Blurred Lines

I remember studying short stories about ‘the loss of innocence’; the point of time at which a child, in an “eating an apple from the tree of knowledge” sort of way, grows up. The moment when the veil of blissful ignorance is lifted like finding out that Santa and the Tooth Fairy are not real or realising that your parent/s are not the heroes that you previously perceived them to be but flawed, imperfect human beings.

I already have a pretty messed up image of my father but every now and again I learn a new piece of information about the man he was or is and about things he has done when he was ill; bits and pieces that collectively form the image I now know as ‘my Dad’.

Today I learnt something really upsetting and it sort of floored me.

You would think by now that nothing would shock me. I don’t get ‘shocked’, so to speak, rather the whole idea of who my Dad is in my head gets tossed into the air like dust, floats for a bit and then finally resettles on the ground.

My Dad is no longer a person but more the culmination of his actions.

That’s what mental illness does, I suppose, in its most extreme cases anyway. It can degrade a person until all that’s left is what they’ve done to alienate the people around them.
I don’t know my Dad as a person anymore. I don’t know his favourite colour or his favourite dish. I don’t know what programs he likes to watch or the latest movie he saw. I could list the warning signs of a manic episode more effectively than his own doctors and social workers and yet I don’t even know what he does as a job.

Obviously I don’t go out of my way to find out this information, if anything I deliberately avoid contact with my Dad because I’m scared. I’m scared to open my heart up to the hurt, I’m scared to go back to that place. I’m scared of momentarily lowering my defenses just to be let down again.

That’s the hard thing with mental illness. Mental Illness is destructive.

It torments you, it toys with you, it breaks your trust then builds it back up only to rip it a part all over again. It challenges everything you thought you knew and loved about a person.

Reconciling the weird line between my Dad and his illness is something I have already written about in ‘The Dad I Miss’ and is something that I struggle with to this day. I mean, how do you separate the two? Do you separate the two? And where is the line drawn? Is it between ‘normal’ and ‘manic’? If so, what is ‘normal’?

Nothing made reconciling that line harder than what I learned today.

Today I felt dirty. Like what I had been told left a physical film over my entire body that I needed to wash off. I’ve never felt that way before. Until now the things my Dad had done, while terrible and painful, were never what I considered to be unforgivable.

I had a shower and instantly my mind began racing – the dust had been disturbed and was floating about in my head. The blog post had written itself before my fingers had even touched the keyboard.

I am so thankful that I began this blog. Sometimes your mind can become so full of thoughts that it needs an overflow tank to release some of the pressure.

My blog is like that overflow tank. When my brain is bursting it needs an outlet and I have found writing to be that perfect outlet. Every word that I type is one less word in my mind.

I don’t know if my blog has or will help anyone else but it is helping me and I suppose that’s what matters.

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My Deepest Fear

“Takes one manic to know one doesn’t it?”

This was one of the last things my Dad said to me, earlier this year, when I reached out to him to try to help. He was displaying all the usual signs of being manic on social media: he was on at all hours of the night for days in a row, he was tagging my brother and I in photos that had nothing to do with us and making comments that were aimless and irrevelevant, he changed his name on Facebook to one that belonged to a member of his birth fathers’ family, and he sent a private message to all his friends with an invite to a grand and extravagant birthday party which was going to celebrate not only his 50th but my brother’s 21st. My brother was of course not made aware of these plans. I received this message and out of concern that my Dad was making promises he couldn’t financially keep to venues, DJs, bands, catering, etc because he was ill, I reached out via private message to ask him to seek help.

The quote above is but one sentence of many hurtful sentences (17 to be exact) that my Dad replied to my message with and while others may look at the other sentences with more horror, this sentence is the one that pained me the most. The worst part about it is that my Dad knew this sentence would hurt me deeper than anything else he could ever say to me.

Dad used to say it quite often, not as deliberate as this but more often delivered like a joke. He would call me ‘manic’ or tell me that I had traits of a person with Bipolar Disorder. He’d say it was because we were so alike that he thought I was more likely to be bipolar.

When he and my mum were going through their official separation/divorce, his social worker insisted on these horrible sit-down sessions. I remember they were at night after a day of school and it would be my mother, brothers and I on one side of a table and Dad and his social worker on the other. We all dreaded these sessions and came away feeling emotionally drained. We were asked to tell Dad how we felt about him and his illness and the separation. I don’t remember the others talking very much, Luis sat with his head on the table as if he weren’t there and Callum was probably too young to understand what was happening. The one thing I remember talking about was how I hated it when he said that I was manic or bipolar because I was afraid that I was or that I would be, and that was the last thing on earth that I wanted.

Dad apologised but it meant very little. The idea had already been planted in my head and it was like a disease that ate at my thoughts.

My coping mechanism tends to be distraction. I am very good at keeping myself busy. When I’m not busy however my mind tends to drift to that dark old place where my fear lies. My fear of becoming bipolar.

Mum became worried about me and my fear around the time the separation was occurring. I remember asking that if I was ever diagnosed if she would euthanise me because I didn’t want to be like Dad and cause as much pain as he had to others. She took me to a doctor who was very kind and said she could see no signs of me being or ever becoming bipolar. Should have been relieved, right? I may have been relieved temporarily but I knew enough about bipolar that it wasn’t something that you could test my DNA for and I knew that most often bipolar was triggered by dramatic life events such as child birth. So while I may not have it now, there’s no knowing whether it might be something that will develop if I ever decided to have children.

At 16 or 17 having children was the last thing on my mind so the fear of bipolar slowly receded to the back corners of my brain where it became a dull ache that I learned to ignore and forget about.

It’s never really gone away though.

It pops into the forefront of my mind every now and again when people are talking about their families, their parents or their past, when people talk about how many children they want to have, or when they ask me if Matt and I will ever have children.

I don’t want to be my Dad. I am terrified of being bipolar.

It’s not an all-consuming fear that stops me from functioning, it doesn’t give me severe anxiety nor does it affect my sleep, it more just makes me feel sick to the stomach. It influences the way I think about the future and more significantly my future with my partner, Matt.

My go-to answer when asked if I want children is to say no. It’s easier saying no. I don’t tell them why of course because it’s too complicated and generally people say ‘oh you’ll change your mind’ which I laugh off before quickly changing the subject.

I know Matt probably wants kids one day and I know his parents would love grandchildren (he’s an only child) but I don’t know that I could ever risk it.

I know that this fear is something I have to work through and I am currently in the process of finding a therapist to talk to. I feel like admitting my fear may be the first step to me overcoming it – it’s something I’ve hidden like a dirty secret for a long time, only admitting it for the first time to Matt very recently and it sort of feels good to get it off my chest.

Thank you to all the readers who have shown me their support and words of encouragement, you are the ones who make me want to continue writing this blog.

Please note it is not my intention to offend or discriminate against people who have bipolar disorder. I do not hate or wish hate upon people who have this illness nor do I wish to ostracise them further.

The Dad I Miss

I suppose the best place to start this blog is at the beginning.

The hardest thing about my Dad having Bipolar Disorder is accepting that he is no longer nor will he ever be the Dad that I remember, the Dad that I miss. My Dad’s illness is really bad and it has stripped him of everything: his family, his friends, his job.

The Dad I remember was fun.

Dad was the parent that all the other kids thought was really cool. He came to all my school camps and I felt proud to have him there. He would bring his guitar and play songs for everyone to sing along, he would show off his Michael Jackson dance moves which always had everyone in awe, and his favourite joke was introducing himself by his long-winded Cook Island name (20 plus words that I never cared to write down or remember) ending with the punch line ‘but you can call me Nga’.

Mum says I was a real Daddy’s girl.

I distinctly remember it as though it was a routine we had that the moment he walked in the door from a day at work I would run into his arms. I loved my Dad’s hugs. He was like this big bear and I felt safe and warm in his arms. If he was sitting on the couch I would snuggle up next to him and pull his arm around me.

My Dad was the best.

School holidays were always my favourite. Mum usually worked and so for two weeks Dad stayed home to look after us. This meant closing the curtains, getting blankets and munchies and watching the old Star Wars trilogy together over and over. When Lord of the Rings was released it was added to the playlist. Other films included The Golden Child, the Rush Hour films and The Men In Black films. This was definitely where my love of film comes from. We’d also play front yard cricket. Cricket was my brother Luis’ game but we all played it together at home. Dad always hit the ball really far and we’d end up having to run down the street to retrieve it while he laughed as he scored run after run. Often kids who lived on the street would join in too.

I learnt a lot from Dad. He taught me how to play the guitar and we would play and sing together. He taught me old songs that I’d never heard of before. Hotel California was probably one of the first songs I learnt along with House of the Rising Sun. He sang and played in the Church band at Rimutaka Baptist and I remember learning songs off OHP paper that he’d bring home for practice.

My Dad was also a very talented artist. He mostly only drew when we asked him to like when he made my brother and I large cardboard folders that he illustrated for us to put our own artworks into. He also decorated our cakes for our birthdays. Luis always got cars or a cricket bat, I remember getting a barbie in a dress cake (if you grew up in the 90s you know exactly the kind of cake I’m talking about), a Snow White and Seven Dwarves cake and a Barney cake.

As far as I was aware my Dad was the best Dad in the whole world.

I didn’t know what was happening while we were sleeping.

I didn’t know what my mum was dealing with.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time that I became aware of my Dad’s illness. I don’t remember being sat down and told ‘your Dad has bipolar disorder’. It might have happened but if it did I don’t recall it. There is a distinct turning point, for me that I remember very vividly and it was the point that I stopped believing in my Dad.

It was an evening in August 2007, my dad picked me up from Girl’s Brigade (sort of like Girl Scouts) and as we were driving home he pulled over and stopped the car. He chose that moment to tell me, 14years old at the time, that mum had been diagnosed with depression and was spending a lot of time at home in bed. He told me she was on medication and that he was going to take over things at home to give her a break. According to my diary entry he also told me that he had been depressed since the day I was born. The part that hurt me the most about this exchange was when he told me that I couldn’t tell anyone I knew, especially not mum.

At 14years old your understanding of depression is pretty sketchy. The only thing I knew about depression was that it lead to suicide.

So at 14years of age I had been told that my mum was depressed, that my dad had been depressed since my birth and that I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone about it.

But it was okay because my Dad promised me that he was going to sort it out. He was going to take the stress off of my mum, she was going to get better and it was all going to be fine.

That night I went home and I cried. When my mum came to my room and asked me what was wrong I couldn’t tell her. I had promised not to and I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to burden her if she was depressed. So I didn’t.

But it was okay, it was going to be okay because my Dad promised me that he was going to fix it. It was all going to be fine. My mum wasn’t going to commit suicide, she was going to get better.

That night and the nights following my Dad didn’t sleep due to the stress which triggered an episode and he became manic.

A couple of days later we moved out, leaving my dad at home, and stayed with a family friend living nearby whose daughter I went to college with.

It wasn’t great. I didn’t like not being at home but I was happy to be away from Dad. We were all a little bit happier. It was a relief to see mum getting some sleep. I think I probably watched her like a hawk since my dad told me about her being depressed. I watched her every move as if she was made of glass and at any point she might break. It was encouraging to know she was sleeping better and I felt like I could relax a little bit too.

I remember being angry and hurt but mostly I felt betrayed. I had cried myself to sleep after finding out my mum had depression. I had felt helpless but I had taken comfort in knowing that my Dad was going to step up and make it all better. What did he do instead? He got himself so sick that we had to move out of our own house so he could get himself right. He’d let me down. I had trusted him to be my Dad at a time when I was so worried for my mum and he had failed me.

From that point on I felt as though it was my responsibility to help look after my family. If my mum was depressed, she couldn’t do it on her own and it was clear to me that my dad couldn’t look after us. That was probably when I started putting up the walls that eventually blocked my Dad out of my life completely. I learned that the easiest way to deal with hurt was to block it out. Ignore it. I didn’t want to feel pain so I tried not feeling anything at all when it came to my dad. That’s how I’ve coped. Shutting dad out of my life is the only way I knew how to make sure he didn’t hurt me again.

I’ve learnt recently that shutting him out doesn’t protect me from hurting at all, it just makes it hurt worse when the wound is reopened.

Every now and again I wish I could run into my Dad’s arms and bury myself in his embrace. Almost everyday I wish I could show him the drawing I did or the set I painted or the thing I built. The little girl in me constantly longs for the Dad she used to look up to and to make him proud.

I know that going into this project that I can’t have any expectations of how it might turn out. I’m not predicting that it’s all going to change over night. I know that this is a long process. Maybe I’ll have a good relationship with my dad in the future or maybe I won’t have one at all. The important thing for me to do is to try. 🙂

Introduction: Mental not imaginary

My name is Courtney and my dad has bipolar disorder.

I am currently 22 years old and living in Auckland. I have two younger brothers, Luis and Callum, and my mother is Karen.

My family and I grew up in Upper Hutt, Wellington, New Zealand.

For the most part we lived happily and as normally as any other family; my brothers and I were blissfully ignorant to my dad’s illness for most of our lives. It all began changing around 2007 when I was about 14years old, I can’t pin down the exact time because it’s sort of a blur. At this time I was made aware of my Dad’s illness and from that point on it felt as though everything was turned upside down. It was a traumatic and stressful couple of years for us as a family. The four of us (my two brothers, my mum and I) stayed with a family friend on and off and Dad was in and out of the clinic with manic episodes that ranged from bad to severe. In 2010 he and my mum separated and then eventually divorced 2012. By the end of it all I had lost complete respect, love and trust in my father as a result of his actions and have had basically nothing to do with him since.

The last five years have been really good for me. I moved up to Auckland, started a new life and met new people. I now work for film and television as a scenic artist and prosthetics assistant. I have a loving boyfriend and live with him and our two cats in a modest rental property in Central Auckland.

I have always known that I would have to face this sooner or later but have said that it would be on my own terms. For the past year I have been trying to come up with a way to reconnect with Dad and find closure that used my skills and passion for film and TV as an avenue so that others may benefit and learn from my experience.

This is what I came up with.

A bit about how it all came about: Recently I met and became very good friends with someone whose mum has bipolar disorder (who I won’t name for her privacy) and it killed me to not be able to honestly tell her that things would get better. It killed me that for all the consoling and listening I could do and all the advice that I could give that the one thing I wanted to say, the one thing I knew she needed, was something that I couldn’t give her.

That something was hope.

This ignited something in me. I decided that I had met too many people who had been through similar things to my family for me to continue ignoring this niggling idea that I had been pushing to the back of my mind for some time. They say ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ so how could I expect anything to change with Mental Illness unless I got involved?

They also say ‘fit your own gas mask before helping another with theirs’.

Before I attempt to help others I need to sort out my own wounds first and that’s going to take a bit of time and quite a bit of digging. I discovered recently just how easily old scars are ripped open again and I am tired of feeling like my insides are being ripped out and then stuffed back inside whenever something happens with Dad.

‘mental not imaginary’ is the name of my blog but is also the name of my concept.

I chose this name because I have struggled a lot with justifying my feelings of anger, hurt and loss when there wasn’t anyone to blame or direct those feelings at. I was often told ‘it’s not him, it’s the illness’ but those words only confused me and made me feel guilty for feeling the way I did. Mental Illness sometimes feels imaginary or conceptual because while it belongs to a person it isn’t who the person is.

But it’s not imaginary.

Mental illness is a real issue and it needs to be treated like one.

My plan is to eventually make a feature length documentary following my journey towards closure, a greater understanding of bipolar disorder and my first steps in creating a new relationship with my Dad. With this documentary I hope to demystify the misconceptions about bipolar disorder, as well as reveal some of the struggles that my family and I have been through in an effort to show the world (or at least a portion of it) that mental illness is a problem that cannot and should not be ignored.

This blog is just the first step in what will be many towards my goal of trying to make a difference.

‘A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step’ and this is my first step towards closure and healing. Please share this so that others may join me too. The aim of this blog is to generate a community of followers who support me and believe in my idea. With enough support I will be able to continue to take steps towards making my documentary, the most important of which being a funding proposal to the NZ Film Commission. So the more people who read this blog and show their support the better!

Your feedback, advice and words of encouragement are welcome. Any negative comments will be promptly deleted.

Please note that this is a blog about MY experience with bipolar disorder. I am not generalising bipolar disorder, I am not an expert in the illness and I am not trying to say that this is how all people with bipolar disorder behave. Mental illnesses are unique to individuals which is a part of why they are so difficult to diagnose and to treat. I am not trying to damn, shame or criticise people with mental illness – this is the opposite of my intention. If you think you or someone you love has a mental illness please seek professional advice.