Modern Family

Why My Father Made Sure His Invisible Disability Stayed Invisible

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

As we grow up, parents, whether intentionally or not, reveal to us a side of theirs that we’ve never seen before. But a large part of growing up comes with the understanding that they do so for our benefit.

A s a member of the world’s much-criticized Gen-Z, I can attest to the fact that we are the most “exposed generation” mankind has yet seen. Surfing the tidal wave the internet has become and serving our young-adult days amidst a pandemic and possible nuclear warfare – we call that Tuesday. Under the age-old influence of associating numbers with maturity levels, many are too quick to dismiss us as “oversmart”, “inexperienced” and even “arrogant”.

While a few of these judgements hold true, what a lot of people fail to notice is that the ‘growing up’ we went through was on double-time. We saw too much too quickly; constant political instability, bubbling religious tensions and a microscopic being that almost wiped out humanity showed us that not all things neatly fit into definitions that promised us security. For me, that truth came home when my dad took the brave step of rewriting the conventional parent-child role by asking me to be the shoulder he could rely on, emotionally.

We were given that gift – the freedom to feel sad and to express that sadness out loud when we saw how difficult the world could be.

My childhood lasted longer than most because I was privileged enough to have parents who made sure it wasn’t compromised by premature responsibilities. My mother and father would return from work, putting aside the day’s exhaustion, to listen to the uninhibited ramblings of their boisterous children. We were raised to be wild in a civilized world that polished vulnerability off the shell of the “perfect” human being. We were given that gift – the freedom to feel sad and to express that sadness out loud when we saw how difficult the world could be. “That’s just the way it is” was an answer we refused to accept when we cried about how mean and competitive the world was. Our parents found a way to soothe the sadness that many would deem irrational. But it was only later that I realized how much my father had silenced his own sadness so that ours could speak.

It wasn’t too late into my teenage years that I was told my father suffers from depression. He came back home from work one evening looking as gloomy as dusk. Seeing that he was quieter than usual, I prodded my mom for answers. All I was told was that something at his office triggered a slumbering sadness that he carried, called Depression. Acknowledging mental health and its importance was not new to our household. Mentions of distant relatives with depression and anxiety had made brief visits, but this revelation still caught me off guard.

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For years, my dad had kept his depression a secret from my sister and me. He held it in not because of embarrassment, but because of the simple fear that it would hold us back from living a life filled with love, joy and wonder – things that were quite unfamiliar to his own childhood. He had forced himself to swallow a deep darkness so that he could sing John Lennon’s Beautiful Boy while putting me to sleep, hoping that the lyrics “the monster’s gone/he’s on the run/and your daddy’s here” would rest in my mind without the slightest of doubt.

Years of repression came out in a surge of explosive expression.

As the years went by, my sister and I stumbled into adulthood while my parents settled into retirement. With one of his children married and the other cruising through life without getting into trouble, he realized that it was time to let out a long sigh that was long overdue. Something that in hindsight, he deserved.

Years of repression came out in a surge of explosive expression. He decided that it was finally time to free himself from the responsibility of being the perfect father, husband and son that he was expected to be. He decided to speak what he felt was true rather than spew what he was taught as ‘truth’, revealing to us what seemed to be a whole new side of him – a side that was sometimes exciting and sometimes upsetting.

There were moments when a piece of Dairy Milk Silk made him close his eyes and claim that he had reached nirvana. But there were other times when he’d misinterpret a blue tick to his WhatsApp forward as a sign of abandonment and neglect. As amusing as this may sound, the emotions that drove them were genuine.

I’ve battled bouts of frustration in my many attempts to calm him down, only to at times grow resentful at his inability to see beyond his despair and anger. It felt like he’d forgotten how we found joy in little things, like when we used to go for walks together to collect interesting-looking leaves. Now, it was as if we switched roles from a couple of years ago when I was caught in the turbulence of adolescence and he was the secure seatbelt holding me in place to remind me that everything was alright.

Every human being deserves an environment where they’re comforted enough to let themselves be imperfect.

Every human being deserves an environment where they’re comforted enough to let themselves be imperfect. It was only when he knew that we could handle it, that he finally let himself be. My father was putting into practice the vulnerability he taught me to embrace. And while his newfound behavior did hurt people from time to time, it was only right that the anger and pain be released.

He sat us down one day and told us that his personality change was a necessity for his well-being. His eyes seemed to complete his sentences though, because it carried a yearning to release an inner turmoil. We realized that if not for the outbursts and the venting sessions that seemed to never end, what awaited him was the exhaustion of having to fight his own thoughts, leaving him silent and sleepy.

The phenomenon of witnessing a never-before-seen side of a parent wasn’t perfect. But then again, maybe that’s the point. If you’ve put aside your deepest insecurities to be the window to your child’s world, then it’s only natural that you return to your full self once that window is closed. It’s a liberation that comes from the confidence that the people around you will love you regardless of what they see. My dad made his invisible disability stay invisible until we were old enough to understand it and not be influenced by it. He always regrets having passed on his hyper-sensitivity to his children. But what his guilt makes him forget is that he made sure it didn’t come in the way of showing us the beauty of the world – a reality he struggles to notice every day, but one that we live thanks to him.