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I May Not Understand Depression, but My Dad Does

I’m not a psychologist.

I’ll repeat. I am not a psychologist. I took five psychology courses during undergrad: intro, social, abnormal, personality and developmental. Almost enough for a minor, but not enough to change my amateur status. I passed — for the most part — with middling grades in all of the courses except for one (I aced developmental, which I can only attribute to my girlfriend’s insistence I’m still mentally 13-years-old).

I don’t understand depression.

I’m part of the group who haven’t found themselves on the short end of a diagnosis. I don’t – perhaps can’t – understand the struggle of those in the remaining fraction of the populace, because my brain allows me to experience the world “typically” according to the American Psychiatric Association. I can sympathize with their struggle, but that’s all I can do. I can’t live in their world and I can’t will myself into depression any more than they can will themselves out of it.

My father understands depression.

My dad’s understanding of depression was forced upon him. Throughout his teenage years and his adult life, my father experienced the constant specter of depressive thoughts without ever asking Siri about sadness or Googling feelings of worthlessness. He knows what it’s like to sit silently and stare at an opposing wall, wanting only to hear nothing, see nothing, feel nothing.

The amplified feeling of hopelessness after a missed promotion. The despair felt after losing a family member. The experience of being unwanted at the end of a failed marriage. He knows these emotions because he lived these emotions.

I may understand the courage it took for him to seek out professional help. I may understand the helplessness he must have felt as we, his sons, constantly came to him for the same advice, the same warmth we had come to expect when his mind wasn’t telling him he was worthless. But I’m not my father and I’m not depressed. I have no idea what his struggle meant to him or how he clawed his way back to stability or how he relives those memories when they creep back into the quiet corners of his day.

When I got a call from him before football practice on a clear September day in 2006, right before I exchanged my sneakers for cleats, I didn’t have the therapeutic “know-how” to respond appropriately to his matter-of-fact presentation of the reasons he was getting a divorce. I couldn’t bring him closure with words and I wasn’t going to find a cognitive technique to remove the negativity from his inner monologue. If you had asked me about the DSM, I would have told you I didn’t really use drugs.

I didn’t have a plan. What I had was a car, an unsettled teenage brain and a perfect excuse to not participate in conditioning drills. So I swapped back to sneakers, told my coach there was an emergency and tried to drive home in a panic to figure out what was happening to the family I thought would weather the storm.

I don’t always make the right decision.

The next time I saw my father, he was standing next to my bed at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania after I had fallen asleep behind the wheel and gotten myself into a head-on wreck. By some divine providence, everyone walked away from it uninjured. He was the man I had known all my life. He wasn’t any less a victim of depression, nor was he any less getting a divorce. He was my father and I knew that would never change. I would always be his son. We were bonded by something larger than a few misplaced chemicals or broken receptors.

We didn’t talk about depression or divorce that night. We didn’t talk about the wreck, either. We went to Chick-fil-A and talked about how they had figured out the exact blend of three or four ingredients that comprised a perfect chicken sandwich. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated a milkshake as much as the one he bought for me while I was still wearing my CHOP wristband and IV-induced Band-Aid.

I don’t need to make the right decision every time.

Like most, I still argue with my dad sometimes. He’s eternally risk-averse and gets upset when I let my car rack up an extra 3,000 miles beyond the point where I should have gotten an oil change (Dad, if you’re reading this, I scheduled it for tomorrow, just like the last three times I told you I scheduled it for tomorrow).

But when he was at his lowest points, it didn’t matter I occasionally spent weekends in college drinking Lionshead out of a week-old keg and playing Borderlands with my roommates instead of figuring out how to write a basic proxy server in an archaic programming language. What mattered was I called and told him I could talk whenever he was up to it. What mattered was I made enough time in my day to remember that, while he was fighting a battle on his own, my dad was more than his depression and he had a support network to remind him in case he ever forgot.

My dad doesn’t see his therapist anymore and he no longer fills a prescription for antidepressants. It’s fairly clear he’s doing better now by all outside measures. I never figured out how he beat it – nor do I think I’ll ever figure out how he beat it – but I can tell he’s not fighting just to be normal anymore.

I still don’t really understand depression.

If my life depended on it, I couldn’t treat someone’s depression on my own any more than I could perform facial reconstruction surgery or operate a garbage truck. I’d just take a mess and make it even worse. I’m trying to educate myself on symptom recognition, negative patterns of thinking and proven techniques to help counsel those in need of immediate assistance. Even still, I don’t have the training and am only now finding the resources such as NAMI, Challenge the Storm and The Mighty to help me acquire the tools to help people like my father, to help people in need.

After all, I’m not a psychologist.

I’m someone’s son and someone’s support.

And maybe that’s all I need to be.

Originally published on and submitted on behalf of Challenge the Storm.

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