Updated: Nov 22, 2020
On Tuesday, March 17th, the morning after my birthday, my wife took off of work so that she could spend as much time as she could with me, both as a comfort and as a watchful eye, protecting me from myself by my own request the night before. She arranged for me to visit our family doctor, a wonderful man who has taken a keen interest in the health and wellbeing of my entire family over the past few years.
My wife brought me to his office, which is quite close to our home, and sat with me in the waiting room as I struggled openly with my emotions. I was so angry with myself, I recall. I kept hearing a voice telling me how badly I let everyone down. Everyone was counting on me and I blew it, last night, I kept hearing. The voice kept saying he was so disappointed in me, then adding that he always knew I would ruin everything, eventually, like I just had.
It was my dad’s voice. It came from the seat to my left even as my wife sat in the seat to my right, clutching my hand and leaning her head into my shoulder. My dad died in the summer of 2008. He was also sitting next to me, chiding and deriding me for my weakness and stupidity. I believed him, and he wasn’t even there. Those weren’t his words, but my own, using his voice to lend them authority.
I recall thinking, my God… am I crazy?
I looked to my left and, in that split-second moment just before the seat next to me transitioned from the periphery to be visible in-full, I could have sworn I saw someone sitting there. It was a trick of the eye, of course. Just a shadow falling over the room that took on the appearance of something more substantial before I had a chance to focus on it.
I was about to walk into a doctor’s office and tell the man that I was suicidal.
What was going to happen to me, then?
I was nervous, frustrated with myself for being unable to hold my emotions in check, and exhausted. I hadn’t slept since the day before for more than twenty-minutes at a time.
There were times, growing up, when I would wake to see some strange shape in the dark that my mind fashioned into a face, or a lurking figure, revealed only after clicking on a lamp to be something as innocuous as a pair of pants casually draped over the back of a chair, or some other perfectly normal, innocent thing.
That, surely, was what I just saw in the chair to my left. Some manner of shadow, my lack of sleep, and my tendency to hear admonition and judgment in my dad’s voice, all conspired to make me see what I most feared that I would… what I most wished that I could.
I write of my dad as if he were some kind of judgmental monster, but that isn’t fair to him, and I think I should clarify that now.
It is only through months of effective, revelatory therapy that I began to understand that my dad had some life-long, powerful issues of his own that went unresolved due to the stigma surrounding mental health. He was a U.S. Marine who served in Southeast Asia in the early-to-mid 1960s. He was one of ten children of a very old-fashioned traveling salesman and home-bound wife. He was an auto body repairman, at times a heavy drinker and heavy smoker, and I was none of those things. We didn’t have a great deal of common ground, besides the surname, and we rarely understood each other as a result.
He was my hero.
I was convinced that he was Superman. I idolized him, and we did love each other very much. He was always closer to my brother, which was understandable. They had some common interests. My brother is a car man, handier, more athletic, and a little rougher around the edges than I always was, in all the great ways a man is supposed to be. I never felt that I was in my brother’s shadow when it came to my dad, though. I respected their closeness, but I didn’t envy it because none of the things my dad seemed to enjoy most about his relationship with his number-one son held much interest with me. I wasn’t really all that into sports, though I did understand the appeal. I wasn’t into cars, though again, I could appreciate a nice one when I saw one.
I was, by contrast, introverted and a lot more sensitive. I wore my heart on my sleeve, and I still do, to be honest. I loved reading books even when I didn’t have to for school. I enjoyed being outside, but I shied away from playground games, opting instead to let my big, vivid imagination free. A tree branch became a sword, and that apple tree was a monster that needed tending to. I took apart electronic devices and put them back together. I loved computers and learned how to type on my own early on, before it was taught in school. I wrote little stories, invented characters and adventurous scenarios to place them in. I was all dreams and silly things, and my dad found all that rather impractical. He sometimes asked me, even when I was far too young to be concerned about such things, how I would put food on the table doing any of that.
I think he just wanted to make sure I had some useful skills by the time I was old enough to earn a living wage on my own. He encouraged my brother to learn how to use power tools, to build things with his own hands and sweat, and nothing he could do or say seemed to convince me to set aside my dreams and silly things. I must have been such a frustrating son, I think, to a man like that.
I had all that in mind as I walked into the doctor’s office, haunted by the voice I had just heard and the words it spoke to me, trying to convince myself that I didn’t hear those words through my ear but deep within my sleep-deprived, emotionally drained mind. But I was terrified to say that I was hearing voices and seeing things.
I thought, for sure, that would be the end for me. I would end up in a mental hospital, my family would have to make do without me, and I may as well have been dead after all…
As my doctor, who is exceptionally intuitive, asked me what brought me into his office, I didn’t say all that I needed to, nor all that I should have. I didn’t have to say it all, though. He could read it all in my face. My wife was there with me, helping coax the words out of me, and It was a lot harder to ask for help than I imagined it would have been. He nodded and took on a serious, yet kind tone. He reminded me of a few things that I already knew, but that he rightly presumed I was not keeping in mind at the time.
A lot of people experience what I was experiencing. Nobody should go through this on their own, and because I do have a strong support network at home, I didn’t have to. He reminded me that I had my wife with me, and not everyone was so fortunate when the moment came that their ability to cope with all that troubled them reached its limits. He said it was the act of a good husband, son, and brother to do what I had done, seeking help instead of giving in, even if I wasn’t able to believe it at the moment.
He wrote some prescriptions and set up a follow-up appointment in a few days, giving my wife some guidance and asking her if she could free up some time to be with me during that time. He recommended speaking with a therapist and gave me a name and a phone number, telling me to give her a call as soon as I got home. Due to COVID-19, everything was being done via Telehealth or Zoom, but he wanted to see me in person next time, and I promised him that he would.
I felt drained by that first appointment with my doctor. It was a very positive experience, of course, but I had been so prepared for the worst… men in white coats trying to fit a one-size-fits-all strait jacket on my no-size-fits-at-all body, padded rooms and isolation, that knowing there was another path forward was such a relief to me. As we got home, I set up an appointment to speak with my therapist the next morning and took the first doses of the medications my doctor prescribed, collapsing in bed and staying there for the rest of the day and long into the night. My wife and my dog stayed with me through much of it, my mom sitting at the end of my bed through some, as well.
Sleep helped me a lot, and I realized only after waking after nearly six hours that it was the first time in weeks that I had gotten more than an hour or two at a time. This was both a symptom of my condition and a contributing factor in its worsening state, I would find.
My brother came by and we talked for a bit. I thanked him, because if it hadn’t been for his phone call the previous night, I honestly don’t know that I would still be alive. He understood a lot of what was going on with me. He has had some struggles, himself, and knew that I did the right thing asking for help instead of giving up.
Most importantly, I was starting to believe it, too.