Day 18 of my 40 Day Blog Challenge. Yesterday, we heard a courageous story of what it was like to grow up in a household with someone battling alcoholism. Today, Penny has shared her story of growing up in a household with a parent suffering from Bipolar. It’s a frank and highly personal story which truly highlights the impact of living with mental health, and the dire need for the right kind of support.
Bipolar In The Family
People talk a lot more about mental health than they used to, and it’s wonderful. I have been really encouraged to see a successful person like Stephen Fry openly discuss his struggle with Bipolar Disorder. Less talked about is what Bipolar Disorder might mean for the family members of sufferers, especially children.
I grew up in the 80s and 90s, when medication was nowhere near as good as it is now, and mental health was a taboo subject. My father suffers from Bipolar disorder. It used to be called manic-depression, and I like to visualise it as a line graph with zero as ‘normal’, the manic stage being above that line, and the depressive stage being below that line.
At the best of times, my dad would always sit slightly below or above the line, but never normal. Even with the great medication that he takes nowadays, it is clear that he has other mental health issues around communication and learning processes. He is capable of sitting in a chair, not doing or saying anything, for hours at a time. Conversationally, you will be able to speak with him about many topics, however eventually if you invest enough time speaking with him, you will start to notice that it is very difficult for him to ‘evolve’ in the conversation, and he has very little capacity over time to change a view or a behaviour according to new information. So you end up going round a loop of a few key topics.
Around the time that I was born, he had a severe breakdown. My mum spent a week in hospital with me and all the time had no idea where my father was. Then after a few years we moved, partly because he thought that his breakdown was related to where we had been living and that he would be fine once we had moved. When he became ill again, it took a long time before he took notice and accepted that his illness had nothing to do with location.
As a child, I had little awareness of this struggle, yet at the same time I have no memory of my dad growing up. He was and always has been absent from my life. I don’t remember physical contact or doing any of the normal things one would do with a father, yet he had to have been there, we lived in the same house for eighteen years. My only memories of him start from when I became a teenager and became aware that there was something really wrong with our family and with my dad.
Throughout the 90s, for all of my teenage years, my dad went through a succession of severe highs and lows in his mental state that took him in and out of mental hospital on a regular basis. There was a day hospital in the town where we lived, and there were long periods of months where he would stay there in the day, unable to function in his job, yet still considered well enough to come home overnight.
It’s hard to describe what living with someone going through a mental health crisis is like, let alone several consecutive crises for years; constantly living on a knife’s edge, the lack of security you grow accustomed to, not knowing how well or unwell he would be and how it might manifest.
My dad was never ever violent, but he lost himself so thoroughly, that we lived with a ghost of a person that couldn’t be ignored. During that time, he would also suffer from severe insomnia and roam the house during the night, unaware of his surroundings, muttering to himself. After he walked into my bedroom one night mumbling and I laid there frozen in fear until he walked out again, my mum asked us kids to lock ourselves in at night. Again, there was no violence or anything like that, but the lack of knowing what might happen meant that we had to behave as if it might.
This would be normal for us throughout the time that he would stay at the day hospital but would be deemed OK for coming back home in the evenings. There would usually be a gradual increase of disruption until the mental health team admitted him full-time, but of course, little is said about what the threshold might be for ‘acceptable disruption to family life’. I know my mum begged the mental health team to admit him and that they would not for weeks and months.
I remember one particular time when I was about 14 when I came home from a weekend away with school. It was a beautiful sunny day, not a cloud in the sky. As my mum collected me from school, she told me that my dad had been admitted to hospital and it was like I had been hit in the stomach with a fist; a feeling of dread filled me and it felt like the day had darkened and walls had come closing in around me.
When in one of the Bipolar ‘highs’, he would suffer from hallucinations and hear voices, would behave frantically and spend large amounts of money on high-end goods that my mum would need to return to the shop the next day. She was finally able to take over the financial reins but when dad went through periods of being better, he resented this strongly and tried to reassert himself, which led to constant battles in our home.
One of the big difficulties was that most of the time unless he was very unwell, my dad outwardly functioned quite well and would be his normal self so when my mum talked to friends and family about how difficult it was at home, no one really understood what this meant, and no one really tried to understand either; there was very little empathy and I didn’t feel that anyone tried to help us. But then, I was young and I have no idea what really went on and what our family looked like from the outside. We lived in a bubble, without support from anyone, getting by as best we could, with my mum singlehandedly raising three children and being a carer.
I struggled with friendships because I felt I could never open up about my home situation. I feared inviting friends to my home and having to explain dad, and so I kept a distance. I was full of anger and low self-esteem and considered suicide. I could never go through with it and it felt more like a reaction to my external circumstances than coming from within but keeping a knife in my room felt like a comfort and I lived in constant anxiety.
It took me years to address with the anger I felt towards my dad, to recognise that what he experienced was out of his control, to forgive him for his total absence from my life and to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t and never would have a real ‘dad’. With the medication he is now under, he has not needed to be hospitalised in over twenty years, and that is the best outcome I feel we can hope for. I don’t blame my mum for what happened either; she protected us the best she could with the few things she had at her disposal, which was precious little from either the mental health professionals or her church. She could have left him, and came close to it a few times, but could never bring herself to do it, likely because she felt she couldn’t abandon him either. I won’t pretend I have not struggled with her decision to stay over the years, as I feel we would have had a better life, but it’s no use wishing things that haven’t happened.
I despair when I hear stories of children of bipolar sufferers growing up in this kind of toxic environment because the bipolar person does not have the appropriate diagnostic, treatment and mental health support. And the reality of bipolar is that most of the time, even when you are in the midst of a crisis, you might think that you are actually very well, and you can minimise your symptoms when talking to others including doctors, so it can be hard for outsiders to know what is really going on. Lying and denial about the seriousness of symptoms can happen during periods of mania. But if you have a partner or spouse, you need that person to be on board, to recognise the gradual signs of impending crisis and ensure that you are seen by a doctor so that they get the real picture about what is really going on. I struggle to sympathise with partners who enable the behaviour of the mental health sufferer and allow them to go untreated and even undiagnosed despite several warning signs.
I also hate that there is so much stigma around being ‘sectioned’ and I wish less threatening language existed for hospitalising people who are struggling as severely as my father did because whilst it is not their fault, they need the proper care for their own protection and for their family’s wellbeing. Hospitalisation might be seen as the last resort but it may be the only lifeline left for a family living under the pressure of a gradually increasing mental health crisis. I wish that more people would recognise that mental health is an illness that needs to be treated just like flu is, with adequate care and treatment.