Reprinted from "Parenting" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2(2), pp. 23-24
Q: What was it like growing up having a father who had a mental illness?
The first time I remember my father having an episode was when I was eight years old. He was hospitalized for a brief period and I remember going to visit him, but I wasn’t really sure why he was there. Shortly thereafter, my mother sold the family home and business, and we moved from the Okanagan to the Lower Mainland. My mom went to work full-time, and my dad worked off and on for different employers while he cooked up his own business schemes on the side.
Needless to say, our financial situation wasn’t great, but we had a nice home in a good neighbourhood. Over the next decade (1980s) he cycled between periods of normal, depressed and manic behaviour. It was unpredictable to say the least, and I remember feeling confused, isolated, lonely and fearful at times. I didn’t know anyone else who had a parent with a mental illness. I didn’t feel that any of my peers could relate. I rarely discussed it with anyone outside of our family. I really didn’t understand the illness either. It is still amazing to me that although mental illness affects so many people, it is often not discussed or understood by those who suffer from its effects.
Q: What kinds of support would have been helpful for you and your brother as you grew up?
I feel that growing up with a parent who has a mental illness is very similar to being raised in a home with alcoholism. Denial, isolation, unpredictable and irresponsible behaviour, financial instability, shame, depression are common in both situations. AA and Alanon have meetings all over the world, but I was not aware of any support groups for families who had a relative or loved one who suffered from a mental illness. I think it would have been very helpful to have had a group like Alateen to belong to: providing a community of individuals who could understand what we were going through, and a place where we could find emotional support.
My brother and I had to become very responsible at a young age, and it would have been nice to have had a place to go where we could behave more like ‘normal’ teenagers, and relax and just have fun.
Q: What kinds of issues did your mother face having to provide support to your father while raising a family?
My mom had a very difficult time. She found it almost impossible to find adequate information or support. My father had some severe episodes of mania, but she would have to prove that he was a danger to himself or to others to get him admitted to the hospital. It was terrible to have to see him get that sick to get any help. My mom also found it difficult to find doctors who would discuss his medical condition with her. She really didn’t get much assistance from anyone. It was extremely frustrating and exhausting. She worked full-time and raised two children while she dealt with all of the fallout from his illness. It wasn’t easy. I admire her strength and courage.
Q: What kinds of support would have been helpful for her?
I think it would have been helpful if there had been more communication between the doctors and our family. We knew when he was starting to show symptoms of either mania or depression long before he was really far gone. We knew when his medication was or wasn’t working. We were also very good at figuring out whether he was taking it or not. He would always tell his doctors he felt great no matter what was really happening. Patients have rights, but the emotional health of those who live with and love them should be considered as well. The wishes, needs and concerns of the family should also be given merit.
Q: Now that you and your brother are older, what kinds of issues do you face?
The concept of allowing a person with a severe mental illness to be completely responsible for his or her own life isn’t very realistic. My dad receives income assistance and he is able to live on his own. He hasn’t been hospitalized in years, so he’s probably taking his medication as prescribed, but my brother and I can’t be with him all the time. I have two young children that I love dearly, and I have learned that my emotional and physical health and my personal and financial responsibilities must come first.
I am blessed to have my brother who provides most of the caregiving and emotional support. He talks to my dad on the phone a couple of times a week. He often invites him to watch the hockey game or to go out for a round of golf. He takes care of most of the critical things. I keep in touch and host holiday events and barbeques with the kids.
I do worry about his health, and I often wish I could do more, but there has to be a balance. He is still the parent and we are the children. We are supposed to lead our own lives. I think we are doing the best that we can, considering the circumstances.
Q: What kinds of resources would be helpful to you (and your brother) now?
What I would really like to see would be programs for people like my dad, who are living with a mental illness: day programs, support groups, and community settings where they could share, learn and find hope for successful, more independent living. It would be great if my dad could find ways to learn new skills or rediscover old ones. This might help him regain self-confidence, self-esteem and possibly a small income. It would also be nice if he could participate in organized social and recreational outings.
I also feel that it would be great if doctors could make an effort to work together with concerned family members. Many times people who are sick don’t think that they need help or medication.
It would be nice to have more information about mental disorders and their treatments. I know that there are probably some support groups and resources out there, but I don’t know about them. Doctors, the general public, patients and their families should be made more aware of the warning signs, symptoms, current treatments, and supports for mental illnesses: education, education, education! Also, family support groups – it would be nice to network with other people who can give first-hand advice or emotional support. It is always good to know that you are not alone.
Q: Any final thoughts?
My dad is still my dad. He has an illness that affects his thinking and behaviour. It’s not his fault. As I gain more experience in life and as a mother, I realize what an amazing job my parents did in spite of all the difficulties they faced as a result of his illness. They did their very best. I have been described as being resilient, understanding, loving, headstrong, independent, and most importantly, as a wonderful mother. I learned this from them. It has taken many years, but I am learning to stop wishing things could have been different, and accept my dad as he is. I have never questioned the fact that my parents love me. Not everyone, no matter how ‘normal’ their upbringing was, can say that.
About the author
Monica worked in the animation industry for some years and now is the mother of two small children. She has lived in the Okanagan and on the North Shore, where she currently resides. In this interview she relates her experience of having a parent with mental illness.