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Surviving Fatherhood, Depression, and Suicide All at Once

My kids didn't know about my first suicide attempt. They were too young.

Nearly 14.8 million Americans suffer from major depressive disorder — that’s about 6.7 percent of the population over ages 18 years or older. For many, a shift occurs around the age of 32, well into adulthood. Although this more often documented in women than in men, adult depression can affect anyone. For many — and perhaps especially for men, who tend to talk less about their emotions —  it can be hard to recognize the difference between feeling sad and feeling sad all the time.

That’s how it was for Lawrence (not his actual name), who had two young children when he first attempted suicide. He survived and helped raise the kids into caring young adults. On the other side of handling some of the financial and medical issues that affected him as a younger man, Lawrence decided he needed to talk to his kids about his experience. It was a hard conversation, but an important one to have.

At the time that my depression really came about, in 2005, I was still married. My ex-wife didn’t see — or was trying to avoid seeing — what was going on with me in my life. I also had a couple of physical challenges. I have severe psoriatic arthritis that was diagnosed in 1993 when I was about 23 years old. Around the turn of the millennium, I really started to go downhill physically. My arthritis had gotten very bad, I had plaque psoriasis, and I was miserable. I was put on methotrexate, to try and treat the arthritis. My quality of life was terrible. I had trouble keeping a job at that point, even though I wasn’t necessarily doing very physical labor. I was in enough pain that I was distracted to the point where I couldn’t focus at work.

Financially, we were also in a lot of trouble. The expense of the medications that I was taking, even with insurance, was basically ruining our financial situation. So I didn’t go to the psychologist because I couldn’t afford it. And then, around the year 2004, going into 2005, I would say, I hit bottom. My kids were about 5 and 8 at that point.

I had a bilateral TMJ reconstruction and a coronoidectomy, which was a pretty major surgery. I had to re-learn how to chew. When my wife didn’t come to the hospital with me, I was done. I attempted to commit suicide three or four days after my surgery, after my wife confronted me about our financial situation. She had been burying her head in the sand about it for years. On December 14, I overdosed on pills. I spent the next two weeks hospitalized in the psych ward. I attempted suicide two more times.

My kids didn’t know about my first attempt. They were too young. They knew that mom and dad had a fight. I didn’t get to see them for months after that. I ended up coming back up to New Jersey to live with my parents and get partial hospitalization care for about 9 months.

My son, at an early age had Oppositional Defiance Disorder, and it was really difficult to handle at times. My wife, probably about six months after I left for New Jersey, started asking me to come back. She needed my help. The kids needed their dad. I went back to South Carolina. The kids knew, at that point, that I was working on myself. They knew that I could be sad, that I needed medication and therapy to work on that.

In 2009, I was living with a friend, who was also going through a divorce at the time. My ex-wife and I never really got back on the same page when I got back. We had intimacy and trust issues. Despite her being someone with a background in psychology and being fairly educated, she was listening to people tell her I was just looking for attention or to get out of my responsibilities.

Before my second suicide attempt, there was a discussion, particularly with my daughter who is the oldest. I attempted suicide again in January of 2009. I was closer to succeeding than anybody ever should be. I don’t know what my ex-wife was thinking, but she put my daughter on the phone with me to try to convince me to let them know where I was so the first responders could come get me. The kids were very aware of what was going on. They knew that dad was clinically depressed and that dad was suicidal and had attempted to kill himself.

After that, talking to my kids as easier than I thought it would be. Kids are really perceptive. They knew something wasn’t right, and they knew I was different than I was earlier on. Being able to explain to them that it’s a sickness like any other sickness. Diabetes and psoriasis were the two examples that I used to explain it. If someone has psoriasis, they need the medicine that makes their skin clear. If they have diabetes, they need insulin. And me? I need antidepressants and therapy. When I’m getting those things in the right amount, then things are pretty good. They get that.

Our conversations were very honest and very easy. Kids want their parents to be okay just as much as parents want their kids to be okay. I’m now able to sit down and talk to them and say, ‘Listen, I’m not okay. But I’m working on it.’ These are the people I speak to, to work on it. That was healthy. I was able to get them to come to therapy with me, and they could see my therapist, and ask questions, too. I felt it was important for them to be a part of the solution.

The discussions that I have with my kids now about that period of time are very sad. And what usually comes up is the kids remember a situation as it relates to them now, and tell me, ‘This was really hard for me.’ And we’ll get into the conversation about it. I tell them that I was sick, and that I’m sorry. They don’t hold a grudge for what went on. They’re bright. They got it. They get that that’s a bad time, I was not in a healthy place.

I can remember a friend of mine, she said to me, ‘You know, you argue about everything.’ And it struck me at the time. It took me a few years later to realize that I had gotten really negative.

I don’t think I’m there anymore. When I speak to my kids now, it’s a really healthy and open conversation. My daughter suffers from panic attacks. They’re not so debilitating. But we talk about our therapeutic programs and what we do and our coping skills. She’s not afraid to call me up at any hour and say, ‘I’m on the verge of a panic attack, talk to me.’ I talk to her and try to help. I’m happy I can be there for her.