“I Am A Pain To The World.”

Last week was tough. Two members of our human family committed suicide in the same week–Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain–and because their names are well known, their deaths acted as a glaring reminder about what is broken in our society.

Mental illness does not discriminate, and as my friend Amy Dresner pointed out, “I think it’s almost worse when you “have it all” and it still doesn’t “fix it”. Dashed are your hopes that if you achieved this, had this…you’d feel better. I’d imagine it can make one feel that nothing on the planet can/will help. Mental illness/addiction are immune to outside fixes, money, fame, prestige. It’s a life-long and most certainly internal job.”

But BECAUSE mental illness doesn’t discriminate, it is even more challenging for us–as a society–to know how to help our brothers and sisters who are suffering.

BECAUSE we can’t see it with our eyes, and BECAUSE people tend to hide how they are really feeling for fear of the stigma around mental illness AND recovery, it is very difficult to know who is struggling.

I believe we help our human family by making it VERY clear that we are here. That we will be here for them. Without judgment. And we do so by showing up for our brothers and sisters as WE really are, sharing how WE really feel–not in an attempt to “one up” the other, but rather in an effort to create intimacy in our relationships.

It is encouraging to see–in the wake of these two tragedies–post after post on social media of people speaking up about their experiences; sharing their truths in ways that allow us to pull back the curtain and uncover what’s really going on behind those toothy smiles and Snapchat filters. People are allowing themselves to be seen so that others may find the courage to be seen, too.

I believe that the more we speak up about our own struggles and how mental illness has affected our lives, the less alone we feel and the more likely we might be to seek help.

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To be honest, it has been my pattern to allow very few people to get close to me. I have avoided sharing myself for fear of criticism. I am afraid of letting people know who I really am because I hate the feeling of being judged. I am the person who--when a hundred people say I am doing a great job--will focus on the one who says I suck.

I come by this trait honestly.

My father was very successful in his career. He climbed the corporate ladder, was well-liked and respected by his colleagues, had beautiful homes, cars, a loving wife and two good kids. He appeared to “have it all”. But if we could have peeled back the curtain, we would have seen a man who desperately sought approval from the people he associated with. As a child, I sensed this very early on. I agreed with his points of view on things, even if--deep down--they didn't feel right. I laughed at all of his jokes because it made him feel good and I knew it was easy to hurt his feelings. When my dad spoke, we all knew not to interrupt. He didn’t know how to handle rejection, he lived for praise, and he suffered greatly with addiction and depression throughout his life.

I don't reveal this about my dad to shame him--even in death--but, rather, I want to grow from his experience.

I don't want the fear of criticism or rejection to shape my life in ways that disable me from being my most authentic self. And I don't want to push these feelings down so that I suffer mental illness as I continue through life. My addiction almost killed me, and so much of it was wrapped around not knowing who I was and not wanting to be seen. I don't want to find myself suffering the way my dad did. And since mental illness runs in my family, I see caring for my mental health as a non-negotiable.

Father's Day was always special in our house growing up. I loved any opportunity to show my dad how much I loved him, in part, because I knew how much it meant to him to see how much I cared. I'd spend countless hours finding the perfect card and writing the most meaningful messages. I tried to find unique gifts that he would like, and I was always trying hard to show him how much he meant to me.

Since my dad passed away, Father’s Day gives me time to pause, time to reflect, and a chance to remember the things I loved most about the man who gave me life, and who helped raise me.

Father’s Day is also very hard for me. It reminds me of one of the most difficult times in my life. This is the first time I am sharing this, and it is my sincere hope that if it helps even one person, then it was worth putting it out there. 

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It’s Father’s Day weekend, 2011, and my Dad is drunk at our family reunion. I watch him pour glass after glass of red wine and drink them down in gulps. We have always known my dad to drink, and by now, we all know it’s a problem for him, but this is different. He is on a mission. When my dad is ready to leave, my cousin has to wrestle him out of the driver’s seat to stop him from driving. He is making a scene, and the whole group of us are on edge. I am horrified. This is not my dad.

The next morning, on Father’s Day Sunday, our immediate family are all meeting for brunch. I head over to the hotel where my parents are staying and my mom lets me into their hotel room. My dad is still lying in bed. I walk over to him. I lay down next to him. I watch him sleeping for a while. He opens his eyes and looks directly into mine. My eyes fill up with tears. I love this man so much. He is my hero. He is the smartest, funniest, kindest, most lovable man I’ve ever known and I can literally feel his pain in this moment. I take a deep breath, and, staring into his green eyes, I ask him a question I've never in my whole life imagined asking my father.

"Dad, are you trying to kill yourself with alcohol?”

Without even a full breath of hesitation, he responds.

“Yes”.

He closes his eyes.

It is like a shock to my heart. I hear a high pitched sound in my head, my heart is beating out of my chest, my hands begin to shake. Although we all know he is in a very dark place, hearing his answer allows me to feel just how bad it's gotten. I am heartbroken.

He is admitting to being in so much pain that he sees no other way to stop it but to end his life.

He opens his eyes and looks at me. He speaks.

“I am a pain to the world”.

With tears streaming down my face, I tell him he is wrong; that he is an amazing man and father and that I love him dearly. I urge him to understand just how much I need him to be here and want so badly for him to get better. I tell him I want to help him. That we will make a plan...

His eyes never change. They just stare. I lean down and kiss him on the cheek. I can’t control my tears.

I get up quietly and leave the room.

He and my mom join us for brunch. Roger is with me along with my young niece and nephew, my brother and my sister-in-law.

My dad is jovial and talkative in the restaurant.

Only I know the truth.

He has decided to head off to Los Vegas, alone, and although we are all extremely concerned for him and this choice to travel while in such a depressed state, there is no changing his mind.

The rest of us travel home to Ottawa, as my mom is staying for a visit. At dinner, I bring up the subject of my dad and what we are going to do about his excessive drinking and his depression.

My mom shares what life has been like at home for the past while, and we all agree it's gotten out of control. He needs help.

We begin the process of staging an intervention. Even though my mom has to travel back home to the west coast, we arrange calls and training sessions to prepare us for what we have to do. I write a letter to my dad sharing why we desperately want him to get help and telling him of all the ways I love him and need him in my life. One night, while my mom is on the phone with my aunt discussing our plans, my dad listens in on the other phone. Our plan is exposed and he feels angry and betrayed.

My brother has already scheduled a business trip out west for a few weeks later, and so he adds the extra flight to Victoria, BC as an opportunity to visit with my dad, play golf, and talk. When my dad arrives at the Victoria airport, the first thing he says to my brother is, “This better not be an intervention”. They enjoy some time together, they play golf, and my dad tries to explain that he drinks because of the tense relationship that has developed over the years between he and our mom. My brother hugs my dad goodbye at the Victoria airport and he flies home to Ottawa.

It will prove to be the last time he sees my father alive.

Nothing changes at home after the visit with my brother in Victoria. My father's drinking continues, as do the sleepless nights, wild rants, days spent on the couch, binge-eating, excessive spending and staying away from the house for extended periods of time. My mother encourages me to fly out because she believes that I am the only one who will be able to get my dad to go to treatment. I feel enormous pressure, but I agree to fly out and talk to him.

I arrive at the Victoria airport and am pleased to see both my parents waiting for me upon arrival. Over the course of the week, my dad and I have several talks. We discuss how alcohol has always been a part of our lives. We talk about my road to recovery. We talk about his attempts at quitting and his battle with depression. He is honest with me, and it feels freeing to finally talk with my dad openly, without all the deflection through humour that he typically uses to cover his pain.

Two days before I am to return home, we go for breakfast at his favourite place. As he is paying the bill, he takes a deep breath and says “Well, why wouldn’t I at least go and check this place out?”. I try to control my excitement and simply nod, saying, “It can’t hurt to go and take a look”. So we do. We drive up to Cedars at Cobble Hill Treatment Centre and meet with several intake personnel including the program director and the medical doctor. After about an hour, the doctor asks if he can take my dad in for an assessment. After about 30 minutes, they emerge and the doctor explains that his suggestion is for my dad to complete treatment. I find myself looking straight ahead, then at my dad, then over at the doctor, then straight ahead again. I’m not sure what my dad is going to say. He is writing notes. I wait. We all wait. Finally, he speaks. “Well, it seems clear that you all think this is what I should do. I have two questions: What is this going to cost and how long will I be here?” The doctor explains that the cost is dependent on the length of his stay; and the length of his stay is determined by his willingness to work the program. The program director provides a ballpark figure: $20,000 and 90 days.

I look at my shoes and barely breathe.

After a few minutes, my dad looks out the window and then to me. He speaks to the program director and says " Ok. I'll do it."

He explains that he wants to feel better and if this is what he needs to do to enjoy life more, then he is willing to give it a try. He decides that it is time for change. I go over and give him a hug. I am optimistic.

We are invited to wander the grounds and get a feel for the place. It’s a lovely spot, surrounded by nature, and I feel this is going to be a really great step for my dad. I am full of hope and he seems full of purpose; two things we have both been lacking for a very long time.

My dad drinks heavily for the last two days of my visit. It’s tough watching it, but I understand that he is saying goodbye to his most loyal and trusted friend.

On the day my dad goes to Cedars, my parents are driving me to the airport, and then my mom is dropping my dad off at treatment immediately afterwards. We talk about the next stage of his experience, we make small talk, and we generally enjoy the drive to the Victoria airport. I don’t want to say goodbye. We hug many times and I keep telling my dad how proud I am of him and how great things are going to be once he feels better. I hug my mom and tell her how much better things are going to be.

We all believe it. We all so desperately want to believe it.

I hug my dad one last time before I head to my gate. Just as my brother had done the month before, I will do now.

This will be the last time I see my father alive.

During treatment, my dad and I enjoy some of the best phone conversations we’ve ever had. He is so honest and open and I can tell he is experiencing breakthroughs, having “aha” moments, and making real progress. Although he doesn’t feel he “fits in” with the majority of patients there, he knows he is an alcoholic and he knows he is in the right place.

Treatment isn’t easy for my dad. He has many ups and downs throughout his three months there. His worst day is when my mother arrives to tell her honest story about what has been happening at home. I get a call from the program director and learn that this was a breakthrough day for my dad. Now, instead of answering “I’m great!” whenever they ask him how he’s doing, he answers “I don’t know”. They see this as progress. I feel the same way. They explain it as my dad finally removing his mask and finally accepting the reality that things are not great. That things are difficult. That he's hurt my mom and that she can’t trust him anymore. He can’t handle this admission, and he finds the rest of his time in treatment to be extremely challenging. He gets into altercations with other residents. One man is asked to leave due to a physical interaction with my dad. I talk with him and get his side, but I know there is more to the story. My father chooses to do equine therapy and enjoys some special moments with a horse.

Soon after, he completes treatment and returns home. At first, he continues his treatment plan by attending 12-step meetings. Those quickly drop off and the drinking starts up again. At first, just a beer or two at the neighbour’s party. Then, he is buying it and having it in the house.

Soon, my parents are drinking together again.

In the year that follows, my father is diagnosed with bulbar ALS and dies on September 17th, 2012.

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Hearing my father admit he was in so much pain that he wanted to die, and hearing him say that he was a "pain to the world" broke my heart into a million pieces. But as difficult as it was, I was so grateful in that moment that he shared his truth. It was the first time he'd been really, brutally honest with me. Yes, we'd had lots of exchanges when I was growing up; all sorts of chats and time together. I saw him cry big, fat, painful tears on the day our family dog died. And we enjoyed wine-infused "deep talks" as I got older and started drinking with him. But he'd never allowed me to really "see" him until that moment. His admission to me while lying on that hotel room bed will forever be marked as the most significant moment we ever shared. It signified the end of one life and the beginning of a new one. And that scared the hell out of him. And it scared the hell out of  me, too. I knew that we could never again go back to who we were before those words were spoken. And I knew that with his admission, I needed to do whatever I could to save his life. There was no more time for hoping he'd feel better or wishing he'd go back to being the man I once knew. No. The time had come to move into action and help my biggest fan get the help he so desperately needed.

I owed him that. And I felt honoured to do the work.

I knew my father suffered depression; he had shared the news that he'd been recently diagnosed and medicated years prior, on the exact same day I'd shared with my parents about my DUI, which also signified the beginning of my sobriety journey. While I so badly wanted to be there for him during a very difficult time, I knew I had to save my own life and focus on what I needed to do to stay sober. My dad's drinking increased after his diagnosis and so he was counteracting the anti-depressants he was taking. He was essentially unmedicated; plus a lot drunk.

The event at the family reunion was my dad's rock bottom, and his words to me in that hotel room were him reaching out to ask for help. I will be forever grateful to him for trusting me in that moment. And I am glad I had the courage to reach out to him; to ask the question I had never wanted to ask.

While my father never got to experience real recovery from addiction or a long-term reprieve from depression, I believe that his experience in treatment served him greatly. And because we--as a family--stopped turning a blind eye and finally asked the questions that needed to be asked in order to help him, he was able to truly know the depth of our love. And that means so much to me now that he is gone.

While I can not honestly say that I have first-hand experience with suicidal ideation, severe depression, or other serious mental illnesses, I have a history of addiction and a pattern of hiding who I really am for fear of judgment. I struggle with perfectionism and I grapple with shame. I have gone to some very dark places, and with a family history of mental illness, I don't for a second take my mental health lightly. These are some of the ways I prioritize it, even when (especially when) I don't feel like it.

  • I share with Roger or a friend when I am hurting, because keeping it inside only makes it worse.
  • I cry, scream, get frustrated and punch my pillow when I am sad. I allow my feelings to flow rather than bottling them up.
  • I pay attention to myself. I take baths, listen to music, read, write, dance and walk in nature when I need to tend to me.
  • I eat good food because it nourishes my body and my brain.
  • I prioritize deep, restorative sleep because it protects me from Alzheimer's disease, reduces sugar cravings and keeps me in a better mood among myriad other health reasons.
  • I move my body daily because it allows my brain to produce feel-good chemicals that improve my mood.
  • I ensure my vitamin D levels are in check, and I take fish oil to support my brain function.
  • I engage in meaningful work because I know it nourishes my heart, mind and soul.
  • I meditate regularly because it centers me and connects me with who I really am.
  • I practice yoga a few times a week because "our issues are in our tissues" as Nikki Myers says..
  • I enjoy intimacy with Roger regularly because feeling connected to him helps strengthen our bond and makes us feel good.
  • I try not to worry about things I can not control.
  • I choose forgiveness over blame as a practice of self-care (I will share how I am working on this daily in an upcoming post).
  • I distance myself from toxic people because they aren't vibrating at the same frequency and I don't have time to waste on people who don't enhance my life.
  • I accept constructive criticism but ignore personal attacks and "haters". I will not be for everyone, but I no longer shape-shift in every situation simply to avoid criticism.
  • I prioritize my recovery because everything good has happened since I stopped putting poison in my body.
  • I live in the moment as much as I can. And when I forget, I try to remind myself to get back there. I do this by resisting thoughts that take me back into the past, and I also resist overly concerning myself with the future.
  • I serve others as often as I can because serving others is how we show up for our human family. And it feels so good to be in service.

Experiencing mental illness through my own addiction and through my father's experience with depression have allowed me to have tremendous compassion for those suffering. It has reminded me to reach out to people who I sense might be struggling because I realize they may not be able to bring themselves to pick up a phone or type hard words.

If you are struggling, please know that there is hope. In the wake of last week's tragedies, I am seeing countless admissions from people who realize that their time to speak up is NOW. That we need their voice in order to help another who is suffering. You may have to scratch and claw your way out of darkness, but please don't ever believe that there is no hope.

Because there is always, always hope.

Because you are a gift to the world; not a pain to it.

Because you were never meant to be in this kind of pain.

Because others have found their way out...and so can you.

Because I want you to love your life one bite at a time.

 

P.S. Happy Father's Day, Dad. I love you forever.

P.P.S. It should be noted that not everyone who commits suicide or has suicidal thoughts suffers with mental illness. Other factors--including relationship problems and financial struggles--can also push people to the edge. Again, reaching out for help and having people reach out to us when we are struggling can ease the pain. Let's remain mindful that we are a human family and we rely on one another.

P.P.P.S. If you'd like to begin receiving positive daily intentions around your mental and physical health, then you might enjoy my 14 Days of Wellness. Simply enter your name and email address (over on the right). It’s free, with no diets, products, challenges or catches.

P.P.S. Let’s be friends! I’d love to connect on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram. Plus, if you haven’t already subscribed to my blog, you should! That way, you won’t miss anything. Plus, as a thank you for joining, you will receive my 14 Days of Wellness. http://sarahtalksfood.com/

4 Comments

  • leah parsons

    Reply Reply June 12, 2018

    Thank for sharing this powerful post. How hard that must have been for all of you experiencing your dad suffering so much and watchinf him spiral down into darkness. I’m so glad you had some quality time with him before he left this Earthly Realm. I feel his sharing in that moment in the hotel room was a gift. He felt safe enough to say it to you. In that moment he allowed you to truly see him. That’s love!!

    • Sarah Roberts

      Reply Reply June 12, 2018

      Leah,

      You can’t know how much I appreciate your beautiful comments. I, too, felt that his words were a gift and I continue to feel incredibly blessed that he trusted me with them in that moment, and then, that he trusted me to help him get treatment. Seeing him, truly, has allowed me to show myself to others, which has been incredibly hard for me but also necessary for my own evolution. Thank you for seeing the power in this; thank you for seeing ME. I love you.

  • Darla H

    Reply Reply June 12, 2018

    This really touched me in a place I have lived my entire life. My family has a thread of mental illness that runs deep. My mother had a breakdown when I was 9. Her treatment included shock therapy. It changed my world. My sister and I who had known a sweet, happy life prior to this time, came to know a new reality. My sister and I both struggle with depression, I have a younger sister who has mental problems. One sister has been diagnosed bipolar, the other is still trying to find out what her diagnosis is. She and I both have borderline personality disorder. One of my sons has depression. One sister had three daughters. Two have struggled with alcohol and drug addictions, depression and bi-polar. I always had problems with food after my mom’s breakdown. When I was around 30, I lost 60 pounds and found out that I could drink a lot of alcohol and not gain weight, so you might say I switched addictions. Then I gave up alcohol and what do you think happened? Why, of course, I picked up my old friend, food. I am 67 years old and still suffering from my food addiction. I am 5′ 2″ and weigh 202 pounds. I want to stop, but I don’t seem to be able to do so. I hate the way I feel and yet I seem helpless to change. God bless you for your honest talk. It gives me a little hope. I’m so sorry you lost your dad. I lost mine last November. He was 90 years old and never drank a day in his life, and although he never really suffered from a food addiction, his mother and grandmother both weigh over 300 pounds, his brother was an alcoholic and his sister was bi-polar. I tried to commit suicide once. Thankfully I failed. I have Jesus now and it, along with good medicine, has helped me.

    • Sarah Roberts

      Reply Reply June 12, 2018

      Darla….if I could say words that would help you to know how brave I think you are, then I would say them all now. You are such a Warrior. I am so glad my message reached you and allowed you a place to share. Keep sharing. Keep going. Thank God you didn’t succeed because we need you…HERE. Please read through my blog and find recipes and tips that may help you show yourself more love and release some weight you are carrying. You deserve to feel lighter. I hope that today, after sharing all you have, you do. And it’s a start…today, drink water. You have shared so much and you might need more hydration. Show your body some love. It is a way in, for me, to show myself love bu treating my body with love, and we can always use a little more self-compassion. I am with you. xoxo

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