Jason Davis: I learned from Dad, depression is real

Aug. 16, 2014 @ 10:35 PM

Robin Williams’ death last week has been talked about ad nauseum, nearly every publication, including ours, has had stories about his life, his death and the illnesses that likely led to his suicide.

While I won’t claim he was among my favorite actors, like most people I enjoyed some of Williams’ work.

I remember watching Mrs. Doubtfire in the theater when I was 15. While most of my friends enjoyed the humor in Williams’ cross-dressing role, I was much more struck by his dramatic prowess in the movie — his portrayal of a father, losing connection with his wife and children through divorce, and the anxiety and depression that coupled with that loss.

Williams, in that role and others, had a way of displaying the pain of life in a way that can only be expressed by someone who’s been through the anguish of depression themselves. The boneheads that say the illness’s victims should suck it up or simply get over it have no idea. 

It’s something I have witnessed firsthand.

My father, who died in the summer of 2009, was chronically depressed.

First clinically diagnosed during my middle school years, there were problems dating back even further.

Dad was a great athlete in high school. He started on his high school football team, playing running back and punting, once setting a school record with a 72-yard punt (he’d gotten a very favorable roll, he liked to joke). He also starred on a men’s league baseball team as a teenager. In those days many rural high schools did not field baseball teams, but their towns often did — especially in Appalachian coal-mining areas. It was during one of those games that Dad was discovered by then-Cincinnati Reds baseball scout Paul Campbell in 1960.

Campbell and the Reds offered a contract shortly after he’d graduated from high school — $300 a month, plus a $1,000 signing bonus.

Dad was thrilled. A small-town boy from a community so small you’d miss it if you blinked, he’d listened for years to his favorite players on AM radio — Waite Hoyt and Jack Moran calling Reds’ games at the Polo Grounds on WKRC.

And now, he thought, he was headed to the Big Leagues.

Bypassing some college offers, he signed on the dotted line, certain he was making the right decision.

His community and family proud of his accomplishment, Dad set off for minor league spring training in Florida. Playing in Reds’ camp with future stars like Tony Perez and Pete Rose, he felt like he belonged.

Management didn’t see it that way.

After spring training, Dad was cut. He caught on for a brief stint with the Washington Senators’ Appalachian League affiliate in Middlesboro, Ky., but struggled.

In his mind, those years of hitting pebbles with broomsticks in the front yard of the his folks’ coal company-owned rental home had been for nothing. All those sweet memories of game-winning home runs turned sour. His college eligibility wasted over a poor decision and the promise of some quick cash, and the dream was over. He was just 19.

Months later he found himself 250 miles from home, working in factory in Dayton, Ohio, far from everyone he loved, just trying to get by.

That’s when the depression may have started for Dad, he confided in me once, over 40 years later.

But it’s nowhere near the peak.

That came during the 1980s, after my mother died following a long, bitter battle with breast cancer.

Having always craved a second child, my parents were both elated when Mom found out she was pregnant with yours truly.

Unfortunately, a doctor mistakenly diagnosed a lump on her breast early in the pregnancy as being related to hormonal changes. Three years later, Dad was a widower with a 15-year-old daughter and a not-quite 3-year-old son.

Very shortly thereafter the health problems began with his own parents. Heart attacks and strokes left them debilitated, and Dad was the only sibling left living near them. The burden of their care largely fell on him.

During these years my dad had built a wonderful facade between him and those he came into contact with on a daily basis. He had a legendary smile and incredibly out-going personality. Those who didn’t live with him likely thought he was among the happiest people in the world. He wasn’t.

In fact, my Dad — whom I loved with all of my heart — was quite possibly the saddest person I’ve ever known.

Medicine helped. 

Once he was finally diagnosed with clinical depression and began seeing a doctor regularly in the 1990s, things improved ... until he reached his 60s.

Whether it was his own failing health and the glimpses of his own mortality, or the empty-nest created when I — his only son and best friend — left home for good, Dad truly suffered in his final years. It’s those night-time calls I received from him, frantic with impending doom, that let me know, unequivocally, that depression — like that that Robin Williams suffered from — is real.

Dad died in 2009 after a short fight with a rare disease, Goodpasture syndrome.

Fortunately, he was happy in the last week of his life. After months of hospitals, rehab and dialysis, he’d finally regained his ability to walk and returned, alone, to his home.

The day before he was found dead in his bed — the same bed he’d slept in for 40 years — he’d been out enjoying his rediscovered independence. He’d driven to visit some family members he hadn’t seen in months. He’d enjoyed the countryside in the new car he’d not driven in nearly six months. And he’d also eaten some fast food — something doctors strictly prohibited for dialysis patients. It’s something I think likely had a part in his death. But at least he died following a good day.

The last time we’d talked, the night before he was found, our conversation had been about the Vols’ basketball prospects and his newborn grandson. There was not a trace of the depression that’d haunted him for years.

Still, Dad’s battle with the depression had a profound affect on my life.

I’ve seen firsthand the crippling effects it can have on a loved one. It’s a profound illness that should never be taken lightly.

If it affects you, or a loved one, seek assistance. Waiting doesn’t make it go away. Seeing a doctor can help.