Transforming Pain into Purpose: A Father’s Mental Health Journey

Fathers embody a profound commitment, and with that also comes a whole human being. In the forthcoming narrative, I aim to share my evolving journey through the realms of mental health and fatherhood. Ultimately, this transcends the personal and dives into a collective process of molding individual and familial landscapes. A quintessence of fathers and men — arguably, is our ability to stand for others. The cornerstone of resilience relies on how we make meaning out of pain and not forget ourselves in the monotony of comfort. 

Program Officer, Juan Escobedo, with his daughter after finishing the Denver Colfax Marathon
Program Officer, Juan Escobedo, with his youngest daughter, Elena, after finishing the Denver Colfax Marathon.

My Journey 

I’ve been struggling with an internal dormancy for many years now, aimlessly finding solace in sweets, fast-food, beer, and the random obsession. As a family man, I believed that our duty was to only care for family. Sacrifices and going last were a normal part of being a father. Feelings and pains didn’t matter much, as long as everyone else was ok. All that needed to happen was to dig a deep enough hole to bury the pain, exhaustion, and dread to be solid with those around you. Staring at 260 pounds in the mirror though, painted a different concern. All I could envision was repeating my grandfathers’ lives: early death due to diabetes, alcoholism, cigars, and self-hatred. I was not right in my own skin and that estranged person in the mirror was not fully there either. I was too ashamed to talk through what I was really role-modeling for my daughters, so I stood in silence instead and for a very long time. Winter of 2023 was a hard-truth-to-swallow type of winter.      

Trauma has a way of creeping in when you’re not looking. When childhood experiences are riddled with pain, it drastically changes individuals, shaping people’s minds into believing in a fundamental understanding of the world: pain is near. The more continuous the suffering, the more entrenched the belief, and the more we do to mitigate real or perceived threats (avoid, freeze, or fight into it at all costs). The residual effects of a trigger can ignite looped memories or responses — each reaction driven by the need to meet the fundamentals of safety, belonging, and respect. As someone who met violence at a very early age, survival had to come first. It was through pain that I learned to numb to survive.   

When living comfortably, it is easy to savor easy, and pay with the loss of self, reeling a life of drift and empty automation — a different way of numbing. My late teens relished uncomfortableness, pushing the limits of body and mind. Regardless of the cost, I did not want to come home broken in spirit. I was ruthless in the boxing ring, football field, and the wrestling mat, as it was the only way I would feel a weird sense of mending the pieces with the respect I earned. It started with mental fights, fighting off internal dialogues of inadequacy. Fear, gossip, and voices “you don’t listen,” “what’s wrong with you?” or “you can’t do that!” constantly crept up. It boiled down to “you don’t belong” –messages looped into a type of toxically flammable tinder, where a spark of passion was all I needed for a burning beast to emerge. Stepping into a ring, I would allow myself permission to growl: “watch me,” silencing all the voices with each blow I gave or received. In every brawl, there has always been a part of me that pushed not just to prove wrong, but to also heal. Regardless of the scorecard, my mission was not just to perform, but to destroy a self that was no longer working to pave way for its next evolution. Back then, the passion was a switch that turned on. The same switch turned back on two decades later. I no longer accepted excuses complacency offered. My father’s voice is also constant. The hammered idea of fierce and discipline in all we do had comes in full fruition. To win this fight against the numb, I had to bring that back in full force. 

First, I ran 2 miles in the beginning of January 2024. My lungs were ineffective, my legs were weak, and my heart was struggling to find a cadence. Every excuse and fiber of my body wanted to stop the torture. Every week there after I added 2 miles on top of the previous week out of spite. My mind would go in all places of feels and hurts, but all I kept doing was reminding myself of my younger version watching. In May of 2024, I ran 16 miles in one stretch. I also completed my first official half marathon and lost 35 pounds in the process. June 22, 2024, I will complete my first Olympic length triathlon.  

Beliefs, actions, and feelings play a role in how we survive or thrive. What we believe about ourselves, our experiences, and the world around us drives how we show up. This is very dynamic as we navigate age, place, and different phases in our lives. Find that core belief, and like in training, assess, analyze, strategize, correct, and repeat. Being a father does not mean we need to live dormant, hidden from all we do for others.      

The mental space is where I have learned to enjoy the fight. It is a ring where I can better grapple with pain, limitations, trauma, fear, doubt, and isolation. There, the real demons roam with only one charge: to create a tailored hell, just for me, or just for you. After running past 8 miles for the first time, something happened. I became incredibly vulnerable, stripped of convenience, support, and the easy life. Failures and deep-seated pains start surfacing. I took the opportunity to unravel to rebuild and strengthen. The fight is never with the past, it is with a perceived self-person that has been failing you. The louder this person cries for “help, stop, too hard, or too scary” the louder the grunts of strength and the harder I command my body and mind to respond. My why is much more important than momentary relief. The child in me needs a reminder of how strong we really are. It’s ok to hurt and life can give you a beating, but it’s never ok to give up on yourself or your journey.    

At mile 13, I passed my seven-year-old daughter translucently standing on the sidewalk. She was in her favorite Mexico-dress as we momentarily locked eyes. She was present enough to me. “She’s watching,” I said to myself, triggering a flood gate of emotions riddled with grief, shame, a deep sadness, and shame of who I was role modeling. All I want is for her to be HER strong self, just as I am giving myself permission to be my strong self. Sobbing for the next mile straight, I also grieved the Juan that was no longer working for us. With his blessing, I carry on to the next evolution of us. As a family man, my family will always come first, but I also need to come first and set the example of how we relish life and grow from the things that hold us back. It is ok to be a beast and do what beasts do, and it’s also ok to be a father and do what empaths do. 

Healing can start and restart in one or in all nodes of how we think, what we do, and how we feel. All is mental health and belief drives this. To redefine experiences of pain and suffering into a growth-oriented belief system is a daunting task, and never easy. If it were, I don’t think we’d have the legends that roam amongst us. I no longer fight to earn respect; I train because I matter too. The journey will always uncover who you NEED to be, for every effort invested into yourself is an earned strong sense of self. Bravery for the sake of growth will always pay dividends to your future self, and in the eyes of those watching you, they will also learn from you.  

Juan’s eldest daughter, Elise, performing with her Folklorico group.

On a Sunday evening of April 2024, I watched my 7-year-old step onto her first stage. An audience of 200 locked in. She quickly went to work on what she had trained for many months with her Folklorico group. Unphased by the audience, I can see she turned on the switch and led with her beast without hesitation. Her razor focus and fearless grace reminded me of how strong she really is. Amazed by her performance, I could barely hold back the tears among all the moms backstage. Being the only dad there supporting her transitions, I could not have been more proud of us. 

Happy Father’s Day to all those important men that continually pave the way for the rest of us and stand for those around us.