I spent most of my early life being manipulated by my dad and his family. For years, I felt like I wasn’t good enough to deserve their love. The guilt consumed me. Instead of recognizing the toxic behavior, I allowed it to warp my brain.
Like my grandma would remind me, my daddy was sick. He needed my constant support.
Back then, I didn’t recognize the impact this would have on my life. I didn’t see the larger societal implications. It was simply the way my father was. He started as an alcoholic before he was diagnosed as depressed. Eventually an attempted suicide would lead to his bipolar disorder diagnosis.
My sister and I were in uncharted territory. Everyone acted like my father was a child who needed coddled, so every negative emotion was suppressed. We couldn’t talk to him about the pain he caused us because he was sick. We couldn’t approach him about his drinking because he was sick. We couldn’t be honest with him because he was sick.
He turned his back on us because he’s sick.
Keeping him alive became our responsibility. Maybe if we pretended it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Maybe if we loved him enough. Maybe we could save him.
No one outside the situation understood because of the stigma. People assume others who suffer from mental illness are noticeably disturbed, as if they walk around 24/7 with their heads down and arms crossed or spend one day ridiculously happy and the next downright miserable.
These, my friends, are stereotypes and not at all the reality. People with mental illness are just like you and me, except there is a war in their brain constantly warping their reality. When Robin Williams died, the public was shocked. He was such a funny guy! It seemed like he loved life! He couldn’t have been suicidal!
This is all too common. We never see suicide coming. We’re shocked when someone acts out against classmates or the public. We always say the same thing. ‘He was so happy. I can’t believe he would do this.’
It shows how little we truly understand.
The stigma around mental illness affects those who suffer directly and by proximity. My dad was sick, and if I ever mentioned it I had to deal with people telling me they knew someone who was bipolar too. They would elaborate by discussing the quick mood swings. When I was younger, I would nod along, but now I like to ask. Are they actually diagnosed or do you just assume based on that stereotype they are? Don’t worry, I phrase it better. Because of this, people brush off his illness because they know someone and it’s ok. It’s not a big deal. The other side is we don’t know how to deal with crazy people so we don’t.
Sometimes I think about all the other kids like me who watched a parent suffer for years without understanding. I pray to God they had people like my mom and stepdad and hopefully strong faith to make it through.
This week, BuzzFeed is doing a Mental Health Week to use its status to help do good:
“When we have the courage to talk openly about ourselves, and about our struggles, the people who hear and see us don’t have to feel alone. And digital media has been central to driving the cultural change. We’ve found at BuzzFeed that some of the most powerful responses to our work have come from people who watched and read about mental health, and who felt less alone, less at fault.”
For me, finding courage is about sharing my story so others don’t feel alone. A sick parent is a complicated thing, whether it’s a physical or mental illness. We think it’s our job to take care of them and sometimes it is, depending on the situation, but sometimes it’s about taking care of ourselves.
How long do you put up with a mentally ill parent manipulating and abusing you? How many Facebook posts does it take to step away? How many insults until you’ve had enough?
In my case, it took more than a decade to realize my dad didn’t want to get better. He didn’t want to try. We were expendable to his cause. I spent the better part of 10 years doing everything to make him happy, but it was never enough because I will never be enough. You can’t save anyone, especially someone who doesn’t want your help.
My grandma’s approach is understandable. Her son was sick and we needed to help him, but at what personal cost? His narcissism allowed him to play the constant victim and he was always looking for an excuse to ‘expose’ me and my sister for who we truly were.
I’ve been estranged from my dad and his family for more than a year now, and I’ve forgiven them for everything they’ve done. Holding onto that anger only made the pain harder to face. Sometimes a good memory will flash by, and I’ll feel the abandonment, but I focus on God’s greater plan and mercy and know I will be ok.
This Mental Health Week, I’m sharing my story to let you know you aren’t alone. I understand your fear and guilt and love and hate. I know what it’s like to no longer recognize a parent. I feel your pain of realizing their ‘unconditional’ love has come to an end.
It’s not your fault.