Today marks one year since my father, Hank Allison died. I got a call that morning one year ago – I think it was around 9 am – telling me he had collapsed at his home in Nashville. Less than 20 minutes later, I got a second call, saying he was dead. It was just that fast. He was only 64 years old.
My father was very sick with serious mental illness for the last three or four years of his life. He was just as sick as the guys you see standing around outside the homeless shelters, yelling about the apocalypse. But because he had a support system of family members, he did not end up on the streets. But in the final years of his life, his mental illness was every bit as debilitating, overwhelming, painful, and mysterious as the mental illness suffered by the men you see down on Skid Row. His illness caused his behavior toward others, particularly his three adult children, to be very difficult to deal with. In his final years, he was in so much pain that he was self-medicating to a degree that likely would have eventually killed him if the sudden pulmonary embolism had not.
The entire situation was very, very bad, and as a result, I had not spoken to him in exactly one year when he died. This estrangement was extremely painful for me, and I know it was for him, too. But I simply didn’t know how to deal with this crazy person who used to be my beloved, wise, sweet, clever, talented and sensible father. I also thought, more than a little naively, that a dose of tough love in the form of my loving disengagement might “bring him to his senses.” This was, of course, ridiculous of me to believe. Mental illness is not a behavior problem that anyone else’s behavior (mine) can cure.
For an equal number of several years before he went completely off the deep end, my father was just increasingly…..bizarre. Just shy of ten years before the day he he dropped dead, he suddenly and without warning up and left my mother after 30-plus years of marriage, the watershed moment in what my siblings and I eventually came to think of as “The Great Change.” His behavior got more and more disturbed as years went on, and it was finally diagnosed about a month before he died – during an involuntary hospitalization in a psychiatric facility – as a very severe, atypical manic depressive disorder.
So basically, for the last ten years of his life, my father was on an accelerating journey toward crazytown. Despite the fact that he had always struggled quietly, and extremely valiantly with depression and anxiety – sometimes very serious bouts of depression and anxiety – he was never completely unhinged like he suddenly became starting when I was about 30 years old, and he was about 54. I happen to believe that for him, The Great Change was due in greatest part to his doctor’s decision to switch him from the old school, tricyclic antidepressants that he had taken for more than a decade to the then-revolutionary Prozac, an SSRI. The cruel irony for my father was that while the older class of antidepressants – even combined with various anti-anxiety meds – never gave him significant relief from his existential pain, he was still able to function and succeed at the things that mattered most to him: being a good father, husband, journalist and attorney. However, after he was switched to the miracle SSRI meds, his depression and anxiety were, especially early on, lifted to a degree he had never before imagined possible. But there were consequences; everything comes with a cost.
My father was initially euphoric after starting the Prozac. It was, as he described it to me much later, like a spiritual awakening. He had no idea that the world could be so ….painless. But the euphoria morphed into mania, a symptom he had never evidenced before. And the mania caused him to make hugely rash decisions, and then blame others. Over time, the mania morphed into delusional lashing out, paranoia, and finally, actual psychotic episodes. As his mental health went to hell in a handbasket, so did his physical health. He began falling in the shower, and while out for walks, hitting his head and causing further neurological problems. At one point about three years before he died, he overdosed at home, and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Once he woke up, he swore he didn’t intend to kill himself, but I know very well that he did. His pain was too great.
My father was very blessed to eventually, in the last few years of his life, end up with a really kind and accomplished and lovely woman who had absolutely nothing to do with his marriage to my mother ending. She was with him the morning he died. Even though she never got to meet him before he became so troubled and unwell and difficult, she still loved him in the truest sense of the word. She never got to enjoy the best of him, not even a little bit, but she somehow was able to see beyond the mental infirmity and love him anyway. None of us could quite figure out how he managed to get her to stay around, but we will always be grateful to her that she did.
Of course, life is never as simple as, “Prozac did it.” My father was a complicated man. His three decade marriage to my mother – like your marriage, and mine and everyone else’s – was complex and nuanced and imperfect. There were hard times and good times. But I know with every fiber of my being that he valued his marriage and family life more than anything in the world before the medication triggered a personal transformation more startling and dramatic than anything I’ve ever seen outside of a Hollywood script. And beyond any triggering provided by the SSRI, my father was certainly influenced by genes, a beyond-difficult relationship with his own father, and a life-altering tour of duty in Vietnam in his early 20s. Just a month or two before he died, VA doctors told him and us that they believed many of my father’s mental and physical health issues were consistent with exposure to Agent Orange, and they were able to match his locations during his time in Vietnam with known Agent Orange disease clusters in other veterans his age. All of these things no doubt factored into my father’s mental illness, and the way he suddenly became essentially another person after 54 years of being someone else, but I will always believe that it was the medication that actually breathed life into the manic depression and schizoid behaviors that characterized the last decade of his life.
When my father died, my grief was intense, but different than it might have been; I had already done a lot of grieving for my father, the man I had loved so much, who had already gone away somewhere, only to be replaced with someone I simply could not recognize. I sometimes wondered fleetingly whether aliens had abducted the real Hank and had replaced him with this angry, crazy, delusional person.
But over the past year, since his death, as I have tried to come to terms with him being gone (something I am still working on), an interesting thing has happened. Now, when I think of my father or dream of him, I no longer remember him as the physically unrecognizable and mentally tortured man he became in his last years, but instead as the vibrant, handsome, sweet, clever man he was “BTGC” (Before The Great Change). It’s as if the sick and hurting physical and mental shell that held him captive for those final years has fallen away, and he is revealed again as the real Hank.
Yesterday, while kneeling at the altar at church, I suddenly and unexpectedly became overwhelmed with grief for my father’s passing. As the tears flowed down my face, falling onto the Book of Common Prayer I held in front of me, I remembered something my father told me in one of the last conversations we had together, before we stopped speaking for that final year. I had asked him why he no longer went to church, something that had previously been a great comfort to him. My father grew up in a devoutly Christian Scientist home, but he became an aggressively skeptical agnostic while in Vietnam. This was his religious stance throughout his 20s, even though he conceded to my mother’s wishes and would accompany her and my brother, sister and me to our small Episcopal church on a semi-regular basis. But then, in his 30s, my father quietly and very privately became a Christian, and a devout Episcopalian, finding that prayer and the ritual of weekly communion gave him some relief from his depression in a powerful way. More importantly, he felt that his new faith helped him find some philosophical meaning and context for the chronic mental darkness with which he struggled. But after The Great Change, he mostly fell away from the church. I think he did continue attending services at an Episcopal church in Nashville off and on for some period of time, but by the final years of his life, he never went, never took communion.
So in this nearly-final conversation between the two of us, I asked him about this, reminding him how important and helpful he had at one time found prayer and weekly Eucharist to be. His response just about broke my heart. He told me that he could no longer stand to get down on his knees week after week in church, and beg God for an end to his suffering, only to find that his suffering just kept increasing. He said that he almost felt like the harder he prayed, the more troubled his mind and emotions became. In the final years of his life, instead of bringing relief, prayer and church attendance seemed to make him feel worse. He told me that he felt God had abandoned him, and given up on him as too damaged for redemption.
This is the conversation that suddenly came to me, as I spoke the Nicean Creed, one of his favorite prayers, and I was just overwhelmed with grief and loss. No one should have to suffer as he did. No one. And I also cried for myself, in a selfish way, I miss him so much. I still need him. I don’t yet feel grown-up enough to navigate this hard, hard world without the wise counsel and warm hugs that my daddy provided me. And he needed the wise counsel and warm love and support that God provides. I became disconnected from my father, because he was so sick, and he became disconnected from his Father, as a result of the same illness. I wish I could have another chance to tell my father how much I loved him, and to try harder to truly accept and understand that his behavior, no matter how difficult it became, was a symptom, not a conscious choice. I feel that I failed him.
I have written quite a bit since my father died about his mental illness; I’ve spoken and written openly about this in the past year because before he died, I spent years speaking of it to virtually no one beyond my very closest friends and family members. My siblings and my mother did the same. But now that he is gone, we have appreciated being able to talk about what he went through, and the impact it had on those who loved him, in hopes that it might help other families. I also want people who might have known or encountered my father in those last years to understand that any unusual or troubling behaviors they saw or heard about him, or from him were symptoms of a very serious illness rather than a reflection of how he would have chosen to behave, if he could have chosen.
However, even though I have made the decision to share some of his story – which is also my story – since his death, I do not want Hank Allison to be remembered primarily as a mentally ill person. And I am grateful that over time, it’s not the way I remember him. As my brother Robert said in the beautiful, spot-on eulogy he delivered at my father’s memorial service, “My Dad’s death was sudden and unexpected. Many of us here are in shock. We are all in mourning. His life had not been perfect lately and there is a lot I could talk about given all of that. But I don’t want to. Instead, I want to tell you about an idealist in a flawed world. Most of all, I want to tell you about a great father…”
In honor of the one year anniversary of my father’s death, I am asking those of you who read my blog to consider doing one of two things (or both, if you feel so inclined) to remember and celebrate the life of Hank Allison:
- You could make a donation to an organization about which my father – journalist, lawyer and proud American citizen - was extremely passionate: The First Amendment Center . Or you could make a donation to the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund.
- If you knew my father personally as a friend, colleague, neighbor, parishioner, family member or in any other context, you could leave a comment below this blog post, sharing a specific memory or anecdote of Hank from when you knew him. I plan to repeat this call for “Hank stories” each year on the anniversary of his death, and I will collect the memories and anecdotes you are kind enough to share to give to his grandchildren, Henry, Jane, Elliot, Charlotte, Eleanor, McLean, Nancy Catherine, Jones, Anna, Helen, and Nicholas. Because my father was so sick for the decade before he died, Hanks’s grandchildren really never knew the guy the rest of us knew, before things changed so radically. They loved him a lot just as he was, but I want to make sure they get a chance to know the Hank we all knew and loved. So leave your own Hank memory in the comments below – whether it’s funny or serious or sweet or just something you think we might like to know about him. And if you have friends or coworkers who also knew my father, please forward the link to my blog post to them via email, and encourage them to share their Hank tales as well. Thanks!
I want to wrap up by sharing a lovely multimedia piece with you that my brother in law created, honoring Hank’s life as father, husband, son, brother, uncle, friend, soldier, reporter, activist, writer, farmer, scholar, and all around fascinating, complicated, brilliant, stand-up guy. For those of you who worked with him in various newsrooms, there’s some great stuff from his duPont-Columbia Award-winning, on-the-scene coverage of the Symbionese Liberation Army shootout in the video that you would probably really enjoy seeing/hearing, so stick around for that.