Once there was a girl who lost her father. She called herself Hope. An empty space occupied her father’s favorite chair—the sleek leather one with a matching ottoman that he never used. An empty space sat in the captain’s chair at the head of the kitchen table in the quiet suburban home where Hope had once lived.
The idea of Hope’s father still filled the empty spaces. But soon enough, the idea faded until all that remained was a perfect vacuum. Everyone carried on, as people do, careful to avoid the vacant spaces. Early on, Hope’s three-year-old nephew would sometimes notice an empty chair and ask, ‘where’s Grandad?’ Hope’s mother or brother would remind him that Grandad went to Heaven. Hope could not bring herself to say it.
Eventually, the questions stopped.
Hope tried to carry on.
Hope liked her Saturdays the best: bacon, fried eggs, toast and hot coffee in the comfort of home where she lived with her boyfriend. She called him Justice. After Hope had lost her father, Justice hugged her when she cried, and he hugged her when she pretended to be okay. Justice listened, and gave advice, and supported Hope in every way he could. But Justice knew nothing of the void. Hope desperately wanted to tell him, but she didn’t know how.
One Saturday morning, Hope and Justice rested their elbows on the kitchen table as they talked and ate. They had always been able to talk about anything. Hope would tell him about the void if only she could find the words. Hope and Justice sat on two of their four kitchen chairs, and although no one sat in the other two, they didn’t seem empty at all.
Nearby, two cats ate kibble out of white ceramic bowls with meow painted on the sides, then they sauntered to the sunny spots to groom themselves and bask in the warmth. Solar rays poured through a stained glass art piece and cast a rainbow on the white part of one cat’s tuxedo-patterned fur.
“It seems like there aren’t as many rainbows,” Hope said to Justice, her partner of ten years.
“What do you mean?” Justice asked, taking a bite of toast.
“When we moved here, I saw rainbows everywhere—the way the sun came through the beveled glass. Remember how we called this The Rainbow House? I rarely see the rainbows anymore. Do you think the sunlight changes angles over time?”
Justice chewed his toast and looked up, thinking carefully about what Hope had said, weighing all possibilities.
“Well, yes. It’s brighter in here during springtime. Like you said, more sun comes through the kitchen window.”
“No not like that. Duh. I know how the seasons work.” Hope laughed. “I mean like over a longer period of time, like the procession of the equinoxes or something? Because it seems like overall, no matter what season it is, there are fewer rainbows.”
“I think it’s the same as when people say, It’s freezing, I can’t wait ‘til summer when this stupid snow melts. And then in the summer they forget all about how cold they were in the winter and they complain about the heat instead.”
“You mean the recency effect?” Hope asked.
“Yeah, that. You only think there are fewer rainbows now because they show up more in other seasons when the sun is in a different position, so you haven’t seen as many lately because of the angle of the sun during winter.” Justice cut into an egg and the yolk ran all over his plate.
“Maybe.” Hope looked at Justice—whose own father was not lost—and she tried to remember a time before her father was in the void.
They finished breakfast, joking about the silliest things as they always did, laughing to the point of tears. Good tears. Justice once said something so funny that Hope peed her pants a little and had to go upstairs and change. When she returned, they laughed once again about her peeing her pants, and once again she peed her pants.
Sometimes it felt like they didn’t stop laughing for days.
Justice got up to clean the dishes as was their agreement—she cooked, he cleaned—then he headed downstairs. They shared a lot of things, but the basement was his. Video games and Star Wars and Indiana Jones and The Big Lebowski and The Chicago Cubs filled the space. Hope liked how they shared and then divided their time, and she wondered what her father would think about the home she loved so much. But he would never see it. He’d been lost just months before Hope and Justice had moved.
Hope reclined on the living room couch to read a book about breaking free from societal structures or some such thing, but she couldn’t stop thinking about rainbows, or lack thereof. And she couldn’t stop thinking about the recency effect.
The week after Hope had lost her father, everything went hazy, like going under anesthesia. She returned to work the day after his funeral to find that the Earth had continued to turn for everyone but her. It wasn’t as though her loss—her family’s loss—went unacknowledged. Her boss sent a card, coworkers left notes on her desk, friends sent flowers, and people came to the funeral service. Hope set up a memorial fund at a foundation whose mission was to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide. People made donations. But no one could truly comfort her because they were spinning around like a centrifuge while Hope was stuck in the center, motionless.
On Hope’s first day back at work, some people said ‘I’m sorry,’ as if they had something to do with what happened. Some people wouldn’t look Hope in the eye because they had no words. Some people said various versions of ‘Are you okay,’ and how could Hope possibly reply to that?
Day after day, she couldn’t shake a recurring thought: how could everyone go on as if nothing had changed? Then one day Hope noticed the absence of this thought, and for the first time, she thought she might be okay.
Years passed. The thought returned from time to time. It was more like a feeling. A feeling of being left behind, alone. How could everyone go on as if nothing had changed? On the days when Hope woke up with this feeling she would hide from the spinning world. Was this the void? Maybe she would find her father there. But what she found was nothing. Nothing at all.
Then, on one such day, Hope sat on the couch barely able to move. Every part of her ached in a cloudy, tarnished, and static sort of way. She couldn’t read or watch TV or laugh or cry or sleep, or see any rainbows. Hope stared at a blank wall and wondered if she would ever feel anything other than, well, nothing. She knew she’d felt something before, but she couldn’t remember what. The wall was painted a light shade of gray, but everything looked gray to her now. She remembered an article where someone was depressed. They couldn’t understand how anyone in the history of everything had ever cared about anything. This is exactly how Hope felt.
When Justice came home from work, he sensed that something was wrong. Hope mumbled generically, ‘I don’t feel well.’ Then she felt guilty for not saying more. They had always been able to talk about anything, and now a space was between them that hadn’t existed before. But Hope didn’t know how to say out loud what she’d been feeling—or not feeling—all day, and surely she would feel better the next.
Hope did not feel better the next day as she sat paralyzed on the couch again, thinking of that article—the thing that prompted her to make the phone call. ‘At the very least, I can dial a number,’ she thought. If this was depression, it might be serious. She had seen what it could do to a person. But Hope needed someone to tell her what it was, because to her, it felt like nothing. ‘The wellness hotline at work,’ she thought.
‘I can’t get off the couch and everything looks gray,’ she told them. ‘All the rainbows are gone.’ They told her to take a walk or a soak in a hot bath. ‘But I can’t get off the couch. You don’t understand.’ A walk or a bath, they said.
Sometimes Hope wondered if her father ever existed at all. A few months after she lost him, there was a family dinner at a Japanese steakhouse—her father’s favorite—to celebrate what would have been his birthday. An empty space replaced him at the hibachi table. Hope couldn’t call it a celebration, exactly, but later, there were real celebrations. Birthdays and holidays and family reunions, with no place reserved for Hope’s father anymore.
Now Hope was fading, too. She didn’t want to be erased, so she asked a doctor to bring her back. She went to her appointment feeling nothing, and left feeling afraid. She handed her doctor words like depression, anxiety, and apathy. The doctor handed back words like Bipolar, mood disorder, and genetic. Scary words. Complicated words. Solid words. Words that might heal her. Words that might have healed her father.
She went home with some pills. The label said ‘Lithium.’ The instructions from her doctor said ‘twelve weeks of medical leave.’ But this was for people who had lost their minds, Hope thought. I haven’t lost my mind. I’m not crazy. She knew she shouldn’t use these terms, but she couldn’t control her thoughts. Oh my God, I’m a manic depressive, she thought. But she was supposed to simply say, ‘I was diagnosed with Bipolar Spectrum Disorder.’
After losing her father, Hope had learned not to say ‘committed suicide’ or ‘killed himself’ or ‘took his own life.’ She was supposed to say ‘died by suicide.’ And she was not supposed to talk about how the suicide was carried out. The experts said these things might trigger someone who was already having suicidal thoughts.
Would Hope walk on the same eggshells if she was talking about cancer or heart disease or diabetes? Upon returning to work with what was essentially a brain neurotransmitter dysfunction caused by a gene that was likely inherited from her father—passed from generation to generation—should she be so reluctant to disclose the reasons for her absence?
When Hope returned to work, people asked if she was okay—a subtle way of asking what, specifically, was wrong with her. But she only told her boss and two close coworkers about her diagnosis, and only because it would make managing the workload easier.
Ever since the day she lost her father, Hope had been a fearless advocate for talking about the disease that killed him. She knew denial wouldn’t make the facts go away. Denial wouldn’t heal the wounds. She wrote about it, and talked to friends and coworkers, only to find that many had been affected by suicide in some way.
But mostly, Hope talked about it because she was still looking for the father she had lost.
They say the present can’t affect the past, but after Hope’s diagnosis and treatment, she saw herself in a new way. Intensity in accomplishing goals, excessive talkativeness, agitation, self-medication, and impulsive behavior were labeled ‘hypomania.’ Extreme fatigue and lethargy, loss of interest in activities, inability to concentrate, and feelings of emptiness were labeled ‘depression.’ Now, many of her dramatic highs and lows had names, and although she was scared for the future, Hope’s past made sense for the first time. Even her lifelong battle with migraines could now be explained, because while only four percent of the population had migraines, forty percent of the bipolar population did. Maybe this could be treated, too.
She felt validated and whole, like a puzzle that was finally complete after years of missing pieces. So why the hesitancy? Why not fully disclose the puzzle pieces of mental illness to everyone? Why not shout it from the rooftops so others who were suffering could get the help they needed without feeling so alone? Why not acknowledge mental illness for the treatable condition that it was? Nobody was at fault for having bipolar disorder.
Shame, Hope thought. Shame was the reason she didn’t talk about it. It was not an innate feeling. It was a response to societal judgment. It was learned and could therefore be unlearned. The only way to kill that judgment was to talk about it. So Hope decided to raise her voice. She would not be ashamed of her diagnosis. And she would not be ashamed of how her father’s life ended. Hope would remember his intellect, sarcastic humor, dependability, love of the ocean, and passion for photography. She inherited those traits from him, too.
Hope told her doctor she was still painfully sad for a life cut short—her father’s potential halted. ‘And what if I end up like him?’ Hope asked.
‘You won’t,’ her doctor said.
‘But how do you know?’
‘Because you are here in my office talking about it,’ the doctor said. By getting treatment and managing her condition, Hope could live the best aspects of herself while honoring the best of her father.
Mapped on the spectrum, Hope’s condition was relatively mild—somewhere between Cyclothymia and Bipolar II. She never experienced full blown mania and she never had suicidal thoughts. Hope was grateful for that. Others weren’t so lucky. But it was hard to ask her employer for three months of medical leave when on the outside, she appeared to be fine. They had not seen her when she was unable to get off the couch. They didn’t know that after three weeks on Lithium, Hope told her doctor, ‘I feel like I’ve been talking nonstop for three years and I suddenly went silent.’
One Saturday morning, Hope and Justice went out to breakfast. She woke up feeling more clear-headed than she had for some time. Driving from the restaurant to the pet store, Hope parked the car and opened the door to get out. Justice looked confused.
“Hey, you got here without asking me where to turn, and you remembered we were going to the pet store before the grocery store. I didn’t even have to remind you,” Justice said.
Hope wanted to cry a complicated stream of tears, because while she was happy to be feeling sharper, she hadn’t realized how cloudy she had been for so long. Part of her still wanted the diagnosis to be wrong. But now even Justice saw that, in fact, something had been wrong. Hope’s inability to remember directions, her near-panic at navigating a parking lot—Justice had always known her that way. Just one of her quirks, they had said. She’d had this condition for so long, she wasn’t sure what ‘normal’ should feel like, or if such a thing even existed. If identity was based, in part, on a person’s way of thinking and behaving, who was she once her condition was treated? ‘Am I still me?’ she wondered.
We are multifaceted beings. We are not one thing. We’re like rainbows. Sunlight looks white to the human eye, but it is actually made of many different colors, including those of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Some parts of the spectrum, we can’t even see. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Until now, Hope’s life was about progress. Building up. Holding on. From this point forward, it would be about deconstruction. Doing less. Saying no. Letting go. Refracting and disbursing.
With her therapist, Hope would work on reparenting. It was not about judgment. It was about forgiveness. Releasing, not holding. With her doctor, she would talk about lifestyle changes: giving up alcohol, caffeine and sugar, and limiting stress through meditation and boundary-setting.
In other ways, Hope would always need more. More rest, more time to herself, more time away from external stimulation. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it meant she could pay more attention to the rainbows when they appeared, and appreciate the memory of them when they were gone. This was different than how she perceived the rainbows before. It wasn’t that the rainbows weren’t there; it was that she could only see the shadows of the spectrum, not the colors.
One day Hope’s nephew—now five years older—asked, “Is Grandad coming back from Heaven?”
“I don’t think so,” Hope said, “But do you see that rainbow over there?” Hope pointed out the window. “Grandad is sort of like that. The colors are always there but we can’t see them unless the light shines through something else.”
In my father’s memory, we established the Philip Lion Memorial Fund
Proceeds from Memorial Funds benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the leading national not-for-profit organization exclusively dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide through research, education and advocacy, and to reaching out to people with mental disorders and those impacted by suicide. To learn more about AFSP’s mission, research and programs visit www.afsp.org