Hi, I’m Peter.

Christmas has always been a difficult time of year for me. It’s the time of year when I get a stark reminder of how little quality time I have spent with my family and friends an overwhelming sense of obligation to make up for it with lost time I don’t have or gifts meant to fit into lives I know nothing about. These are, of course, just my negative thoughts but they are persistent and are a yearly reminder of my struggle with self-esteem and self worth. They also force me to confront how I live up to people’s expectations, and my own.

It’s in this backdrop that I can tell this story. Truthfully, I’ve been trying to write this for a year. Now that the season is upon us again, I’m compelled to write again and be open about my experience. My story is long, but it starts with something very short that I wrote 3 years ago.


You may never know how much you mean to me, how much these last 3 months have changed my life forever. But this Christmas, and for every Christmas to come,  I want you to know that I’m here to love you, help you, and protect you. I can’t wait to watch you grow into a beautiful and strong woman.

Merry Christmas, I love you.


Sounds like a nice Christmas Card from a Father to a Daughter, doesn’t it? It was the first card I ever wrote to my daughter. What you’re lacking though, is context. Because to me, it’s a card written knowing that my daughter was the only thing keeping me alive at that moment. It’s a card written not knowing whether it would be the last Christmas card she would ever get from me. It’s a card barely written, as I crumpled over on my living room floor. It’s a card written how I always write them – hiding emotion and the reality of crippling depression behind empty cliches.

That was 2016, and my daughter wasn’t yet 3 months old. So how did I get there?

In hindsight, it was no surprise that I ended up in a dark place at the end of that year. It was a year of big changes that chipped away at my resilience.

The Year

In 2015 my wife and I moved to Calgary from Edmonton for my new job. It was a chance to try something new, and live closer to my wife’s family. Her employer graciously accommodated us moving down there and they made alternate arrangements for her to transition out of her role from Calgary. Things seemed pretty good, so once I had finished settling into the new job, we decided we were ready to have a child.

We weren’t, however, prepared with how quickly we would need to change course and we were still in our rented apartment in early 2016 when we found out a baby would be coming in October. No big deal, we’ll just look for a place to live a little bit earlier. But “No Big Deal” doesn’t really exist in either of our vocabularies, both being prone to anxiety (clinically). But we tried to be calm, roll with the punches, but we were getting ourselves into a fight neither of us was prepared for.

We learned a few things early that year on top of the pregnancy. We learned that my wife would have to change jobs not just once, but twice that year because employers can’t live up to their word. We learned how untrustworthy home sellers and inspectors can be. We also learned early that year that my in-laws were in the process of a divorce. These things happen, right? We could all handle this as adults… right?

I ended up doing what I always do and keeping myself busy and distracted – achieving things – to distract from the stress that was building around us. But I was also trying to keep the pressure and stress off my wife throughout her pregnancy, to make it as comfortable as possible (at least emotionally and mentally).

And so it began – the pressures of a new job, the house hunt, moving out of our apartment with at 7 months pregnant, moving a mother in law out of my wife’s childhood home, building a nursery. I was also trying to shoulder the emotional pressures surrounding a first born child – calming our anxieties of the unknowns in a first pregnancy, trying to stay grounded and not get carried away with societal pressures and norms in preparing. I wasn also trying to bear the brunt of a divorce that wasn’t exactly leaving the kids out of it. I don’t know how successfully, but I navigated through all of this. I dealt with our common anxieties, I worked through my wife’s panic attacks, moved our boxes and furniture, and I tried to stay in between my wife and her parents through the worst of the divorce process.

Through all of this I never once noticed that I was slipping. It took the calm of painting a nursery for my mind to process what was going on, and to let the darkness set in.

There was less than a month left before the due date. The anxiety and self-doubt was peaking. I was exhausted, both physically and mentally.  I locked myself in that room for hours at a time, shielding my wife from the paint fumes and shielding myself from the stresses of the outside world. With the calming effect of a paintbrush in my hand, I would let my mind wander and wade through the emotion of the last year. But I ended up wading well beyond the shallows. The impending birth of my child brought back memories of my own childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, and it dawned on me how ill-prepared I was to support a child emotionally in this world. And as these thoughts piled on I could feel the depression setting in, as it had so many times before.

The Lead Up 

The first time I remember that depression was on my radar was around grade 6. I always remembered this as an innocent of middle school, but with perspective, it most definitely was not so innocent.

As part of a writing assignment, I was told to “write about something serious”. For most kids, that means “don’t treat this as a joke”. But for me, I thought… suicide is pretty serious. While I knew I was a bit different, struggled to fit in, and had negative thoughts, I really didn’t know anything about it. So I crafted a story around some lyrics on an album I was listening to. This drew some attention, and to the credit of the adults involved, they took it relatively seriously. I don’t have a strong memory for a lot of the details, but I remember the feelings, and it felt a lot like I was getting in trouble. I remember clearly denying that anything was wrong, and let them in on where the inspiration had come from. Nothing more came of it, and it seemed sufficient to blame “the rock music” for this little episode, and on went the age-old battle between parent and child about the objectionable content (and sounds) in music.

But music to me has never been a place to come up with ideas, it’s a place to find peace and solace with the emotions that I’m dealing with, as it is for many of us. And what I wish from that time is that I had the vocabulary and the courage to speak to someone – anyone – about what was going on in my head. I wish my parents and the adults in my life had the knowledge to recognize it, and the courage to speak openly and deal with it in a way that wasn’t confrontational. This might have been the first, but it wasn’t the last time something like this would come up.

Looking back now, I can see distinct cycles of depression popping up every couple of years. It manifested in many different ways through high school and university. There was anger and frustration, there was sadness and exhaustion, there was emptiness and apathy. What was constant is the way that I always struggled to try and fit in and knew I needed to hide it from peers and adults alike – “you should smile more”, “keep your head up”, “don’t get angry, it’s not appropriate”.  So I did, and I soldiered on. I also tried to run from my problems. I had moved around a lot as a child and ended up in a boarding school for high school, which creates its own host of problems. When they inevitably crept up I tried to run from them again and suggested to my parents that I change schools. We had serious conversations about this at home, but I remember most of them as logistical. I only remember feeling that I didn’t know how to think, feel, and act anymore. So I soldiered on again, and tried my best to fit in, and keep myself occupied. And if there’s one thing a boarding school is good at, it’s keeping kids busy, so it worked for a while. I strove to achieve academically – took extra credit, advanced classes. I did sports that would keep me at practice 9 times a week. This kept me level, and no one noticed, or at least no one said anything, despite more signs (and assignments…) that may have raised some caution flags.

As an adult, free to make my own decisions, running away from most of my peers to a university far from home seemed like a good idea again. And it seemed like a good idea two years later when the same problems started cropping up. So I blew up friendships and burned bridges, and started over again.

And then again a few years later, but this time I didn’t run. I don’t know if it was because I made a conscious decision, or because the depression kept getting deeper every time and the exhaustion kicked in, but I sat stayed in the mess that I created. Alone. Fed up. Done with hiding. This time, my family noticed, and despite the obligatory “keep your head up, kiddo” to start the conversation, I was persuaded to get help.

Of course, I was reluctant. I was only really getting to understand that this was, in fact, depression, and not just me. Why would I be depressed? There was nothing I was depressed about, specifically. There was no trauma, no abuse, no hardship. Quite the opposite. I had plenty of opportunities and experiences in school, sports, and culture. There was always food on the table and a nice house to live in. There was always someone to take care of me. But there was something invisible, silent, that left me feeling empty, guilty, and deeply depressed.

The one time I remember laughing about it all during that time was after a doctor’s visit. I had finally gone and done an intake assessment at a psychologist and was directed to a doctor to see if medication would help. I filled out a questionnaire for the Hamilton Depression Rating scale, or something similar and handed it to the doctor. He obviously hadn’t done this very often but diligently tabulated the score and looked at his reference chart. He started saying that, yes I did, in fact, have severe depression. I stopped him before he moved on and in the meekest voice possible let him know that it was a double-sided paper and there was more on the back. I was 23 years old, and it was the first time I admitted to myself that maybe I was being a bit hard on myself.

I went through a lot of therapy (and a few therapists) over the next couple of years and started coming out of the darkness. I got well enough to finish school, I met my wife, and I started getting back on track.

I wish I could have said at that time that it was the end of it and I would be fine. But as you know from the start of the story, that’s not how it went.

The Darkness

The time after my daughter was born was the darkest period of my life. I think it was exacerbated by the fact that I knew it was supposed to be a joyous and transformative time of my life. It was transformative in all the wrong ways. The story of our experience at the hospital is too long to recount here, but it left my wife angry and disillusioned with the medical system, and me acutely aware of my lack of assertiveness, and with reinforced feelings of inadequacy and anxieties about my role as a father – both in a family and society.

Despite some time away from work to help at home. I struggled with these thoughts, mostly alone, as we tried to raise our daughter. And this time, going back to work and keeping busy didn’t help, but aggravated the situation. A general sense of apathy lead to thoughts of despair – and there was little comfort in the outside world, as things seemed to descend into chaos towards the end of 2016. Eventually these led to thoughts of death. The Christmas season came again and I was done trying to live up to anyone’s expectations, least of all my own. I’m honestly not sure what kept me alive during that time – overwhelming love and acceptance from my daughter and wife, an obligation to do right as a father, the pain and burden it would place on my family? Whatever it was, it lasted long enough for me to get help.


I wish I could say that this is a happy story where I recovered quickly and the days of depression are behind me. In a sense it is because I’m here to write and tell the story. In reality, the year following was almost as rough as the one before.

Depression takes a toll on those around you. They end up carrying the emotional burden, on top of the physical one for things that are too much to handle. They suffer emotional neglect and bear the brunt of overwhelming negativity and comments and criticisms coloured by the outlook of depression. It was a long recovery for me, and I knew it was too long when I worried what impression I was leaving on an infant and having anxiety about the long-term emotional damage of growing up with a depressed father. I knew it was almost too late when it put my wife into counselling as well, and eventually the hospital.

I didn’t know how at the time, but I somehow needed to try harder. The counselling and the medication were working to keep the worst at bay, but I wasn’t progressing as much as I needed to to keep things together. What that eventually meant was finding things that would give me hope. I found music again, I found photography again – little moments of joy in otherwise routine days. For the long term, I would try to find new work that spoke to my passions and my conscience, not only to give me hope but to set a good example for my daughter.

Ultimately, that’s why I decided it’s important to write this – to be open with my experiences and emotions show my child, our children, and our community that it’s not necessary to struggle alone and in isolation. Though I am doing better now, I still struggle with down days, my inner voice, identifying and dealing with my emotions. But I at least want to have the language to name what I’m feeling and be able to discuss it. I want to be able to recognize the signs of anxiety and depression in my daughter, and I want other parents and caregivers to be able to do the same. Most importantly, I want my daughter to be able to grow up with these skills and know that her emotions don’t need to be “justified” and dealt with in isolation.

That’s why Project Nightlight is more than just a place to share my story. It’s raison d’être touched a nerve for me. It echoed my story and so many of my fears for my own family. But its existence is hope that we can create a strong and supportive community for families, and help ourselves and our kids shape a world that rejects the fear and stigma – and darkness – of mental health.