I had a mentally ill parent. It was my father. He’s dead now, but when he was here, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Of course, I didn’t find out about that until I was an adult. That secret affected my life from the time I was a child. What it’s like to have a mentally ill parent is different for different people, but here’s what having a mentally ill parent was like for me.
My father was sick with mental illness from the earliest time I can remember, although I didn’t know it at the time. I thought everyone’s father was like mine. That’s what kids always think. I thought every father smoked and drank lots of beer. I thought every father was asleep or passed out most of the day. I thought every father didn’t make an appearance in the home for days at a time. I thought every father was hard, perfectionistic, intellectual, and absent. To this day, when I see warm, loving fathers, I find it incongruent.
My Mentally Ill Father
I don’t know much about my father’s experience with bipolar disorder, predominantly depression, from his perspective, as he never talked about it. His diagnosis was a secret from me and everyone else until I was about 21 years old. What I do know is that my father was an intensely unhappy person, likely depressed, and that led him to want to drop out of life through drugs, alcohol, and sleep. He didn’t want kids but had them because that’s what my mother wanted. (That was after abandoning two kids with a previous wife. I had it better than they did.)
My father wasn’t actually a bad guy. Being depressed doesn’t make you bad. I think he had moments of kindness. I think he had moments of softness. I think he was a ridiculously intelligent man who was occasionally a father. That is not ideal for a person with kids, but it’s what he was. He was also a bad parent.
The History Between My Mentally Parent and Me
When I think about what it was like to have a mentally ill father, it was predominantly an experience of absence but also one of harm. Most of the time, my father seemed like he just didn’t want anyone or anything around, which is probably how he felt. He had untreated bipolar disorder and seemed to be in a depression most of the time. Not wanting things is how one might feel in that scenario.
My father was also perfectionistic with me. He was that classic parent who, if I got 95%, would ask me what happened to the other 5%. He would also try to educate me about everything possible in age-innapropriate ways. When I was a child, I learned that you don’t call them “rainbows,” they’re spectrums (after which I learned about light frequencies and their impact on color), I learned about the internal combustion engine, complete with diagrams, and I learned the right — and only — way to hold a knife while in the kitchen. When I was a child, and I saw him, it was all about the lessons.
At one point, when I was 12, my father got sober. I learned a lot about addiction at that time, attending the adult-level addiction program for families at the treatment facility. Other than the dramatic amount of knowledge I obtained during that time, there wasn’t much to say about it. My father came out of treatment and told my mother, “Yeah, I’m an alcoholic. So what?”
He had no intention of staying sober.
I got help for my own bipolar disorder at 19. It was a year or two after this that I was talking to him on the phone, and he said to me, “You know I have that, right?”
Actually, no, no one (including his now-ex-wife) knew that. He had actually spent time in the hospital when I was a child, and yet still no one knew of his diagnosis. He had this way of dropping blasé bombs.
When I got older, he got more and more sick as his addiction took over, and his absence was almost total. I was only somewhat aware of this, but he began to exhibit cognitive decline. He was a very, very severe alcoholic for a very, very long time, and I believe this resulted in Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (also known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disorder.
Around 2008, my older brother and I held an intervention for him due to the fact that his continued drinking was going to find him without a place to live. Much to my shock, this actually worked. He survived getting off alcohol (which is dangerous when you have that level of alcohol addiction), and that’s when it was clear he could no longer think, act, or speak normally. The most intelligent man in the world had become almost unintelligible.
My father died old, alone, in a hospital, away from most of his family, having a broken brain and having had many strokes that eventually killed him.
What It’s Like to Have a Mentally Ill Parent
I want to stress that everyone is different. My mentally ill parent refused treatment for addiction and for bipolar disorder, and that resulted in addiction and bipolar disorder being the only real things in his life — pretty much everything else was a series of bad decisions. So while he had children, they weren’t nearly as important or real as his illnesses were.
But some people have a perfectly fine relationship with their mentally ill parent. Yes, that can happen. Mentally ill parents who have adequate support and stay in treatment tend to have a much better go of it than my father and I ever had. That’s important to realize.
I decided not to have kids primarily because of my mental illness. I knew I couldn’t be the good parent that children deserve. I knew my bipolar disorder would prevent that. And at least part of that is thanks to my father (and, obviously, treatment resistance). But, honestly, that’s okay. I consider that one of the best decisions I’ve ever made if also one of the toughest.
What’s important to remember is that we are all individuals. I could go more into what it was like with my father, but we are just one example. If you’ve had to deal with an untreated mentally ill parent, I’m so sorry. That can’t have been easy. Get therapy. Deal with the scars with which that left you. Those scars are definitely there.
And if you have a mental illness and want to have kids, just know that there’s an incredibly high burden on you to get well and stay well — if not for you, then for your kids. They deserve the best of you, and the only way they can get that is if you’re in treatment and stay in treatment. And please, please talk to your kids about your mental illness. They deserve to know. Your mental illness can inform any diagnosis they have down the road, and denying them that knowledge actively hobbles their (and their doctor’s) understanding.
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