Bipolar affects not just the sufferer, but also those around them. As a daughter growing up with a Dad who was bipolar, my experience was very different to other young people my age and even to my mom and sister.
I don’t think there was ever a time when my parents explained to me what Dad had. It was hard to hide, so those of us closest to him knew his mind worked differently. So I guess I always knew he was bipolar. The episodes of depression were initially the most noticeable, as dad would spend long periods of time being very down around the house. I used to watch my parents’ wedding videos all the time – Mum says I liked them because “Daddy’s smiling”. It was Mum who usually took care of Dad when he was depressed, and I’m grateful that she always knew what to do.
One occasion really sticks with me, because Dad’s mood changed very quickly and my Mum and sister were out of town so I was the only one home. Aged 19, I had seen these episodes before – but this one was particularly intense, and I was used to having Mum around to talk to Dad and would often take him outside for a walk. He couldn’t eat or sleep, and at times would curl up in a ball on the floor and I wouldn’t know what to do. Of course, I got Mum on the phone immediately to say what was happening, and she was very helpful – but the reality was that there was not much I could do, and this made me feel really helpless. The experience was probably the most difficult I have had being around Dad and stands out as the time when his illness was most visible. But it showed me how these times of depression can come about without warning and when you’re a teenage daughter, it can be hard to know what to do.
Bipolar also bring on mania, where your mood swings to the other extreme of elation and energy. I saw more of these episodes as I grew older, and they were often easier to live with than the depression. Dad would often go out and spend more money than usual, buying clothes that any teenage girl would disapprove of! (One floor-length fur coats sticks with me in particular…) These moods could often make Dad fun to be around – we would go on spontaneous holidays that gave me some of my best memories, and he would be really passionate and excited about everything. But we always knew that these moods would pass, so anticipating the change could be difficult.
It can be tough to talk to people about Dad, and what it’s like to live with someone who is bipolar. I was very fortunate to have close friends whose parents also had mental health illnesses, so there were people I could talk to who sympathized with my experiences. I have always been able to talk to Mum about it, and that’s made a big difference. I really believe my experience with Dad has made me more open-minded and able to empathize with others going through similar times. I am now doing a masters program on mental health and exercise, and my career choices were definitely influenced by my exposure to mental health growing up. I had a really happy childhood with some great memories, and Dad was a great father – he always encouraged me to follow my dreams and continues to support me in my research. But it’s vitally important that we’re able to talk about our experiences of mental health and to learn from the experience of others living to go through the same situations.
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