My father, Paul, died by suicide when my son, who is now nineteen, was two years old. I had not seen my father in almost twenty years.
My parents divorced when I was six. I remember my father's bipolar illness so well: his manic highs, when he brought home a new Thunderbird and, later, a neon orange Corvette, went on clothing sprees, and was unstoppable; and his depressive lows, when he was paralyzed on the couch, smoking Newport cigarettes in his undershirt. I felt sorry for him after my parents split up, when he was alone in various apartments and I would sort his laundry. Then there were all of the girlfriends: Lorraine, Gail, and, ultimately, a woman he remarried, who was much younger and divorced, with two entitled teenage daughters. She always asked me too many questions. Over time, my father became more and more distant, and spent more and more time working or sleeping when my brother and I visited. Although he lived about twenty minutes away for many years, we did not see him regularly. He missed my Bat Mitzvah because, as I learned afterwards from his stepdaughter, he was depressed and in bed for two weeks, which was apparently triggered by thoughts of seeing all of my parents' old friends that day. Eventually, my father and his wife moved out of state and I saw him for the last time at age 14.
I know now, through his younger brother, who is the person who tracked me down when my father killed himself (and who has been an extraordinary uncle to my children and me ever since), that my father was mentally ill from a young age. The chaos and instability of their childhood did not ever allow Paul to get his needs met. So, he overachieved in the classroom and in athletics. He became a very successful dentist who built a huge practice and was adored. He was handsome and charming and drank way too much.
In my late twenties, when I was in graduate school in Philadelphia, my father contacted me and told me he was planning to visit me. I remember how old he sounded on the telephone. I remember that familiar feeling of excitement at the prospect of seeing him, and the disappointment that he would not ever follow through with it.
A few years later, as I was in the midst of my postdoctoral work and playing with my toddler, I received a call from my uncle, who told me that my father shad taken his own life. He had been prescribed an antidepressant, which had energized him enough to end his life. I cannot recall the emotions I had that day, but, over the years I have worked through the anger, hurt, and, eventually, forgiveness and acceptance that my father did the best he could. I am grateful for him, since in some remarkably distorted way, he led me into therapy and, ultimately, the field of Clinical Psychology. Working through and owning my own story empowers me every day to work with people who are struggling with theirs.
Dr. Hayley Sherwood is a Clinical Psychologist in Herndon, Virginia. She specializes in adolescent, family and women's issues. She is also the mom to two teenagers, two dogs and a cat.