Most fathers wonder if their son will turn out like them. Mark Henick wonders if his son will be different.
“Do you have a family history of mental illness?”
I asked the question a few times before. It was with genuine personal interest, but inevitably tinted by clinical detachment.
Also having been through this a few times before, the late-teenage girl sitting across her living room from me answered in equal measure.
“My uncle was a schizophrenic, but nobody ever talked about him,” she said matter-of-factly.
I wanted to correct her, even though I had never met her or her uncle before. He wasn’t a schizophrenic. He was a person. He was a person just like you. He happened to have schizophrenia, but he was not schizophrenia. And she used the past tense. Either he’s dead, or he’s alive and counted among the dead.
Not a hint of my internal dialogue broke free from my analytical and buttoned down exterior.
We continued through the interview. I jotted down some notes, and we called it a wrap. I left, feeling almost certain that I could help her through this hard time. It’s what I do. That is, of course, with the exception of that part of me that’s never so certain.
I returned to my car and sat for a moment in the silence of a cold November morning. I leaned forward in the seat and let my eyes drift across the clear blue sky. My mind wandered. The haunting echoes from my memory have never really gone away. Actually, I’ve grown close to them over the years.
“Do you have a family history of mental illness,” the doctor asked me. I sat on the emergency room stretcher. My legs dangled over the side, just a kid at the time. My hand was bandaged and sore from the knife being wrestled and twisted from it only a short time before.
“I think so,” I said. He asked some questions, checked some boxes, scribbled some words.
Due to genetics, environment, or most likely both, a family history of mental illness is understood to be a risk factor for future generations.
Before my first child, a little boy, was born just over two months ago, I asked myself that same question.
When I did, I realized that I was terrified.
I have a family history of mental illness.
“Will he turn out like me,” I wondered to myself, from the most vulnerable corners of my mind. I was really asking if he would be different, if he would feel different, if he would fit in.
My developing paternal identity longs to transmit my values and lessons vertically down to my son. However, my psychiatric history has become as much a part of my identity as anything else. Every fiber of my being wants to protect him from ever feeling that darkness.
The time that I spent on psychiatric wards as an adolescent changed me. I can’t unthink those thoughts of suicide, and the attempts have scarred my mind, body, and soul.
However, what I did with those experiences after gave me many valuable gifts. The depth of happiness, gratitude, faith, and fulfillment that I carry with me today are because I knew a life once devoid of them.
I’ve learned great strength from struggle. But I instinctually didn’t want my son to do it that way.
It was only after he was born that I recognized how unreasonable, even selfish this was of me. Children are hardwired for struggle, and my son is entitled to his.
My role will not be to rob him of the opportunity to fail or to hurt. Running the risk of being a Catholic stereotype – life is hard. But once we get over that reality, a task in large measure accomplished by getting over ourselves, life can be pretty great.
My role as a father, especially after an encounter with mental illness, is much more simple and natural than attempting to exercise dictatorial control over which difficulties my son will encounter. My role is to be in his corner, not in the ring, no matter what.
I hope that the difference is that he will always know that he has a father and mother that love him more than any cliché could possibly express. We will love him even when he doesn’t like us, and especially when he doesn’t like himself.
The moment that he became real to me, that I held him my arms and looked into his bright eyes, I got to feel what my wife had for the 41 weeks before.
In that moment, I made my son a silent promise. I promised to teach him everything I’ve learned, I promised to give him everything I have, I promised to commit to him everything that I am.
And I promised that, when he scrapes his knee, when his pet dies, when he gets teased or punched or dumped, and nothing else seems to matter, I will be there, somewhere, to tell him that it’s ok to hurt and that everything will be alright.
Will this all make him turn out like me? I hope so. But even more, I hope that he’ll be better.
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