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Lessons From the Son of a Bipolar Father…

I am the son of a bipolar father. If you’ve never experienced real mental health issues from a loved one or within yourself, then I truly hope this story sheds some light on what it’s like. It’s not fun, funny, easy to shrug off, or “just a part of your life.” It’s painful, deeply hurtful for the sufferer, those around the sufferer, and undoubtedly demands therapy for all parties involved.

Unfortunately for myself, I did not receive the therapy I needed to be able to cope with my father’s illness early on. Let me be clear that I am not casting blame on anyone for this. In fact, I marvel at how my mother carried this burden all the while keeping our family together. I CANNOT believe that she stayed with us through thick and thin because the number of times I’m sure she wanted to pack a bag and run were many more times than can be counted on two hands.

To the outside world, we were the perfect family, which is a testament to just how good of a job she did. Also, when I was young, mental illness still carried with it a heavy stigma. To admit there was an issue was to place an unfair preconceived notion of who or what your family was. My mother knew this and she did what she thought was best. She gave us all of the tools she knew how to give us to be successful externally and by all accounts my brother and I were. But there is an internal emotional toll that comes along with such childhood trauma.

Today we live in different times. We live in a climate where mental health is being talked about. We have NBA players like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan talking openly about their battles with depression. We have various Instagram accounts such as @mentalhealthistrending helping to remove the stigma of mental illness. So if you are the child of someone who is dealing with mental illness, please do NOT be ashamed (I grew up DEEPLY ashamed). Open your mouth and talk about it. Let it out. Find friends who you can talk to, a support group, therapist or anyone who will listen.

For years, until I started doing things like acting and Landmark Education which both required me to access more of my emotions, I was so ridiculously bottled up that I don’t think I was truly capable of real human connection. I often used humor to mask my underlying pain. Yes it is definitely one of the better coping strategies, but it’s still a strategy and it hides the root level emotional core that needs to be found and dealt with. Fortunately, my subconscious need to sort out my emotions became so strong that I found ways to consciously deal with them. Don’t be me! Again, open your mouth and work through your emotions so you can be and feel human! Enough with the preface, let’s get on with the story so you can all understand what the mania side of bipolar looks like and how this became a blessing in disguise…

It was a sunny crisp 80 degree day at the end of May in Maine. The final bell had rung at school and my father was to pick me up to meet my brother for some father son golf. Under normal circumstances this would be a great bonding experience but circumstances were far from normal. My stomach sank to my toes as I past through the busy middle school hallway towards my locker and spotted my dad 50 feet away by the entrance/exit doors of the school.

Why was he inside the school? He could have just waited in the car.

Why is he pacing? This was a common occurrence as it was one of his attempts at releasing his overwhelming energy caused by a manic mind on fire.

What am I walking into and why didn’t my brother come and pick me up instead?

I was so in my own head that I ignored a friend’s attempt at getting my attention as I began entering my locker combo. It had been such a grueling year dealing with my father’s constant mania and the bullying from the other kids in school who had learned that my dad was “crazy.” All I wanted was for summer to come. As I grabbed the books I needed and placed them into my bag, I drew in and released one last deep breath, closing my locker and trudging towards my father.

As I approached, I immediately knew today was one of his bad days. Now let me be clear that a bad day at this point was a euphemism for absolutely atrocious. He barely recognized me as his gaze looked more through me than at me. He was also foaming at both corners of his mouth like a rabid dog (also a common occurrence) and still pacing.

“Can we go?” I asked, making zero eye contact and not even waiting for an answer from my father as I opened the exit door.

My father followed anxiously and awkwardly moving his hands about his face and playing with his glasses with no apparent goal in mind.

This was a long walk for me. My dad had parked next to the line of buses where kids were boarding. The last thing I wanted to do was walk through a sea of kids getting on their respective buses casting judgmental looks at my father and I.

“You know you can’t park here right?” I scoffed as we got into the blue Ford Taurus.

“I had to getaway from them,” he stammered.

“From who?” I asked full well knowing my father was in his manic paranoia phase.

“They’re following me.”

“Who? I don’t see anyone” I asked hating myself for participating in his ridiculous charade.

“I did something and we need to get away” he answered turning on his annoying CB radio.

I sighed, “What did you do and who are we getting away from?”

He didn’t answer. Instead he brazenly put the car in drive and proceeded to cut through the line of buses to make our “getaway.” We drove around the area aimlessly for about 10 min with me attempting to coerce his obviously concocted story free from his racing mind.

As we pulled up to the intersection where the high school was located, he finally spilled the beans,“I robbed a bank.”

“Where’s the money then?” I questioned hoping this wouldn’t be the one time he actually acted on his irrational thoughts.

“It’s in the trunk” he quickly fired back not making eye contact. In his manic state, fidgeting and wandering eyes were common and solid eye contact was very rare.

“Pull over. I want to see it.” I had to call his bluff if we were ever going to make it to the golf course.

He said nothing and instead his fidgeting hands turned the volume up on the CB radio and then he picked up the transmitter. He started babbling to no one about nothing as he pulled through the light and proceeded down Route 1. I cracked my window open and did what I had grown so accustomed to doing over the past year; completely emotionally shutting down. I stared out the window choosing to remove my mind from the situation rather than engaging my disturbed father.

Eventually he took a right which I knew was in the wrong direction of the golf course. He then began driving very erratically, alternating between excessive and turtle like speeds. It was at this point I began to pray. I could know longer live in my emotional dead space. I was worried. This was it. I was convinced he was going to drive us off the road and take both our lives. Sad part of this situation was I didn’t care. Somehow I had convinced myself that since he helped bring me into the world, he also had the right to remove me from it. Sad I know, but honest to god this was my thinking at the time.

I cracked, “DAD! PLEASE SLOW DOWN!”

“I can’t! We have to get away from them!” He fired back.

“There’s no one following us. Please STOP it!” Despite my best efforts to “man up,” tears streamed down my face.

I must have gotten through to him because he began driving at a fairly steady pace within the speed limit. No more words were spoken between us for the rest of the drive. I, however, was completely unnerved. I had seen my dad pretty bad off over the past year but this was the first time I truly felt my safety was in jeopardy. Definitely not an experience a child should ever go through from someone you are supposed to have 100% trust in to aid your survival.

I felt some relief as we pulled into the golf course and I spotted my brother getting his golf clubs from the trunk of his car. We parked and with wobbly arms and legs I opened the door and shuffled to my brother.

“What’s the matter” he asked noticing the tears streaming down my face.

I struggled to produce vocal tones as I was only able to mutter, “dad.”

My brother basically had zero reaction as he too had clearly developed his own coping mechanism, which at the time I thought was to ignore it. I have since come to understand that my brother and father had been having long conversations in which my dad recounted an elaborate CIA story reminiscent of “A Beautiful Mind.” A story that my brother still says today he should have written down as it would have rivaled any Tom Clancy novel. So while I always ran and hid, my brother’s dialogue with my father had allowed him to come to terms with this manic behavior. I can remember desperately wanting a hug from my brother but none was offered. Instead I re-bottled my emotions deeply within the crevices of my heart.

I don’t remember much from that round other than not wanting the pro shop attendant to see or deal with my father out of my shear embarrassment. In fact, I urged my brother to deal with the pro shop side of things while I tried my best to corral my father, despite not wanting to be anywhere near him. The rest of the round (I truly don’t remember if we played 9 or 18 holes) was a foggy blur of my father playing as though no one else was with him. Seriously, it was like he was on a different planet. He would tee off first and start pacing down the fairway leaving us behind in wonderment. It was the single worst round of golf I have ever played in my life.

Let me be clear so that you don’t leave this story thinking my father is still suffering from the disease. He is not. At some point my mother, who I love dearly for staying with him through thick and thin, switched doctors and got my father the help and medication he needed. Now do I think that medicating someone who is bipolar is necessarily the best option? My short answer is no but we are still at the forefront of discovering other options so it was the best available at the time.

Let me also be clear about my relationship with my father. I love him dearly despite the disease that created a great deal of chaos in our family’s life. When his health was in order, he spent countless hours letting me pitch to him (taking MANY balls to his balls ha!), teaching me to drive, and whatever other activities I was incessantly asking him to do. He is a good man with a good heart. My only hope is that this story finds its way to those out there who are struggling with a loved one dealing with mental illness. Do NOT hide your shame. You will be AMAZED at how many other people out there are experiencing the same issues you are going through. There is power in sharing your experience of life so LET IT OUT!

So how has this experience shaped who I am today?

When you grow up with a father figure you can’t always trust or count on to teach you life skills, you are forced to either take a passive approach towards life or step up to the plate and learn for yourself. While there have definitely been many times in my life I’ve wanted to take the easy out, I never allowed myself no matter how bad it got. I’ve come to understand that our feelings are influenced by our upbringing and that it is up to us to work through these feelings if we want to rewrite our future instead of replaying our family story. This work is challenging and at times painful, but it is the work that must be done in order to change our course for the positive. It’s the work that I continue to do on myself and a major influence on what has now become my life’s purpose.

Originally Published on It’s Steve Wood



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