I walked into the dining room and saw a Wendy’s cup sitting on the table where my twins sat eating. I hadn’t been to Wendy’s that day, and Baby A had been with me all day. Baby B had just gotten home from an 8-hour shift at work, so I was a bit perplexed to find it there.
“Where did the Wendy’s cup come from?” I inquired.
“Wendy’s,” Baby B deadpanned.
My face automatically twisted into the parental look one gets when one’s child is being a smartass. The boys laughed, relishing that they had gotten ol’ dad. “It’s like talking to yourself, isn’t it?” Baby B joked.
“Oh, shut up,” I snapped. But B was right. That is exactly something I would say. My boys are a lot like me and in most ways that pleases me. But not all.
The boys worked with me again this summer. Though working with your children can sometimes be infuriating, I loved it. I got to spend a lot of time with them and observe how they interact with others and teach them new skills. Being able to guide them in a professional environment and not just at home has been a gratifying experience.
For years I’ve worried that some of the demons who lurk in my genes may have slipped away 18 years ago and hidden inside my boys. Afterall, I inherited my demons from my mother, who in turn inherited them from someone further up her family tree. I’ve also worried that their mother had passed on some of her struggles to my boys. I don’t know that their mom has ever officially been diagnosed, but there was a period in time when she was extremely suicidal and made at least one attempt.
I’ve kept a steady eye out for symptoms, but up ’til now hadn’t seen any. My boys are surprisingly well-adjust for all they’ve been through. Of course, a lot of the shit they endured happened before they were seven, so they’ve had ample time to recover. Plus, they may not even remember a lot of the things that happened since they were so young.
This summer, I noticed the first signs of what might be depression in Baby B. His moods were a bit erratic. Some days he’d be extremely irritable. Others he’d be in a fantastic mood. Sometimes the slightest thing would set him off. Sometimes he’d make self-depreciating jokes. I’d wonder about those jokes. Does he truly think so little of himself or is he just trying to make us laugh? When I do it it’s a combination of both.
I went back and forth about saying something to him about it. We’d had talks about mental health in the past. I’d told the boys about my struggles with depression. I had my mom talk with them about her struggles with bipolar disorder. Their mom never told them about her struggles (other than to tell them she takes an antidepressant) so I told them about her suicide attempt, and that of their aunt – not to hurt them or belittle their loved ones, but so they know the consequences of mental illness left untreated.
About a month ago my brother and his family came over to the house. As we sat in the living room talking, Baby B began to tell a story (about what I can no longer recall), but he stuttered a bit as he conveyed it. In my family that’s grounds for ridicule. We laugh at each other often. If you fuck up you better be prepared to be crucified. It’s all done with love, of course.
So as B stuttered over his story my brother and his wife gave B a hard time about it. B knows how this goes. He typically takes it as well as he gives it out, but not on this day. He snapped at my brother, which is extremely out of character for him. I told B to calm down and that he should be used to how these types of family gatherings unfold. I also decided at that point that the next time B and I were alone we were going to have a talk about depression.
When I finally fell low enough to seek out assistance from my doctor for my mental issues five years ago I learned that mood swings and irritability were the most common symptoms of depression in men. Of course, I haven’t actually fact-checked that, but that’s what my doctor told me. I had no clue otherwise I’d have probably sought help much sooner. Anyhow, it was these symptoms I’d been witnessing in my sweet boy. I was seeing in him the same things with which I struggle. And the next time he and I were alone, I told him so.
“Have you noticed these things about yourself?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered.
I informed him we were going to talk to his doctor about this the next time we were in for an appointment, which coincidentally, was only a few weeks away as the twins’ annual checkup was scheduled already.
Last Saturday we went for the boy’s checkup. After their physical, the doctor asked if I had any concerns, and that’s when I laid them out for him. I told the doctor what I’d noticed in B and that there were mental health diagnoses on both sides of the family tree.
“So you’re only noticing these things in Baby B, right? Baby A isn’t showing any symptoms?” their doctor asked.
“Correct,” I answered, absolutely sure of my answer.
“Actually, that’s not true,” Baby A interrupted.
I turned to him, shocked. Baby A continued.
“I deal with anxiety a lot. I’m nervous all the time,” A explained.
I was baffled. I’d never, ever noticed this behavior in Baby A. He’s always so calm and easy-going. His feathers never seem to get ruffled. Though he seems somewhat apathetic at times, he’s usually in a fairly good mood.
Their doctor told me he’d send home some surveys for both anxiety and depression that we’d need to fill out and return to the office. That night the three of us sat at the kitchen table and answered the surveys their doctor had provided.
We were quite busy that weekend, as the annual Out of the Darkness walk was Sunday, so I didn’t get to review the self-surveys the boys had filled out until Monday night. What I read, quite frankly, broke my heart. It also showed me I don’t know them as well as I thought I did.
It appears that both of my boys struggle with self-worth. They both spend an inordinate amount of time wondering if they’re good enough, though Baby A seems to have a bit of a bigger issue with it. They both just…struggle. It’s very clear by their answers that depression and anxiety have snuck into their minds and made themselves at home. Though it looks like Baby A has more of an issue with anxiety than B does, and B has more of an issue with depression than A does.
I sat there for a few minutes fighting back tears, which might seem a bit melodramatic to some. Depression is not a death sentence. Neither is anxiety. However, the fact that I had not noticed these things about my children made me feel like a failure. That they hide these things about themselves didn’t matter; I still felt like shit for not knowing. Of course, they learned from the best. I am a master at cloaking my emotions. I could be on the edge of losing it all and most people would never know. In fact, when I confessed to a coworker recently that I’d spent much of the past two years medicating myself with alcohol he was shocked. He’d not been able to tell anything was awry.
Knowing this didn’t ease my guilt at all. And what cut the deepest is knowing that two of the people I love most in this world see no value in themselves. In my mind, I know that no matter what I do nothing will change that. In my mind, I know that that is the nature of this illness. I know that no matter how much I tell them or show them I love them there will still be a voice in their heads whispering into their soul that they’re not good enough. But my heart didn’t care. It was broken all the same.
I reached out to my sons. I told them I had reviewed their surveys. I apologized to them that they’d inherited my weakness. I implored them to talk to me if they ever found themselves in a desolate place. I assured them that they are not alone. I assured them that no matter where they find themselves that I have been there before and could readily understand. I also assured them that I love them and that I would get these surveys to the doctor as quickly as I could so that we could get them treated as quickly as possible.
I’ve struggled all week. Friends have assured me that I’d done a great job by having them evaluated and catching it now. It’s great that you’re getting them treated. You’re a great father.
I can’t hear any of that bullshit. I’m still beating myself up about not knowing. If not for B’s moodiness I’d still be none-the-wiser. And though I know that my boys can, and hopefully will, live long, fulfilling lives despite struggling with depression and anxiety, I still am a bit heartbroken that they’ll fight a war inside themselves for the rest of their lives. Depression doesn’t go away. It may take an occasional break. It may offer brief respites. But it always, always comes back. And this makes me sad. I didn’t want this for them. I wanted them to have a better life than I’ve had. They still can, but it’ll be a challenge.
Their doctor called me yesterday afternoon and said we need to come back in to talk about the surveys. He wants to sit down with both of the boys and discuss their answers. The earliest appointment he had was Tuesday. I’ve already told my boss I won’t be in.
We’ll see where we go from here.