It's April 2012. I'm in the middle of making breakfast before heading out to meet my friends at Glasgow Central Station. I turn the stove off and hear my dad call me into our living room. “Shit, I’m in trouble,” I think. I sit across from him on the sofa, searching his face to try to find out why he's angry with me. But instead of anger, all I can detect is distress. Something is upsetting him.
He gathers his thoughts, I try to stay calm. In my head, I'm thinking that I should call my mother or find an adult, until it hits me that at 20 – I am the adult. After about a minute of nervous shuffling, he speaks in English-peppered Punjabi, in a tone I've never heard before. His voice is heavy and broken. He tells me that I'm the oldest, and that I have to stand strong should anything ever happen to him. He says it will be up to me to make sure everyone is OK. I don't understand.
He tells me he doesn't believe he's ever going to feel better. He just wants it to stop.
My dad continues. He tells me matter-of-factly that if he doesn't feel better in a couple of weeks he's going to end his life. I beg him to reconsider. He shrugs and sighs. Then he holds out his hands as if asking me for forgiveness.
My dad is the youngest in his family. His mother passed away when he was very young, leaving his older sisters and his aunts to raise him. He moved to Scotland in his twenties and fell in love with its warm people and open green spaces. He quickly took to Scottish society and worked hard to create a life for himself. He ran a shop in Uddingston, where he worked every day for 20 years until a heart attack last year forced him to let my brother take the reins.
I’ve always been proud of my dad and admired his strength in trying times. He made sure to encourage us to be brave and stay kind in a world that he knew wouldn’t always be so kind in return. After 9/11 our shop windows were smashed in. My dad didn’t consider pulling the shutters down and going home. Instead, he cleaned up. When an armed man came into our shop and attempted to rob him, my dad’s main concern was the safety of the customers inside, which gained him an unsightly but luckily shallow cut to the face. Again, while we all cried and fretted about his wellbeing he brushed it off and calmed us down.
Over the years my dad had somehow found himself playing the middleman between his family in Pakistan and here at home in the UK, reluctantly embroiled in family politics. He would want to do the best by both sides but wasn’t always successful.
In January of 2012 my dad’s father passed away, and it was difficult to see the strong and charismatic image of my dad replaced with one full of sorrow. He sat at our kitchen table, trying his hardest not to cry, and in a moment I will never forget, he looked up me and quietly asked in Punjabi: “What’s the English word for orphan?”
In our South Asian community my dad’s depression is seen as a sign of weakness and in a culture so sadly steeped in propagating shame, the natural reaction is to pretend everything is OK while suffering in stoic silence. For some, mental illness is viewed as punishment – “You brought it on yourself.” The pressure to appear as an upstanding member of the community is immense. Everyone's encouraged to “just get on with things”.
My dad’s first bout of depression seemed to end in 2004 when my youngest brother was born, and my mother’s relief was palpable. The colour came back to her face and the tension she had been carrying inside dissipated every time she saw my dad smile. Then a few years later, with an intensity it didn't have before, his depression returned. We watched him revert before us and swallowed our sadness as it slowly built up through the years until his father’s death, at which point it latched on and wouldn’t let go.
One evening sitting on the stairs eavesdropping outside the “big living room” that my parents used to entertain guests, I heard someone tell my dad he needed to “pray his depression away” and “if it’s not working, you must not be praying hard enough.” It took everything I had not to storm into the room and demand they leave. I felt like I could feel my dad’s heart, as well as my own, sink as these words were uttered. All I could think was how dare they have the audacity to add religious guilt to my dad’s blatant struggle with his mental health. And then I made a silent prayer to myself, hoping these people never had to go through what we were going through.
The conversation that my dad and I had in the living room that day in 2012 lingered in my mind for a long time. While he didn’t follow through on his plan I never stopped being scared that one day he would. Every time I had more than two missed calls from my impatient mother I would think the worst and brace myself as I called her back. My siblings and I wondered how many families like ours suffered the same hardships as us, so it came as no surprise when my sister got involved in events that now help bring mental health awareness to the South Asian community in Scotland, in hopes of both educating and helping them. Experience taught us well.
When my dad forced himself to get over the stigma of having a mental illness he decided to meet with a therapist. He was sceptical about its prospects but over time he reluctantly agreed that it was helpful. In the beginning the therapist had asked him to point at a yellow cartoon face in varying displays of emotion to describe how he felt each day. Distinctly unimpressed, my dad played along to politely appease the therapist. After a while, however, he would use that scale to judge everything and anything. We could go out for dinner and he would explain, in jest, which yellow face would best describe his opinion of the meal. Moments like that felt like we had our old dad back. It was a small but encouraging sign.
My dad’s sense of humour, which we had missed more than we realised, began slowly but surely making its way back as time went on. He had always been the funny one; at any gathering he could be seen to be making people laugh. At a family function some months after he had begun therapy, I watched as he regaled a living room full of relatives with his stories just like he had done, so naturally, before his depression.