These days, it’s difficult for Dad to hold a conversation.
His mind is moving a mile a minute as he jumps from topic to topic, unable to really listen to others or retain any information he’s given. Talking with him is often exhausting. You have to talk fast and loud, cut him off at just the right moment, to get a word in edgewise. But even then, it’s just a performance. Dad’s never really listening or noticing if you’re listening to what he’s saying. I mostly just stare and nod or look at my phone while he rants about his latest stressor. Through all the anxious scratching and racing thoughts, he doesn’t seem to notice.
I notice he’s bleeding again as he talks, as his ever-moving hands continue to scratch, smearing freshly shed blood all over his limbs. I have to tune him out so as not to get anxious myself.
His mania and anxiety is only one of the causes for our awkward conversations. My dad has been abusive and manipulative to me all my life due to symptoms of his illness, which definitely causes tension between us. Tension that continues as he refuses to address both the past and the present. Because despite the very clear-cut signs of a mood disorder, despite a specific diagnosis of bipolar, he still can’t admit to himself that he needs help at age 52.
My dad was hospitalized after a manic episode and a drinking binge when he was 19. While my grandparents were away for the summer, they received a call from his brother that he had started a business, set up an office in his parents’ basement, hired employees, and cleaned out his savings account in less than 72 hours. And in all that time, he hadn’t slept a wink. My grandpa returned to their home in the Bronx to reason with him, which at that point was impossible. So instead, he sneakily sedated him and checked him into a mental hospital, where he stayed for about a month for bipolar treatment. My grandpa managed to undo my dad’s monetary damage, returning furniture and eventually completely replenishing my dad’s savings. But nobody but my dad could undo the rest.
My dad’s been on and off treatment since, but hadn’t returned to the mood stabilizers that could actually help him until I went to college (though that was only for a very short stint). Instead, he poured all his manic energy into work (which he overwhelms himself with to avoid his own issues) and into his family.
My earliest memories of my dad consist of nothing but a booming voice and an overwhelming feeling of fear in my body. He yelled a lot when I was little, and fought with my mom every day. As I grew older, the loud noises took the form of words. My dad made fun of and yelled at my mom constantly, and yelled at me whenever I would have a tantrum. As my mood issues became more and more apparent, he convinced my younger sister and greatest confidante that I was a bully, turning her against me for many years.
Many times, I would catch him sobbing uncontrollably at the dinner table as he told me “you have no idea what goes on in this brain.” As I aged and became more and more abused by him, I cared less and less about my dad’s turmoil. In fact, I hated him.
With my bipolar disorder as equally unchecked as my father’s, it reached its peak when chronic Lyme disease took over my life, body and mind. I cried for hours in bed, in pain from head to toe, and quietly endured auditory and visual hallucinations. I had anger attacks, which consisted of screaming and self-harm as I exhaustedly induced a headache and fever. My dad actively engaged me during these uncontrollable episodes, egging me on instead of attempting to comfort me or seek ways to sedate me. Looking back, since he was so unaware of his own mental illness, I’m not surprised he was so ignorant to my own.
He would yell louder than I could, getting so close to my face that our noses would touch and his spit would splatter across my forehead. His actions made me shake and cry. He would shove medical bills in my face, and shame me for needing my mom to be my nurse. He would even mock and make fun of me sometimes as I screamed and writhed on the floor. Each time this happened, my mom would threaten to divorce my dad as he would leave the house to cool off.
Again and again my mom would spend hours trying to get through to him, trying to help him understand how what he was doing was wrong. He always seemed genuinely confused, bringing the attention back on him and his victimization. His inability to see these things was common with bipolar, but my dad lashed out aggressively at me for ever trying to assign labels like that onto him. By the time we’d reach the end of the fight, my heart feeling fluttery and weak (sometimes I would pass out), my dad would finally apologize with a look that seemed like he finally understood. But the morning after each and every one of those encounters, he would forget, his mind wiped clean like a dry erase board. It was so infuriating to me sometimes that I would lash out towards him physically. Luckily, he never hit back.
Nowadays, I take a calmer approach with my dad. I’m currently pursuing treatment for my own bipolar disorder, and try to attribute his strange, mean, and sometimes childlike behavior to illness so as not to upset me. But every now and again I’m reminded of it. In the way that my dad can’t hold a conversation. In the way that my dad rejects ever having been abusive to me, and in the way he rejects any kind of treatment or diagnosis. We still fight sometimes, and though it’s not as explosive, it’s just as frustrating and heartbreaking.
As much as I want to be understanding towards my dad, I can’t ever forget how he mocked me, how he yelled at me when I was having an anger episode. How he put me into therapy for being a “problem child” instead of for bipolar treatment that I’ve desperately needed since age 14. How he made my sister turn on me, and spent the entirety of couples therapy with my mom trying to convince her that I’m abusive towards her. How again and again he let me down and made me hate myself and my disease.
I know that mental illness is no excuse for abuse, nor does having a mental illness indicate that you’ll be an abuser. In my own life, I’m able to check myself when I notice I’m slipping into behaviors that are less than nice, even when I don’t always notice at first. And recently, once irritability became more and more of an issue for me (which I struggled to control), I started seeking psychiatric help to improve my quality of life and relationships. Lithium and Seroquel are my new best friends as is self care to boost self esteem, something my medicine-negative and self-loathing dad may never be able to wrap his mind around.
Now 22 and surrounded by a more supportive environment than he could have ever provided, I’m much more stable and happy. But as I grow and grow, Dad is still Dad–unmedicated, manipulative, unstable and abusive. So our relationship is mostly characterized by a series of awkward silences and minimal physical contact. The worst part is that my Dad doesn’t know why I’m mad at him, why I don’t pick up the phone when he calls and why I leave the room when he enters it. He’s hurt that I’ve pushed him away but he doesn’t have the capacity to understand or remember that it’s he who pushed me away.