On a Sunday morning in San Francisco, I’m zoning out on a cold concrete playground bench. A cup of coffee warms my hands, while multicolored leaves collect around my shoes like unanswered emails. There’s a stillness to this a.m. hour, a clarity that’s perfect for collecting my thoughts and visualizing the days ahead. Yet instead of upcoming meetings or weekend errands, when I close my eyes all I see is death.
A multiverse of my demises come to mind. Coordinated accidents. Wrong place, wrong time scenarios. Gruesome endings. Poetic ones. Some are unremarkable. But all share one common quality.
They’re of my own doing.
I can see what follows, though. A future for those left behind. My wife and kids have embraced a new husband and dad, respectively. He’s handsome. Successful. Responsible. Loving. Easygoing. No vices. They’re happy. Then, suddenly, a familiar voice snaps me back into reality, like Thanos in reverse.
“Daddy! Can we go get some ice cream now?”
My head lifts from the fog of my rumination to see the bright, smiling faces of my beautiful butterscotch babies running in my direction.
“Yeah, babe," I respond. “Just make sure you and your brother didn’t leave anything behind.”
I love my family more than life itself. The thought of failing them—of buckling under the weight of my son and daughter’s worth—is debilitating. Especially when psychiatric struggles make taking care of myself feel virtually impossible.
Here’s a difficult truth: Men with mental illness often become daddies with mental illness. With mental and emotional imbalance, the gravity of being a father compounded with the load of societal norms was my blueprint for collapse. How are dads like us supposed to be the fathers of our sitcom dreams when we have faulty wiring that makes our noble aspirations so difficult to achieve?
Somehow I believed these issues would work themselves out upon my becoming a father. I thought things would magically click into place once I became responsible for lives other than my own, like in that one Adam Sandler movie.
I was first diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety in 2017, approximately one year after the aforementioned park bench daydream. Up until that point, I felt full of feelings, thoughts, and struggles for which I didn’t have the appropriate language or professional help. By 2021, I’d also been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and ADHD. My collective conditions made me prone to substance abuse, low self-esteem, impulsiveness, anxiety, problems focusing, and self-destructiveness. And, yes, suicidality.
Somehow I believed these issues would work themselves out upon my becoming a father. I thought things would magically click into place once I became responsible for lives other than my own, like in that one Adam Sandler movie. Or in the real-life redemption of Robin Williams, another hometown staple who turned things around after becoming a dad.
I was wrong.
I’d always envisioned myself being a great dad: engaged, loving, and protective. A teacher of shapes and colors, Malcolm X and Toni Morrison. Yet more often I was Miles from Sideways. A cautionary tale. In my darkest times, not even the Autumn sun could brighten my outlook as I pondered unspeakable thoughts while watching my little ones ride folded cardboard down cement slides.
Much has been said about the stigma of mental health in the Black community. Things are shifting—therapy plays a central theme of Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers—yet for Black men, only 26.4 percent who experienced daily feelings of anxiety or depression seek mental health services, compared with 45.4 percent of non-Hispanic White men, according to a 2015 study. This is especially relevant considering depression and suicide rates have been increasing in Black men. In 2017, suicide became the second leading cause of death for Black people aged 15-24, with the rate for men being four times that of Black women.
When depression has nowhere to go, it destroys from the inside. For too many of us, death seems like the only viable escape. That fact is made all the more tragic when you’ve got loved ones to look after.
I’m determined not to author the end of my story in that way.
I got off to a rocky start with parenting when my daughter was born in 2008. I was overjoyed by her arrival, but the sobering reality of what being a father entails made for a juggling act for which I didn't have the dexterity. I dropped out of college at the hallway mark and began working extra jobs and extra hours because that’s what I thought a “good dad” did. A good dad to me was defined by his ability to work, sacrifice, and pay bills. It was the antithesis of who I am as a person.
The abrupt transition from dreamer to working body birthed a misery that ate at my spirit for years. My mental health became even shakier after my son was born in 2012. I could barely recognize myself; I was angry, bitter, resentful, and depressed. The bottle became my best friend (not the baby’s). My will to live was dwindling. As my daughter matured, I couldn’t help but feel as if she viewed me differently, that she could detect the glaze in my eyes, bitterness in my voice, and lifelessness in my posture. My wife was growing exhausted from the horror ride of a husband who just couldn’t get it together. Both the women in my life were done.
I knew I needed help to avoid self-destruction. I’d tried therapy several years ago, but never consistently, thanks to subpar medical insurance. Yet I was presented with a great opportunity during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. I had to be transferred, yet again, to a new therapist; but this one specializes in borderline personality disorder. She enrolled me into a six-month intensive dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) class, which included biweekly one-on-one sessions, and daily homework (journaling and completing workbooks).
The self-improvement extended beyond mental; I began to prioritize my physical health and fitness, too. Abstaining from alcohol helped me refocus on my goals, priorities, and direction, as well as shed 60 pounds. I currently weight 100 pounds less than I did at my most depressed and suicidal state.
It’s been a little over a year since suicidal thoughts played on loop in my mind. I’m working to repair all of the broken pieces of the past. What does that look like? It’s working hard on my business. Keeping my promises. Hammering nails, cutting grass, doing push-ups. Dad shit. But also being mindful, intentional, and engaged with my family. I still have my triggers and dark moments, but I have the tools and, more importantly, the desire to not succumb to those impulses. Really, it’s just showing up and trying, one day at a time, as cheesy as that may sound.
I strive to live by a disciplined routine that’s both freeing and, well, annoying. Yet I prefer the exhaustion of routine to the breathless defeat of continued disappointment. As a result, my wife and I are doing better than ever; just last week we celebrated a renewed love and commitment with a new ring (she said yes, again!). And I can be present on playground outings. These days, when the kids ask for Ben & Jerry’s, I make sure to get a cone for myself, too.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a crisis, please reach out immediately to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. These services are free and confidential.