The Vicious Cycle of Mental Illness

There are people in my family that if we weren’t related by blood, I would not be friends with. But my daughter is truly my friend. She and I share so many things: politics, basketball, our intense love of Game of Thrones. So I never envisioned that we would also share the burden of having a father with mental illness.

My daughter wrote a blog post about growing up with a father who was in and out of her life due to mental illness. It made me want to share my own story…

My mother and father were never married. Truthfully, I don’t think they were ever in a serious relationship. So, my relationship with my father was also casual. He didn’t attend school events, or know what classes I was taking, or know that I was a good student. By the time I was in high school, I talked to my father over the phone a couple times a year and saw him in person even less. His calls felt like a burden, something to get through and forget about until the next time he called. The last time I ever spoke to him he invited me to go bowling, one of the few things we shared. I told him, No. I was reading a book and frankly, didn’t want to go out of the house. I didn’t want to be bothered with him like I felt he didn’t want to be bothered with me for most of my life.

A few days later, he hung himself in his apartment.

My father had been sent to Vietnam like a lot of men in his generation. For his service to his country, he came back with a drug addiction and PTSD. He was able to beat the drug addiction, but could never overcome the stress and depression from what he saw and did in Vietnam. At his funeral, his brother who discovered his body cried out over and over again, Who killed my brother? Like most people, he would have rather believed someone killed him. But the truth is, mental illness killed his brother.

As his family, we knew he was ill. So did the people at the Veterans Administration, and his Army buddies. It was just easier to ignore it or assume he would work it out. It’s better to suffer than to admit you have a problem. In the black community the basic beliefs are getting help for mental illness is what white people do; you shouldn’t pay people to hear your problems, or you should talk to God. Actively getting help was just something you did not do.

I think about that phone call often and wonder would things have been different if I agreed to go bowling with him. What my father was dealing with would have taken more than a night with a daughter he barely knew. But the guilt has been with me my whole life. At the time, I am sure he felt he would be better off dead, I just don’t think he realized how many other lives he would damage. His brother’s life was changed forever. His sisters and so many other people spending their lives wondering if there was something they could have done.

Reading over my daughter’s blog post about dealing with her father and mental illness, I am reminded how much this guilt shaped the type of men I would date. I couldn’t fix my father so I navigated to other men who needed fixing. It has taken my own counseling to break this cycle. With each generation, the stigma of seeking out mental health treatment lessens. And because of that, I truly believe that my granddaughter, when I have one, won’t be adding to this story.