In the 50+ years that he’s been alive, my dad has never made a true and aware effort to treat his bipolar disorder or become a less toxic person.
His toxicity translated into verbal violence and skillful manipulation directed at my sister, my mother and I, trapping us in his firmly-held ideas of self-loathing and a hopeless world. Only when I moved out of my childhood home, got into my first functional and loving relationship, and admitted to my partner that I might be bipolar did everything finally become clearer. The haze of pessimism and intense guilt began to break as I saw my father for who he was (abusive) and saw myself for who I could become (recovered and happy).
I’ve since started taking psychiatric medicine (Lithium, Seroquel, and still experimenting with finding the right anti-depressant), have admitted myself into an outpatient program and quit my stressful job. And to my amazement, after just about two months, I’m already seeing a big difference.
Since I quit my job, and since I was seeking refuge from the hectic city during my recovery, I couldn’t afford to live anywhere else but back at home. Back with my wonderful and ever-growing mom and my dad, who has only gotten worse over the years.
It was under this roof, under the roof where I was abused and yelled at and shamed and manipulated, that I’m seeking balance and clarity. It’s in this house where my unmedicated dad’s voice still echoes that I take my Lithium and Seroquel every night and experience uninterrupted sleep and extremely reduced anxiety and anger. It’s here where I talk about my day in treatment to my mom excitedly as my dad lurks like a ghost in the background, refusing to take part in the conversation.
Though my dad and I rarely talk, he avoids the topic of my recovery at all costs. This feat is forced and pretty difficult to achieve since my recovery shapes my entire life and the conversations I have with others. But he manages to expertly avoid the topic of my meds and treatment, at the same time as my mom suggests he try Lithium. It’s become very clear to me that my recovery has become a threat to my dad, and perhaps an even greater threat to his marriage. Because as my mom sees me grow and change, my dad’s suspension in years-long held delusions become more and more apparent to her.
The other day, my dad broke the silence between us for the first time in a couple of days (since we only exchange pleasantries or small talk as we live in the same space). He told me, “mom was telling me about the really great news, and I’d love to talk with you about it some time.”
I was shocked.
I thought, wow. Dad is acknowledging my progress. Though I wasn’t sure if I was ready to let him in in any way, I was pleased at the idea of discussing my recovery with him. I also had a moment of feeling proud of myself, as I allowed myself to acknowledge my treatment as an accomplishment for the first time. As much as it pains me to say so, having my father’s approval feels amazing since it’s so few and far between.
After I asked him what he was talking about he responded with, “that you’re thinking of going back to school for social work!”
And my excitement quickly dissipated into anger. My plans for school felt so irrelevant when all the good work I was doing every day to get myself better was worlds more important than any job or degree I could possibly earn. I felt angry that he was and still does try to impose his family’s legacy of letting mental illness and abuse go unchecked onto me. I felt angry that after passing on his mood disorder to me and abusing me for my whole life that he can’t show a single inkling of pride over the fact that his kid is finding happiness and stability after all.
Above all, I felt angry that after all these years, he still expects us to play along with his delusion that everything’s fine.
My dad always stressed the importance of school, job experience and following through since the day I was born, completely missing any lesson regarding how to love and care for yourself or how to cope with a mood disorder. He gave me no tools, and then he mocked, yelled at and demonized me for years because of my bipolar symptoms. And to this day, between negative stories about medications like Lithium and a complete refusal to discuss certain things altogether, he instills in me that recovery is not and never will be important to him. So the best form of rebellion I could possibly take in this case is making the radical decision to take psychotropic drugs, to go to therapy and to hold myself accountable in my relationships.
As much as I harbor rage for my dad, I realize that communicating it in the angry way that we’re so accustomed to is not healthy for me. What is healthy for me, however, is my recovery. My pills, my doctors, my lovely therapists, all the kind and supportive peers also in recovery–they’re all so precious regardless of my dad’s opinion of them. So the greatest revenge, I’ve realized, is my recovery. The way I commit to self love, symptom management and personal progress every day scares him, and that’s something that gives me joy (while giving him anger and confusion). Because no matter how much he hurt me and deprived me of resources, I found a way.
By choosing recovery, I broke the family legacy. I take my pills and cry my heart out in therapy every day as my dad’s marriage and mind slowly falls apart. I take comfort in the fact that I’m challenging him, but I take even more comfort in the fact that my recovery is going well. No matter how frustrated I may get with the process of outpatient therapy and psychiatry, I need only to look at him to remind myself that recovery is worth it and that I’m doing much better than I could ever imagine. I will never be him or let him control me again…and that scares him.