My father, the agnostic

A little over a year ago, Becky and I just closed on a new house, right in time for our baby to arrive. Literally just in time. The movers came, dropped off our stuff, and the next day – nearly a full month early, just the way my twin and I did it – our daughter Virginia Grace decided to make an early appearance.

We’d spent the previous week getting rid of a lot of the horrors the former owners had installed in the perfectly decent mid-century home. The wall-to-wall carpet, which was stained by sunlight and tobacco from a salmon color (pretty bad) to a delightful salmon-with-cancer (almost an upgrade), revealed some gorgeous hardwood beneath; some of the walls, once eggshell-with-tuberculosis, were repainted. When the movers came, it’s not like the house looked the way I’d imagined it (“Bryan,” my dad said, “You probably think this place will be perfect before the baby comes? That image in your brain is 10, 15 years away. Be prepared”). But it was manageable. We still had a month left.

I’m so appreciative that we had movers take care of the worst part of moving, which is of course the moving, but Becky wasn’t available for much of the Thursday afternoon they were hauling our stuff.

Mover: “Where does this go?”
Bryan: “I dunno, man, I mean … my wife calls the shots around here.”
Mover: “Yeah.” (Understanding nod.) “Mine too. I’ll put it here.”

I had just set up my office around noon on Friday, which remains the only room in our house that’s 100 percent fully unpacked, and was just about to sit down at my desk when Becky called me. She was feeling funny the previous night (coded language for “details you don’t get to know”) and figured a visit to the OB wouldn’t hurt. I wasn’t expecting the conversation we were about to have.

Becky: “So … it’s time.”
Bryan: (Pauses to think of the dumbest question he could ask.) “That’s early. Are you sure?”
Becky: “Get the go-bag!”
Bryan: (Pauses to remember the go-bag is split up between eighteen boxes and forty-two rooms, impossibly everywhere.) “Yeah, so I’ll leave in…” (Pregnant pause.) “Five minutes.”

A half an hour later and a half a go-bag packed (seriously, I forgot more stuff than I brought), I was driving at twice the speed of light, Iron Maiden pumping through the speakers, to the hospital. Life hasn’t slowed down since.

About eight months later, I was sitting in a psychiatrist’s office, fidgeting with a pen slipping through my sweaty fingers.

“So this was the first time it happened? Just the once?” he asked.

I nodded. “I mean, I didn’t do anything. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Slam my head into the mirror, jump through the window. I use a double-edged safety razor, so there are always razorblades around.”

“And what was going through your head at the time?”

“I just wanted to hurt myself, I guess? It’s hard to say. It was a bit of an out-of-body experience. I don’t remember what I thought as much as I recall watching myself sitting there on my bed, my daughter in her pack-and-play next to me … my wife was downstairs … I thought, now’s the time to do it. No better time to open a package than the present, right?”

“Dude,” he said, “that must have been really scary.”

It was really scary. After a few months of feeling deeply depressed, I began a new medication regimen that had the opposite effect. It’s not an exact science with these things, and I found myself one evening panicking, scared to death, and ready to severely injure myself. After a series of phone calls and consultations with my physician, his assistant, and my therapist, I found myself in a warm room on the Main Line trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with me.

“So what the hell is wrong with me?”

“No, no. Nothing’s wrong with you.” (Here, a bunch of scientific jargon. Then…) “And so I think what we would classify this as is major depressive disorder, which we already knew, plus bipolar, specifically bipolar two disorder.”

And that’s how my demon got a name.

My last year has been marked by two opposing forces – my still-so-new role as a father, and my newly classified mental health issues. I could say so much about their individual impact, but life isn’t so easily compartmentalized. I deal with, and struggle with, both at the same time and all the time.

The struggles manifest in different ways. For example, I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how good of a job I’m doing as a dad, which takes away from the time I can commit to actually being a good dad, which feeds into the idea that I’m really not a good dad at all. It’s a cycle that ends in frustration at the end of most days as I evaluate, with my wife’s help, what I enjoyed about the day, what I did well, areas where I can improve, including a ton of affirmation on her part.

The enjoyment piece is also a bit of a mountain to climb. One of the lingering effects of my mental health issues is a sense of anhedonia – an inability to enjoy things that I’d ordinarily love. Playtime with Ginny can be a big trigger for me, as anxiety has me considering all the different permutations of things that could go wrong (scrapes, bruises, choking – you name it, I think about it a billion times while I’m putting shapes into the corresponding spot in their multicolored container). The anxiety exhausts me to a point at which I realize that I’m not having a good time the way I feel a proud daddy should with his happy, goofy year-old daughter.

These mental exercises are exhausting, and I’d rather crawl into bed at 8 p.m. after I eat dinner than spend my precious “free time” in the evening doing something productive, worthwhile, or entertaining. Even sitting down to write this took a tremendous amount of effort, and frankly, at this point, I’m wondering whether it’s even worth finishing.

I envy people with Instagram-ready homes, everything in its right place, Magnolia-approved shiplap and warmth. I envy people with Facebook-ready lives, conveying precious quotes and phrases and Bible verses that make it seem like everything’s perfect, or soon going to be. “All things work together for good!” “You have hope and a future!”

Our lives together just are not that tidy. From unpacked boxes and unpainted rooms to art supplies and baby toys scattered across every conceivable surface, nothing about our lives, from the outside in, looks like an episode of a TV show. Look – I’m a clean freak. It’s not ideal. My dad was right: there’s a big gap between what I expected and the way things are.

But there are so many incomparable joys in life that bridge that gap.

My favorite memories of the past year all involve my family. Business trips and vacations with the whole crew. Late-night bottle feedings. Yes, even the play time, anxiety inducing though it is for me, is such an incredible time to watch my little girl learn and grow. And when she does something new and funny – like holding out a puzzle piece and saying “here you go,” or giggling when she falls on her bottom – everything in the world is exactly the way it should be.

I find myself wondering if all parents go through some level of this. I’m not arrogant enough to think that my circumstances make me unique, and I’m sure there’s some universality to my experience. I take great comfort in that, in other parents who are vulnerable enough to tell me their stuff, their concerns, their worries, their particular barriers and hurdles. I have a darn good fraternity of other dads who are able to point me in the right direction (particularly my twin brother, who deals with many of the same mental health issues that I do), as well as a loving and supporting wife who is just a complete superhero and is able to pick up some of the broken pieces of how I see myself and make a sort of kintsugi out of it.

I’m a really, truly blessed guy. I try to remind myself of that every day.

It’s hard to put a neat bow on what feels like a yearlong litany of trials and tribulations, but an image comes to mind: the other day, I was playing on the floor with Ginny, who – as is her wont – was all over the place, crawling, standing, jumping, trying to walk, unable to be still even for a second. I grabbed her and held her in my arms and jokingly said “Ginny, why can’t you just be still with daddy for a second and enjoy his presence?”

And then a cartoon lightbulb appeared over my head.

For as much of a role as faith plays in my life, I’ve been somewhat of a functional agnostic for quite a while. Quite a while. I certainly believe in God, but I don’t put my hopes in God or hang my fears on God. Most of the time, I’m content to go my way and let God do whatever God does without any interference or hassle on my part. I feel like I’m saving God the trouble.

Most of my life, I’ve believed in a pretty harsh God, a righteous God of punishment and justice, the “bad cop” to the “good cop” of Jesus. I’ve been told, and I’ve been trying to believe, that it’s a warped view of a God who loves me desperately and wants what’s best for me and desires to grow me in compassion and goodness. And it’s not easy to undo all of the lies I believe about myself – that I’m worthless, that I have no purpose, that I screw up everything I touch – without undoing what I think about someone who’s often called a father.

But if God is anything like a dad, at least anything like me as a dad, I can’t properly calculate or comprehend the depths to which I’m loved, and the extent to which the lies I believe about myself and my life are deeply embedded within me. I don’t know what the cure is, but this is where it’s started once again, for me, on a brand new journey of faith in this season of my life: a God who kneels down, picks me up, and says “be still with me for a second and enjoy my presence.”

That’s not a God I’ve believed in. But that’s a God I could believe in.

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