As it did to so many, the news of Robin Williams’s death came as a great shock to me. How could a man with such talent and charisma who brought me to tears, both of joy and sadness, on so many occasions be gone so suddenly? Then details of his depression came to light, and I understood. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 6.7 percent of American adults live with major depression, and 2.6 percent of all American adults are afflicted by bipolar disorder. I understand, because I am one of them.
When I initially informed my first wife of my diagnosis and the associated concerns I held for our three boys, she expressed strong reservations about saying anything to them. This, however, is exactly the problem for men with depression. It actually needs to be talked about more, and if I don’t talk with my sons about the twisting despair brought on by depression, who will? There’s actually a lot they need to know. So, boys, listen here:
1. It’s a medical condition.
Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to accomplish day-to-day tasks. Officially I was diagnosed as being bipolar II, a variation characterized by a less intense “up” phase (hypomanic) with one or more major depressive states. This fit as these symptoms began to appear eight years earlier, but it’s difficult to pin down. You boys were 7, 4, and 2 at the time. The good news is that once it’s diagnosed, proper treatment is highly effective.
2. It’s not an excuse.
You should know that I wasn’t thrilled to hear I was bipolar. People who are manic-depressive, as bipolar is sometimes referred to, have risk factors of negative behaviors, including being erratic, emotionally unstable, and addicted to drugs and alcohol. But I believe that I shouldn't give in to these extremes or use my illness as an excuse. If anything, I have more of a responsibility to keep up with my treatment regimen to prevent the possibility of hurting myself and others (including you).
3. I’m sorry I’m tired sometimes.
Over the years there have been periods when I felt as if I was being smothered to the point of paralysis inside. I was increasingly tired and listless. I struggled to get out of bed. Finishing work required Herculean effort. Worse, I was not present. Because your mom and I got divorced, I had been physically separated from you for several years. And, still, when I was finally reunited with you, I felt farther apart than ever. Like a dream I could see you, but I didn’t have the energy to be your father. The frustration over this only fuels the foggy darkness that sometimes envelops me. Knowing that you need me, though, keeps me motivated to keep fighting.
4. Meds don’t solve everything.
Yes, medication is a big part of the treatment, but it’s tricky because meds have different effects on different people. Finding the right one may require time and some trial and error. I started on one medication and years later ended up on another before I started to see improvement. Medication, however, is not the magic bullet. There’s exercise, diet, and stress management that I have to pay attention to daily which means incorporating these considerations into an entire lifestyle. This in conjunction with the medication keeps me ready to shoot hoops and play paintball with you.
5. There is an impact on children.
The biggest concern about my depression is the impact on you boys, and there is an impact. For starters, bipolar disorders can be hereditary, meaning there’s a chance any one of you may be subjected to these same struggles. But even if not there can still be consequences. A 2011 study published in the journal Pediatrics found a father’s depression can increase the odds of behavioral issues in their children by 70 percent. What’s more, the study found that boys in particular, ages 12-17, exhibited the highest rates of emotional problems, something I am keenly aware of, given that you are now 10, 12 and 15.
6. It’s not unmanly to ask for help.
I’m often reluctant to disclose my mental illness because it means having to admit to some uncomfortable truths—that I’m not as strong as I want to believe I am, that I am susceptible to weakness, that I am broken, and need help from others. Sometimes I even tend to downplay my depression. But trying to be macho and not asking for or accepting needed help is one of the worst things I can do.
Given all the risk factors involved, I think talking with you boys about my depression is one of the most important conversations we can have. And don’t be afraid to ask questions if you think I’m not acting like myself or if you start to feel strange. I’m always here for you.
Ron Mattocks is a father of five and author of the book, Sugar Milk: What One Dad Drinks When He Can’t Afford Vodka. He blogs at Clark Kent’s Lunchbox and can be found on LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.