I am in my 30s and have suffered since my teens from occasional bouts of severe depression during which I have suicidal thoughts. I am happy with how I manage my mental health. I take my medication, see my doctor regularly, contact her if I feel wobbly, take exercise, have undertaken talking therapies, and know to ask for help when things get bad.
When I am in a dark hole, I often think about my father, who suffered from severe depression. I was 13 when he first told me that he fantasised about killing himself. He would describe, in detail, how he would do it. This was coupled with big mood swings; he could be the most fun and sweet person, but also angry and scary. There were instances when I was growing up when he would use his physical size to threaten or scare me: for example, holding me by the throat at the top of the stairs, driving the car into oncoming traffic. He never hit or really hurt me; I think he was just out of control in those moments. He was charismatic and, weird as this sounds, I hero-worshipped him.
When I was in my 20s, my father killed himself. It was a devastating event, but not entirely surprising. I have been through lots of different stages of grief, but lately I have this strange sense that the idea of suicide as a viable option is something deep-rooted in my psyche. I feel terrified when I feel suicidal. I don’t think I would ever go through with it – I am a mother and more than aware of the consequences for my loved ones. It is one of the reasons I take my mental health so seriously: to set a good example to my children.
I can’t imagine sharing my suicidal thoughts with them – it would be wildly inappropriate. I can understand intellectually that mine and my father’s fates are not entwined, but can’t shake the feeling that I am destined for failure and unhappiness.
After my father died, I had a short correspondence with his therapist, who ventured that, if I wanted any help in the future, I would be welcome to contact him. I feel as if he might be able to give me some answers. If I am really honest, I want someone who knew how complex, awful, wonderful, clever, funny and tragic my father was to tell me that it is no wonder I struggle. I also wonder if he might offer me some insights into my father that I had not considered.
It is almost as if I feel that, if I could understand more, I could untangle myself from my dad’s influence. Conversely, sometimes I think I should just try to move on, accept the unknowable and focus on my own wellbeing. Perhaps I have already spent too long worrying about my dad.
Children try to find the best in their parents, but what he did to you was trauma-inducingly terrible. I’m so sorry you had to go through that. To discuss the intricacies of his suicidal thoughts was inappropriate, indulgent and sadistic. It is no wonder you struggle. But look at how well you are doing: you have amazing insight, self-awareness and a sense of boundaries.
I contacted a psychotherapist, Naomi Stadlen, who said your fear of doing the same as your father was actually helpful. Your fear keeps you separate. She pointed out that you said, “I feel terrified when I feel suicidal,” whereas (in your longer letter) you said your father wasn’t afraid of dying.
Stadlen also noticed that you mention an intellectual understanding of not being “entwined” with your father and wanting to “untangle myself from my dad’s influence”. What is difficult, she said, is to recognise how often your father treated you in frightening and un-fatherly ways, without losing your sense that he loved you. He has left you with confusing memories that need disentangling.
How you untangle yourself is by talking. I wonder if you can reaccess the talking therapy you had (or if you still have it). “Talking,” stresses Stadlen, “would support you as a separate person from your father.”
It is so common for people who have suffered at the hands of a mentally ill parent to fear they will repeat things, but the fact that you are so aware, while hard for you, is useful for your family. You have a good and extensive support network, you can and do ask for help: all positives.
Stadlen wondered where your mother was all through this? You don’t mention her, or any siblings.
I wondered if you felt there was no other conclusion to depression than suicide because that is what you have seen. But, as Stadlen points out: “It’s possible to be sad and depressed without killing yourself. Failure and unhappiness are normal.”
As for your dad’s former therapist, don’t contact him. He won’t – can’t – give you what you want. For him to discuss your father would be a breach of client confidentiality.
What you may be struggling with, suggests Stadlen, “is feeling guilty. When you feel suicidal you may feel closer to your father. What can be difficult is feeling more like your separate self because that can feel like being disloyal to him.”
None of what happened was your fault. Your dad chose his path, your path is different – entirely different.
• In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 (calls are free). In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 19 March 206.