Watching your father overcome depression
Our guest blogger Rosalind Jana talks about her experience as her dad developed - and overcame - depression.
Dad went swimming recently – a brief, mad dash in and out of the freezing hillside pool. I crouched on the rocks above with my camera in hand trying to frame the moment, to capture him in the green cocoon of running water. I squinted through the eyepiece as he squealed. The winter stream was bitterly chilly, but I forced him to stay until I could focus and click. As he jumped out and reached for the towel I had a brief snatch of elation, of realizing quite how special these small moments still are.
A year ago my dad wasn’t dipping as much as a toe into cold water. This was unusual for a man who usually celebrated the delights of mountain streams and plunge pools regardless of season or temperature. The other three of us often watched as he slid in and out of lakes or rivers, his long legs kicking up as he laughed with the adrenaline rush. Roger Deakin’s ‘Waterlog’ was his guiding text, the outdoors his cathedral. The swimming stopped last October. Long walks, days out and that fascination with the beating heart of forests and hills gradually disappeared too. Depression was the diagnosis – the word he was given to explain why he could no longer function; the word that was offered to me and my brother to justify why our dad would be temporarily moving into hospital; the word handed to my mum to help her understand why her husband’s eyes were empty. That word has become misappropriated and misunderstood in modern language. It is a clinical term, describing an illness that debilitates both mind and body. It is not interchangeable with sadness, or any of the other more easily defined emotions. ‘Sadness’ doesn’t hang like fog in the living room for six months. It doesn’t give justice to the man who had a head full of fear, hands trembling as he served dinner, speech devoted to paranoia and apologies. ‘Sadness’ wasn’t what created an impassable void between our father and the figure that sat on the sofa all day. This shape looked like dad, but had none of his curiosity or humour. It huddled reading trashy books and filling out sudokos day after day as we tried to coax him out. I imagined the real man outside somewhere, sculling up and down a river or strolling through a field at twilight, as he used to do. The outdoors scared this replacement. When we went away he pleaded with us to let him out of the car, to leave him behind, to let him walk back home. Our house was a cave, with everything beyond the walls and windows being threatening. Depression took all that my dad loved and lived for, and warped it. Literature was unreadable and the landscape unreachable and terrifying. Each stretch of water was filled with possible dangers: broken glass and barbed wire waiting at the bottom or hidden currents that might pull us under. He didn’t need the adrenaline from jumping in the sea, his system already full of it from the constant panic of ‘fight or flight’.
Depression is a wound of sorts. It does eventually heal – although the process of recovery is full of complications and setbacks. Getting better is also different for everyone. The possibility of dad’s return became clear on the afternoon he agreed to come out on a walk. Our conversation was stilted, but the steps were progress. Like a tide, the extent of the following revival varied from day to day. He moved from activity to monosyllables as moods shifted. But if the stroll was a first sign, then the revisiting of a favourite river was a decisive signal. It’s not melodramatic to say that neither my mum nor I could imagine him ever swimming again. The idea was incompatible with the reality at the time. Nonetheless, there he was – hollering with as much energy as remembered, smiling face set off with a striped beanie hat. His depression officially lifted in early spring of this year. It strikes me that his illness left him stuck at the bottom of a silted lake. We wanted, desperately, to catch him with hooks, suddenly yank him from the depths. Instead it was an agonizing process of waiting for the dark liquid to drain away.
That liquid is now not dark, but clear. The riverbed is sandy and covered in stones. Dad has made up for lost time through cycling, writing and taking me on six-mile walks. Although the end of the year is nearing, he still retains this spark – a desire to fill himself up with life and the joy of being here. Whenever he now steps into a mountain plunge-pool, with breeze ruffling leaves, it is an act of celebration. A celebration of swimming; of the human ability to suffer and recover; of the wonder to be found in days out and other activities; of the bonds between family; and of the relationship with the outdoors. We all push forward, taking it one stroke at a time.