My home was NOT a safe place.
My home was not a safe place to grow up. It wasn’t a crack house or anything like that. It was a middle class home in an upper middle class neighborhood. It was dominated by an authoritarian father who couldn’t control his rage or his drinking. I was the oldest child and the oldest son, making me the scion, carrying the burden of bringing honor to the family name. His first experiment in parenting, I was Daddy’s little apprentice, expected to assist him at a moment’s notice with anything and everything.
Nothing was ever good enough, not a slightly crooked saw cut, nor so much as a B+, and the criticism was harsh and withering. Predictably having developed a temper as a preschooler, I was given to tantrums of impotent rage during which I would bite my fist hard enough to leave welts. My parents branded me with the label “the boy with the curl in the middle of his forehead (...when he was good, he was very, very good, and when he was bad, he was horrid).” I was spanked with regularity, sometimes with a belt. A bad word would get me bodily swept up and held over the sink where my tongue would be vigorously scrubbed with Ivory soap. Then there were the accidents. Going through a picture window at two and getting 20 stitches. Breaking my collarbone “falling out of bed.” The family cover story, which I only recognized as such in very recent years, was, “Doug had two major accidents a year through the age of six.”
I suppressed my temper and managed to graduate boarding school with honors. I became a master at burying and internalizing my feelings. Thus out of reach, those feelings took the form of chronic depression. I drank more and more heavily. Three years later I dropped out of college because of depression and drinking. A year later, I sobered up and eventually got married and had four children.
For 12 years, life seemed grounded and full of promise. Then everything fell apart. I lost my marriage, my house, declared bankruptcy, lost my children, then got full custody and became a single parent to three school-age girls. I stayed strong for the girls, even finished my bachelor’s, but I got no joy from life. I had no enthusiasm for the things that gave me pleasure, such as playing the piano. I got fired from more than one job because of anxiety and depression which I didn’t want to admit to because I didn’t want to use it as an excuse. This, I now know, is the phenomenon of self-stigma, stigmatizing myself and feeling ashamed of my illness.
One day, I just couldn’t go on any more. With the support of my second wife, I entered intensive outpatient treatment. I have been going to a therapist and taking anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication for 20 years. These are not crutches, and they don’t work like magic. They are tools which over the years have helped me, with an enormous amount of work, become someone who is vital, socially adept, can enjoy life and experience palpable happiness. I volunteer with NAMI as a support group facilitator and have found a new career with an organization which provides residential care to people with autism, mental illness, developmental disability, and traumatic brain injury.
I am not immune from depression, anxiety, or PTSD. I fought terrible depression for two years after my second wife died. When I was fired from a job some months ago in a very arbitrary and angry manner, I reacted with complete acquiescence like that cowering five-year-old boy. We now know that PTSD is not limited to shell-shocked GIs. Victims of rape, child abuse, and car accidents suffer from PTSD as well. Furthermore, the trauma doesn’t have to be horrific and the abuse doesn’t have to be appalling. The key in my case was the lack of a sense of safety in early childhood from the people I needed it from the most. The more we learn about, and dispel the myths around, mood disorders and PTSD, the fewer people will be condemned to a lifetime of suffering in silence because their trauma or abuse “wasn’t that bad.”
The author chooses to remain anonymous. Unfortunately, his experience is not unique. June is Men’s Mental Health and PTSD Awareness month. Stigma and the resulting discrimination are among the leading causes cited for NOT seeking help - especially among men. Take the Cure Stigma Quiz at https://www.curestigma.org. For more resources, support, and information: https://www.namicc.org/, https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/mental-health-month/,