Sometimes I dream that I’m watching a girl drown. The water is deep and dark, the current is strong yet gentle, almost caressing her. It seems to be a slow-motion drowning, lacking in drama and velocity. And I’m standing right there on the shore, waving my arms ineffectually as I look on in despair. I am useless. Sometimes it seems that she isn’t even trying to swim, and I become frustrated as she stops stroking and kicking, apparently consigned to letting the waves calmly wash over her and carry her out to sea.
My daughter suffers from depression. Her first major episode, at least as far as I could perceive, began in middle school when her mom and I were divorced. Since then she has had significant ups, and many good times and good friends, but the dark cloud that is the absence of purpose and meaning, hopes and dreams, seems to follow her like an unruly, unwelcome companion. Meds have helped, therapy has brought some relief, but deep down, the terrifying emptiness that I imagine never seems to leave her alone.
I do not understand it. I seek for empathy but I’m sure that I just don’t comprehend what she experiences. Even as I tell this story I know that I’m getting it wrong. As much as I don’t want to experience depression myself, I truly wish I had empathy. I wish I could say to her that I understand what she is feeling. I wish I could provide her that shelter and support.
At other times I wish that I could take her suffering away and suffer in her place. But the cruel reality is that that is not an option. This little girl, who I blessed as a baby to be a happy child, who sang and scrubbed the floor in imitation of Cinderella as a 2-year old, who always, always laughed at my jokes (the true sign of a blessed spirit), has a disease that neither I nor the doctors can take away. She now enters adulthood and I wave my arms ineffectually and look on in despair. I have an inkling of what David must have felt when he cried, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
And I rage, rage against the cruelty of fate and the human condition that causes her to suffer so (I don’t believe God has anything to do with it). I hate mental illness. I just hate it. Perhaps I don’t have the standing to feel so violently about mental illness since I have not experienced it first hand, but I loath it.
To my further dismay, my daughter’s suffering has shone a harsh light on my deepest flaws. Because sometimes while she is suffering I feel not empathy, but frustration and annoyance. Why can’t she do more? Why won’t she do more? She is so sweet, intelligent, and fun, but as I fret about her lost potential, I sometimes allow my delight in her personality, her being, to be forgotten. I have hope that she will be able to function throughout her life, that she will find joy in learning, work, family, and faith, but I let that hope eat away at my compassion. Under the guise of worrying about her future success, I lack patience for her current difficulty.
I wish I had answers, both for her suffering and for my dysfunctional way of coping. I truly believe that she will learn to manage, that it will get better, that she will grow strong as she faces this adversity. But as a father I sometimes let my fears engulf me. At these times, however, what often brings me solace is the Atonement; I feel that the Atonement has something to say to me. And yet I don’t quite know what it is. I don’t understand the Atonement, its theories all seem inadequate, but the story of a parent afflicted by the suffering of a child speaks to me, and somehow I am comforted. The sky brightens, the sun comes up, and I dream that my daughter is standing on the beach, waving at me through the mist. And she is smiling.