Warning: This story contains depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation content.
The email started like this; I think I need help. Serious help. I look at myself in the mirror and hate what I see. I hear my voice, and I hate it. I often feel like I want to die.
He was always a little different than the other kids. And while I saw this, I did not recognize it for what it was. He wore sweatshirts and long pants in hot weather in elementary school when all the other kids were in t-shirts and shorts.
In middle school, he had difficulties in school and was broody. He spent days walking around campus with headphones on, isolating himself in high school. And as an adult, he would complain that he didn’t feel like he fit in at family gatherings.
I just thought my son was a little different
I wrote it off as having a child who was slightly different from others, perhaps a little more anti-social than most. But nothing more. It bothered me, but I felt that in the long run, he would be fine.
I didn’t know that he wore long clothes because he was embarrassed by his body; I didn’t know that he had trouble in school due to ADD; I didn’t know that his broodiness was depression. And when he complained about not fitting in at family gatherings, I would tell him, “You’re fine — just be yourself.” So helpful.
From the outset, my son had his own way. We even managed to shackle him with an unusual name that no Starbucks barista could spell. And when he behaved differently than his peers, my instinctual response was to criticize his behavior.
I was disappointed that my son wasn’t an athlete
I signed him up to play youth soccer, and while he got plenty of exercise, he did not excel at the sport — and I was disappointed. He played little league baseball and was relegated to playing right field — and I was disappointed. He was not like me, The Athlete, and I was disappointed. And I’m sure it showed. And looking back, I am sure he saw it.
These realizations did not come into sharp focus until I received the email. Before reading a multi-page missive of self-loathing, I called him on the phone. He was in tears, didn’t know what to do, and was 30 years old.
As I listened to him rage about himself, I kept asking myself the same question repeatedly, “Where is this coming from?” I had never seen this in him before; hadn’t I spent the last thirty years praising and encouraging him? I had never worried about his mental health before.
I have a close relationship with my son, but I missed some red flags
I have a close relationship with my son, and we speak on the phone regularly. Our conversations are about the usual things a 30-year-old might be concerned about; his future, love life, job, and relatives.
Nothing ever seemed out of order. But when I took the time to reflect on those conversations and my memories of his childhood, I realized I had missed many clues about his mental state. Clues that, had I been paying attention, would have alerted me that I had a little boy whose behaviors might someday bring him severe depression.
And when I received that email, he had hit rock bottom.
We were lucky that our son reached out to us for help
After I got off the phone with him and he had promised me that he would not do anything to hurt himself, I booked a flight the next day to see him. I didn’t know how long his promise and our conversation would keep his depression at bay or if it would at all.
When I arrived, about 24 hours later, he seemed much better. I learned later that it’s not unusual for feelings of self-destruction to pass, but getting through the low point is challenging, especially for those without support. We were very lucky that our son chose to reach out to his family for help.
He contacted a therapist to help him process and move through his feelings of helplessness and overwhelming anxiety and got on a regular schedule. It has helped but is not a cure-all for what ails him. Healing takes a lot of work, self-reflection, self-assessment, and continuous awareness of one’s feelings and where those feelings come from.
Shakespeare said in Macbeth, “…the patient must minister to himself.” But not without family support. This is not the 16th century. I talk to my son on the phone once or twice a week. I pick up for him every time he calls, without fail. It’s an opportunity for us to stay connected, and it provides me with the opportunity to gauge how he is doing — to take his mental temperature. The added benefit is that these conversations are helping him.
We stay in close touch monitoring his mental health
Sometimes we talk for 15 minutes, sometimes for an hour or more. But we always discuss how he is feeling and what is at the root of his feelings, a simple task that any parent can do and doesn’t require psychiatric training. I leave the expert therapy to his therapist, and between the therapist, my son, and my family, we seem to be making some progress.
I love that boy. I love him more now than the day he was born. And sometimes, I cry in the darkness of my room when I think about how much he suffered when he was a little boy and I offered no help. But the support he is getting now from his family and his therapist will, I hope, provide him with the stable ground he needs to move forward.
Unfortunately, nothing is written in stone. The sad truth is that I will be on high alert until the day I die. But for now, my boy is happy, making me breathe a little easier.
The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.
More Great Reading:
My Daughter and I Got Matching Tattoos, a Year After Her Suicide Attempt
Suicide Prevention Resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline