My therapist told me in one of our first sessions that children internalize the voices of their parents. Our decisions are directly influenced by what Mommy and Daddy told us about ourselves. That’s why I was in therapy in the first place, he said, because during my path to adulthood I had yet to comprehend or accept some of the messages my parents had given me as a child.
Regardless of what he conveyed, at all times my father made sure he made his points well. A writer and a high school English teacher for more than 30 years, he taught me at an early age the difference between who and whom, and lie and lay. Thanks to him, I still cringe whenever someone tells a dog to “lay down.”
My high school years were turbulent. During junior year I suffered a terrible setback. I still had two years before college, but I was worried about where to go and how my life might take shape. I couldn’t cope. My parents tried to help, but I was heading for a total collapse. At just 16 I entered the mental healthcare system.
I was in too much pain to notice how troubling the experience was for my dad. On one level he was struggling to deal with my depression, but at the same time he was forced to re-live some of his own mental health history. As I found out one night during my ordeal, in his early twenties my father had experienced what his doctors called a schizophrenic break from reality. Very few people knew about his hospital stay as a young college student. It was news to me and, as I soon learned, to my mother as well.
My father was an imposing figure, tall with broad shoulders and a solid upper frame. He always looked tough to me, like he was ready to take on anyone who crossed him, even though deep down he was sensitive and insecure. It surprised me that a man who rarely visited a doctor, who almost never got sick, had dealt with a serious illness with which I was already too familiar. Suddenly I felt a lot less alone. His sharing helped in my recovery—I found myself emerging from my despair to finish high school.
Seven years later, I was blasted by a second wave of depression. My mind was on fire, once again full of questions about my future. I had recently graduated from college and was searching for both a job and my place in the world. Answers were tough to come by, and in one year alone I had six hospitalizations. My father visited often, asking me during one stay something that spoke as much about him as it did about me.
“There’s so much you’re missing,” he said. “Why do you ignore the good in life?”
I sensed that he had asked a similar question of himself years before. His breakdown occurred after his own intense period of searching. For many years he had thought about becoming a minister like his grandfather, who had raised him. He was out investigating various churches in the hopes of discovering what path to take, but instead he found himself in the psychiatric ward.
I was also searching for something greater than myself. As a boy I wanted to be just like my dad. The phrase “follow in your father’s footsteps” was something I had taken literally. I thought I would have to place my feet in the exact spot he had put his if I wanted to go where he had gone, like going from our living room to the kitchen. At 23 this meant trying to determine if I wanted to become a high school teacher or a college professor.
“But I want to be an intellectual,” I told him, hinting at my misgivings about teaching Shakespeare to 14 year olds.
“And what are you going to teach those college kids? Allen Ginsberg?” Given my limited exposure to the great writers of the past, I deserved this dig from my father, a man who could recite Blake, Byron, Tennyson and Frost with ease.
My depression, fueled by a piercing anxiety at the very core of my being, prevented me from teaching at any level. I had to leave my job as a grocery clerk. My relationships suffered. Everyday activities were a hassle and I questioned the value of my existence in a world that didn’t care if I lived or died. The only givens in my immediate future were many rounds of cognitive behavioral therapy, coupled with some serious medications.
Soon after one of my discharges I found myself numb. I always enjoyed watching the Chicago Cubs with my dad, but in my condition just sitting down to cheer for our favorite team seemed like a chore.
“You mean you can’t even enjoy a ballgame?” he asked. Perhaps he had never felt as low I as I was feeling.
That’s the thing about depression: under its spell the world appears dark and disfigured. Everything’s askew and nothing is solid. One of my poems from this period described where I stood: “The ceiling is the floor / And I’m in between.”
Eventually, I climbed out of my fog and re-entered reality. The ceiling stayed in its place, high above the floor, until it collapsed three years later when my father succumbed to the effects of pneumonia. A two-pack-a-day smoker—his fingers yellowed with tobacco—he simply couldn’t breathe.
Today he makes regular appearances in my dreams. Usually I have something important to tell him but I can’t always find him; sometimes he fails to understand my words. I often write about him too. I’m still trying to piece it all together and writing has served as therapy, another outlet for my often-tangled emotions. Given that he was a writer, it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be one without his influence.
Dad gave me many tools: a sense of humor, proper grammar, puns, ambiguity and irony. One of the ultimate ironies I learned from being his son is that our existence is problematic but, in order to survive, we must use our entire being to confront the difficulties of life.
In his search for meaning, my father looked for God. I’m not sure if he ever found what he desired, but I’m positive that he wanted me to investigate the big questions on my own. That it’s ultimately up to me to decide how to live my life remains his lasting message. It’s no wonder that I turned to philosophy in my darkest moments and that I keep returning to metaphysical pursuits as a coping mechanism.
For all the times he wanted me to communicate effectively, to speak properly and to write well, I find the moments in which I make mistakes the most liberating. While studying one night for a grade school science test, I said orgasm instead of organism.
“No, that’s something else,” he said, laughing as he placed his arm around me.
It’s an image of my father I cherish.