The words that kill
It’s been 20 years, almost to the day, since I experienced my first episode of major depression. I was almost 20 years old and there wasn’t any hint that I was about to go through the most difficult period of my life.
Up until that point, my life was what is considered as ‘normal’. No particular drama. I wasn’t a victim of abuse, harassment or bullying of any kind. I was as normal as it gets. Anxiety, sure, I had some. Occasional mood swings came and went. But, that happens to all of us.
Truth be told, my mental illness snuck up on me out of nowhere. In fact, I still remember our first encounter as if it were yesterday. I was in bed, just about to fall into a deep sleep when, all of a sudden, my heart started pounding. I thought it was trying to break out of my chest the same way a prisoner tries to break out of jail, by any means necessary. Breathing heavily, I tried to get out of bed and get some help. I was dizzy, my hands were numb and I felt like there was a 200 lb. anvil on my chest.
By the time the paramedics arrived, I managed to settle down somewhat. I vaguely remember asking if I had just suffered a heart attack.
“No. Have you had any panic attacks in the past?” the paramedic asked. I was confused, as if he was speaking a foreign language.
“A panic what?” I answered. “Can that kill you?”
The months that followed were a nightmare. Completely disjointed, I could barely go about my daily business. Every action required a Herculean effort. Every decision felt like a trigonometry problem. It was like I was trapped in quicksand or swimming against a strong current.
I was trapped in a body that wouldn’t function. It was like my brain decided to take a vacation. “Sorry, we are closed.” The lights were on, but nobody was home.
While my friends were savouring life’s beautiful moments of youth, I barricaded myself in my apartment. They were happy and smiling while I was apathetic, a hypochondriac and a slave to steady stream of negative thoughts.
That’s when ‘the words that kill’ were pronounced.
And not just by anyone.
After the umpteenth emergency room visit and the umpteenth confirmation by a doctor that I hadn’t suffered from a heart attack or that I didn’t have a flesh eating disease, my father, desperate and exasperated from seeing his son in such suffering, looked at me straight in the eyes and said:
“ENOUGH!! Pick yourself up and give yourself a kick in the ass!”
Those words hit me just like a Mike Tyson uppercut. Right on the chin.
It wasn’t from lack of effort or determination. It wasn’t laziness. But it was difficult, impossible even, to give myself a kick in the ass. The machine was broken and the mind has succumbed to its new master: fear.
*Author’s note: It is physically impossible to give yourself a kick in the ass, by the way. Try it. It’s like touching your elbow with your hand from the same arm. Mission impossible.)
The problem, I know very well now, was never my hind parts. Far from it. It was between my ears. I was suffering from a mental illness and there wasn’t enough kicks to the rear end in the world that would change a single thing.
I needed help and support. The help came, finally, after a few months when a doctor gave me his diagnosis: major depression with panic attacks. The little blue and yellow pills were included with the diagnosis.
The support, however, came from a particular and unexpected source. From my girlfriend at the time, my mother and my brother were there for me too but surprisingly, support also came from my father.
My father comes from a generation of men for whom mental illness was a sign of weakness. A man doesn’t cry. A man doesn’t ask for help and, a man definitely does not suffer from a mental illness. Stand up, put on your big boy pants and walk!
However, taboos and prejudices towards mental illness are not all born equal. Some are born from ignorance or lack of education. Often, it is from a desire to ridicule or to judge. Sometimes, however, the source of the prejudice can come from a much deeper source.
That day when my father uttered those words will remain forever etched in my memory. I remember seeing, in the blue of his eyes, a deep pain and an immeasurable sadness.
A long time had passed before I finally grasped the real meaning of those words uttered by my father that day. It was a cry from the heart. An immense pledge of love towards his son launched through the only words available to him at the time.
It was also at that time that I realized that in order to change his perception, his way of seeing things, was to break the silence and open up a dialogue with my father about my mental illness.
Since being diagnosed over 20 years ago, much water has flowed under the bridge. I stopped counting the number of episodes and panic attacks. I lost count a long time ago. Although I consider myself incredibly lucky to be under the care of an excellent psychiatrist, I know that depression and anxiety will be a part of my life for the rest of my life. It is like a marriage without the possibility of divorce.
What reassures me is knowing that I have the unwavering and unconditional support of my family and friends.
I also know that, if there is a storm on the horizon, my father will be there to look me in the eye and say: “Come on, let’s talk about it.”
Albert Einstein once said: “It is easier to disintegrate an atom than to break a prejudice.”
My father is certainly not a physicist but he is living proof that a prejudice can be disintegrated and reduced to nothing.
A bit of open mindedness, listening, and love is all you need.
It takes time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. And…a kick in the ass is not a requirement!
Martin runs the french-language mental health blog Entre les deux oreilles and can be found on Twitter and Facebook. This post was originally published in french on the Entre les deux oreilles website and was translated to english by Giovanni Sardo.