You just turned two, and you’re the walking embodiment of joy. Your infectious little laugh lifts the spirits of anyone who’s lucky enough to hear it. “I’m happy” is a mantra you blurt out dozens of times each and every day. Despite the occasional epic tantrum, which lasts about as long as a YouTube commercial, it’s hard to even imagine your adorable little ass being unhappy for more than brief spurts at a time.
But genetics reminds me that looks can be deceiving.
When your mother and I told your great-grandmother (generalized anxiety disorder, clinical depression) your mom was pregnant with your sister, the first thing she said was I need a cigarette. No Congratulations! No This is so exciting! Just I need a cigarette. I know it wasn’t intentional; it’s just the way she reacts to change. When I drove your great-grandmother back the next day, she told me the story of our family in a very unconventional manner: By linking the various families to mental illnesses in which they suffered. No, no, no. Our Midge was the brother I took the ferry to visit an insane asylum. He was a schizophrenic …
By the end of the drive, it was hard to tell if your great-grammy was offering an oral history of the family or simply reciting ICD-10 codes for Mental and Behavioral Health. As depressing as this talk sounds, it was actually quite a relief for me. It was one of the first times I ever saw my own issues as part of a much larger picture, as something I wasn’t solely to blame for.
Look, throughout your life, I know you’re going to feel down, I know you’re going to hurt, I know you’re going to feel uncomfortable, scared, awkward and so embarrassed you’ll think you can never face anyone ever again. These things can’t be helped; they’re simply a part of growing up. But if these unavoidable scars of youth ever become unbearable, if you ever feel hopeless and unable to cope, I want to you to do the one thing I wish I’d done sooner and more often: I want you to reach out for help.
At 37, I’m finally trying to tackle mental health issues that have plagued me for the past 20 years with openness, honesty and, most importantly, a lack of embarrassment and shame. Not too long ago, you could sum up my philosophy on talking about my own mental health issues with just three words: Suck It Up. But today, I’m open to medication, therapy, meditation (lots and lots of meditation), exercise and any of many, many proven methods of improving your mental health.
So what’s changed?
It would be easy to go all Hallmark right now and say something about you and your sister and the awesome responsibility I feel toward being a father. While you and your sister are no doubt a huge part of the shift, there’s more to it than that. Age is a factor, of course. As shitty as getting older is, you gain a perspective that would’ve been impossible to maintain in your youth. There are far too many things I can’t control right now to let the things I have some control over — such as my own mental well-being — bring me down. I’m more acutely aware of the years flying by, and I don’t want to waste my time being depressed if I don’t have to if I can have some say in the matter.
There’s something else, too. Over the past few decades, I’ve noticed a major shift in society’s attitude. Slowly but surely, the stigma attached to mental health issues is being removed. That stigma was still very much in play when I was growing up — especially for boys looking to be viewed as men. As liberal and accepting as I was toward others, I couldn’t show the same empathy for myself. I couldn’t admit to the depression I struggled with because I was certain it would be seen as a weakness, that it would cost me opportunities or even relationships.
When I was 21 years old, I sat across from a psychiatrist and listened to him tell me he believed, after considering my responses to his many “stupid questions,” my insomnia was a symptom of depression. I only agreed to see the “shrink” in the first place because I needed sleeping pills. What I didn’t want was to hear about why I wasn’t sleeping in the first place and what the root cause of my issue was. “What an ass,” I thought to myself before walking out of the psychiatrist’s office and closing the door on his medically backed opinion.
Of course, I was the ass. For years I tried to tough it out when what I should’ve been doing is getting help from the people meticulously trained to offer it. I wasted a lot of time suffering when I didn’t have to, and I don’t want you to do the same. I hope we, as a society, keep chipping away at this stubborn mental health stigma until we obliterate the son of a bitch, until people view seeking medical help for depression the same way they view treatment for a broken ankle. Still, I have to temper my idealism and focus on the reality here: In your lifetime, the tough-it-out approach to mental health issues for boys and men isn’t going away.
That’s why I’ll work so hard to ensure you view mental health differently than I did — and make better choices because of that perspective.