Four years ago I was living in Portland, Oregon and had been trying to get back into the habit of writing, which I had neglected for more years than is acceptable. The woman I was dating had a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a sister, which made for a formidable motivation. After all, if a flesh and blood human can become an acclaimed writer, maybe it’s not such a silly thing to aspire to. But what would I write about? Just about everything I’ve written has been comedy. It’s very, very easy for me to write jokes. But with this new inspiration, I decided to try something different and altogether more ambitious. I turned 24 that year, and I was acutely aware of the fact that my father died at that age by his own hand. And every year before that, I had been reminded of the fact that I really didn’t know this man at all. People had tried to tell me what he was like, but he was still a stranger.
He died when I was only three-years-old, and my feelings about his absence changed as I got older. From not really understanding it, to sadness, to anger. And here I was thinking that maybe my dad’s experiences up to age 24 might not have been so different from my own. By all accounts we shared an affable and awkward demeanor, a penchant for hitchhiking and a love of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. My thoughts on this man I never knew and my desire to start writing again converged. My rather lofty initial goal was to write a biography about the man. While that never happened, I learned a lot in the attempt.
I interviewed many of my relatives and some of my dad’s friends to try and piece together a picture. What I learned was A) People didn’t want to or couldn’t remember much from that long ago and B) I was a lot like him. In talking with my grandma about this though, she talked about how his personality changed as he got older. He became more and more withdrawn and antisocial. This is where everything started to make sense because she said, “The doctors said it was schizophrenia, but I’m still convinced it was something else.”
I’m not a doctor, and I don’t have the data necessary to make an assessment of whether or not my dad did or didn’t have a mental illness. But this revelation made a lot of things clearer. For example, the suicide note. When my sister had discovered it hidden away in our house, we read it and didn’t understand it. He wrote that he loved us and he couldn’t bear to be away from his family. But that he had to end it. The note literally said, “I need help” multiple times. The reason it had never made sense was because it wasn’t in fact sensical. But that’s only to someone whose brain is working the way it’s supposed to.
While I tried to keep going with the biography for a bit after that, it became very clear that the project was done. I had solved a gigantic mystery that had plagued me for years: Why did he do it? I cannot tell you how angry I was that my dad had killed himself rather than be there for me, my mom and my sister. But that note combined with the information that my dad was sick and not getting the help he needed…well, it was impossible to still feel anger.
But what of the silence? For all my life, I had not been given this information. Everyone of my family members omitted that detail when talking about my dad. I’ll grant it’s a tricky thing to casually drop in conversation at Christmas dinner, but you’d think that it would eventually get back to me in all the conversation I had about him.
At last year’s Skepticon, JT closed the show with a moving story about his struggle with mental illness. To date, it’s my favorite talk of his.
If you watched this talk, you probably cried. I was able to hold back until just a few minutes after it was over before the dam burst. That talk hit me very close to home.
If my dad had received the same level of support that JT had I think it would have given him a better chance. I hope that you’ll be there for those in your life who need that kind of support, and give them a chance too.
I write a lot of jokes. Some of them are in this book.
I also host the podcast of the Skepchick events team, Some Assembly Required, and cohost the WWJTD Podcast.
You can also follow me on Facebook or that bird thing.