Milestone Birthday: Celebrating My Dad
We are celebrating a milestone birthday for my father this weekend. Family is in town from out of state: St. Louis; Washington, D.C.; Toronto. We are all coming together in celebration, in joy, for a very special man whose presence, for us children, extends throughout our entire lives.
My dad has been there through the worst of my illness, from its very beginning. When I was first hospitalized, as a junior in college, I was scared that I had let my family down, failed them. I had to drop all my classes at the University of Michigan and I wasn't sure if I would be able to re-enroll the following semester. As it turned out, the Honors Program blocked my reentry and I had to take my case to the ombudsman, who negotiated a compromise that allowed me back into school.
At the time, I was lost, overwhelmed, depressed, with a diagnosis of unipolar depression and on the wrong medication, which made things vastly worse. I worried that no family would visit me. I had been such a perfectionist, so invested in being a high-achieving student, never misbehaving as a child and always being the good kid even as a teenager. In high school, I had been a National Merit Scholar, graduating No. 10 in my class. No one had known anything was wrong. I hid my depression and anxiety carefully. But when I was a junior, the glass pyramid finally came crashing down.
My dad responded to the crisis by visiting every day, getting out of work and driving two hours to visit me for one hour and then turning around and driving the two hours home. He did that for 11 days straight. My mom and my brothers also visited. Throughout the years, my dad has continued to be ever-present, my champion, my biggest believer. He was convinced I could graduate from the University of Michigan, despite my struggles. As it turned out, I graduated with honors, writing a 70-page creative writing thesis, a series of short stories. Now, no one can take my degree away from me nor the experiences I had in school, which enlarged my perspective, widening my lens and introducing me to new thoughts and ideas. My parents have always emphasized education: There was never any doubt I was going to college. There never seemed to be any doubt, even after I became ill, that I was going to graduate.
"Hold my hand," my dad would say. "I need to hold your hand." And, "I can't do this without you. I need you in my life."
My dad would tell me, when I was deeply depressed, that I was needed, that I was valued, that I had a role in this family to fill that no one else could fill. He emphasized relationships, telling me that what I would remember after years gone by would be the people in my life, not the career I had or didn't have. He and my mom modeled giving back to family and they have set the tone in our family so that I am treated with kindness, with empathy and with patience. I have never been stigmatized or set apart in our family. I am included despite the fact that my bouts of depression have sometimes meant that I am too tired for family events. But I am always invited and welcome.
Despite the damage that my lack of medication compliance did to my family, my parents forgave me and never gave up on me: I was given chance after chance.
During my episode in 2014-15, my dad told me that I would get better soon and then we would take a camping trip to Northern Michigan, to see the dunes and sit around a campfire and watch the stars. "Hold my hand," my dad would say. "I need to hold your hand."
And, "I can't do this without you."
True to his buoyant personality, my dad has always been infinitely optimistic about my ability to get well. Even when I have given up hope of ever getting better, he will tell me that soon I will be healthy, and then we will be off on a camping trip together. He has done this from the depths of hospitalizations, sitting at my bedside as nurses come and go. I can't say how grateful I am for his optimism about my ability to get well, even more than that, for his belief in my hopes and dreams and my ability to achieve them despite a major mental illness. He tells me that I am smart, that I am stubborn, that I am competent. He always has been willing to talk over my latest plans with me. I always have new plans to discuss!
Now that I am well, I am giving back to my parents. This is how the circle goes, the circle of relationships. My dad says that he is just so grateful to have his daughter back. I am grateful to be back, to be a part of this family and able to celebrate my dad this weekend. I have a role to fill that no one else can fill: My dad has taught me that. So does he, and we will mark that this weekend.