When Alexandra was 18 years old and in her last year of high school, she found out that her mom had ovarian cancer. Her younger sister was just 12. Cancer advanced quickly, and she passed away in December of 2007, just 8 months after the diagnosis.
Earlier that year, her mom and her dad had just separated. He had a life-long struggle with mental health issues (namely clinical depression). She didn’t know what it meant at the time.
Three weeks after her mom died, her dad took his life. In hindsight, she saw some red flags, like an emphasized constant daze and distant disposition. But at the time, it was a staggering shock. They already had a strained relationship and he wasn’t present mentally or emotionally for Alexandra, as a father. Since she couldn’t understand his depression as an 18-year-old, she felt a frustration.
‘I didn’t understand what was going on with him, mentally, so I was really angry and resentful when he died. When my mom died, it was out of her control. But I felt that he was in control – he had his physical health, and the choice to live. 10 years later, understanding his depression, I have a much better grasp on the situation.”
Her dad never sought out help or therapy, but instead focused on a less effective course of treatment.
“My dad never went to therapy, but he was prescribed an anti-depressant by a family doctor. He never spoke to anyone, but kept getting refills.”The line between self-medicating and being prescribed medication by a doctor is a blurry and subjective line. But Alexandra agrees that her dad was numbing his pain and condition further through medication rather than confronting his issues head-on – a sobering experience that involves a lot of courage.
Alexandra’s dad had a hard time keeping a job, which also exacerbated his depression.
The last time she could remember him having a stable job was when she was just a toddler. He was 61 when he passed away, therefore part of the generation that defined value through work and saw masculinity in a traditionally toxic way that prevents them from reaching out for help. To add to the job instability, Alexandra’s mom was the main breadwinner for much of her life, paying the bills and keeping the family afloat.
“He was very isolated because he wasn’t working. He worked for a big company when I was super young, and they ended up going bankrupt, so he lost his job. From then on, he could never find something stable.”
This must have been an intense blow to a man from the baby boomer generation, who prided themselves and saw their value based on being providers for their family, and bearing the weight of the family’s burden since he was “the head”. Having your wife support you through that instability should make a bond stronger, but men have been raised to see themselves as the supporters with horse-blinders, rather than a sense of teamwork, as it should be. These are the things which should encourage someone, but just makes themselves feel worthless, due to the negative narratives that society has constructed for men in terms of their role in the family.
To make communication even tougher, Alexandra came from a very traditional family who believed in keeping their personal matters personal, and not talking about them outside of the home. “We just dealt with it as a family rather than seeking out help. And to make the situation worse, no one was talking.”
In her grieving process, Alexandra reveals that she went to therapy herself, to understand her emotions better. “My brother suggested I go see a therapist. He had someone in mind, who he had actually seen as well.”
Alexandra actually has two brothers, both from her dad’s first marriage. Now, we all talk a lot more about what happened and are open about it. “The outcome of what happened with our dad made us all closer and turned us into a more communicative family. They’re older than I am, so we didn’t grow up in the same house, but that didn’t stop us from becoming closer since this all happened. It made us realize that talking isn’t a bad thing.”
The silver lining of the tragedy is that Alexandra’s male siblings are more open to seeking outside help, along with openly discussing their emotions within the family. Hopefully, this openness will only become easier with future generations.
Today, she’s proud to be a mother to a little boy named Dominic. “He inspires me to talk to the men in my life and check up on them, make sure they’re ok. I feel even more passionate about men’s mental health issues now, and the way we socialize young boys and men. They’re socialized differently from girls, and part of what we’re doing with Movemeber is trying to tackle gender roles and reverse the way we talk about masculinity in society. It really hinders boys and men since they’re not encouraged to talk about their feelings.”
Alexandra and her dad never talked about feelings. And in the spareness of his working life, he didn’t have any hobbies, and his friendships dwindled. “I remember one of his best friends when I was a kid. They had worked together at the company that went bankrupt, but he ended up finding another opportunity. He took his life as well. I don’t think my dad had any idea his friend was also struggling.”
Both of them were in an isolated bubbles when they could have been sharing and bonding over their experiences, instead of sending themselves into a black hole of despair and silence. Alexandra helped gain some closure in terms of her own grief through not just therapy, but a grief support group.
“Going to a grief group really helped me deal with a loved one suicides. An amazing resource here is the Bereaved Families of Ontario. Having a group of people my age to relate to really helped. We were in the same group for 8 weeks and met once a week, so that regularity was really supportive. And it’s a free service!”
Alexandra thinks that one of the key aspects to making men feel more understood and less ashamed is the people and environments around them. “I can already see it with my son, the way certain teachers talk to him. When he was a toddler, he was really active and curious. Never the type to get on the carpet and calmly listen to a story. The teacher told me to be careful because he was going to be a troublemaker in school. They were already labeling him at age 2. This year, he just started junior kindergarten. He had to switch schools and was understandably upset, but a teacher asked me to find a way to make him less upset in the morning because other kids get upset when they see him crying. The shaming and being held accountable for your feelings starts young, and it’s scary.”
She also encourages people to be more aware of their language. “Don’t ask if they’re ok unless you’re prepared for an answer. Be prepared for the conversation to turn a bit serious. I always make sure to ask men basic questions and just describe their experiences – sometimes that’s the best way to understand a situation, rather than forcing them to talk about feelings. Through Movember, I have tools and resources to better learn how men talk, and how they feel comfortable talking. I hope that people start to be more aware of those resources as well. If you have questions about it, ask! We have to start making an effort.”
Part 3 of a 5 part series. Click here to learn more about the Movember foundation.