Inheriting My Father's Mental Health

Writer: Aly Semigran
Editor: Mica Arbeiter
Reader: Toni Banta
Producer: Mike Esposito
Photographer: Toni Banta

Everything that makes me me is because of my father. My love of movies, my sense of humor, my treatment of others, my profound respect for a good bagel, and my chronic clinical depression. Yeah, that last one is kind of a bummer.  My late father struggled with debilitating depression and anxiety all of his life, having come from a long line of people who dealt with the very same issues. (My paternal grandmother, who I tragically never got to meet, died as a result of complications from her schizophrenia.)  Mental health wasn’t a secret in our family growing up, like it can be in so many other families. My father spoke often about his mother and her struggles, as well as his own. I knew my dad went to therapy. I knew my dad went to rehab for his addiction to drug and alcohol. I knew my dad had hours/days/weeks where he could barely get out of bed. I knew my dad was a really kind-hearted man who had a brain that wasn’t nearly as nice.  I saw these mental health problems up close, even if I couldn’t quite grasp the gravity of them as a child, and even worse, as a stubborn teenager who frankly couldn’t stand having a dad who didn’t have his shit together. What I definitely didn’t know growing up, is that I’d inherit almost all of it. Though I have, mercifully, avoided drug and alcohol addiction, I sure as hell have the crippling depression that got the best of my wonderful dad.  I was resentful at first, I won’t lie. When I, too, began to choose sleep over socialization; or felt plagued by self-doubt; or made decisions that centered around making others, but not myself, happy, it was an overwhelming feeling of, “Aw, what the fuck, dad?”  We often butted heads, not just because we were so painfully similar and knew exactly how to press each other’s buttons, but because I felt I was doomed to repeat his patterns.  In my 20s I tried to combat this by working exceptionally, almost sickeningly hard. I chased my dream career in New York City and even though I was plagued by depression and anxiety (a majority of which came as a result of a physically, mentally, and emotionally abusive relationship I found myself trapped in for nearly a decade) I worked my ass off.  My father’s mental health issues made his career path unstable, and I was convinced if I could be a success, the same fate would not befall me. It was a process that, quite frankly, burned me out. I was proud of everything I achieved, but it sure as hell didn’t afford me the luxury of outrunning or outsmarting my depression.  I lost my father when I was 28-years-old and I wish I could say it was the turning point for my own mental health journey, but it just made me feel all the more defeated. That I could run and run, and eventually it would catch up.  It wasn’t until I turned 31 that I really learned what I had to do in order to survive, as well as forgive myself and my father for something that was well beyond our choosing. I experienced the worst depression of my life that year. A year marked by suicidal ideation and panic attacks and overwhelming fear.  My father was a creature of habit. He saw the same therapist for years. He picked the same seat at the movie theater. He chose the same restaurants. I know now that he wasn’t boring or predictable, it was that he didn’t want to change what felt good, even if it kept him in limbo. I get the instinct, but I also knew the risks.  I knew, for myself, in order to survive I had to make big, difficult changes. I had to find the right medications for my depression, which was at sometimes terrifying ordeal, but ultimately has saved my life.  Though I liked my therapist I’d been seeing for years and got a lot out of our time together, I knew I hit a point where I wasn’t making progress. I took the leap, switched to CBT, and have seen overwhelming improvements.  I had to cut out toxic people in my life, despite years of friendship, because they did not have the capacity or desire to help me through my depression. It was heartbreaking, but it also showed me that I was strong and no longer willing to live with pain for pain’s sake.  In the two years since my breakdown, I’ve let go of any resentment I had for my father. If anything, it made me feel closer to him, which is a cruel twist of fate. I wish I could tell him, “Man, we were dealt some unfair cards in a game we did not ask to play, and we did the best we could with what we had.”  It’s a lifelong learning process, this depression bullshit, but in a strange way it will always keep me tethered to my father. And as I continue to fight and grow and survive, I get to do it on his behalf, too.