I was living with chronic anxiety and depression before my father died. But the kind of anxiety I felt in the months after his death — and still feel occasionally — was otherworldly.

Major life events happen to people living with chronic mental health issues, just like they happen to everyone else. Because we’re all — at the root of it — just people living our lives and finding our way, despite our personal challenges.

It’s just that major events can have particularly acute effects on people already burdened by a mind that seems to be working against them, rather than with them.

The death of a parent could cause anyone’s mind to fall off the tracks. For many people, at least when they’re ready to put their mind right, they know the tracks are straight. But for people living with chronic anxiety and depression, the tracks are often crooked.

For someone so overflowing with life, my dad’s death was shockingly sudden and uneventful.

I always imagined slowly watching his mind slip into Alzheimer’s as his body deteriorated, until he couldn’t make it out to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for the winter ski trip: his favorite event of the year. He’d be sad he couldn’t ski, but he’d live well into his 90s just like his mom, I told myself as he got older.

Instead, he suffered a heart attack in the middle of the night. And then he was gone.

I never got to say goodbye. I never got to see his body again. Only his cremated remains, a soft gray dust piled into a hollow wooden cylinder.

You have to understand this was someone who was the life of every party, an epic character known as much for his boisterous personality and wildly animated storytelling, as for his quiet, Zen-like musings as the sun set over the rolling desert hills visible from his backyard.

This was someone who was obsessed with leading an active lifestyle, eating a healthy diet, and staying ahead of potential health problems in old age. Like cancer, for which he received multiple preventive skin treatments, some leaving his face full of ruby patches for weeks, leaving us baffled by his determination to live long and well.

He was also the most loving father and mentor and sage a
son could hope for. So the gap he left, in the blur of a moment in the middle
of the night, was unimaginable in scale. Like a crater on the moon. There’s
just not enough context in your life experience to comprehend its scale.

I was living with chronic anxiety and depression before my father died. But the kind of anxiety I felt in the months after his death — and still feel occasionally — was otherworldly.

I’d never been so gripped with anxiety that I couldn’t focus on the simplest task at work. I’d never had half a beer feel like I’d swallowed a bucket of lightning bolts. I’d never felt my anxiety and depression so in sync with each other that I was completely frozen for months, barely able to eat or sleep.

It turns out this was only the beginning.

My attitude at first was denial. Tough it out, like the old man would. Escape the pain by putting all your energy into work. Ignore those anxiety pangs that seem to be getting stronger every day. Those are just signs of weakness. Power through it and you’ll be fine.

Of course this only made things worse.

My anxiety bubbled up to the surface more and more frequently, and became harder and harder to tiptoe around or shove aside. My mind and body were trying to tell me something, but I was running away from it — anywhere I could imagine.

Before my dad died, I had a growing sense that I should
finally start doing something about these mental health issues. They were
clearly beyond mere worries or a stretch of bad days. It took his death for me
to really look inward and begin a long, slow journey toward healing. A journey
I’m still on.

But before I started to seek healing, before I found the motivation to really take action, my anxiety culminated in a panic attack.

To be honest, my dad’s death wasn’t the only factor. My anxiety — suppressed and neglected for months — had been steadily ratcheting up. And then a long weekend of overindulgence set the stage. This was all part of my denial at the time.

It started with my heartbeat speeding up, thumping in my chest. Sweaty palms came next, then chest pain and tightness, followed by a growing sense of dread that the lid was about to blow off — that my denial and escape from my emotions were going to cause the very thing that set off my anxiety in the first place: a heart attack.

It sounds exaggerated, I know. But I’m aware of the symptoms of a heart attack, because my father died of one, and because I read health articles all day long for my day job — some of them about the warning signs of a heart attack.

So in my frantic state of mind, I made a quick calculation: rapid heartbeat plus sweaty palms plus chest pain equals heart attack.

Six hours later — after the firemen hooked up my chest to a cardiac monitor and stared wide-eyed at the machine for a moment, after the paramedic in the ambulance tried to calm me down by assuring me “there was only a small chance this was a heart attack,” after the nurse at the ER told me to alternate between squeezing my fists and releasing them to find relief from the pins and needles in my forearms — I had a moment to reflect on how unhealthy it had been to neglect my anxiety and depression and emotions about my father’s death.

It was time to take action. It was time to acknowledge
my mistakes. It was time to heal.

I have a vivid memory of my father delivering a eulogy for his mother at her funeral. He stood in front of a church filled with people who loved her and spoke only a few opening words before bursting into tears.

Eventually he gathered himself and gave such a passionate, thoughtful reflection on her life that I don’t remember seeing a dry eye in sight when he finished.

We held not one, not two, but three different funeral services for my father. There were too many people who cared about him spread across too many locations that one or two simply wasn’t enough.

At each one of those funerals, I thought of the eulogy he gave his mother, and searched for the strength to do the same for him — to honor his life with an eloquent summary of all that he meant to the many people who loved him.

But every time I stood in silence, frozen, afraid of the tears that would burst from my eyes if I started speaking the first few words.

The words have come a little late, but at least they’ve come.

I miss my father deeply. I miss him every day.

I’m still trying to understand his absence and how to grieve. But I’m grateful his death has forced me to look inward, to take steps to heal my anxiety and depression, and to use my words to help others begin to face their own fears.

His death sent my anxiety to the moon. But it’s falling, slowly, in its own way, on its own path, with each small step toward healing, back into orbit.

Steve Barry is a writer, editor, and musician based in Portland, Oregon. He’s passionate about destigmatizing mental health and educating others about the realities of living with chronic anxiety and depression. In his spare time, he’s an aspiring songwriter and producer. He currently works as a senior copy editor at Healthline. Follow him on Instagram.