When Depression Hits Home: Choose Love This Valentine’s Day
Rick Birt | SADD National President & CEO
I’m going to be straight with you: wintertime is hard. The early part of the New Year is hard. Those holiday pounds feel, well, heavy, our resolutions are falling apart, the days are short, the nights are long, it’s cold. The only holiday to look forward to is Valentine’s Day, and this day brings another load of heartache. Put all this together, and it’s easy to understand why the other SAD (that’s Seasonal Affective Disorder) runs rampant. I’m reminded that there are millions of Americans living with depression no matter the season, and millions more trying to support those impacted by this illness.
When I was growing up, there was no greater rock star in my life than my dad. I could tell you all the cliché, cute stories of how he taught me to hit a baseball or make the best chocolate chip cookies. If you look at our baby pictures, we could be twins. If you know us, we act like twins. My father and I are far from shy. We’ve never met a stranger and are most at home at the center stage of any room we walk into, filling any silence with a story that is sure to make the folks around us laugh and smile. I wanted nothing more than to grow up and be just like my dad. Then, one day everything changed.
Overnight, this larger-than-life superhero of mine could not get out of bed. The smile that once lit up the room had fallen dark to a constant frown clouded with pain and confusion. This social butterfly had retreated to a cocoon of depression that made no sense to my middle school self. There would be days when my dad never left the house. He struggled at work. The “Papa Birt” that my friends knew and loved was now missing. I refused to go out in public with him because that sad cloud just hung over him wherever he went. He would try to put on a good show, but he would retreat back into the black hole that was my new dad. He was physically there, but the father I knew and loved wasn’t home. What was happening? It didn’t make sense!
Looking back now, I realize I went through stages of grief. I was sad. I was mad. The longer my dad remained in this depression, the more frustrated I got. I would yell and scream at this man who once was a giant in my life to “snap out of it” and “get over it” because I was embarrassed. I begged him to get it together and return to his former self. I thought depression was ruining my life, pulling apart my parent’s marriage, stealing everything from me, and I blamed my dad for it all. I wanted nothing to do with it, nothing to do with him. I was done.
Luckily, in time, my dad got help. Through medication and therapy, he’s learned to battle his depression. While his medical journey took years, my understanding of mental health took even longer. I spent many sleepless nights reading and soul searching.
As I’ve aged, I’m pleased to report that I came to my senses. I now understand that depression wasn’t something he was choosing, but instead something that had chosen him. I stopped being a jerk and became an ally to my dad on his medical journey. Now, again, I stand in awe of my dad, as someone who has refused to let his mental health control his life. Like any medical condition, it’s something he has to fight constantly. There are good days and bad days. There are moments, especially during the cold, long nights of winter, when my family has come to understand that you have to be patient and just say, “I love you.” This is life with depression.
There is someone in your life battling depression, whether or not you know it. I hope you’ll learn from my mistakes; never blame the person for what is happening to them, often something even they don’t understand. This Valentine’s Day Season, instead of buying cheesy cards and mediocre candy, show them love, not with hollow words but with jam-packed actions. Listen without judgment. Help them find help by talking to a doctor, counselor, or therapist. Be patient and kind. Remember that though their behavior may have changed, the person you love has not. They need you, now more than ever, to remind them of that love, and in their darkest nights, they need you to remind them that a bright, new day is coming.
Thanks for helping me learn this valuable lesson, Dad. I love you!