I feel guilty for passing my mental illness to my son

by Gor Rivenshield

I’m 58 and I’ve attempted eight times, nine if you count the train incident, over a period from 1978 to 2011. So, yeah, I’ve struggled with depression and lost at times. Three of those attempts, and the train incident, occurred while taking prescribed psychiatric meds.

I’ve been on just about every anti-depressant, plus meds to counteract (unsuccessfully) the negative effects of the anti-depressants. I’m talking about two to four months of waiting for any, ANY, positive effects. The last psychiatrist just looked at me after we went through the list of meds I’d been on and sighed. Therapy has helped when I’ve found therapists who actually understand depression and suicide and haven’t tried to fit me into textbook scenarios.

CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) has been a great benefit, but sometimes I feel like a leper constantly performing Visual Surveillance of Extremities to check for wounds.

I just want to stop feeling this way

I want to be able to look at my successes and feel good about them. Lift myself out of abject poverty. Going back to college at age 29, married with both of us in college, working, having a son, buying a house, and graduating from Va. Tech cum laude with a 3.85 GPA. Putting my ex through grad school at Cornell, homeschooling my son, Author, after 9/11, still working, helping my ex get her career stable, getting accepted into a low residency grad program that I knew I wouldn’t get into after I’d gotten 11 rejections from less stringent programs.

My ex announced she wanted a divorce when I joyously announced I’d gotten into grad school.

Within a year, after attempts 7 and 8, I was in the hospital for the first time for my attempts. No one, not even my ex, knew my depression was that bad or had led to attempts. All she had known was that the Zoloft I’d been on a few years earlier had failed after two years, even after the dosage was increased to the point of courting serotonin toxicity.

After the divorce, I became estranged from my son, Arthur. I couldn’t stay in communication with him because my ex would get between it and start in on me, saying the things I was already thinking, “I’m a shitty father, shitty husband, shitty person, a burden to everyone.” I stopped trying because I ‘knew’ she was right.

I stayed with my best friends (I was their best man). They helped me get back on my feet. I got a job, saved up, bought a truck and rented an apartment. Three years.

I got back in touch with Arthur, we began rebuilding our relationship

We were not just father and son, but friends. He was brilliant. I mean, I’d always known he was smarter than me. He’d averaged 167 over three IQ tests and when my ex had put him in high school after the divorce, he’d ended up tutoring the other AP students.

A little story about Arthur: When he was just four years old and playing with legos on the floor, I was talking myself through something I’d read about black holes while cooking. Talking something out, explaining it to someone else, has always helped me understand it. About six months later, he and I were playing with legos when he suddenly stopped, turned to me, and laid out a scenario of a universe composed of only two, equal mass black holes and the possible outcomes of that universe.

It was clear, well-reasoned, and I couldn’t, with my layman’s knowledge, pick it apart. So, through my ex’s contacts at Cornell, we emailed Stephen Hawking. He politely picked it apart but told me I had a son worth watching out for and not stifling. I wish my ex still had that email exchange.

But back to the main story

One night, a friend PM’d Arthur and me to ask us to explain something he’d read about astrophysics. We had a lively discussion for a couple of hours, and the friend and I learned a lot.

I went to work the next morning, went through my day there, and came home to find my ex sending me message after message on Messenger that said, “contact me” which I ignored as it always turned out to be her making me feel like crap. Then the friend’s wife called me. She wouldn’t tell me why, but I could tell it was bad.

That morning, not twelve hours after we’d ended the conversation with “I love you”, Author had taken his own life.

That was five years ago. It happened just yesterday. It will happen tomorrow. It’s happening right this second as you read this. When my ex told me Arthur had taken his own life, my soul started screaming. It hasn’t stopped, hasn’t abated.

I feel guilty

I passed on the genes that messed up his neurochemical processes. I wasn’t there for the years I could have seen the signs that I know all too well. I didn’t make it to his high school graduation to see him as Valedictorian. I wasn’t there when the Pit swallowed him up. I’m a shitty father, shitty husband, shitty person.

None of that is rational or logical. I could intellectualize rings around it until the scream finally stops. I can keep it from coming out in public most of the time. I can put my Mask on and walk among the living and no one knows.

But. Grief, guilt, remorse, and depression over everything, over the ‘woulda shoulda coulda’ is still there.

What isn’t there is anger at Arthur

How can it be when I understand the intense emotional pain depression brings? Pain so intense, so pervasive, that one fears they will change so much that they’ll hurt the people they love worse than ending it all would. Pain so intense that you can’t burden someone else with even a smidgeon of it. Pain so intense that in its context, taking one’s own life becomes a sane, rational, loving decision.

Honestly, I don’t want to be alive. I would love to stop existing right this second. I can’t stop, though, because of the three oaths I took. Oaths I took that have essentially made me ‘program’ my brain to raise an alarm if I’m at risk. They’ve been tested, they work.

They made me get help when I had a strangulated inguinal hernia so bad that I thought “I could just lay here and let the hernia kill me”… my hand grabbed my phone and speed-dialed a friend without me thinking about it. Just one of several times.

So, where am I now?

Here’s my life now

I live and work part-time with my ex-father-law and my two ex-brother-in-laws, part-time because I need a therapist and because I need a lot of alone time to process and manage my emotions. I find ways to take my weaknesses and turn them into strengths. I spend a significant amount of time online in grief support groups sharing with others our experiences and support, and venting about idiots who keep asking “Aren’t you over that yet?” or similar. I paint, write, start projects that make one ex-brother-in-law nag me to finish them.

If there is any advice I’d give, especially to another male, it is this.

The oak is strong, it resists the wind and stands tall, yet in a storm, it breaks and dies; the willow is weak, being blown about by the wind, yet it bends in the storm and endures.

I endure.

5 thoughts on “I feel guilty for passing my mental illness to my son”

  1. This is me. Every single day. I am a 58 year old mother, however, with a 17 year old son who struggles. The guilt I feel is so overwhelming that I often think of ways to end me. Just knowing that these thoughts are in my child’s head and probably will be for life cripples me. I don’t show it to him but I am really struggling inside. I cant bear the thought of what this would do to my children (4) if I ended it all. I know I need to be hear for them and be strong. But I’m exhausted. Likewise my parents are turning 80 this year and both in poor health & they need me, yet I’m dead inside. If people only knew my thoughts. I do break down. Quite often & often alone. I think I’ve destroyed my husbands life because of the way I am. Im so so sad. Always. Im in pain physically and mentally. Always. I obsess about my sons mental health. Always. I can not imagine going through this for much longer but my faith scares me. I want to go to Heaven. I don’t want to be the reason my children fall apart. My mind is absolutely torturing me.

    1. Michelle, I feel your struggle and I’m so sorry. I am honored you shared this here and I appreciate your trust. Have you shared this with anyone you know? How you feel?

    2. Michelle, one of the things I wish so badly in those darkest moments is that I had taught Arthur coping techniques, ways to re-direct depression and not suppress it. Suppressing it is one of the worst things you can do. I took to heart certain principles of chess and what little I know of Jiu-jitsu; 1) every action should serve at least two purposes, more if possible, and preserve and create as many options as possible; 2) take the emotional energy of depression and use it to drive things that can help express and re-direct that feeling. Art and comedy being the two most visible ways to do so in our society. So many artists and comedians exist because they are struggling with depression and seeking to re-direct it.
      One other thing I wish, oh so badly, that I had done, is being open with Arthur about my own depression. Letting him see my struggles with it, how I cope with and manage it. How, despite it looming over me constantly, I was able to get my B.A. and achieve the other triumphs of my life. How it fuels my compassion for others.
      I really hate ‘woulda, shoulda, coulda’, but there it is. I hope this helps you.

  2. Points to the genetic component that is so pervasive with suicide and substance abuse..if you know about it it, talk about it, raise awareness…even if you don’t still talk about it, raise awareness…peace

  3. Gor, it runs in my family too. My son took his life, and I can pretty close to it before and especially after that. I get it. Peace.

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