“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell what a wild, and rough, and stubborn wood this was, which in my thought renews the fear!”
― Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
I was around six years old when I first realized that something was wrong with my dad. In between times of being a loving father, he would pace through the house and whisper. Whispers about some “they” who were trying to get him. Whispers about my mom trying to get him. Whispers about the government tracking him with an implanted device. Whispers turned to yells of profanity and rage. When my dad went through these phases, I would hide in my bed with a pillow over my head. Until a few months ago, I still slept with a pillow over my head.
My mom tried to get him help. She was able to place him into an emergency 72-hour hold at a mental health facility. However, he used his connections in his State job to reach a sympathetic judge who ordered his release on the same night. In the summers after the second and third grade, my dad functionally kidnapped me (even if the law did not recognize it formally) for weeks at a time. He took me to Denver and Washington, D.C., respectively, in those summers. The latter visit even involved the Secret Service (which is a story for another day). Each trip was made to convince people that he was being bugged by the government.
Facing safety concerns at home and system that did not care to help my dad, my mom made the brave decision to move us out of our home. I have not seen my dad since the fifth grade. The years that followed were hard. My mom busted her ass working countless jobs to raise, feed, and house my sister and I. We moved some eight or nine times between fourth grade and when I graduated high school. During these years, I learned to internalize my feelings in deference to others’. Through no one's fault, I—a mere boy—was tasked with being the man of the house. That was a lot of weight for a small pair of shoulders.
I excelled in school—attracted to the rigor and order that academic learning provided me in what felt like an otherwise out-of-control life. I put immense pressure on myself to succeed. I never appreciated any successes because they were expected steps toward the next goal. I obsessed about everything I tried in life, believing that the only way to succeed was all-or-nothing. I made poor weight-loss choices, got very little sleep, and kept my feelings deep inside. I was a master chameleon—showing people what I knew they expected and hiding from them my true self. Along the way, I just whispered to myself: “You can do better”, “You are not good enough”, “No one likes you”, “You are a fraud”, and many other negative messages.
Unbeknownst to me—as I began this past year—my mental health had been on a severe decade-long decline. I never dealt with the traumatic events in my childhood. I did not appreciate the toll that graduate school took on my well-being. A toxic professional environment away from home exacerbated the decline. I was filled with anger and hurt that I did not understand. There were times I wondered what would happen if I took my own life. Those close to me paid the price. I did not seek help because I was afraid that to do so meant admitting that I was defeated. I also worried about what others would think about me. Most of all, I was scared that I would discover I was my dad (I am not).
At each step, I was convinced that I could handle things by myself—always sure that the next external change would also change me internally. Earning a Ph.D. and winning awards from one of the best schools in my field of study did not help. Marrying my junior-high crush did not ease my angst. Having two perfect children did not heal me. Joining a faculty and making a lot of money did not change anything. And moving back home was not going to make me better either. I was overwhelmed at the prospect of starting a new life by myself when I moved back home in June. Poet Laureate Eminem said it best in his song In Your Head (with a few minor flourishes by me):
I'm packin’ up my shit, as much shit in the car as I can fit
And I'm just drivin’ as far as I can get
Away from these problems ‘til all of my sorrows I forget
What's tomorrow like? ‘Cause tonight I'm startin’ life again
Get to the corner and stop, fuck am I goin’?
Besides psycho when I fantasize startin’ my whole life over
Yeah right, oh and I might go and
Get hypnotized so I don't even recognize no one
I try to look alive but there's nothin’ like holdin’
Your head up high when you're dead inside and I just hide, so
In case you're wonderin’ why are my insides showin’
‘Cause I done spilled all my guts and those are mine, so I'm
Pickin’ ‘em up and stuffin’ ‘em back
Fuck it, I've done enough in this science shit
Weather brought me nothin’ but back
To right where I was and perhaps
This coulda been my victory lap,
If I wasn't on the verge of collapse
I have learned over the past seven months that the only path to fixing my mental health and emerging from these dark woods was to take responsibility for myself and ask for help1. I have seen a therapist every week for the past six months and began medication to help with anxiety and depression. These have been immeasurably helpful, and I feel no more shame for seeking that help than I would if I were to see a doctor for a broken bone. Truly amazing friends helped me through this process and I can never repay them. I do not share this story for sympathy, nor do I seek affirmation. Rather, I hope to show you that even people who seem like they are living the perfect life are often struggling. More importantly, I want to give hope to those who are struggling now. Maybe the social stigma of mental health can be eliminated one shared story at a time.
I am now the best scientist I have ever been, the best friend that I have ever been, the best brother and son that I have ever been, and the best father that I have ever been. I am stronger and healthier than I have been in more than a decade. And I am happy, positive, and appreciative about life for the first time that I can ever remember. I am learning who I am and am excited for the future. My simple goal for this next year is to be a good person, a good father, a good friend, and to make you smile should our paths cross.
If you are struggling with your mental health and are afraid to seek help, take that step. If you are unsure what the process is like or what to expect, reach out to me privately2 and I will answer any questions you have. It is a long and hard path, but I promise you that the light awaiting you as you emerge from the woods into the sun-filled valley is bright, warm, and worth the journey.
I wish you a healthy and happy new year.