35 years ago, my world was very suddenly changed. I was suddenly changed.
When we think about anxiety and depression, in ourselves and others, we may wonder from whence it all came. What caused us, or our loved one, to feel this way? What is the “root cause” behind the illness? Other things may have aggravated our condition, or may be behind it bubbling to the surface again, but what is the main thing behind it all?
For me, it is easy to track. I know it all started on June 7, 1982.
I was awoken by a scream. It’s a sound I hear every June 7th or anytime I think about June 7th. It was the type of scream that makes you sit bolt upright in bed, that tells you immediately that something terrible has happened. Something beyond pain. Something beyond our understanding of life at that moment.
I rushed downstairs, running past the policeman at the front door, not even registering his presence until I was in tears on the couch. I ran into the family room, to my mother and sisters, to our family friend saying, “He never felt a thing….”
I was 13 years old. My father was 52.
We had arrived in Canada slightly more than 7 months prior. A new start, a new life for us all, away from the racism and ignorance of the South African system. We had come to Canada to find peace, to find a future, to find opportunity.
Dad had been here on business, and fell in love with the country immediately. He brought my mom with him shortly after to show her this majestic land, and she fell in love with it, too. About 2 years later, we had arrived, full of hope and excitement.
Dad hadn’t been well for a long time – more than the length of my life at that time. Two major heart surgeries and an artificial valve in his heart that ticked like a watch. I used to have to time my dad’s heartbeat rate, and I could press my ear gently to his chest and count the ticks of that valve. And although we all knew that he had heart troubles, I, for one, never imagined him not being there. I never imagined learning to drive under the guidance of anyone but him. I never imagined him not coming to watch me play sports, or not being there to push me to do better in school. I never imagined going to Maple Leaf hockey games, or Blue Jays baseball games without him. I never imagined him not telling silly “dad jokes” after dinner.
And why would I? I was 13. 13 year olds rarely think like that, because they rarely have to.
He had gone Lawn Bowling with friends that night, and I had, as was the custom, polished his bowls before he had left. I remember him asking me if I wanted to come and watch, which I had done at times, but I turned him down. “I have too much homework,” I said, and, at the time, I thought that was true. The fact is, though, that about 30 minutes after he left, I was done all of it, and the guilt of not having gone with him haunted me for years.
I anguished over my answer because, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I thought that I could have somehow saved him. I thought that I would have been there to see something, or do something before it all happened. I convinced myself that I had let him down.
I was in a daze most of the next little while, and I don’t remember the funeral. What I do remember is the reception afterwards and being at the door to greet people as they came in to pay their respects. As I stood there, ushering people in and thanking them for coming, person after person uttered, “You have to take care of your mom and your sisters. You’re the man of the house now.”
That is a lot of pressure for a 13 year old boy, the youngest in the family, to feel. To feel that he is somehow responsible for making sure that everybody else gets through this, to feel he has to have the stoic response, the stiff upper lip, to the situation. I have never felt more alone.
From that point on, anytime my mom left the house alone, or was late getting home, my brain started imagining horrible things. “Something has happened, ” it would tell me, and I could feel my fear grabbing hold of me, and squeezing. It wrapped itself around my chest, tighter and tighter. And then mom would arrive, and the pressure would release, and I could breathe again. Until the next time.
It took years for that feeling to subside, and it happened due to the death of my grandfather. I was in England on holiday, and had been to see my friend, Jon, in Exeter, and then made my way to Hull to visit my grandparents. We’d had a few nights of Canasta and some good old English tea and meals before Granddad got sick. A stubborn and proud 89 yr old man, he insisted, although I had implored him, that he wanted to go back upstairs to bed rather than rest in his chair in front of the television. Climbing the stairs drained him, and he had no sooner laid down in his bed than he suffered a heart attack. I knew what to do. I remembered learning CPR in school in South Africa and I started immediately. His heart had stopped and I worked quickly and managed to get it beating again. And then a second heart attack. I watched my grandfather die, helpless to stop it. It was over quickly, but even now, looking back, it seemed like far, far longer.
Strangely, my Granddad’s passing gave me a kind of peace. A realisation that I could not have saved my dad’s life that night. Being there would have only left me with the image of my father passing away in front of me. My anxiety surrounding my loved ones not being home on time eased. It hadn’t been terribly severe, compared to the anxiety I would experience later in life, but, still, its vanquishing was a relief.
Two years ago, I was struggling to get through the days. I didn’t understand my anxiety and depression. I mean, I knew what they were, but I didn’t know why they were. It’s easy to look at my dad’s passing now and say, “That is obviously the trigger,” but it didn’t seem so obvious when it hadn’t surfaced for so many years and then came back with such a vile vengeance. All I knew was that I felt my life falling apart, felt my plans slipping from my grasp, and felt my happiness turning into a black hole of despair. I had all I wanted, and suddenly this insidious illness unleashed itself on my brain.
And 35 years after my father passed away, I’m sitting at my computer, hearing that scream reverberate in my head and gaining an even deeper understanding of what brought me to this point.
I still love and miss my dad. I always will. And every June 7th, in particular, I will remember him, but as I continue along the long road of recovery, I won’t think about what I lost, but about what I got to experience – the baseball and soccer games I went to with him, the hockey we watched on TV and learned about together, the silly dad jokes he told that now are a staple of my repertoire, playing board games together, him teaching me how to be a goalie and so much more.
And I hope, in time, that I will learn to silence the scream and hear only the laughter we shared.