I recently had the privilege of hosting a round table talk with fathers from the tethr for men mental health community. Two out of three of the fathers on the taping admitted they had been suicidal and just before what would have been their deaths, the thought of their sons is what stopped them. The experiences inspired them to join men’s communities like tethr, hire coaches, do therapy and get support. So that their life was not on the shoulders of their sons. I could barely catch my breath to continue to moderate the conversation.
Why didn't my dad just think of me? Maybe he did. Maybe I wasn’t enough to save him…
I want to start by saying that I am certain that my father never imagined I would be writing this letter to all of you. From the day I was born he did everything he could to provide me with all the privileges of life – security, nourishment, affection, education and a lifestyle many would dream of. It was always incredibly clear that, above all else, his priority was to keep me safe, at any cost. He spent so much time trying to shelter us from the harsh realities of life, he knew all too well. He grew up in an immigrant household that he often expressed love wasn't present in. He left home as soon as he could and had a very distant but respectful relationship with his own father.
TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses suicide and the experience of finding a parent after death by suicide.)
For someone who never heard ‘I Love You’ growing up I certainly heard it a lot from him. My dad was not a stoic macho dude who kept it all inside and told us to man up. Not at all. Think Robin Williams. Well, think Robin Williams before his death by suicide. Before the world was forced to accept the harsh reality of mental illness. The love of life, the laughter, the light that seemed like it could never go out.
It goes out sometimes. Actually quite often. Alarmingly often.
If my dad were here today here are three facts I would share with him about Mental Health from a recent article done by CNN with Niall Breslin and Andrew Reiner (Author of Better Boys, Better Men)
FACT 1 – “Men are far less likely than women to reach out for help when they are feeling low, according to 2019 analysis from the American Journal of Men's Health”
FACT 2 – “Data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that American men die by suicide at a rate three and a half times higher than women.”
FACT 3 – “The prevalence of depressive symptoms being reported by adult men in the US has increased in every age group during the (COVID-19) pandemic, according to a September 2020 Boston University study.”
In July of 2012, I returned home after a long road trip with friends. My dad picked me up from the airport. Except it wasn’t my dad at all. The aforementioned light and laughter had gone missing. This was a quiet man wearing my dad’s body. I didn’t recognize the muted and somber side of a man I thought I knew better than anyone. I didn't know what to do.
For the next week and a half. My fears that something was truly wrong with my dad boiled until I couldn't hold it in anymore. He said he just wanted to sleep. That he was going through something and he didn't want his son (me) to see him this way. He would be fine after a week or so. He was adjusting to new medication. That wasn’t good enough for me so we established regular check-ins. A week later on our Thursday night check-in, he told me he was feeling better. He would enjoy the weekend and then return to work on Monday.
The next morning he missed our check-in but I felt that I needed to respect his privacy as a man like he had asked and trust him. I went to see the Dark Knight. Despite all the spidey senses, all the fear, and all the discomforting thoughts swirling in my head around something still not right about my dad. I WENT TO A BATMAN MOVIE. I have worked through the guilt around this, but it serves me to share this now, to show how sure I was that my Dad would never leave me. He would never let me find him… as I did.
In the final scene of The Dark Knight created by Christopher Nolan, Commissioner Gordon said something that I will never forget. “He's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we'll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.” I had to let my father find a way in the dark. I had to respect his process as a man. He was Batman, not me. He would be back to save me and keep me safe from this rough patch. I turned the metaphorical bat signal off in my head and called off professional help. I spent the day exhausted by inaction because I knew my dad was a superhero. I had to believe he was. He had this, he could do anything. My dad always showed up for me… always!
The next morning I found my father hanging in his apartment. There is no other way to say that. As shocked as you may have been to read that, I can tell you that’s how I felt too. He was alive and then he was not.
Sometimes when I walk down the street and I see a father walking with his young son, I imagine stopping them and asking the father If I can have a word with him. I imagine a loving and accepting way that I ask the father how his mental health is? What he’s doing to ensure that he will never leave his son to experience what I have?
I write this letter so your own sons, or daughters, never end up at your door with shaky hands trying to use a key that may unlock traumatic grief they will never truly recover from, but hopefully, learn to honour. (That’s a different letter altogether).
My dad's greatest gift to me was one I could not give back. A fierce awareness surrounding the importance of mental health, redefining masculinity, and what it meant to be a fully feeling huMAN being. This was my inheritance and something I continually explore as I work on my first book about resilience. I hope that this letter, if nothing else, inspires each of you to take steps beyond mental health awareness and into mental health action.
Let me be that lesson to you today. So that you are never that lesson to your children. Let this open letter be a plea to allow me to pay forward my learning and encourage you to give this some thought.
My father was attractive, successful, wealthy, well-loved, respected, and cherished. None of that is a substitute for maintaining mental health and wellbeing. None of that can be traded for daily attention to your emotional health.
10 years ago I was not educated enough about men’s mental health when I thought that my dad could be his own superhero for no other reason than ‘he was my dad.’ Today, as a co-founder of tethr for men, a writer, and a mental health advocate – I can say with absolute certainty, my dad did not have the professional support and peer community to express what he was going through to be here today. And how could he have? It didn't really exist.
Thanks to my dad I get to be part of a team every day that tries to reduce the alarming facts I gave earlier. That attempts to ease the burden of men who are so focused on caring for their families- they forget how and when to care for themselves.
Even Marvel and DC know that one superhero just doesn't cut it anymore. We need the Avengers, all of them, working together to show up to the opposing forces that exist in the 2021 landscape for fathers. Pandemics and pampers aside. You always have the power to prioritize your mental health.
I have long retired my real-life need for the bat signal, instead of at tethr, we have the orange symbol. It lets men know that they are being heard and if they need support someone is there.
Signed with sincerity,
A Son Who Lost His Father