It happened long ago, when this writer was just a kid. And even though the writer is a grown man now, even though he has a family, he’ll always be a kid when he retells this story.
The kid had a father. The father was 41. Tall. Handsome. Red hair. One Sunday, the kid’s family threw his father a birthday party. It was a grand affair with steak for supper. There was singing, joyous voices, card games, redneck music on a boombox, and laughing.
The kid’s mother made a cake with blue icing. The room went black, the candles were lit. The kid’s father took one breath and blew them all out. Everyone seemed so happy.
The following Tuesday, something was off. The kid noticed his old man’s face had changed somehow. Something behind the eyes was different. It was like the kid didn’t know this man anymore. How could it happen so quickly? How could the utter joy be replaced with The Blackness?
There was a fight between his father and mother. A big one. A nuclear fight. The Hiroshima of Mom-and-Dad fights. Violence ensued. Threats were shouted. His father’s mind was not working normally. Something had snapped inside the man’s mind.
The kid’s mother pleaded. The father screamed things that weren’t making sense. The 41-year-old tossed furniture against walls. He hurt people. Spit frothed at the corners of his father’s mouth. The kid’s world was coming apart. All that was missing was Chicken Little.
“Daddy’s lost his mind,” was all the kid could tell his baby sister who screamed into the folds of his T-shirt.
“Call 911” shouted the kid’s mother.
There are too many things that happened on that night to write here. And besides, the goal of this writing is not to bring you down, I merely want to talk about a sickness.
The sickness I speak of is a sickness of the mind, but an illness nonetheless. This disease affects millions, although it is rarely talked about. It ruins the lives of hundreds of millions each year, but rarely receives any coverage unless the illness happens to someone famous.
The sickness goes by many different names, “depression” is one such name. But there are others. This disease kills about 130 people per day in the U.S. About 700,000 each year. Or let’s put it like this: Every 40 seconds, someone dies of suicide.
By the time you have finished reading this, somewhere in the world, four or five people will have already pulled the trigger.
Anyway, it was the worst night ever. And as far as the kid is concerned, there will never be a worse night. It was also the last time this kid ever saw his father. The next morning, they found the kid’s father in his brother’s garage with a shotgun in his limp hand.
And the illness won.
But what I want you to know is that this sick man was a good man. He was not evil. He was not selfish. He liked singing in church. He liked changing tractor belts. He was a practical joker. He was funny. He was sweet. He was just like you.
It was disease that killed the kid’s father. It was disease that tried to ruin the kid’s family. True, it was an unseen disease—like a tumor. And yes, it was a disease that gets poo-pooed by those with lesser minds. But it was an illness nevertheless, and it ate the kid’s father from the inside just like carcinoma.
The last thing the kid wants is for you to read this today and feel bad. There are too many things in the world to feel good about.
But perhaps you are a handsome person with a beautiful family. Maybe your wife made you a cake with blue icing for your birthday. Maybe you know there’s something wrong inside you, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.
Perhaps you overcompensate for your depression. Maybe you act falsely happy. Maybe you laugh too much. Smile too much in public. Maybe you’re a good actor. Mental illness is funny, that way. But maybe in the dimness of your bad nights you have dark thoughts. Maybe you feel like everyone would be better off if you were dead.
This kid begs you to get help. He is begging you with tears falling onto his keyboard as he writes. Don’t just get help for yourself. Do it for those you love. Do it for your kid. Do it because today [Sept. 14] is the anniversary of my father’s suicide, and I miss him a lot.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, novelist, and podcast host, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, he has authored 13 books, and he is creator of the Sean of the South Podcast.