“The one thing I don’t want,” my father said, “is for you to finish your PhD how I finished mine: broken.”
Until that moment, commiserating with me about the difficulties of research, I’d never realized that he’d taken 14 years to complete his medical degree and his PhD. Everyone I’ve met who knew father has always used a descriptor like “intelligent” or “strong” — but I’m not sure how many of them know that he suffered from mental illness, or that he was open with his family about it. Or, especially, that he asked for help.
My father wasn’t perfect — far from it — but there was no one who knew it more than him.
There isn’t a day that goes by in the nearly four years since my father passed away that I don’t think of him. Some days, I find myself talking out loud to him and laughing; others, I weep as though my grief is still fresh. The one constant, though, remains the pride I feel for the person he fought to become, and the final version of the man he was the day he left this earth. My father wasn’t perfect — far from it — but there was no one who knew it more than him. And perhaps this was one of the things I love most about him.
After he died, I wanted to find a way to commemorate him; I began by sharing a few of the things he taught me without even knowing. One of the most significant of these was his openness, in the latter part of his life, about his struggle with depression. He would later go on to use prescribed anti-depressants. He was an accomplished medical doctor and, we would always joke, a part-time herbalist who could often be found experimenting with plants (including his prized aloes) to create homegrown remedies, and brews over our kitchen stove. He had been the one writing out prescriptions most of his life, and here he was confiding in my mother, sisters, and me that he needed medication to help him cope with his state of mind. Little did he (or I) know what impact that one act would have on me.
Later, I remember him asking me to be open with my friends about the fact that he was a recovering alcoholic, having gone without a drink since 2000. He still maintained a cabinet of spirits in the house for guests — and, I’m convinced, as a reminder to himself that he was in control.
My father was born and raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo. By his own description, he was a child small for his age, and brilliant in the classroom (as all parents always claim they were). He gained a keen interest in Pan-African politics and became a student activist. He fled the country in 1968 at the age of 22 to escape a dictatorial regime, carving a new life for himself in the USSR. Many of the struggles he faced I heard of only on the occasion when he felt it necessary to reveal one more titbit. Others I know because the love of his life — my mother, an Armenian-Ukrainian stomatology student at his university in Moscow — shared with my sisters and I. They journeyed together to Nigeria, made a life, raised my sisters and me, and it is there where he now rests. Their love, even through trying times, created a zone of protection for the two of them; they knew not every sacred secret needed to be shared with their children.
In his lifetime, my father became an accomplished dermatologist and general practitioner, spoke seven languages fluently (including being a certified French-to-Russian translator), self-published one novel and wrote some op-eds in Nigerian newspapers, and was heavily invested in charity work. Children in church would flock around Koko — an affectionate Lingala term for a grandparent — because he made it a habit to carry an assortment of sweets with him.
I am grateful for it all — but the fact that my father owned his weaknesses fills me with a different appreciation. Because of his willingness to do that, I own mine.
There were so many aspects of his identity, from his Blackness and Pan-Africanness to his work ethic and wit, that I wish I’d tapped into just a little bit more. However, I am still content with what I was given. From childhood on, he always engaged me in philosophical conversations as an equal. When I was 10, we spoke about the possibility of Satan being just another sinner in need of God’s grace. In adulthood, whenever we disagreed, I’d subtly remind him that I was the direct product of what he and my mother had raised me to be. There is a soundtrack to every part of my life, and that is down to him and my mother encouraging every genre of music to be played in our house.
He had always said he wanted to work till the day he died — which may not necessarily be a healthy desire, but it was his nonetheless. His death was unexpected: He passed peacefully on that early Tuesday evening, in the back of his car as he was being driven home, after a full day of work which included seeing patients and cracking jokes with several people he ran into that day. When there was an indication something might be amiss, he specifically asked to be taken home to my mother rather than the hospital; he must have known it was his time to go.
The love, the conversations, the gossip, the laughter, the feeling of his hands resting on my head to pray for me. I am grateful for it all — but the fact that my father owned his weaknesses fills me with a different appreciation. Because of his willingness to do that, I own mine.
Research has shown us that Black male trauma survivors are significantly less likely to use mental health services when compared to other groups. Furthermore, Black men are more likely to be diagnosed with severe mental health problems, and also to be hospitalized involuntarily—not necessarily because of higher incidence of mental illness, but a systemic problem. While navigating already-racist structures and systems, the culture of self-reliance and resilience is most likely a contributing factor why a number of Black people haven’t sought any support for mental health struggles.
I finally got diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) nearly a year after my father passed away. The diagnosis was by then a technicality: When I was seven I constantly worried that my heart would stop beating; as a pre-teen, I spent years afraid that I’d unknowingly sold my soul to the devil. Sleep anxiety and hypochondria were both old friends. However, it wasn’t until I was on medication and coming to terms with my grief that I began regretting not discussing my own mental health with my father.
Still, conscious reflection has allowed me to retrospectively tap into certain memories, certain comments he made, that now inform my mental health philosophy. And it’s heartening to see more stories of Black men openly sharing about their mental health: from in-depth analysis about the conditions fueling this epidemic of mental illness amongst Black men to initiatives such as barbershops being turned into safe spaces where Black men can get support for their mental illness. However, there is still a long way to go in terms of addressing the institutional, societal, and cultural factors contributing to mental illness in Black men.
One of the first steps anyone can take on a personal level is to ask for help. One of the bravest things my father did was to unashamedly do so. So, Black fathers, from the heart of a daughter forever grateful that my own father’s example showed me how to seek healing: please speak up about your mental health struggles — and ask for help.