I nod because I have no words, because my 4-yr-old Sienna is right. I don’t smile enough. I don’t laugh enough. Too often I look serious or sad or angry – not at her – at life. I’ve been in a fairly dark place the last few months, depression corroding my insides like rust or acid, blinding me to the joys of being a father. I see my daughter after school and count the hours and minutes until it’s time for night-night. And she knows it. This little girl is so damn smart and intuitive. I don’t want to be this way. I don’t want to miss out on things I’ll never again experience.
A couple of months ago I lay with Sienna in her bed. She needs either myself or her mommy to stay with her a bit until she feels comfortable with being alone. Monkeys, squirrels, cheetahs, owls, penguins surrounded me. At the foot of her bed Snoopy hung out with Darth Vader. Vader held a pumpkin that wished all a happy Halloween. I listened to Sienna breathe…so much quicker than my own air gulps. She held a ratty scarf she’s had since she was a baby and sucked her right thumb. I held a Star Wars blanket to my chest and kept one arm around Sienna. The slurping from thumb-sucking filled the room. I’d do anything for this little girl. I want to share her joys and triumphs and defeats and sadness. I want her to share mine. But depression always gets in the way. Depression makes me nod and say and empty, “Beautiful” when she shows me a picture she drew in school…her as a sparkly purple queen.
As we lay there together, I looked around the room I’d helped decorate – Inside Out and Star Wars decals adorning the mint green walls; a painting of Batman and Superman; my mother’s artistic take on Charlie Brown and Snoopy; a cupcake clock that had stopped ticking now for more than a year; butterflies and flowers she’d made in school; a photo I’d taken of Siena, Italy. As I looked around the room anxiously wanting to leave, to be rid of my child for the day and have my space – maybe to watch something stupid like “New Girl,” Sienna started to squirm. Somehow she maneuvered herself sideways until she lay on top of me, back to my chest. She felt warm. I felt trapped, but I didn’t move. Something in my brain told me this was special. My depression relented a bit. I breathed slowly, deeply as her breathing slowed and sleep took her away for the night. Her thumb dropped out of her mouth covering my face with saliva. I lay still. Despite my depression, despite my difficulty smiling, she felt safe and loved. She’s 4 years old and she loves her daddy. Would I ever experience this again? This closeness to my daughter? This miracle? Before I know it she’ll be a teenager and want nothing to do with me. I can’t let my depression steal moments like this. I can’t. I need to be strong. I need to take it all in and remember. I need to make it all about her instead of making it all about me.
We lay there for a good half hour before I gently moved myself from beneath her and gave her a kitty to hug as she dreamed.
“I love you,” I whispered. “I love you so much…so much. I’ll try. I’ll try to smile more. I’ll beat my anxiety. I’ll take Xanax if need be. I’ll be a better daddy.”
I pulled the cover to her waist and watched her breathe in and breathe out. Her eyes remained slightly open which always makes me laugh. She sleeps like the undead.
I won’t let my depression take this memory from me. Not this one. It’s already taken too many. And I’ll do my damnedest to fight it. It’s so hard when your brain’s constantly pelting you with the needles that are negative thoughts as life goes on around you. But I’ll keep battling because Sienna deserves it, because I deserve it, because I never want another extraordinary moment to slip by.
It’s been months since I’ve written a blog due to personal reasons and I thank all of you for sticking with me. I’m not quite ready to delve into Sienna’s or my own life yet, but it is time to get back on the horse blog-wise and tackle social media once again. So without further ado…
On June 14, 2016, Mr. J. Ivy, poet, spoken word artist, author and Grammy winner, opened the State of America’s Fathers Summitwith a powerful piece about his dad…or lack thereof. The Summit, co-hosted by Promundo and Fatherly and emceed by “Fatherly” co-founder, Simon Isaacs, revolved around a flagship report on “fatherhood in the United States (viewed) through a comprehensive lens, with a focus on equality and diversity. From looking at fathers’ roles in childcare and how they achieve work-life balance, to examining what it means to be a nonresident father, this report will take an honest look at what fatherhood means for American dads in 2016.” (Men-Care.org). And as interested as I was in the Summit, it was Mr. Ivy’s brutally honest account of his life without a father and his battle with depression that struck me the most. Upon the end of the Summit, I shakily went up to Mr. Ivy, (who’s worked with the likes of Kanye West, Bob Dylan, Dave Chappelle and Stevie Wonder) and overcame my nervous stutter long enough to ask 2 things: 1) What was his secret to dealing with depression and 2) Would he be willing to conduct an e-mail interview with me for my blog. He couldn’t have been kinder and below you can see the fruit of my beating my anxiety for a serious of moments. I owe Mr. Ivy a great deal of thanks.
1) What was your childhood like? How would you describe yourself as a child?
My childhood was a great balance of good and bad. More good, with being blessed with a loving family, a great school, and a good neighborhood, but the bad that did exist left a lasting impression. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and with the rise of drugs and violence the love and good will in my neighborhood was becoming more and more interrupted. We walked our blocks, we went to school, older folks went to work with their guard constantly up in fear of what could happen. In the Chi you always watched your back not wanting to become another victim or statistic. And the end of the day, you just wanted to get home safe.
My home, however, was beginning to shift with drugs and alcohol becoming a dominant factor in my Dad’s life. My two brothers and I watched the transformation play out in the arguments and fights that our folks were having. Our peaceful abode too was too becoming more and more interrupted. That constant interruption eventually led to separation, which later led to divorce. From that point my Dad wasn’t around and my confidence, self worth, value, and even grades began to drop. I knew I was loved but the confusion was definitely present and having its effects.
2) When did you realize that you were a writer? What type of path did you take to get there?
After my folks split, our neighborhood was continuing to become more and more dangerous and my Mother worked day and night to save up to move us out to the South Suburbs. My junior year of high school, my English teacher, Ms. Argue, had the class write a poem for a homework assignment. Before then, I knew I was good at writing notes to girls, but I never looked at it as a gift. The next day I brought my poem to class like everyone else, but to our surprise, Ms. Argue made everyone read their poem in front of the class. I hated that moment, but I followed suit and rushed through my read. After class Ms. Argue pulled me to the side, gave me an A on my poem, and asked me to perform in an upcoming school talent show. Being shy and lacking confidence I didn’t do the show. A few weeks went by and Ms. Argue approached me again. She told me she had another show coming up and since I “faked her out” the last time, she wasn’t asking me this go around, she was making me do the show. I was nervous and scared, but I took her up on her challenge, performed in that show, and my first time ever on a stage I received a standing ovation. In that moment my life forever changed and my pursuit of writing and performing has been fueled by the curiosity to see what all I can do with it. But it was those early moments of recognition and love that pushed me to want to explore and discover more.
3) When did you first notice you had depression and how did it manifest itself?
I was in college, now a young man, now away from home, away from high school, away from family, away from friends, away from sports, away from the stage, away from my comfort zone when the walls came crashing down around me. Although I was surrounded by people, although college started off with a bang and a lot of fun, as the days went on, I became angrier and angrier, sadder and sadder, due to the fact that my Father wasn’t in my life. It had been close to 10 years since I last seen or spoke to him and I found myself sinking so deep because of it. My joy began to fade. I stopped going to work. I stopped going to class. I didn’t care about putting my best foot forward. I isolated myself from everyone. I was lost in this haze, not knowing how to get out of it.
4) How did your family/friends react to your depression?
No one reacted because I didn’t allow myself to show them that side. I got really good at wearing my “mask,” that phony, empty smile that would hopefully disguise the disgust I was feeling inside. I didn’t want to bring anyone else down so for a long time I kept it to myself. I sadly sat on my “island” wrestling with my thoughts and emotions.
5) Did you ever think of suicide?
I’ve had very, very low moments and I’ve deeply wondered why I was here and why was I going through the feelings that weighed me down, but I’ve always known how much of a blessing life is. I’ve always had a strong hope that I could get through those moments. I’ve always been extremely curious to see what life will eventually offer. I’ve absolutely had my moments where I just wanted to disappear and start over with a new life and new circumstances, but by the grace of God I’ve never reached the breaking point where I wanted or attempted to take my life.
6) Once you sought help, what tools did you use to successfully learn to live with your depression?
My help came by way of a conversation I had with my older cousin Julia. I don’t know why I decided to open up and talk to her about what I was feeling, but I’m glad I did. After hearing me out, she simply told me that I needed to learn how to forgive. She said that if I didn’t forgive my father, I was going to carry that pain with me for the rest of my life. Hearing the idea of forgiveness struck me deep. Envisioning feeling that low for a long period of time hit me deep. It made me heed to advice and ultimately it pushed me to forgive my Father and fight for my joy.
7) Do you do any exercises today to keep your mind free of negative thoughts? How do you fight them off?
Writing has been one of my best exercises. I have a quote that says, “If you don’t deal with your emotions, one day your emotions will deal with you.” And writing has proven itself to me of being a great way of dealing with those emotions. It’s a great way to cleanse the soul, a great way of getting out the issues so you can take a look at your thoughts, study them, and learn from them. It allows me to breath. It allows me to hear my soul and my higher self. It centers me, shifts my focus, and reminds me to be grateful for all that I do have.
8) What advice would you give to someone with depression?
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. We’ve been blessed with so much. There is so much we’re capable of. So much you’re capable of. Fight to refocus your thoughts. Workout. Ride a bike. Do things you love to do. You deserve to be happy and anything thoughts that tell you otherwise need to be dismissed. Surround yourself with people you love. If you can’t help yourself, do what you can to help others. Depression is such a selfish act. Depression is all about “me” and how “I” feel, but when you extend love to others you redirect your feelings, which in turn lifts you up over the storm. The sun is still shining. The sun is always shining. We just have to remember to remove the shade that we’ve cast on our days.
9) What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
Write as much as possible. Write down every thought and idea. When the energy hits you don’t let it past. Don’t put it off to later. And most importantly don’t be afraid to be free in your creativity. The best writers are those who are the most fearless, those who aren’t afraid to bend and stretch their thoughts, those who aren’t concerned with others think. Zone out, listen, get it out, and share. If you love it, others will too. Write ON!!
10) What is your definition of masculinity? What do you think society has done to prevent men from exhibiting emotions?
My definition of masculinity is sacrificing selfish wants and needs in order to take care, protect, and provide for your love ones. We’ve been taught that “real” men don’t cry or show emotions, but I strongly disagree with the idea of showing your feelings takes away from your manhood. In my opinion it makes you’re more of a man. It exhibits strength, leadership, and fortitude. There isn’t one perfect model of what a man is suppose to look like or act, but when it comes to the best men I know, they all work hard to take care of their love ones.
11) While you’re not a father yourself, I do recall you talking about breaking the cycle which is something I’m trying to do. Tell us about your mission to “break the cycle” and what’s going on in both your life and career at the moment?
No, I’m not a father yet. I really look forward to that day and that blessing. Until then, I’ll continue to prepare for that moment. Right now, I’ve been moving around a lot with my poetry, performing and speaking at different engagements, writing for new projects, working on new music, and steadily moving forward with The National Dear Father Movement (www.DearFatherLetters.com). The mission is, “One Million Letters Written, One Million Hearts Healed.” And through my shows, the audio book and album, which is set to be released soon, a classroom curriculum for the book “Dear Father: Breaking the Cycle of Pain,” and community engagement, myself and my team have been using these tools to raise awareness about The POWER of Forgiveness. Forgiveness has proven to be such a useful tool in my life, along with the art of writing. With forgiveness and writing as the focal point, we’re on a mission to continue to inspire this idea of healing and not allowing Your Past to Kill Your Future. The more healing we inspire in our communities, the more we will be able to truly Break the Cycle of Pain and rest, and work with joy on our side and in our hearts.
Once more I’d like to thank Mr. Ivy for agreeing to this interview and as I hope you’ve seen, he’s an inspiration for anyone dealing with mental illness and anyone who grew up without a father.
Please watch his incredible performance of “Dear Father” from HBO’s “Def Poetry”:
Proud to be featured in a Today Parents article by Emma Davis regarding parenting & mental health. You can read the article here.
Also featured is Jennifer Marshall who blogs at Bipolar Mom Life, is the co-creator of This Is My Brave & the woman who trusted me with her organization when it came to putting on a show in New York. You can watch the extremely powerful This Is My Brave New York City in which regular people with mental illness take the stage and share their stories via personal essay, poetry, song and monologue here:
It’s night. I lie in the darkness of my bedroom staring blankly, body trembling. Sienna opens the door. It’s time for her to go night-night but she needs to see me first. She’s 4 years old.
“You’re so brave, daddy.”
She’s so intuitive. She gives me a hug. She smells like flowers. Tears form, but somehow I stop them from falling. But I can’t stop the tremors coursing through my body and I can’t stop my facial tic. Sienna and I hug in the darkness. The air conditioner rumbles. She breaks the connection.
An “I love you” stutters from my lips.
I think about time and gloom and death as my daughter, so full of life, so smart and beautiful, wishes me sweet dreams and opens the door. I sweat despite the air conditioner. I hug a pillow to my my chest. The left side of the bed is empty. My wife needs to put Sienna down because I can’t function.
The door opens again and Sienna’s back. Her footsteps sound so small. She wants another hug and we embrace once more.
“I love you, Daddy.”
She breaks the physical connection and leaves, this time for good, though I hear her spectacular giggling over the baby monitor as my wife reads her a story. It’s “The Battle of Loki” from an Avengers book.
Hours before I was in Manhattan at a Type-A Parenting bootcamp. I was down, but I managed to talk to strangers as they gave me helpful advice for my blog. They commented on how I’m helping so many people by writing about my depression. I shrugged them off. A few other members of the NYC Dads Group were in attendance and it was good to see them. A faraway friend made the trip to the conference as well. The bootcamp was designed to last until 4 o’clock followed by an after party at 8:30. I accepted a dinner invitation from one of my new friends so I could kill the time between the bootcamp’s end and the after party’s beginning.
I sat down with one of my NYC Dads Group friends, People chattered around us as I asked him for advice about a special idea I have, one that frightens me because it’s a realistic thing, and one I don’t know how to develop. Somehow the conversation devolved into me crying and saying I didn’t want to be here anymore. I have no clue how it happened. I’m unable to trace the convoluted road from asking for advice to wishing to disappear from this world. By then 2 other friends had joined the conversation and tried to calm me down, but my depression combined with a panic attack knocked me over the edge. Ashamed and embarrassed I got up and left. I couldn’t breathe. I stumbled down escalators trying my best to suck in oxygen.
“Everyone’s watching me. I’m a failure. I’ll always be a failure. Just let me go.”
The thoughts cycled faster and faster. I couldn’t stop them. I continued down the escalators hyperventilating and not even bothering to wipe away the tears. I trembled. I mumbled to myself.
“Just let me go.”
I reached the lobby and made my way to the street. I stopped and held onto a light post trying to catch my breath. The world continued to spin. Masses of people continued walking the sidewalks of Manhattan. Were they watching me?
My fingers shook as I texted my wife that I’d had a massive panic attack and was heading home. I started walking to 34th street. She responded with “Come home! Breathe!” Times Square was alive with tourists and people dressed up as famous characters. Iron Man talked with Grover.
Somehow I made it to the train station and then home. I unlocked the door to our apartment and found a concerned wife and a happy daughter who shouted, “Daddy!!” But I couldn’t muster a smile. My wife and I locked eyes and then she hugged me.
“Shh. It’s ok. You’re home. Go to bed.”
It was around 4 pm, but the bedroom was calling. The darkness. The rumble of the air conditioner. I stayed in bed. I cried. I yearned for death. I cried some more. I posted an apology to my friends on Facebook.
“I hate this F**king disease!!!!!!!”
Exhausted, I slept.
I awoke and realized I needed to print something. I dragged myself to the living room, sat down on the floor and opened the computer.
My beautiful, innocent daughter asked if I was sad. I told her the booboo in my head was making me sad. I printed the thing and went back into hiding.
I stayed in bed the next day as well, just staring into space, negative thoughts cycling. I lost an entire summer weekend with my wife and daughter to depression.
I’d felt the blackness creeping in for the past few weeks so having a meltdown is no surprise. It’s been 4 days since the conference and I’m still shaky. I’m not sure what’s triggering this latest battle. I just know it runs deep. I refused to go to therapy the week before. I’m on a new medication, but I don’t think it’s working. I’m battling the same thoughts I’ve fought for years but it’s like fighting a Game of Thrones army with a toothpick. I consistently lose.
Depression makes you want to rip off your head or stick a gun to it. Sometimes it takes every bit of energy just to get out of bed. It’s a very real and very painful disease of the mind and there’s no real cure. Depressives live in the past. Our feelings – the same ones we had as a child or teenager or young adult – consume us before logic can intervene. Depressives go to therapy to learn tools that will help us manage our disease, learn to focus on the positive and future. But it’s so damn hard and it’s so damn draining.
I’m a little better today, but as I said, I’m still shaky. I barely slept last night. Friends responded to my Facebook post about my major panic attack with reminders that I’m strong and I’m not alone.