“They may have less of me, but they’ve got a fully empowered and alive dad.”
A crushing series of depressions were a direct result of my divorce 12 years ago. There’s no way to beat around that bush. I had been depression free for quite some time, but the fragility was still there beneath the surface. So, even as I counseled my kids, and negotiated with my soon-to-be-ex, I was reeling inside with doubt, sadness, and plain old garden variety depression. As the path spun deeper into divorce talk, my facilities and my hopefulness faltered.
Depression and the Single Dad
I missed my kids every day they were not in my life. And as a dad, that meant about 70% of the time I was alone. The crisis came swiftly as I was asked to leave my house, my neighborhood, and support system, and move into my sister’s spare room. There was not a large amount of money in our accounts, and I’d recently lost a high-paying corporate job. It was a hard time for everyone. My propensity towards hopelessness reestablished residence in my head, and I was set up for a fall unlike any I had experienced before.
In my counseling sessions with both my meds doctor and my talky doctor, we discussed the difference between chemical depression and existential depression. The circumstances of my physical life were depressing = existential depression. AND, in my case, the chemical depression was caused by my brain functioning improperly and giving off distress signals that were causing untold havoc in my body, mind, and attitude.
Through a number of previous “really hard periods” I had learned the pattern of hopelessness. I was prone to giving up when things got too bad. In my youth, this was a result of being kicked out of a top prep school and the death of my father when I was twenty-one. Each of those events affected me profoundly. And part of me decided that the deck was stacked against me in some way, and perhaps [the depressed person incorrectly reasons] I need to give up. I suppose the ultimate giving up would be suicide, but I am too much of a softie for that. Heights and guns terrified me, and pills, well, there were a lot of bad pill stories out there, if you’re researching how to do yourself in. It wasn’t going to be my thing, suicide.
Suicide Is Not An Option As a Parent
Instead, I was going to wallow, fall, cry, complain, sleep, and hope in a magical rescue that would bring me up and out. Praying for a rescue is another one of my common patterns. I make my life look so horrible that maybe someone [in my high school days it was my mom] would see my distress and rescue me. But as an adult, there was no person who could soothe my hopeless soul. There was no one in my life to say, “Everything’s going to be okay.”
That’s really your therapist’s role. My talky doctor and I examined past and present depressions and tried to reason some things out. My meds doctor consoled me with the idea that the meds would eventually have a lifting effect on my mood. But it was more than mood. It was life. Existentially, in divorce, I was in a depressing place. Still, I had to find a way to make a go of it, for my kids, for my family, and ultimately for me. I had to find a way to stand alone, as a single dad, and proclaim that life was good. I was a long way from that a few years ago.
Reassessing My Divorce and Depression Connection
Today, I’d have to say, I’m in a stable relationship, I am done paying child support, and I’m happy with my life. I’m okay with the divorce. My existential life has caught up with my positive attitude. It’s hard to say which came first, the positive attitude or the improving life, but it’s clear that there is a direct connection between the two.
When anyone’s existential life is crushed their mental life will follow. The level of stress I can endure without cratering is substantial, but not unlimited. I had been able to sustain a wobbly marriage for a year or more and get us into couple’s therapy to see if we could save the core of our relationship. I was working and doing my fair share of chores and kid duties. Neither of us was HAPPY but we were working on it.
I was not aware when we entered therapy that she was actually already considering divorce. The catastrophic failure of divorce had not been allowed to enter my consciousness. Divorce was a 100% dead option. Divorce to me WAS suicide. And while I continued week after week to talk her down off the ledge, I was ultimately unable to fix things that I didn’t see as broken. Her crisis was more about her family of origin trauma than about us, but still, I failed.
In failing at marriage, I was certain that I had failed in my life, that I had failed my kids. I was most certain that I failed as a man. The full story is I didn’t fail, I was still giving it 100% when I was told things just weren’t going to work out for the other person. There was nothing I could do.
I fought. I tried to bully her back into the relationship. I pleaded. I reasoned. I failed again and again because she had decided and never wavered from her decision. The rest was my reaction to this failure. My reaction to the loss of the majority of my “dad time.”
There is no way to understand the loss until you are a parent and you learn you will only get 1/3 of the time with your kids. It felt like a violation of my life, my principles, and my religion. But it was just a divorce. And in divorce, the kids get split between houses.
Finding Life Again After Divorce
Would I have gotten depressed if I received 50/50 parenting as we had originally agreed? The loss of my kid-time was a blow I wasn’t prepared for. My stress level, in the “year of negotiations” trying to keep my wife in the marriage, and now the collapse and loss of my kids and house, for any amount of time… I think I would’ve succumbed to the hopelessness I was feeling. The existential depression was inevitable. Could I have started the chemical repair sooner? Sure, but until things broke down I was feeling really strong. Stressed, but strong. Once I was removed from the family home I was no longer certain of my bright future. I was unemployed, living with my sister, and having a hard time getting out of bed each day to feed myself or search for jobs.
Divorce changed everything about my life in a matter of weeks. From the horror of that collapse, I have rebuilt a stronger, faster, smarter me. And in some ways, I think my kids (19 and 21) are also stronger and more resilient as a result of our breakup. When she wasn’t happy, she was showing all of us through actions and words, what unhappiness looks like. If I was stressed I was not able to be my effervescent self and the dad I wanted to be. The split, in the long run, provided me with the energy and hopefulness needed to rebuild everything about myself from the ashes.
I have shown my children how to recover from a loss, and become happier, and more intentional in their lives. As a single dad, I am showing up in ways that wouldn’t have been possible while married to their mom. I have had more attention for my two kids, in the smaller amount of time I was allowed. And while they may have gotten less of me, they’ve got a fully empowered and alive dad. I am still striving to be the best dad I can be, given the circumstances. And I wake up every day, renewed and recommitted to my own health and happiness, and then the health and happiness of those around me.
… I will continue tomorrow…
*written August 2017