days later and I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. I engaged in every type of therapy offered – grief, depression and trauma. It was unbearably painful, but I dug deep to excavate my emotional life and find new, healthy coping skills for managing my depression, for dealing with life.
If you are reading this and you’re depressed, I beg you, don’t give up. I promise you that there’s help for you, whatever experiences you’ve had, whatever you have suffered. You’re in a cycle of pain, but with time, support and if you’re willing to do the work you can get better. And your life can be beautiful in ways you cannot even imagine right now. Please find the courage to reach out. You are loved and your life is precious.