This post originally appeared on Dallas Moms Blog.
Last July, my husband, baby and I landed in Dallas after a weekend with my extended family in New York. We started our typical arrival routine of baths and showers, light unpacking and my husband going on a takeout run. I scrolled my phone and felt my heart drop and my eyes get hot and wet. I texted my husband, “Robin Williams died. He committed suicide.”
He knew what it meant. Not that one of our funniest and brightest people had left the earth, which is hard news as it is, but that I was triggered into thinking of the big, intense and fragile life as the daughter of someone with mental illness. The next few days online were an emotional blur. I felt like I was ducking from slews of articles about a secret bipolar disorder, “sources” sharing how he showed such few signs of depression lately and conversations of how we should de-stigmatize mental illness while people at work referred to the weather or old friends as “totally bipolar”.
My adult life is normal. I’m a wife and mom with the same day to day life as most people I know. Families who encounter chronic or terminal illness with a loved one know the feeling of trying to act normal to the outside world that may not know or understand how things are falling apart behind closed doors. For my family, this is what it was like through my father’s most intense battles understanding his bipolar disorder. For the most part, I’ve come to understand and accept his disease until something like an event in the news reminds me that my life is different because of it.
Fifteen years ago, my dad’s struggle with mental health became present in our family. I was a young teenager with a younger sister in a close-knit community of PTA-involved, church-going, nuclear families. In our case, diagnosing and finding a successful treatment plan for my dad did not begin with him waking up one morning and realizing he was bipolar. The road of acceptance, trial and error of doctors, diagnoses and medications collectively created a decade of confusion for him and my family. This included suicide watch, behavior that was at times hurtful and humiliating to us, and long gaps in our relationship as I got older and knew that I needed boundaries for my own safety and peace of mind. I’ve unsuccessfully tried to parent my parent, I’ve grieved the loss of a parent who is still alive and I’ve thought about milestones in my life and wondered what my family would look like when the time came for them, with our family structure seeming to always lack certainty. I lived for a long time feeling the most anxious when things were in a good place. To me, the feeling of permanence was so rare that it settling in my chest only meant the bottom was likely about to fall out.
Today we’re all thankful to be in a place where new advances in mental health care and other factors have helped my dad find good medication and more connection and steadiness in his life. Seeing him take more control of his life helped us foster a new relationship, right in time as I brought his first grandchild home. I’m also thankful today for the full experience of life as his daughter and that through his disease, my relationship with my dad has stretched me and educated me in ways that I think today help me as a parent.
For one, I know that one of the best things a child can feel is stability. With a manic father, life was big but not necessarily steady. During our hardest times, our family took impromptu vacations and came home to big purchases. With a sick father and my mom naturally preoccupied by the state of his health as well, I did not always have someone to pick me up at school, to be at things they said they were going to attend, or to drop what they were doing and listen to me when I needed it. I’m not able to be at home with my daughter every day or cater to her every whim, but I do want her to trust me and know I make every effort to be consistently there for her. I know from chapters in my life without it, that it’s an irreplaceable feeling.
I also know I can be a better calming and stable influence in my family’s life if I am taking care of myself. Going to the gym, eating well and working with a therapist benefit more than just my own peace of mind and jean size. Many people, including my father, struggle with disease that is genetically influenced, and I take efforts to help myself avoid these issues or have a healthy body and mind that can fight through them. Knowing what a family goes through when a loved one is sick is a reminder that my own health is a benefit to my daughter and sometimes saying no to extra activities to focus on my well being is a gift to her.
The biggest thing I learned is the freedom that comes from letting go of expectation and making an effort to live in the moment with the people you have. My dad and our relationship, through his illness, has tested me more than anything else I’ve experienced in life, and my dad has been the one to teach me that things, relationships and our own lives as we see them are not guaranteed. I spent time on my journey avoiding him and being angry that he couldn’t just be normal for me. Hugging my dad still doesn’t come completely naturally to me, but the feelings of letting go of hurt, being open to new possibilities and knowing, despite what the future might bring, we have this moment together are always greater than if I left them off the table.
Throughout our lives, our relationship is likely to ebb and flow again through the cycles of what he battles, and the grounding and satisfying moments we share in between are something I will always have if I allow myself to take them in. It’s how I’ve naturally approached raising my daughter as well. Life is uncertain for all of us, and better when we choose to live it on its terms instead of demanding ours.
Mental illness is not a choice for the patient or his or her loved ones. Like many other diseases, it shows up unannounced and turns families upside down as they battle through finding their new normal. If I could share anything about families in mental health battles, it’s that these families need as much support as those going through any other medical or personal problems. The more we accept these illnesses for what they are, it frees families from stigma, enables sharing and keeps their communities from shying away or helping because they don’t want to intrude. My life through my dad’s illness was different, but like any challenges in life, it only helped me grow and brought my family closer together. I’ve made tough decisions and tough reconciliations, and I learned how to reach out to my community and be open with my life and when I need help. The most valuable thing I learned is other people’s ability to love and be there for you can change, but your own two feet are something you can always stand on. I wouldn’t wish any moment of the more tumultuous times of my life for my daughter, but I am thankful that I think they’ve made me a stronger mother for her.