Many people know that a mental illness can strain relationships, close lines of communication, and create confusion and misunderstanding. Somehow, the opposite rang true for my dad and me. Though we were not close while I was growing up, he was actually the first person I attempted to open up to. It was as if discovering my mental illness made the distance in our relationship seem more understandable, and less of a character flaw for either of us. We learned neither of us had failed – that it didn’t matter if I went left and he went right, I went up and he went down, because there were more important things that we needed to be united on. When he finally realized the severity of my illness, he was by my side, driving me to appointments, finding doctors, and replacing judgement with openness. There’s a saying that I believe sums up the transformation our relationship went through since my diagnosis: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The more both of us recognized this, the more we respected and supported one another. Thanks for not giving up on me, Din. – AL
The fog on Monday morning was thick. It was Family Day in Alberta. I opened the blinds and could barely see beyond our deck. As beautiful as it looked, I was not able to look any further. My view of the world was hampered. My vision destroyed. And my hopes for a clearing in the fog diminished as the day went on. It had me thinking about how Monday was Family Day: a day to celebrate your family and loved ones, and I was instantly transported to the world of those who face this hampered view of the world constantly, not by choice but because of a mental illness. “You missed it, Dad,” she said to me. “You are a social worker by training and I thought maybe you would see through this, but it crept past you.” It had me stop dead in my tracks. As I looked outside the window on Monday morning, I realized how her life was filled with this complex, dense fog.
On the evening of August 6, 2013, she asked us to get her to the hospital, and said, “I need some help.” It was 11:30 pm, and my wife and myself did exactly that: we drove her to the hospital and she was in the hands of the best care team. At 7:00 am the next morning, the mental health counselor came to us in the waiting room and said, “you are very lucky parents that she talked it over and asked to come to the hospital.”
“I need some help!” They were the most powerful words I heard as a father. You see, in all these years of being a parent, I often believed that providing for the day-to-day needs of my children was good. Almost like Denzel Washington said in the movie, Fences. But this was far from the truth. My real purpose as a father had just begun: to understand Ameera better, her challenge with mental illness, her experience in having lived through years of torment before reaching out, and her repeated attempts to try to comprehend what was happening to her. Life had dealt her a tough blow, yet it never ceased to amaze me how the power of a loving family could heal many a tough situation. Her own journey in alleviating stigma, in striking conversations about mental illness and mental well-being, and in being a champion of change has been more far reaching than ever!
I learnt fatherhood from my parents. They were available for us no matter what. My internal mantra has always been exactly that. I realized however that being physically available is different from being emotionally present. I think that as a father, I had understood physical presence better than emotional presence, yet professionally I was unwaveringly emotionally available for everyone. Every interaction with Ameera was influential in determining our next conversation with each other. “You know Dad, there are times I just don’t wish to talk as you are driving me to school in the morning, please try to hear what I am saying.” Why would it be so hard for me to understand that? It is because I looked forward to spending time with my daughter, yet I learnt it had to be on terms that worked for both. I learnt to accept that. As an eighth born in a family of nine, I was surrounded by full conversations every living moment. But life was different now and I eventually managed to grasp that.
I would pick her up from school every Friday afternoon, and we would have a late lunch since she finished at 1:30 pm, and so did I at my place of work. We sat at Boston Pizza and she would have her sliders and I would gorge over a pecan salad while surreptitiously eyeing her food, and then we would split a chocolate sundae or the hot fudge brownie that had molten lava streaming through it. Those were good times. We talked about her day and her week at school, and I would talk about how my week went, and she would give me some “sage corporate advice”. I learnt that moments of stillness were good. Silence was okay. There were other ways to affirm a loving relationship. I nurtured it. I treasured it. I cherished those times. It glued us in some mysterious ways. It strengthened our bond and our respect for each other, and it communicated how in life we would always be there for each other. But that Monday morning, I realized that I too may have skipped some important definitive milestones in being a good father, the kind of father I always wanted to be.
At that moment, the fog lifted. I could see the world with greater clarity. My actions today will always affect someone else. Someone did tell me once: “It’s like the boomerang effect, once you initiate change it inevitably impacts someone else, and ultimately comes back to you.” But I still beg the question: how far have we moved the needle? Well, not far enough. Until the stigma goes away, we can do more. Until the conversations are happening in multiple places, until the supports for people with mental illness are provided unconditionally, our work is not done. It’s a frame of mind that must change, and I know that as a father, this journey for me has started. I am proud to be Ameera’s dad, of her accomplishments in having lifted the fog so others could see with more clarity.
It has been a tough few years. But we look back and remind ourselves that as our dear daughter talked about her illness, we needed to listen. Listen attentively. Listen with no judgements, listen with affirmation. Let her be her, and we could be us as a family. She has played an important role in our lives, an incredible role, and we know her journey is far from over, but we instill hope in her all the time, and we support her to support others see through their fog. Ameera has “Survived by Living”. And if you have read her blog, you will know how many other people will benefit from her words. Reach out. The person who needs you is closer than you think.