The warning signs of mental instability are obvious for Dan Johnson. Not only has he seen them in himself, from the time he was in his single digits, but he saw the signs in his father.
Johnson will be giving a presentation on the subject Saturday at the Best Burger Barn in Denison. Presenting his book and recording his CD “Hemingway,” Johnson laid out what it was like to have thoughts of taking his own life. He also tells of how his father’s actions led to those thoughts.
“It (suicide) is something people do not want to look at,” Johnson said. “But, we need to have an understanding. People are uncomfortable but it’s about stepping into the conversation. People do not tell you that they are hurting. They show you.”
Johnson’s father, Terry, served in the military as a firefighter more than 30 years ago. While stationed in Italy, Johnson’s father fell through the roof of a building. His back was permanently damaged.
Due to the injury, the father of the then-toddler had trouble keeping a job.
“He was not able to find much help through the military,” Johnson said. “We moved from place to place because we could not make rent. Dad lost a lot of jobs. I remember he was working on a farm as a help and we were living on the farm with him. We got kicked out when he could not do the work.”
When Dan Johnson was 10 years old, his father took his own life.
“Kids should not have to know how to deal with a parent that is suicidal or has been having thoughts of harming themself or the child,” Johnson said. “It’s a coversation that is frightening. I did not understand the anger. Children assume that their parents are heroes and the strongest people in the world. Seeing or finding out that they are not is both stressful and traumatic for the child.”
As an adult, Johnson found himself in a similar fight for his own life.
“Most problems were my own choosing,” he said. “I had a lot of disdain from childhood. Life is unfair. My father did not deserve what he went through and I did not either. He felt ruined and I felt ruined.”
Johnson was in a dark place and he knew he had to make a decision about his life.
“I was driving on an open road as fast as I could just looking for something to crash into,” he said. “I was lucky there were no walls or ravines near me. I felt like the lives of others would be better without me. I felt a connection with my father in how he felt in his last moments.”
Then Johnson had an epiphany. He realized that he would be doing the same thing to his family that his father did to him.
“I felt like my pain would stop, but the pain would magnify and spread,” he said. “Then others would have to deal with my pain. When I decided that I could not do it, there was a shift to start looking for help. Help takes several years. You are not fixed immediately, but the shift is all about the start of the passage to help.”
Using his pain, Johnson wrote the song “Hemingway” and performed it at a writer’s club in Amarillo hosted by Travis Erwin. With Erwin’s help, the song became the title track for Johnson’s album and a book on the same topic of suicide, post-traumatic stress, and the mental health of veterans.
“Writing ‘Hemingway’ is cathartic,” he said. “It was a lot of crying. I dealt with a lot of anger and destructiveness. I got that out of me. I was able to put myself in my dad’s shoes. The book is autobiographical to a point. I want the readers to understand what people go through. It was therapeutic to work on. I talk a lot about my turn from negativity and pain.”
Johnson said that over the last week, two people have come up to him after hearing his music saying they were close to choosing their ends and hearing the music and Johnson’s story has given them a new mission.
“These projects are not just for vets,” Johnson said. “It’s for civilians. It’s about compassion and empathy. Individuals in the military have chosen to guard and protect the civilians. As civilians, it’s our job to vow to guard and protect them.”
The album “Hemingway” was recorded with the help of the Army’s 36th Infantry Division at Camp Maybry military base in Austin. Auxiliary recording at Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberley. The album was released by State Fair Records, a Dallas-based independent record company.
From the sale of “Hemingway,” 20 percent of the proceeds will go to “Operation Hemingway,” a non-profit online source that focuses on public education of warning signs, action steps and treatment options for help and healing.