October 03, 2022
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Illustration by Brittany England
Being diagnosed with the illness that consumed my dad’s life was terrifying. But it also gave me the strength to fight harder.
My fifth-grade psych evaluation tells the story of a desperate child who feels so tearful, hopeless, and broken that she doesn’t want to live anymore. As a child psychiatrist leaned forward and handed me some tissues to cry into, I admitted that I was so sad that I could hardly function.
Nothing was fun anymore: I didn’t like going to gymnastics practice and my mind was so jumbled that I couldn’t get lost in a chapter book. I cried through spelling and math class and then sat outside the guidance counselor’s door for most of the rest of the school day. I didn’t want to be near the “normal” kids who were playing kickball and dangling from the monkey bars during recess because they reminded me of everything I was missing out on.
My father was always unstable too, but I think that he reached the point of no return when I was in middle school. He landed himself in a hospital, where I was swept through locked doors to visit him. I watched the other patients meander through the corridors, dazed and not knowing whether they were coming or going.
My dad’s mood swings were volatile, and he was progressively unraveling. Sometimes, he even looked so out of his mind that I worried he was about to peel the skin from his bones, no matter how much it hurt.
As unstable as he often seemed, I was drawn to him. Maybe because I felt like he understood me in a way that nobody else could — he knew exactly what it felt like to lose control of your mind, to alternate between elation and despair in a way that just baffled everyone else.
He was a brilliant man, larger than life, who attended a prestigious law school and became an attorney. He was well-read and funny, intellectually curious, and always up for an adventure.
But as I got older, I realized that there were two very different sides to my father: one that scared the hell out of me when he was screaming for no reason and throwing the mail around the kitchen, and the other that made all that fear melt away because he was so euphoric.
I knew exactly what was happening to me, right from the start. It wasn’t all that hard to feel like my own mental health was becoming unstable too, because I had watched it from a distance for so many years. My dad’s moods were getting even scarier — and so were mine.
It was painful to go to school, to have to hurl myself out of bed and choose an outfit — and I felt the most depressed in the mornings. I was laughing hysterically in drama club rehearsals, to the point where the teacher had me removed from the rehearsals. I could act like the class clown and often moments later be surrounded by a circle of concerned friends who wanted to pull me off the floor and take me to see the school psychologist because I couldn’t stop sobbing.
Bipolar disorder is confusing to watch from the outside looking in, but absolutely terrifying to feel yourself slipping too.
My parents were also worried. Even my dad — probably because he recognized the same behaviors in himself. Hence the visit to that first mental health professional, an elegant woman who wore way too much eyeliner and wanted to put me on antidepressants.
“Your daughter is very depressed,” she said. “Without medication, this could get very, very bad. Antidepressants can be very helpful in children who present so hopeless and sad like this.”
Thinking they could just try a little harder and everything would be okay, my parents were totally against medication right from the start. At that time, nobody thought that I was having difficulties from bipolar disorder, that there was a name for the drama club crack-ups and that mood stabilizing medications like lithium and Depakote could make me feel better.
Bipolar disorder would come later. And it would hit me hard.
I continued to struggle, this time reeling from the aftermath of my parents’ brutal divorce. My mom thought I was just trying to cope with all the drama of my dad’s breakdown and that I would get better soon enough.
But my moods became even more erratic. I stopped going to classes and doing my homework and my teachers called my mom to find out why. I had always wanted to be a cheerleader, but I could hardly get through the practices where each jump or cheer or chant jumbled up my brain even more. It was getting harder to hold back my tears.
Enter my newest mental health pro, a bearded man who practiced psychiatry in a dimly lit cave of an office. His desk was piled high with files and papers and the diplomas on his wall were crooked. He seemed as disorganized as I was and I liked him from the start.
He repeated the first psychiatrist’s diagnosis, bringing my mom into his office to tell her that there was no question in his mind: I was severely depressed. I had described my father’s meltdowns to him, which convinced him that this was something biological, something that could only be fixed with medication.
“And there’s a good hospital on the other side of town if things get much worse,” he said. I shuddered and picked at my cuticles. How many cheerleaders end up in the psych ward?
This time, my mom went right to the pharmacy to pick up the antidepressants he had prescribed. I sat down at our kitchen table and pulled the pill bottle out of its crinkly bag. I swallowed my first dose of Prozac.
We waited, hoping I could get through a day of school. That my English teacher wouldn’t kick me out of class, and that I could go to cheerleading practice without crying.
But things got much worse.
People with bipolar disorder often get worse when they take antidepressants. But we didn’t know that I was really bipolar at the time.
After moving to a different city, my mom took me to more doctors. I choked down more meds: Paxil, Luvox, and Effexor. By the time I reached Zoloft, I was nearly convinced that all was lost.
Eventually, a psychiatrist finally caught up with me and gave me the bipolar diagnosis that had evaded me for so long. I couldn’t flee from this diagnosis anymore and neither could my mother, even though she had a very hard time accepting it.
Again, my dad had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder so many years ago by many different doctors. But his own prescriptions for lithium lingered on his bedroom dresser, ignored and starting to wrinkle around the edges.
I saw pieces of him in myself. I felt edgy and moody — like maggots were crawling through my flesh and I couldn’t dig them out with my fingernails. I worried that I was becoming even more like him as time passed.
The lows were unbearable: I was so desperate that I played around with pills and called suicide hotlines. But the highs — oh, those highs — were amazing. In the high moods, I was so euphoric that I believed everything would be OK in the end. My dad would get his sh*t together and my mom wouldn’t have to worry so much about me.
I wondered if I would be able to go to college and be “normal” like all of my high school friends. I didn’t want to be like my dad, but I knew I was rapidly becoming sicker and more out of control than ever before. During my sophomore year of high school, my psychiatrist worked overtime to keep me out of the hospital.
I was my father’s daughter, after all.
Watching my father repeatedly lose his mind helped me see the fragility of my own neurotransmitters. Just by having a parent with a mental illness, I was more vulnerable to mood swings.
Sadness wasn’t a simple mood anymore. It became a reason to pick up the phone and make an immediate appointment with a mental health professional. When things were really bad, I sensed that I would be taking medications for the rest of my life. My dad was “Exhibit A” of what goes down when you’re seriously ill and don’t take your pills.
My dad also helped me see that I was dealing with something more complicated than your garden variety depression: I had bipolar disorder. I would need mood stabilizers and antipsychotics instead of antidepressants (which would again, possibly make things even more unstable). Growing up with my dad did give me some important insights I couldn’t have found any other way.
What would I tell anyone else? Learn as much as you can about what is happening in your brain. Dig through the branches of your family tree to look for the signs and symptoms that could indicate an underlying mood disorder.
See a doctor if you have to, to help you make sense of all of this. The behaviors of family members are good predictors of what might be occurring further on down the line.
My father passed away in 2008. I often wonder if he could have found a way to survive, maybe by getting treatment and following his doctors’ advice. I look at my pills every night, so tired that I want to slide into bed and not take them. But missing even one dose is dangerous.
His death has compelled me to be vigilant with my own medication regimen, forcing myself to go to therapy sessions even if I don’t want to, and just doing my very best to stay alive. Some days are easier than others and some are hard as hell. But living through my father’s death, I have a feeling that people would miss me too.
I have a purpose in being here.
Medically reviewed on October 03, 2022
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