Father’s Day, 2021: A Tribute to My Father

My father was a flawed man.

Many would agree with this assessment, especially my siblings and my mother.

Many people are flawed, including my siblings and my mother and myself. Often our flaws aren’t as apparent as they were with my dad. We hide them as best we can.

My Dad’s flaws happened to be known and obvious. He suffered major depressive episodes, with at least 4 suicide attempts. He barely survived one. I know this as one of my psychiatrists, on staff at the hospital where my Dad was treated for that attempt, had rights to retrieve old medical records.  So my physician had reviewed Dad’s records – in particular, whether my Dad was bipolar or unipolar – to better treat me. He also said my Dad had clearly meant to end his life. 

Dad could be sharp with his criticism of my mother, my siblings and me. Sometimes all we heard were negative barbs on our competence at the task we were asked to do.

Dad once humiliated me by marching into the high school gym to literally pull me off the dance floor. I had “committed” some infraction, in his eyes. He was furious. …It was obvious to all the teens who witnessed what was going on. I was humiliated. 

He could also put us on guilt trips. The hardest guilt trip for me … that I remember … occurred during a Christmas holiday. The previous night I’d just returned home from college for Christmas vacation. I had been out late on a date with my steady boyfriend Jim, now my husband. Early next morning, with the dairy cows needing to be milked, he woke me up to help. This was our routine when I came home for weekends or breaks. But this time he threatened: “Gail, how you help during the holidays, is how Christmas will go for all of us! He meant, if I didn’t help him the precise way he thought I must, I would ruin the holiday for all eight of us, plus any grandparents and boy or girlfriends that might be invited. 

Imagine the burden Dad put on me: Everyone’s happiness – especially my Dad’s – and more importantly, how Dad would act toward the family, the amount and the severity of criticisms, barbs, pouts, etc. – depended on me. 

Dad was SO out of line, but I did not realize this until a caring psychiatrist told me straight out, thirty years later, no father has the right to say or imply such a treat. 

Never.

Dad did not need to threaten me. It was nonsense. I had always been a conscientious and careful helper with the milking, any barn chores, making hay, combining oats, etc. 

When Dad attempted suicide in 1968,, I came home to help on the farm, especially with the daily milking (Dad was in the hospital). My grades suffered badly that semester. One of my advisors, on seeing my semester grades, said “That must be when you started dating Jim.” I replied, no, I had gone home to work to help out after my dad’s suicide attempt. She never bothered me about those grades again. (Jim and I were already a couple.)

Yet, I am grateful to him for many things.

1. Stressing the importance of voting.

2. Stirring my interest in local, state and national politics.

My dad’s favorite president was FDR, not JFK, as some think.

3. Taking the older children, including me, on trips, especially to Washington, DC, where we meet our state senator and congressman, both honorable men.

There were simpler trips: to see a fish hatchery, an apple orchard to witness the apple trees in bloom, a lake side short vacation, visiting the University arborteum in early spring, and more.

4. My Dad’s eagerness and happiness to see our newborn children.  

5. My Dad’s (as well as my Mother’s) happiness for myself and my family when we traveled to New Zealand in 1986. 

At the time our daughter was 11 and our son 6. We could hear the expressed joy from my parents that we landed safely (And had connected with the company from which we’d rented our caravan!). A twenty-two hour flight with three stops for fuel, in Los Angeles, Hawaii, and Fuji, before reaching New Zealand. 

More delight and happiness was expressed by my Mother and Dad when we arrived home three weeks later, and they picked us up at the airport . We rested in their pleasure at seeing us safe and sound.  The return trip to the United States, and eventually to our state, was much more tiring than the trip out.

Mom and Dad treated us to breakfast at the airport and drove us the roughly 30 miles to our home. 

6. Taking us to church, 30 miles from our farm, each Sunday. We all were baptized and confirmed. All six of us children.

7. Emphasizing 4H as important to our development.  I had a very active 4H life: sewing, cooking, and dairy.

The best was winning purple ribbons for raising two heifers to maturity.  These were both 50/50 projects.  That is, I raised another farmer’s Registered Holstein heifers from 6 months until they were “freshened,” i.e., had calves and thus began producing milk.  I showed these two animals at the Wisconsin State Fair. Poise was required – and I and the original owner split the profits when these now productive cows were auctioned off! 

8. Hosting our holidays, especially Christmas, every year. 

9. Attending his six children’s and grandchildren’s gatherings – high school graduations, for example. Only one sibling lived far away, half way across the continent, so visits to her were infrequent. 

10. Flowers, always your love for flowers. We remember. Now our children raise your favorites: Iris, roses, snap dragons, dusty Millers!

My Dad graciously handled his diagnosis of diabetes when he reached his seventies.  He had to change his diet, of course, and after a trial with oral hypoglycemic agents, he learned how to take insulin. He tested his blood glucose faithfully and kept the records and doctor’s appointments.

Then his kidneys started to fail. More dietary restrictions, this time protein …meat … was limited along with high potassium foods, a reduction in milk, fruits and vegetables. As a retired registered dietitian, I learned in 1969 what diabetes and renal dialysis could do … a heavy impact on the individuals quality of life … fatigue … stress … and a unavoidable but constant pressure to do the right thing to prolong life. 

He was gracious also, when he had to undergo renal dialysis. I can’t imagine spending the better part of three days a week traveling: And then hooked up to a dialysis machine. 

I’ve often wondered how his life and our lives would have differed, had he had more help in the form of counseling and empathy, even from us, his children. We did not like to listen to his recounting his symptoms, for one thing.

We had little patience with him.

Now I think surviving and then tackling physical rehabilitation after open heart surgery, in the early days of heart surgery, the 1970’s, was an immense accomplishment. Think of having your chest opened up twice!!!

Twice. A few blood vessels were not tied off completely during the original surgery. He began to lose blood and all blood brings to life. So the surgeons took him back to surgery. They forcefully had to work around the breast bone, or cut it.

Science now has demonstrated that diabetes and heart disease are bi-directional with depression. Today, people are prophylactically counseled on watching for depression after major illnesses and procedures.

There was also a time he survived a near fatal reaction to a dye injected for a test.  He had to be resuscitated. I remember my mom telling me later his attendants had implored,  “Richard, hold on, hold on.”

He held on.

Father, I was not permitted or asked to help plan your funeral. I was not consulted regarding hymn selection, or asked to speak at the funeral. 

I was not asked to sing for him, although I have my father’s beautiful voice. He was a tenor. His favorite tenor was Mario Lanza. I have been singing solos since fifth grade. I still sing.

I was outraged at being left out of the planning and being left out of the service.

I called the minister at 8am the day of Dad’s funeral to ask the minister to inform my mother that I would not attend, nor my husband nor our children.

I did attend, arriving barely before the funeral began. I went out of respect for my mother.

You see, my Dad and I both had said to one another, he and I were the most alike … of the 6 children, I resembled him most. I have a letter from my dad to me, dated July 1989. He tells me we are the most similar and of one mind. He tells me he is proud of me.

I think he wrote to me because in the Fathers Day card I sent to him I had written I was proud of him.

I was proud of him. And I still am.


Dad, here is the song I sang to Mother, just after she passed at Hospice. I sang it at her bedside. I sing it to you now.

Morning Has Broken
Lyrics by Eleanor Farjeon

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for the springing fresh from the word

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God’s recreation of the new day

From Shame – Moving Toward Healing

During the recent half decade I have been so fortunate, as Brene Brown* describes, to have completed the journey from the “not being good enough” shame struggle to believing and knowing “who I am is enough.” Shame from having mental illness has left me. Shame from being related to other people with mental illness has left me also. I have been graced.

I only recently realized I had made this journey. I understand now how much shame – and my growing resilience in the face of shame – had influenced the course and depth of my mental illness through the years.

It didn’t happen, this journey to being shame-free, automatically. I happened to want to do what is recommended for building shame resilience for other reasons; I wanted to help others cope with mental illness. Often, as part of my work, I told my story of family and personal mental illness. I didn’t realize then, twenty five years ago, how much nurturance I would receive from assisting others.  My story of the power of shame and how I arrived at healing from shame follows …. [Read the Full Article]

 

*   Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW   Audio lecture, 2012: Men, Women & Worthiness, The experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough.  Available on CD at Soundstrue.com  PO Box 8010/Boulder CO  80306.

What to do, “When Mental Illness Enters the Family”

What do we do now, now that mental illness has entered our family?  Dr. Lloyd Sederer’s video “When Mental Illness Enters the Family”  is a Godsend. In this short, 15-minute video, Dr. Sederer addresses family members of people with mental illnesses and gives them clear and doable tips on how to live harmoniously (mostly) and wisely (usually) with the ill family member. His four main steps to cope with the effects of mental illness are right on target.  I can write this because of the lived experience I have had with two members of my family of origin. One person is still living, a sibling,  and  I work to understand better how to provide this person true support and health needs in an integrated manner without sacrificing my health in the process. The recommendations in “When mental illness enters the family” are a good beginning for people starting out on that road – Helping to care for someone with mental illness – as well as a good review for experienced family members.

Dr Sederer is a psychiatrist who is the medical director of the New York State Office of Mental Health –, i.e., Chief psychiatrist for the nation’s largest state mental health organization. He was the  medical director and executive vice president of Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. He is also the mental health editor and columnist for The Huffington Post.

I also heartily recommend readers who have a mental health condition and family members of people with a mental health problem explore NAMI’s (National Alliance on Mental Illness) website for all the valuable resources and information that are gathered there.

As I worked and volunteered for NAMI on the state and local level for many years (20) here in Wisconsin, I will post a resource article with thoughts about the NAMI website and programs soon.

Offering True Support

Most of us have found ourselves, at one time or another, wanting to provide a friend or relative with a listening ear… or to be a helpful sounding board; in other words, to provide support. What is present when someone is offering true support?

True support is present when the recipient feels listened to and understood. Some emotional needs have been shared and supported together. Just listening well and empathically may help someone clarify options or sort out thoughts. If you’re unsure if the support you offer is satisfactory and your intention is genuine, I suggest asking the recipient gently: Did she feel really listened to? Did he feel a lifting, even temporarily, of a burden? If yes, you have given someone a great gift!

My experience as a support group facilitator and as a trainer of facilitators, both in giving and in receiving support from people with mental illness through an adult lifetime guide me to these recommendations (Under “On Healing” in the menu bar). I hope you find them thoughtful.

Oh So Real: Pregnancy and Suicidal Depression

“Oh baby,” I said, as he/she came down the birth canal, “You are born!”. It was 1979. We didn’t know the sex of the child before birth. The birthing experience was wonderful, a balm for the difficult pregnancy caused by the onset of major depression in the fourth month of pregnancy.

I was alone.

Don’t get me wrong, my husband was with me very much during the pregnancy. But I was alone with being pregnant and being ill. I knew no other woman who was or had been pregnant and seriously depressed to talk to, to compare notes, to help me express my feelings or to hug. I hope this summary of my story of the difficult pregnancy will help other mothers who find themselves struggling with similar experiences today.

If you are pregnant and depressed, you are Not alone.