August 17, 2014 by Dadinator
Again something happened in the world which is sad. Actually there’s a bunch of things going on…. There’s an extremist group in Iraq committing horrendous atrocities. There’s a disease spreading in Africa that’s got people worried. Two eastern European countries keep dancing around the precipice of war. There’s plenty more, so in some ways it will seem pretty lame that this event is the one I’m writing about. But the lesson is important, trust me on that.
Last week a very funny man took his own life. You heard his voice last night when I let you two sit with your mother and me to watch Aladdin. His name was Robin Williams, and I watched his movies as a child growing up. He made me laugh so much and he made me cry; because he was so brilliant he could do both, sometimes in the same movie. I remember watching him as Peter Pan, as a nanny, as an insane jungle-man who burst out of a board game, as the CEO of a toy company, an inspirational teacher, as a genie, a psychologist and more.
But now he’s gone. Just like that. He is missed.
I don’t know what was going on in his head, no one ever will, that’s one of the realities of death. But I know it got a lot of people talking. Some called his act selfish or cowardly. Others have called it tragic. A large number of wonderful people have called it a sign that success, intelligence and even brilliance are no protection from depression or any mental illness.
And me. Well it made me sad and it made me think.
It made me think that we don’t talk about our demons to our kids. We hide them, put them in dark places in our minds and souls and hope our kids never see them. I know why we do it. We don’t want our burdens to become your burdens, it’s a noble idea. We put on a brave face so we can sing and dance and laugh for you, whatever we feel because we want to protect you so much. We want to be your armour, so we harden our skin, beat it into shape and polish it till we shine for you, for our children. We hope the dazzle is enough to blind you to our flaws and our fears.
But maybe you deserve to know the truth. We parents are human beings too, we struggle and we are flawed. I’m not saying I want to “de-brief” to you or use you as a crutch for my problems, god no. I just want you to know that mum and dad have been through things too, that we got help and the help helped. Help helps, if you remember nothing else remember that.
Your mother will never keep this from you when you’re old enough to understand, but she has been battling depression her whole adult life. Perhaps “battling” is the wrong word, you can’t “fight” an illness like depression, you have to manage it.
She has been on medication in the past and she may be on it again in the future. She sees a counsellor regularly and she does her best to keep it in check. She’s aware of it, she knows it’s there and she has learned (the hard way) to recognise the signs that she’s having an episode or slipping deeper into the quagmire that depression is.
It’s not your fault that she is this way and it’s not my fault either – although, being honest with you, I have sometimes thought it was. And again, there’s not fault at the feet of anyone.
I’ve seen shrinks before myself too, twice in fact. Once because I broke up with someone I lived with. It was before I started to go out with your mother. It was a toxic relationship in the end. Grandad once described what I had been through as a form of abuse, and he’s probably right (a conversation for another time). So I saw someone about it. I got help. I talked it out and I talked it through. The counsellor gave me a sounding board, a way to validate my feelings and an assurance that they were reasonable and not my fault.
The second time was when one of you was little the other was still inside mum’s tummy. We spent a stint at a sleep school in Melbourne to try and help get you settled, boy, and it didn’t work. But that’s not the point. While there I filled in a survey about how I was feeling at the time as part of a screening they did of all parents. I understated the strength of my emotions in that survey, I distinctly remember doing that, but in spite of my best efforts to bury my problems I came up with a score that showed I was experiencing stress.
Things were hard. I hadn’t been renewed in my teaching job for that year, we were going to go onto a Casual Employment lifestyle and I was scared shitless about money and the future. I had a son. I had a daughter on the way. How could I fuck up so much? So yes, I was stressed. I was stressed but I didn’t want to tell anyone because I thought it would make things worse, that it would upset people, that it would make your mum stressed while she was pregnant, that it would hurt the baby, that it was my problem not anyone else’s and why-can’t-I-just-man-the-fuck-up-and-deal-with-it-you-weakling-call-yourself-a-father-you-piece-of…
Anyway you get the picture. It was tough, and I wanted to be tough too.
So I sat down with the psychiatrist. I talked about it. Then I talked about it with your mother. Then I talked about it some more. And it got better. Things can always get better.
So both your parents have seen professionals about our mental health. We’ve been through hard times and come through them. But that doesn’t mean we’re “cured” or “fixed”, it doesn’t work that way. The mind is like a weight on a string. It never stays perfectly still, it gets moved around by external forces; bumped and buffeted. Sometimes it just starts wobbling on its own, as if the mind has a mind of it’s own. No one is immune. Not even elder statesmen of Hollywood….
In social work they talk about protection factors and risk factors in relation to someone’s long-term mental health. A protection factor might be a large network of friends, a strong relationship with a parent or partner, a steady job. A risk factor might be an abusive parent, a drug addiction or poverty. But they are not guarantees that you will or won’t develop a mental illness. There are no guarantees. Just factors that affect how at risk you are.
So what about suicide? Suicide is a scourge. We don’t talk about it, when it happens we sweep it under the carpet and we treat it as something shameful or taboo. Lifeline estimates that an Australian attempts to take their own life every 10 minutes…… Sorry, I just had to pause to absorb that information. Lad, as a male you’re at greater risk. The suicide rate is higher now than it was 10 years ago. And we don’t talk about it to our children.
So I want you to understand that this does happen, that it can happen to anyone but that help is there if you need it. If you ever find yourself in the grips of negative self talk, get help. If you feel like you’ll never feel “good” again, get help. If you ever think about disappearing of not existing, get help. Help helps.
And if you ever think mum or dad need help, remind us both. It’s so easy to forget that help helps.
As for Robin Williams, you’ll see his movies, you’ll laugh and cry like I did. One day when you’re older, you’ll ask what happened to him and I’ll have to tell you. It’s a hard conversation, but it’s one we must have.
I love you both.
If you are thinking about hurting yourself or like you need to talk to someone call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636. Help helps.