When I was twelve, my dad was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. The first I ever knew of his inner struggle was when he came home from work one day in the midst of what appeared to be a heart attack.
“I’m pretty sure my car just drove home by itself,” he’d say later because he didn’t remember anything from the onset of the panic attack. He didn’t remember walking into the house waxy and pale. He didn’t remember sitting in our dining room heaving for breath while I rubbed his back (because I’d read somewhere that contact could help). He didn’t remember the rush to the hospital in a wailing ambulance. I doubt he even remembers much of what came after: EEGs and scans and blood tests and, ultimately, years of psychiatric appointments.
He actually asked me recently what I remember of that time because his memories are only just returning some twenty-odd years later.
I wanted to be honest, but how can you tell someone nicely that their illness ruined your childhood? That you spent hours at the library after school “doing homework” so you could avoid your home? That you were afraid to enter your lounge where your dad, in a trance-like state that could easily turn to mindless fury with one tiny misstep, locked himself in there for days on end. That you worried above all else that he would starve while he was trapped in his own mind because the meals your mom put out for him went in the bin nine times out of ten.
I love my dad and I always have, but it was easy to lose sight of that when he appeared to be the centre of everything that went wrong in our lives. To an adolescent already struggling with all the things that teenagers struggle with, and having no real support network, a man struggling with a mental illness can seem like a monster.
There was very little literature about this or other mental illnesses back then. We didn’t have access to the internet and had no idea how to educate ourselves. We didn’t know that the medications popular for anxiety and depression (Seroxat, in particular) could prove fatal. And people didn’t talk about it so we were alone in a sea of sufferers.
It’s to my shame that I never made the effort to understand the condition better as I grew up and more information became available. By then, I was suffering with severe ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia, and what little energy I had went into understanding my own concerns — not helped by the fact that my mom’s own health problems (kidney failure) were more immediate and (on the surface, at least) more life-threatening.
It’s only since I was diagnosed with depression & anxiety that I’ve begun to consider things from my dad’s perspective: all the years we tip-toed around our own home for fear of triggering an “episode”, and all the episodes he suffered anyway. All the panic attacks he tried to describe to us, and the sleepless nights, and all the times I told him to “just get over it”.
I feel like our situation and my dad’s health was worse than it needed to be. We should have been handed pamphlets and offered counselling: “How to deal with a family member who struggles with mental illness.” It wouldn’t have been comprehensive help for many reasons, but it would have been a start — and knowing what you’re fighting is half the battle, I think.
But even now I’ve felt the creeping crush of an anxiety attack for myself, I don’t know what to say when my dad tells me he’s had three of them just this week. Even now I’ve felt that murderous rush under my skin, wincing through my atrophied muscles and clamping my hands around an imaginary throat, I can’t describe his past to him as anything but “black moods”.
I want to be supportive in a way that I couldn’t be in my childhood and wasn’t in my twenties, but how can you “be there” for someone you can’t possibly understand without crawling inside their skull? How can you be there for someone suffering the same thing and offer help and support when you don’t even know what you need for yourself?