Growing up, my father was my babysitter, my personal chef, and my best friend.
He was there from the time I woke up until he put me to bed, and he dedicated all of his time to entertaining me and to helping me become a more empathetic but powerful person. However, my father also suffered from bipolar disorder, which affected both our relationship and who I grew up to be. Kids with parents who suffer from mental illnesses have an entirely different outlook growing up than other kids did. They not only deal with the day to day issues that occur when living with a mentally ill loved one, but they also suffer from the constant fear that they might end up with the same illnesses that their parents have.
My father’s bipolar disorder caused a lot of tension within my family. His mood swings, constant exhaustion, and tendency to snap at us over everything made it hard to remember the great man that he was when he wasn’t being pulled away by his illness. Even his medication seemed to not help. It made him cranky and its plethora of dangerous side effects made it so he was unable to work, causing even more stress and tension in the house as we struggled to pay our bills.
The worst part of all of it was that I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening. At the time, I was in middle school and I knew that if I told anyone about my father’s illness, they would judge him and call him names. I wanted to protect my father and the image he portrayed in public of being the perfect dad, because despite everything, I still thought he was. I didn’t want to hear people call him crazy or a bad parent because of things he couldn’t control. As a result, I didn’t tell anyone about his mental illness and felt alienated because of it. For instance, I couldn’t invite friends over because I never knew what kind of mood my dad would be in, and whenever I was upset about something regarding my family, I had no one to turn to.
Around the same time, I also started to fear that I would one day suffer from the same issues that my father had. Every time I felt myself getting overly emotional or irrational, I panicked, thinking it was a symptom of what was yet to come. I lived in constant fear of the day that I would find out that I too had bipolar disorder, and that I wouldn’t be able to handle taking care of my father and myself at the same time.
Now that I’m older, I’ve put the fear of my father’s illness in the back of my head, refusing to stress out about things that I may have no control over. I have also learned to open up to others about my experience with having a mentally ill parent, and I have found that I’m not as alone as I thought I was. I realized that my father’s illness is as much a part of him as any other part of his personality, and that for better or worse, he is who he is. Though my father’s bipolar disorder made my relationship with him difficult, I also see the world in a different way because of the experiences I had growing up. I’m less judgmental of people when I first meet them, as I know firsthand that there are probably a lot of things influencing the way that they think and act that I may not see on the surface.
For kids with mentally ill parents, the world is much different. We’re forced to learn truths about life much faster than most kids, and we sometimes have to parent our own parents. However, looking back on it, I would never change my dad’s illness or anything else about him. The experiences I had because I was his daughter shaped me into the person that I am.