It was a typical evening in my household. I was reading one of my books to my two young daughters, which I wrote about the joys of fatherhood. But there was no joy or excitement on this night. I was a page-turning zombie, waiting for the book to end.
“Time for bed, girls,” I muttered. “Go brush your teeth.”
As my 3- and 6-year-old daughters wrestled for sink space, I felt no desire to stop them. I felt broken and exhausted. The only action I took was to bury my head in my hands on the kitchen table. I had felt despondent for a while, but this night was a little different. It was the story of a thousand paper cuts: each day building on the last one, to the point where I couldn’t continue any longer. And as I put my kids to bed, I realized something horrifying: I had no desire to be a dad anymore. I didn’t want to pack lunches, tag along on play dates, read stories, or give baths. I was completely done.
That’s when one simple question from my oldest daughter changed everything.
“Daddy, I know I’m supposed to be asleep right now,” she said with her voice shaking. “But are you OK? I’m worried about you.”
I noticed tears welling up in her eyes because she knew the dad she loves so much was slipping away from her.
“I’m just really sad, honey,” I whispered. “But I’m going to be OK.” We hugged each other for over a minute and both of us cried. Her tears flowed because she wanted me to be well. Mine flowed because I knew I couldn’t run away from my demons any longer. I have depression, and I knew it had gotten out control. I was diagnosed years ago and thought it was something I could just “handle” on my own.
Things that I used to enjoy, like being a dad, brought me no happiness whatsoever.
Depression in women and moms is well-documented, and postpartum depression is slowly becoming a talking point in our culture. But few people talk about what happens when fathers grapple with depression, even though almost 10% of American men suffer from feelings of depression and anxiety, according to the American Psychological Association. There’s a stigma attached to talking about mental illness in general, but that applies doubly for men, who are discouraged from speaking openly about their feelings in polite society.
Once I realized my depression was getting in the way of my parenting, I started to take steps to climb out of the darkness. For starters, I owned my depression and asked for help. This was easily the most important thing I did. I knew I had issues, but at first I was loath to admit it publicly. I feared people would think I was “crazy” or “unstable,” or any of the other words people associate with mental illness. (I’m certainly not the only guy to feel that way: a recent study revealed that only 19% of men felt comfortable talking to others about their problems.)
About a week after the incident with my daughter, I sat in my car alone and starting crying hysterically for no reason at all. I kept saying out loud, “I can’t do this anymore… I can’t do this anymore.” I knew I needed to find help immediately, because I was afraid that I would do harm to myself. I didn’t tell any of my family or friends about it — at that moment, I just started cold-calling therapists and met with the first one who had availability. That woman is my current therapist and I’ve seen her every week for more than a year. It’s not an exaggeration to say that she saved my life.
Fellas, you’re not soft or weak if you seek help for depression.
I’ve always said that you’ll find out who truly loves you when really good things happen to you and when really bad things happen to you. My depression cost me a few friends who thought I was unreliable, moody, weak-minded, or selfish. But on the flipside, I also learned who the ride-or-die people in my life are. They offered support, sent friendly texts to let me know that they “get” what I’m dealing with, and never judged me. I will be forever grateful for having them in my life.
And here’s an important note, fellas: You’re not soft or weak if you seek help for depression. It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain. Would anyone expect you to walk around with broken leg? True strength is admitting you have a problem and getting the treatment to be the best dad you can be.
My struggle with depression also taught me that I should denounce toxic masculinity whenever I can. I’m not raising little boys, but I used to be one, and I can state firsthand how damaging the “man up” culture is that permeates through our schools, playgrounds, and locker rooms. We still live in a society where the only three accepted emotions for men and boys are happiness, lust, and anger. Men still are discouraged from showing any vulnerability, even if it comes at the cost of their mental health, as was the case with me.
Whenever I speak to young boys, I teach them that good men are kind and aren’t afraid to express their emotions. I teach them that they should cry if they’re sad, ask for help if they’re overwhelmed, and let a grown up know if they’re afraid. And just as importantly, I try to model that behavior as well. I guess in a way, I’m doing that by being vulnerable on the Internet. Because as one of my mentors always tells me, “real men keep it real.”
Parenting is hard and it becomes exponentially harder for those of us dealing with depression.
Now that I understand my depression and I have the tools to fight it, I’m a much happier person. I exercise a lot more and take antidepressant medication. It took me years to get to the point where I would consider taking medication for my depression, but I’m glad I am now as it helps immensely. Most importantly, my joy for fatherhood has returned.
If you love someone with depression, please be patient, withhold any judgment, and don’t try to be a doctor. Parenting is hard and it becomes exponentially harder for those of us dealing with depression. More often than not, a simple “I’ve got your back, man” can be exactly what we need to get through the day.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you struggle with depression or feelings of self-harm, please seek professional help or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.