Father’s Day

The last time I saw my father for Father’s Day he was at the bar. That was the place to find him. I didn’t like going in there, but I went in to say Happy Father’s Day. I don’t remember his reaction or what I did after.

In a way, I never really felt like I had a father. I never lived with him. Most of the time I spent with him was out of obligation. His presence wasn’t comforting, it ranged from awkward to threatening. I knew how much he had hurt my family.

As a kid, it was black and white for me. I didn’t see the nuances of how some people become bad people, I just knew they were bad. There were many times of wishing he was different, wishing we could be like other families. At one point I hated him.

But there were good times. He taught me how to draw, how to paint, how to play chess, how to identify animal tracks. He’d record home videos where I’d pretend to be a news presenter. He’d tickle me to make me laugh and he’d let me paint on his back with sharpies. He showed me his small collection of fossils and he took me to the little mountains bordering our town to show me the marks previous water currents had left on the rocks. He taught me not to litter the countryside. He taught me to leave bugs alone even if they scare me.

When he was kind, he was kind.

When I found out he had taken his own life, I couldn’t cry. I felt numb for a long time. I was also told not to discuss this with anyone because suicide is something shameful, so no one should know. I was alone with my already existing suicidal thoughts and now my father’s suicide, while the ones who should’ve supported me instead questioned my ability to care about or to love people.

It took me a couple of years to actually start grieving. At this point I was around 16 and I blamed myself for my lack of previous grieving, for my lack of understanding the complexities of his personality and his actions, for not trying to build a relationship with him. I still haven’t entirely forgiven myself for not reaching out when I did feel like reaching out but felt it was the wrong thing to do, or felt it went against what was expected of me. But I was a child and I can’t blame myself for not looking past his abusive behaviour to see the childhood trauma, the alcoholism, the mental illness.

It was only after my own diagnosis that I found out he most likely had bipolar disorder too. I didn’t know him well enough, or long enough, to notice this.

From the moment he died, I was certain that would be how I go as well. It was the moments I was the most suicidal in my 20s that made me feel closer to him, experiencing first-hand the suffering and desperation that pushes a person to that point in a way I couldn’t fully understand in my teens, despite already having suicidal thoughts.

I would never justify any of the bad things he did, or convince myself it was inevitable for him to end up that way because of his upbringing, that he had no choice in doing the things he did. But as many people with mental health issues do, he never had appropriate support or help to move towards more positive and healthier behaviours.

I wish I could go back and talk to him, try to have a relationship with him. The people he hurt forgave him, it’s not up to me to carry that resentment when it wasn’t mine in the first place. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I really think there was a potential for him to move past his bad actions and become a better person.

He left no note for me. I have very few memories with him, and so many of them are negative. I only have two pictures of him from when I was very little. I knew him, but I didn’t know him. At times it felt like I hadn’t lost anyone at all. Can you lose someone who wasn’t there?

I now hold on to the good memories I have, and I let the negative ones remind me of who I don’t want to become. I may have inherited this dysfunctional, self-destructive brain, but I don’t have to become the same person. I hold on to the knowledge that he was ill just as I have been, that just as I was emotionally neglected as a child, he had a probably even worse childhood. It just so happened that life took us down different paths through our illness.

I still have frequent dreams where it turns out he’s been alive all along. But the past is what it is, and I can’t go back and fix it. I don’t know if I can miss someone who wasn’t that present in my life, or if I just miss the ideal of him, or the ideal of a father.

I just wish things could have been better for him. Not just for me to have a father, but for him to have a good life.

One year alive

Today marks a year since I tried to die.

It’s sunny and hot, which I appreciate after all the rain. I saw a crow taking a bath in some of the water left from the rain on a roof. I had a nice cold decaf coffee after work. Did some studying, did some knitting, had some lentils for dinner. Life gradually became normal. Mundane, in a good way. Not perfect but close.

I’m happy to be alive. Lucky, really. Forever grateful to the friend who managed to get me help in time.

I’m ashamed that I did it, ashamed of what I put people through, and ashamed of what I sometimes can’t help but see as weakness.

I’m angry at the system. Had I not nearly died, I wouldn’t have had any help. I would’ve died, if not on that day, soon after. It took two suicide attempts and getting hospitalised to get a diagnosis I could have gotten in the community two years earlier if a psychiatrist had paid attention to what I was describing.

I’m angry at the “you’re just not trying hard enough”, the “have you tried splashing your face with cold water? if you don’t try those things of course you’ll end up in A&E again”, the “maybe go to the beach, have some fish and chips, to me it just sounds like you’re stressed”, the “what you have cannot be treated”, the “you still haven’t tried to kill yourself so you’re not that bad”, the “think how lucky you are, how can you want to die when so many people have it so much worse”, the “no, I don’t think you have bipolar disorder”, the “it just doesn’t seem like we can help you.”

I’m angry not just at the individual people who don’t seem to be competent enough to work in the mental health field, but also at an underfunded and short staffed system where even the best of people often lack the time and resources to provide the best care.

I’m grateful to the hospital. I had a good psychiatrist who saw I had bipolar disorder right away and started me on medication, supportive nurses and healthcare assistants who made me feel safe and cared for, occupational therapy staff who helped me find coping skills that actually worked for me and got me participating in activities, and a psychologist who allowed me to see my resilience and good qualities instead of only seeing the moments where I was weak. It was all that help that enabled me to do the work to turn things around.

I choose to focus on the gratefulness and the appreciation of being alive. Anger and resentment won’t change the past, but I’m still disappointed at the state of mental health care.

How many people live feeling miserable, how many people die, only because they don’t get the help they need no matter how much they try to access it? How many people are made to feel as if it’s their own fault they’re like that, as if they’d be all good if they just tried harder?

I could be dead, and I’d be just another body adding to the statistics, another “what a shame, but what could we have done to prevent it?”

Listen to patients and service users. Treat us like the unique individuals we are. We’re not perfect textbook cases. If you give me a list of coping skills and I tell you they don’t work and I still feel suicidal day in and day out, perhaps consider the failure is on your part and not mine.

Remaining grounded through changes

There are changes you make and changes that happen. Changes that you can see coming and changes that catch you off guard.

For me, bipolar disorder is easier to manage if I have stability, routine, and predictability. It’s easy for some things to throw me off balance, so I have to be especially careful not to let that happen when drastic changes occur or when emotionally charged situations arise.

The changes I make, I make carefully. I know both depression and hypomania can lead me to impulsively do things I will later regret. So even though I am stable and have been for months, I do remain mindful that I still have an illness.

I enrolled in university this year, something I also did a couple years ago while hypomanic only to drop out by the time classes started when the depression hit. I later realised I didn’t even have a real interest in that career; not one that would justify the cost of the degree anyway. This time I gave it some actual thought, it wasn’t a ‘hell, why not’ decision. I’m doing a different degree than what I started back then, and I gave this a lot of consideration. I know I’m doing this for the right reasons.

I plan on also leaving the job I’ve had since I moved here. That’s something I’ve considered doing many times in the past couple of years, either because the depression made me feel like I couldn’t hold a job at all, or because the hypomania made me so angry at everything going on that I just felt I needed to leave or otherwise I’d snap and get myself fired.

I’m leaving for the right reasons. I’m unhappy there. For the most part it brings me nothing but frustration and unnecessary stress. I’m not leaving to escape for the sake of escaping, I’m leaving to give myself the chance to find somewhere better. And I’m not applying to any and every job I find, I’m making choices with the future in mind.

This career change is one I had seriously contemplated pretty much since I was discharged from the hospital. I wasn’t ready for change then, but it’s something I can cope with now. Actually, it’s something I need now. Uncertainty is scary, but I’m confident I can cope. After all, if I could move to a different country with my mental illness untreated, I’m sure I can move to a different job in the same town while being healthy and stable. I’m in a place where I know this won’t make me unsteady and send me into an episode.

Changes I’m responsible for are easy to cope with. My reality changes, but I’m in control of that change to a good extent, and that gives me some sense of security. It’s only when they happen as a result of an episode that I start feeling detached from reality, as I am actively making choices but it doesn’t feel like they’re my own choices at all.

For changes outside my control that I can see coming, I may or may not like them, but I can prepare for them. I haven’t had many of these happen lately. The anticipation can be anxiety-inducing, but I am able to go through them and reassure myself that anxiety is rarely rational.

All the above are changes I can manage without questioning reality. I still feel grounded, life doesn’t feel unreal. It feels different and strange as they take place, but ultimately, I experience them in a way that feels very normal and not unsettling or upsetting.

As for changes I can’t see coming… well, they happen. Some more unexpected than others. These do affect me because I still sometimes struggle with lacking control, and with some of them like a pandemic or someone’s sudden death in the past, I just wasn’t prepared at all. But the more unexpected experiences I face, the better equipped I am to deal with whatever comes next.

My perception of reality was recently challenged as something I took for granted ceased to be real, and this led to brief (but concerning) feelings of questioning both reality and my place in it. I felt disoriented, confused. The fact that something significant happened in a way that forced me to step back and re-evaluate where I stand did shake me up. However, I don’t think it’s at all like the derealisation that used to hit me whenever anything around me changed in the slightest.

I know I am experiencing reality, I’m not in that delusional state I have experienced in the past where I was certain I was dreaming or in a coma, or the derealisation state where I felt entirely detached from everything and everyone around me.

It’s not so much that I feel detached from reality as much as it is that I’ve consciously decided to step back from some of it. The people are still real, they’re not slipping away from my reality, but I am intentionally stepping away from them.

I am very aware of impermanence, I accept it and I remind myself on a daily basis that everything is subject to change. But it’s very likely I unconsciously take some things for granted simply because at first glance they don’t appear to be things that would easily change.

People change, as does our perception of them the longer we know them. Sometimes they surprise you for better or worse. In this particular situation, what I assumed to be derealisation at first was just the struggle to accept that people do in fact do things that completely change the way you see them, sometimes for worse. I don’t feel detached from people around me as I would with derealisation, I am just disappointed.

A difference I have noticed compared with past experiences is that I’m not necessarily angry. I’m just done.

I used to be very shaken up by change. I must admit, completely having to change how I view someone in the way I have now is new to me, and for a minute there I felt like I might just lose my grip. I was ready to deploy all my grounding coping skills. But as it turns out, I was underestimating my ability to cope with changes outside of my control these days.

In this particular situation, I could have easily overlooked certain issues in order to keep things as they were and to avoid stepping out of that comfort zone of stability and uneventfulness. Instead, I chose to embrace change in a way that, as uncomfortable as it might be, is in line with my values.

I think this is what has finally pushed me to realise that change is nothing to be afraid of. It really is inevitable. The things I cannot control, I accept. For the things I have a choice in, I make choices being true to myself. I no longer have a sense of blind loyalty to anyone. If I have to let go, I let go.

I definitely benefit from stability. But complete, absolute stability will only hold me back. I want to be stable, not stagnant. I need some room for variability. I have slowly reached a point where I crave a healthy amount of change, and I’m excited to see where I go next.