I’ll start my story at the beginning, but really it’s the end. It’s the end of one life and the beginning of another. When I went home for winter break during my freshman year, I read a piece of paper—white blotched with blank ink. I held that paper in the back seat of my Dad’s car. My sister was sitting next to me and my Dad and step-mom were in the front. We were driving along the highway as I read the words over and over again, “12-18 months to live”. The words ran through my head as I realized that my father could die soon. I committed the next nine months of my life to making sure he didn’t die. Spoiler alert: he did, on September 11th, 2014.
The next nine months were filled with insane attempts to avoid the inevitable death of my father. I interviewed speakers who came to campus about their experiences with cancer. I looked at new diets, new therapies, new anything to save my Dad. When I finished up my spring semester, I had a new perspective and plans to complete an EMT class. I was in class for two weeks until I heard that my father’s cancer spread to his brain. It had started out in his kidneys, through his lymph nodes, to his lungs and finally to his noggin.
That day was crushing to me. No one really knows what to say in that moment, support was hard to come by. I was numb. And I can remember breaking down in the middle of it all. I had no idea what to do. But even in that moment, I believed I could help my father through his cancer. I had won at everything else in my life, why couldn’t I beat cancer too?
The only thing I knew to keep doing was to fight. A few weeks later, I quit the EMT class I was in, and ran my father’s artificial turf company. After we had made enough money, I flew to the Bahamas with my Dad, who had a dropped foot at the time. We were pursuing alternative treatment we had found on the Internet. All the medical journals discredited it but there were those enticing success stories that lured us down there.
For two weeks, I cooked for my Dad, which mainly consisted of peanut butter and jelly’s, swam in the ocean, and ran on the beach. One day my Dad and I were sitting in the sand, and he decided to tell me about his marriage with my Mom and all the fucked up things he saw when he was still up and living. It was a really disturbing experience, but I learned so much about his view on life. He was dealt a bad card, getting terminal cancer at 57, and it showed.
To complete the treatment, my father had to inject himself with needles to “supplement his immune system”. What I learned later is that a stage four brain tumor can’t be saved by an immune system boost.
At the end of my two weeks there, I flew back to the states. I was leading for an outdoor orientation program that started in a week. I was in rough shape. I started to receive calls and texts from my Dad saying that his arm was tingling. What we thought was a physical issue turned into full-blown seizures. The brain tumor was growing.
I went off to my orientation program and attended training for a few days. I met my co leader and planned my trip. I was constantly checking my phone for news on my Dad and never felt completely immersed. People kept asking me if I was okay, and I had no answer. Of course I wasn’t okay. I gritted it out there until I got the call from my Dad that he was flying himself back to the states. None of his family members would help him back. A man with a dropped foot and a seizing left arm, heaved himself on a plane and hobbled back to the states. Once back, he was transported to a hospital.
I told my boss and my co leader I had to leave. Against my family’s protests, I jumped on a train and drove to the hospital. There was my Dad again. Bald as an eagle, sitting propped up in a hospital bed. I was totally lost, and all I wanted to do was be by his side. Everyone thought I was insane, but that is the only thing I knew how to do.
I needed to help my Dad fight this. There was no choice in my mind. My step-mom couldn’t drive because she didn’t have a license, so I drove my Dad around the next week or so. No one would admit what the clear outcome was. My Dad was going to die, and it was going to happen soon.
I wanted to know when. I wanted the pain to be over and to know that he was dead. The man that I was taking care of was not my father. He was some ghost of a man I once knew who loved to fish, watch movies and love his family. I sat by his bedside as he asked for cookies. I drove him to close out his bank accounts one last time. By that time, I was a cosigner on most of his accounts so it was fairly easy. I paid his bills, helped him pee and organized the guests who came to visit him. Some people who came just wanted to sit and talk, some gave advice, and some people were just plain unhealthy for the situation. Support comes in a lot of different ways.
I was in a battle with my family, friends and my own self to figure out if I was going back to school that semester. I decided to go for a couple days, but the day before my first class I went back home. At that point, my aunt and uncle from Wales flew across the pond to help with my father. He was dying, and much of the brunt of the work fell on my step-mom and I. We needed reinforcements. My aunt and uncle came and gave new life to the house. A few days later I spoke up and told everyone my Dad needed to go into hospice care. There was one time my sister and I were away from his bed and he had a seizure. We didn’t hear him. He was alone in that moment, screaming out for help. Although no one is sure how delusional he was at that point.
I can remember the day when the ambulance came to take him to the hospice center. The EMTs came and helped him into the stretcher. They got him down the many stairs and in the back of the ambulance. My step-mom rode with him. I took my sister to the hospital in my Dad’s blue Mercedes. It was a truly beautiful used car. It was kind of purply-blue and we cruised behind the ambulance the whole way there. My aunt and two uncles came in separate cars. The hospice staff set him up in his room and we took turns sitting by his side.
I left for school on a Sunday afternoon. The 49ers were on, our favorite team, and they were winning. When people die, the last sense to go their hearing. So even though my Dad was unconscious I leaned down next to his ear and said, “I love you Dad, and hey, the 49ers are winning”. I gave him the best hug I could, given his lopsided body position, and walked out of the room. That was the last time I saw my Dad.
After talking to the hospice nurses, the plan going forward was for me to go to school and then rush back once they heard signs of death. They told me that if his breathing altered or got a little hoarse, I would have about four hours until he died. I wanted to be there when he died. But I wasn’t.
Back at school, I tried out Ultimate Frisbee and it wasn’t going so well. But I got out of practice on Thursday, September 11th, 2014, and got a call from my mom. I was walking behind a group of guys and I heard the news. It felt like my life ended at that moment. My father had died.
All I could feel was pain. I now know it as pain or suffering, but it came out as a strong urge to kill myself. That was the only pulsing thought in my head. I wanted to be nowhere. I wanted to be dead and asleep and not breathing, because that pain was too much. It took my over a year to discover why I wanted to kill myself but now I understand.
Two months before my Dad died, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (II). The previous semester I had acted very out of character. I was extremely high energy and manic. But once I got home for the summer, it was like a switch turned off in my head. I became slower. I became angrier. And I think my first suicidal thought popped up in late July or early Augsust of 2014. Once my father died, those thoughts came racing in. My Dad’s life ended and I wanted to end my own. Right before I came back to school the last time I can remember telling my Mom about these thoughts. She was horrified.
I can remember lying in my bed with her. Her touch was the only thing making me feel better. So we sat on the couch and watched movies until I fell asleep. The plan that was coursing through my head was to go to the garage, turn on the car, and never wake up. Except I did my research. The cars we had were new, and because of filters they didn’t spew out enough carbon monoxide to kill me. My other plan was to stab a knife into my thigh and hope I would bleed out. I didn’t kill myself that night, but was close.
To go back to school, my mom drove me to the train. My only thought was that as the train was coming in I was going to jump in front of it. What I realized is that I had no desire to do any of these things, I just thought about them a lot. My mom came to the track and told me she loved me and I got on the train like a normal person, no blood and screeching rails.
School was rough. I drank a lot. It wasn’t fun drinking, it was drinking to black out. Bottles of Svedka mixed with cheap box wine was the name of the game. I blacked out all the time. In the words of social psychologist Breneé Brown, alcohol “numbs the dark, but also numbs the light”. There was very little light in my life so it felt good to drink.
I only took three classes but I was struggling in almost every one. Somehow I finished the semester with a B average, but even that was extremely painful and impossible without the supportive professors I had.
I can remember getting out of stressful Chemistry labs and wanting to go find a garage to kill myself in. There is also a cliff near by which I thought I would throw my self off of. After some serious medication six weeks into the semester, those thoughts stopped, but my life was not totally looking up. I drank and smoked too much and I was still depressed, just not suicidal.
Winter break finally came and I got some time away from everything. That whole month I did not want to do anything. I was still in a daze from everything that had happened to me.
I went back to school in the spring of 2015 and vowed to make a better life for myself. That vow was only met with an alcohol and weed addiction. I maintained a B plus average. I never talked about my problems, but smoke and drank them away like a tragic champion.
I always talk about dark and light and so does the Resilience Project. That was a dark period. I thought I was fine and did nothing to change my behavior. That had drastic consequences. Late in the spring semester, I went to a party hosted by a society I am in. We were bringing in new members and we threw a party for them. I drank myself to oblivion. There was free access to beer and I blacked out like I’ve never done before. I stopped drinking for a few weeks and then went to training for the orientation program.
I loved every minute of that experience. It was like I found new light on a campus I felt was dead. I, then, went home for the summer, got an amazing job working with kids and reconnected with some boss high school friends.
My friends and I reflected light. We went to concerts, played paddle, went tubing and lived every moment of that summer as if was our last. We culminated our summer with a trip up Mt. Washington. My two best friends really struggled and one got injured, but we did it.
The next day I left for school, to start what would be one of the most amazing adventures of my life. I am currently living that adventure. It’s full of rock climbing, writing and dancing. It all started when I met my co leader and a few other amazing people during the outdoor orientation program I lead for. They restored my love for myself and the world around me. I still keep in touch with those amazing people. My co is currently out in Colorado living her dreams as a barista and I couldn’t be happier for her. I have a completely new group of friends and I love them dearly. I love my life and am currently planning my new adventure, the Pacific Crest Trail. I am taking next semester off to hike from Mexico to Canada.
Today, I also decided to apply to run in the Boston Marathon in my father’s name for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. He was first treated there, and I can remember seeing their radiation treatment and going on a walk with my Dad after. It’ll be a great way to get in shape for the PCT and a way to celebrate my Dad’s beautiful life. My Dad had faults, but his capacity to love is unmatched by anyone I’ve encountered.
I now see my father everyday. I look at the sun, feel its warmth, and think of him. To the people who have a hard time believing in the supernatural, I have this to say to you, it’s there. There is so much dark in this world, but I will spend mine shining light in dark places.
After reading this, I encourage you to find light in your own life and really appreciate it. What makes you get up in the morning? What makes you feel absolutely, unmistakably alive? And once you think you have found that, chase it. Chase it like you’ve never done before. Because for me, that is what brings me life. I chase my dreams everyday and I hope you do the same. As cliché as it sounds, dreams come true, you just have to make them come to life.
And for those people who are struggling with mental illness, tell your story. Your friends want to hear it because if there’s one thing I’ve learned through all this it’s that: You matter and you are not alone. No one can tell you differently. Nothing can stop you, because your life matters. Always.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you find the light in your life.
– just a human