I Still Live In His Shadow: Living With Someone With Mental Illness
I have so many questions…
Did he love me? Was his abuse part of his mental illness? Was it because there, was darkness in him? I’ll never really know the answer to these questions because you see…my father is dead.
April 8, 2003 my father killed himself. In that short span of time that we knew my father was bipolar before he killed himself, I had only just begun to reorient myself and my understanding of his past actions with the new knowledge of his mental illness. And now, 11 years later I’m still more full of questions than answers. Every day I’ll remember the hurt I felt and the times I hated my father, but I’ll also remember those moments when he said “I love you,” and I know he meant it, when he hugged me, and when we laughed together.
To live with someone with mental illness can be a constant question mark. You’re never sure the person you’re going to get. My father had two faces, the father I know loved me, and the father who was always angry with me, was verbally and sometimes physically abusive.
To blame all that on bipolar disorder though is to dehumanize many good people who struggle with bipolar disorder but show no signs of abusiveness or hurtfulness. I think if anything, and realize I say this uncertainly, that my father was on the more manic spectrum of it. He had it very strongly. He also had faced many losses in his life, from a wife and daughter killed in a car crash, to a girlfriend he’d proposed to killing herself, and a struggling marriage with my stepmom.
I don’t know enough about bipolar disorder to really pick up the pieces of these experiences and make any sense of them. I don’t know what was him, and what was his illness. All I know is that these experiences happened, and I still carry the wounds, the pain, the hurt, and the fear that comes from living as a child in such an uncertain family environment.
There’s a saying, a french proverb, “to understand all is to forgive all.” yet I’m not sure if it’s as easy as all that. Many times we’re not given all the pieces with which to understand enough to forgive, and often understanding makes it harder to forgive. I’ve forgiven my father hundreds of times, sometimes feeling more understanding than others, and sometimes just knowing it was what I needed to feel at peace that day, to let go and step outside of the shadow of so much broken past.
Yet sometimes that shadow is so hard to get away from. I want to remember my dad, I want to still love him, to have memories, and it’s hard to remember the good things without slipping into some of the bad as well. To remember my father, to admit how deeply his existence molded my own is to admit that there is very little room between the good and bad, and the mold is so deeply intertwined of both of them that if I was to try to pry apart I’d end up losing him altogether.
And I won’t do that.
For some they have to, for some even a family member needs to be completely let go of…for some love of the enemy is to just simply forget they ever existed, and not desire their eternal torture. For me forgiveness and love of my father means knowing the darkness and the light…letting it sit there, with all its questions and uncertainties, and just be. He was my father and I will always love him, even the jagged edges which cut me.
Most of all, when looking back on that suicide, I see the hope for healing. I’d seen my father descend deeper and deeper into sadness. He was less angry and more just deeply depressed, like all he’d loved was slipping through his fingers, even me. Even as I sat there with him, not knowing what words to say, I knew he felt he’d lost me too. And I hope whatever came the other side of death is healing all that pain.
I don’t pretend to understand it all, and I never will. It just is. Living with someone with mental illness doesn’t come with a manual. It is a daily uncertainty, and more questions than answers. But there is hope too, even if it’s a dim hope. Many people find a sense of peace, and healing, even this side of death, and I think that the medical field is making great strides in helping people cope.
For me I’ll probably never get those answers or resolution many others find. I have far too many pieces of a past that was cut off far too soon to do so. I can’t talk to dad now, or hear his voice, and mostly what I have is a jumbled mess of feelings…but to be honest, I’d rather have that than to have never known him at all. His shadow will always be over my life, a presence always there, in good and bad ways, and I am glad to have known him.
Justin is a writer who lives in Washington State, and is studying to be a librarian. He blogs at theperegrinatio.wordpress.com in his free time.
This concludes the series Living with Someone Else’s Mental Illness. Thanks so much for reading and witnessing the brave writers share their stories!