health

"I lost my Dad to suicide one year ago. This is what I wish I could say to him."

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of my father’s suicide. Tomorrow is also World Mental Health Day.

The world after losing someone you love to suicide is a scary place. It loses its innocence, you confront an existential reality, and, if you’d been struggling to find purpose before, you question the purpose of life even more.

Suicide is not a death by choice; it is death by a perception of choice. The thoughts leading you to that moment is the depression. It’s the hopelessness, the helplessness and the worthlessness.

My dad came from a generation where mental health wasn’t as well understood. He grew up a ‘tough bloke’, a ‘footy bloke’ with the mentality ‘men don’t cry’, and in his world asking for help was considered weak.

I know my Dad would have harboured so many feelings of shame for how he was feeling. I know my dad didn’t recognise what he was struggling from was, in fact, mental illness.

If we were ever worried about Dad while he was stressing, and ask him if he was OK or suggest he go see someone, he’d respond with, “It’s OK, Gabby. I’ll be right, mate.”

Damien and his daughter Gabby. (Image supplied.)

It breaks my heart to know my Dad suffered alone and in silence. To this day, I can tell you, every single person who knew and loved my Dad, wishes he had just reached out for help.

Twelve months on, in no way do I think I’ve absorbed the totality of the loss. Twelve months on, in no way do I think I’ve handled my mental care in the best way possible.

I am still reeling in the fog of grief, but one year on I can see the importance of opening up conversations about suicide, breaking the silence and banishing the shame and stigma. This is why I hope sharing my Dad’s story might help others to recognise if someone close to them might be struggling, or encourage someone to reach out.

I am my father’s daughter. I share his determination, his tenacity, and drive. Unfortunately, I also share his self-criticism, depression, the stress and anxieties.

My Dad had always been a success. He’d been popular, with a wide circle of friends, was respected in business, a talented sportsman at rugby, a fantastic husband to my mum for 25 years, and a wonderful father. He’d given my sisters and me the best possible start in life we could have ever asked for.

Damien and his family. (Image supplied.)

Growing up, if one of my sisters or I fell over Dad would say, “No blood, no blood" and dust us off. His theory: no blood, no pain, no cry. I only ever saw him cry once or twice. “It’s OK, Gabby. I’ll be right, mate”.

Following the Global Financial Crisis he was made redundant, like so many others at the time. But my Dad, ever the entrepreneurial spirit, set off on a wide range of business ventures. Investing his heart, soul and energy into each one, always hopeful – “I think this one is going to make it, Gabby.” Each came so close to making it but, for whatever reason, simply didn’t.

In the last few months before we lost him there were a few telltale signs we thought were strange but later dismissed. He forgot to renew his diabetes medication. He became quieter. There was less, “I think it’s going to make it Gabby” and more, “It’s tough Gabby. Business is tough”. I remember one weekday morning he couldn’t get out of bed.

The morning before it happened I was working with Dad in the living room. He was distant and non-responsive. He wasn’t listening to his talkback radio. I remember thinking it was strange; he never worked without it on. I put it down to stress. Later that day I walked outside to get something from my car. I caught Dad standing still, looking down with his hands folded.

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Damien. (Image supplied.)

“What are you doing, Dad? Are you OK?” I asked.

“Yeah, Gabby, I’m OK. Just going on a walk,” he said, while still standing still.

“Without the dogs?”

“Oh, yeah, you’re right. I’ll take the dogs to the park” he said.

My Dad ended his life in the cellar he had been standing in front when we had that conversation the next morning.

The note he left had been dated for the 9th. I don’t know if he had been making the decision while standing there, or if I had interrupted him before he did it at that moment. The thought has haunted me endlessly to this day.

We found Dad’s watch, phone and wallet laid out neatly on the dining room table when we returned home. The moments that followed are a horror that still come to me, my Mum and my sister in regular flashbacks. I’ll always remember my Mum’s voice as she screamed for help. I’d been lying on my bed and my heart dropped – had something happened to the dogs? Nothing could ever have prepared me for the heartbreaking and terrifying reality that followed.

Just like that, he was gone. You’re left to forever wonder why you neglected to see the whispers of warning.

Damien and Jane. (Image supplied.)

I’ll never forget the heartbroken expression of my Dad’s best friend – best man at his wedding, someone whom he’d spoken to every single day for the past eight years – standing, shaking his head, eyes swollen from crying: "I had no idea."

Shame is one of the most intrinsic and universal feelings people experience when struggling with mental illness. Of all the emotions I’ve experienced in my battles with depression and anxiety, shame has been the most chronic. For years I was terrified I’d be ‘found out’. I feared people learning depression and anxiety were a part of me… I reasoned if people knew what was going on, I’d be judged, thought of as ‘broken’ and I’d be outcast.

The truth is, I’ve never been met with that reaction. Instead, in sharing my experience I’ve been met with understanding and people saying, “Me too.”

Shame is dangerous, because it is something that makes us feel like there is something so innately wrong with us, that we aren’t worthy of connection. Shame is why people suffer in silence, shame is what prevents people, especially men, wonderful men like my Dad, from reaching out for help.

I absolutely believe in that moment, my Dad had believed leaving us was the best thing for us; he thought we would be better off without him. I know he felt he had failed in business, as a father, as a human.

I can’t tell you how wrong you were, Dad.

Damien and his daughter.(Image supplied.)

They say 120 people are impacted by every one suicide. In Australia we lose someone to suicide every four minutes.

This year, my depression and anxiety fused with the foggy path of grief I’ve found myself in a constant battle with my mind.

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For the first few months I survived day-to-day on adrenalin and in a constant state of shock. I blocked out memories of Dad from my mind, and kept myself on a busy schedule. I continued on a frenzy of distraction, ensuring I was so busy I didn’t have time to think. Looking back, I was in a constant state of panic. I never sat still; if I was at home I’d sweep or vacuum anywhere I could, focusing on the menial task at hand.

I was two people for a while: Gab at home and Gab out. Out at social events or work I’d step out as if in a mask and direct all my energy into averting conversation from mentions of Dad or how I’m doing by joking and keeping conversation topics jovial and light. I was terrified of breaking down in public if I took off that mask. I’d then go home, exhausted from the act, and crumple into a ball of guilt for seeming so happy and joyous so soon after losing Dad.

I, too, shared with Dad the feelings of failure. Growing up, I’d been an over-achiever full of determination and drive. I put an intense amount of pressure on myself to achieve high marks, succeed in sports and academia and set my goals high.

In the end, I put so much pressure on myself I left myself feeling paralysed. My definition of ‘success’ was so limited and narrow I didn’t value any of my other qualities if I wasn’t being validated by others. I ignored the signs of depression and anxiety. I pushed them to the back of my mind, and attempted to power on through.

Damien and his daughter and wife Jane. (Image supplied.)

I forgot everything I’d told myself about mental illness. I fell into the depths of depression’s grip and believed all the negative thoughts I was having. I felt immense failure and shame for feeling this way. I felt like I would never change, that I had nothing to offer, that I was a heavy burden to my family while they were just trying to battle through their own grief, and I started to lose hope that it would ever get better. I didn’t want to put my family through the agony of losing someone else, but I knew I didn’t want to continue living.

A question I’d ask myself on my lowest days was: If my Dad, a man with the most determination, stamina and endurance of anyone I knew could lose this battle, what means I’ll then be able to make it?

The answer lies in reaching out for help, learning to understand, accept and recognise your self, mental health, develop management strategies and seek treatment.

I’m not where I thought I’d be at 24, but, I am learning to manage my thoughts, put my mental health first, and I’m more self-aware than I’ve ever been. It’s a slow journey but I’m on the right path.

Despite my Dad’s early mantra — “You’re okay, you’re okay, no blood” — there can still be immense pain without any visual signs. We need to educate ourselves to learn about mental illness, learn to recognise the signs, remove the shame and the stigma and use our power as a generation that can break the cycle.

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it is an incredible sign of recognition and strength.

I may have inherited mental illness from my father, but I’ve also inherited so many more of his wonderful qualities. For that I am forever proud, and for that I am forever my father’s daughter.

If you or anyone you know is suffering, don't suffer in silence, you can reach Lifeline on 13 11 14 any time. 

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