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A Father’s Story of Life, Love, and Mental Illness

Dean Dauphinais, Guest Contributor

On a warm, muggy evening in July of 2002, after a weather delay of several hours, my oldest son John and his fellow Little League all-stars won the Michigan state championship game 6-1. John was a bonafide winner at age 12. And so were his teammates. A subsequent trip to the Great Lakes Regionals in Indianapolis that summer provided memories that will last a lifetime for all of us, even though we only won one game. After all, we lost our last game to Kentucky, who went on to win the Little League World Series that season.

Fast forward to January of 2006. January 15, to be exact. January 15 at 1:30am to be even more exact. How do I remember the exact date and time so clearly? Because you never forget when your wife wakes you up in the middle of the night to tell you that your son has overdosed on aspirin and prescription anti-depressants and that we have to get him to the hospital right away. Luckily, my wife Mary had been conscientious enough to have been checking on John regularly that night. In the wee hours of the morning, Mary checked John’s bedroom, only to find that he wasn’t there. She then checked the attic, which is accessible from John’s room, and found him sitting in the dark, crying. He told her what he had done—thank God—and we were soon in the emergency room having doctors pump our son’s stomach and wondering where we had gone wrong.

John was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety disorder in October of 2005. He had always been a shy, introverted kid, but he slowly became even quieter and troubled after he started his freshman year in high school the previous September. After a sparkling grade point average in the first quarter of ninth grade, things began to go downhill. The grades, his attitude, his self-confidence, and his outlook on life all plummeted. It took a while, but we finally convinced John that therapy would be a good thing for him. He reluctantly agreed to go, and we were hopeful things would improve quickly. But they didn’t.

I’ll never forget that early morning in January. After the trip to the ER—it was just about dawn by then—my wife and I were following an ambulance to a psychiatric hospital twenty miles away. Having your child admitted to such a hospital for an evaluation was standard procedure, we were told, after a suicide attempt. I think we cried all the way there and all the way back.

Thirty-six hours later, John was back home because the hospital said he was fine now. But he wasn’t. The hell on Earth continued for months. Depression, new medications, temperamental outbursts, crying spells, feelings of worthlessness; they all grabbed John and wouldn’t let go of him. Finally, in April of 2006, Mary and I made a decision I never thought we could make: we voluntarily checked John into another psychiatric hospital because we knew he needed help we couldn’t give him. This time John stayed for eight days. And on most of those days, we would get the one phone call he was allowed per day, only to hear on the other end of the line, “Please let me come home. I don’t want to be here.” Talk about having your heart broken into pieces.

When John finally did come home, we withdrew him from school. He was so far behind that trying to catch up would’ve just knocked him down again. Having public schools among the best in the nation in your community is wonderful, as long as your child can cope with a very large number of students, the cliques, the anxiety, the stigma of having attempted suicide, etc. Unfortunately, John couldn’t.

I wrote letters to the local paper and the school board and e-mailed teachers, counselors, and parents, urging them to educate themselves and their children about teenage depression. Given the fact that two young teens in our community had just recently taken their own lives, I thought there would be an outpouring of support. But when I later bought an ad in the local paper in an attempt to form support groups for depressed teens and their parents, there was absolutely no interest. I was shocked. Despite great strides forward, depression still is, unfortunately, taboo in our society. What a shame.

This past school year was no different. We found a charter school that we thought John would thrive in. But after two half days, both of which resulted in panic attacks, John decided he wanted to go back to his old school. The new school? It was just too new and different, and John couldn’t cope with it. Against our better judgment, we let him go back to his previous school. But things didn’t change. He was still overwhelmed by the size of the school and the homework and the fear of interacting with teachers when he didn’t understand something. His grades were worse than ever, and in May we withdrew him from school again. The simple fact of the matter is you can’t make a 17-year-old boy go to school if he doesn’t want to. And the daily battles, which occurred every weekday morning, just weren’t worth it anymore.

John is still depressed. And he’s made some poor decisions over the last year or so. Experimenting with prescription drugs (not his), smoking marijuana (bought at school), and smoking cigarettes (they help relieve his anxiety). Because of these things, along with the depression, his group of former best friends—kids he has known since kindergarten or first grade—have pretty much abandoned him. You’d think they’d be supportive, but that isn’t the case. They’re scared of John and the things he’s done. And they don’t want to be around him. Can I understand their reactions? I suppose. But I always tell people that if John suffered from cancer or some other “normal” disease, his friends and their parents would be knocking down our door to see how John was doing, offering to cook us meals, seeing if there was anything they could do to help, etc. But depression? No way. It’s like our house is haunted and everybody is scared to come near it. Parents of John’s friends have even called other friends’ parents to tell them to keep their kids away from John, “because he does bad things.” Imagine how we felt when we found that out.

This wonderful, intelligent, caring, funny, talented son of mine, who at age 12 won it all on the baseball diamond, has now lost it all in the game of life. At least temporarily. He’s lost all of his friends. He’s lost his school career. He’s lost his sense of direction. He’s lost his identity. He thinks nobody loves him or cares about him. And when he reaches out and calls his former friends, and none of them answer their cell phones because “it’s John,” can you blame him?

A new therapist is hopeful that he can help John. Mary and I are hopeful, too. A new therapist for me has also helped me get over a lot of the guilt I feel as a result of John’s condition. I’m more thankful for that than anyone will ever know. And best of all, our other son, who is 11, seems totally bulletproof when it comes to the happenings of the last two-and-a-half years. I guess every gray cloud does have a silver lining.

I’ll be totally honest. John’s condition has caused our family a lot of grief. My wife and I have argued more than I ever thought we could. We’ve both battled verbally (and occasionally physically) with John when we got to the point where we just couldn’t take it anymore. We’ve had to repair holes in our walls, a result of John’s anger and rage getting the best of him. Calling the local police to come and help calm things down was commonplace for a while. And the medical bills, even with decent insurance coverage, add up pretty quickly, making it necessary to sacrifice things we wouldn’t have to ordinarily. But we all love each other and we somehow have managed to hold it all together.

You learn a lot of things when you have a depressed teenager. I’ve learned that the best place to cry is in the shower, because no one can hear you and you can’t feel the tears running down your cheeks. You learn that most other kids appear to be “normal,” and that, surprisingly, kind of makes you angry. You learn that people you once thought were your friends really aren’t. You learn that depression is a disease that a lot of people want nothing to do with, even though they know people who have been affected by it. And you learn that nobody has the right to judge you unless they’re willing to walk in your shoes for just a day or two. But most importantly, you learn that just because your child is depressed, you don’t stop loving him. In fact, you have to find a way to love him even more. Unconditionally. Because if you don’t, chances are no one else will. And that just doesn’t seem fair.

Dean Dauphinais writes a blog about his experiences with his oldest son, a recovering addict who suffers from severe depression and anxiety disorder. Names have been changed for privacy.

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