Evolution of a Beard: Mental Illness, Rage, and Acceptance

By Victor Yocco 11/08/18

My hatred and rage grew alongside my father's beard. Beards represented mental illness. Beards represented embarrassment. Beards represented my failed family.

Black and white image of Victor Yocco, the author, with a beard, glasses, plaid long-sleeved shirt. Arms crossed.
My beard grew thicker along with my willpower. Image via Author

The last time I saw my father without a beard was the night he accused me of being an alien sent to harvest his testicles. It was the summer before I entered eighth grade.

My father’s mustached face was otherwise smooth. Always had been as far as I knew. I remember kissing his cheeks as a child. Avoiding the scratchy upper lip hair.

Now, my father’s cheeks were blushed with anger and fear. I lost myself staring into his terrified eyes.

That night was the culmination of months of odd behavior. Standing outside at my sister’s Girl Scout summer camp, my father screamed accusations at everyone. His family had been replaced by testicle harvesting aliens. The other parents were FBI agents who’d been stalking him at work and recording his thoughts for months.

I’d always known my dad was a little odd. He had disappeared a few times for no reason. Usually my sister and I would end up staying a few nights at my grandparents’ house. My mom would buy us new toys. My dad would eventually reappear. Things returned to our version of normal. Unknown to me was his diagnosis of schizophrenia.

This time I knew exactly why my dad disappeared, he was going to the mental hospital; the loony bin. My dad was certifiably crazy and teenage me knew it. Worse, other people knew it. Other teens! Complete strangers. This last image of my father without a beard is seared into my memory.

My father came home from the hospital with a beard. Well, he came home with three days of unshaven stubble. Still, it was thick, dark, and covered his face. This bearded man no longer looked like my dad. This bearded man no longer acted like my dad.

The bearded stranger talked to himself out loud in private and public. He cursed and gestured wildly at random times, crossing himself with vigor as he watched Catholic Mass on TV three times a day. We weren’t Catholic. The bearded man spent evenings and weekends shopping for pornographic movies that sat unwatched and unopened in haystack shaped piles in our basement.

My hatred and rage grew alongside his beard. I hated my father. I hated his beard. By extension, I hated everyone with a beard. Beards represented mental illness. Beards represented embarrassment. Beards represented my failed family. Beards were something crazy people used to hide behind.

I daydreamed of shaving my father’s beard. Peeling off the stubble to reveal the man he had been prior to having a beard: the father I no longer had.

At the time I wasn’t able to grow my own beard. That didn’t stop me from making a pact with myself – I would never grow a beard, damn it.

As you can see in the image accompanying this article, I did not keep my pact.

As an adult, I didn’t have a beard or a relationship with my father. I became a father myself and vowed to never put my children through what I had gone through: a childhood filled with an empty father.

I didn’t prevent my father from having a relationship with my children. My mother and father would visit sporadically throughout the year and at holidays. My children were fine interacting with my father. Hell, sometimes I’d catch a glimpse in my children’s eyes of what looked like love toward their grandfather.

I wasn’t doing so well, though. I treated lingering depression and anxiety with antidepressants, sporadic counseling, and another illness: alcohol use disorder.

I was failing at life and I frequently drank until I blacked out. I was divorced and only seeing my kids every other weekend. I tried to wash away my bitterness and guilt but instead I found myself on an alcohol-fueled ride to my rock bottom.

The last time I remember not having a beard was the last time I remember drinking alcohol. I had an appointment with a new counselor. He told me that nothing could improve if I kept drinking and that he wouldn’t work with me if I didn’t stop. Somehow, I heard him. I also heard what he wasn’t saying: things could improve if I stopped drinking.

I went home and got drunk for the last time that evening.

It wasn’t easy to stop drinking. At first, every minute of every day was hard. I didn’t have the energy to do anything other than attend AA meetings and counseling. Then, without thinking, I stopped shaving and grew a short beard. At first it brought me comfort in a tangible way: I’d rub on it and scratch it and twist the hairs. After a few weeks it started filling in. And so did my sobriety. My beard grew thicker along with my willpower. I kept the beard and I’ve kept my sobriety.

At some point I made the first proactive phone call to my father I’d ever made. It wasn’t a magical conversation-- we talked about sports and the weather, the same topics we’ve always been able to safely cover during face-to-face conversations over the years. When it was over, I hung up the phone, feeling sick to my stomach. I knew I’d never have the dad I wish I had. I know it’s on me to deal with it. But I wanted to have whatever relationship I could with him.

I’m four years sober. In these four years I’ve searched my soul to forgive my father. My children love their grandfather. They don’t know the bearded stranger I knew when I was growing up. They’ve never known him without a beard. They only know him as Grandpa!

I can’t regain my childhood. And I can’t undo what I’ve done to my children. But I can make sure I don’t go back to the dark place of alcohol abuse.

I kiss my children with a beard. I cuddle my youngest daughter and tickle her with my whiskers. She’s never known me without a beard. My kids see beards differently than I did.

Today I still have a beard. I keep this beard as a reminder of the importance of staying sober; a reminder of the importance of my family; a reminder of the forgiveness I’ve given others and that I’ve asked for from my loved ones.

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Victor Yocco.jpg

Victor is a researcher and author living near Philadelphia. He writes and speaks on topics related to UX research and design, and recovery. He has written for A List Apart, McSweeney's, Internet Tendency, Vox.com and many others. Find Victor at his website or on Twitter.