By Dan Stradford, President and Founder, Written March 24, 2002
On March 23, 2002, my father, William Marshall Stradford, unexpectedly slumped in his chair and passed away. It was the end of an unfortunate life.
My dad, a St. Louis resident, was the old, toothless man you would see sitting in cheap coffee shops, unsmiling, lost in his thoughts, with food stains on his shirt.
He was the man who sold you pretzels in winter from a basket on a corner of Cherokee Street, accepting your change in his worn glove as he huddled against the wind in his ancient overcoat and stocking cap.
My father was the man who would slowly step on the bus and take too long to find change or pull out his bus pass as his face grimaced and twitched for reasons you did not understand. He was the man who made passengers feel uneasy at the thought that he might choose a seat next to them.
My father was the man I was embarrassed to have my friends see when I was younger. And now he is gone.
But before 1958 my dad was someone else. He was a stock clerk for nine years for 3M where he knew the location of 4000 different items. He was a World War II veteran who proudly served his nation in its hour of need. He was a lively, good-humored man and a playful father. Then came the “nervous breakdown,” shock treatments and heavy psychiatric drugs.
The breakdown he could have recovered from. But the shock treatments and drugs he could not. Dad returned home from the hospital a broken man, stuporous and lost in his anguished thoughts. His memory was devastated.
He could no longer work. Slowly my mother sold off the 3M stocks he had accumulated until, finally, we had nothing. My brother and two sisters were taken into children’s homes. I survived at home, often staying with relatives and whoever else would take me in.
Dad was a moral man of the Pentecostal faith. His failure to care for his family ate at him deeply. He would take heart in finding the most mediocre minimum-wage, backbreaking job, as long as it gave him a chance to support his wife and kids.
When I became an adult and raised my own family, the specter of my father’s demise never left me. What would have happened had he not been shocked and drugged into oblivion?
In 1998, motivated by my father’s struggle, I created a nonprofit organization called Safe Harbor, dedicated to educating the public, the medical field, and government agencies on non-drug, non-shock alternatives for mental health problems. Our web site – AlternativeMentalHealth.com – quickly became the world’s largest on this subject, with thousands of weekly visitors. We hear from – and help – an endless number of people who are living the life my father led and are looking for a way out.
Growing up with my dad, suppressing my shame as I watched his drug-induced crying spells and facial contortions or avoided the looks from neighbors, I could not imagine ever learning anything from him or any good coming from his life.
How wrong I was. I love you, Dad. Peace be with you.