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Grappling with my father's mental illness.

by Elise Dolman

"If only I could turn back the hands of time, I would erase all the pain I caused you."

This was the letter my father gave to me the day before my wedding. A single piece of paper was attached to a box, and inside was a beautiful, white gold watch.

My father was mentally ill. We don't talk about such things; they always happen to others and it's someone else's relative. But he was my father. He was a prisoner of his own mind, trapped in the craziness of manic depression otherwise known as bipolar disease. He was a man devastated by his lows and hyper during his highs. Worst of all, he knew it -- before, during and after each episode.

When my parents met, he showed some red flags but in her innocence, my mother thought he was fun loving and eccentric. He was good looking, charming and had a great sense of humor. My mother says to this day that they truly loved each other. As time went on, his symptoms grew worse and when I was born, the pressures of family life became too great. He went from doctor to doctor, physiatrist to physiatrist and they each prescribed him different cocktails to curb his moods. So began his lifelong chemical dependencies.

I learned early on that there were good days and bad days. I learned not to bring friends home; slumber parties were for other girls. I learned what it meant to have no control; my father would say he loved me one minute but embarrass me in public the next. I was so angry at him; how could he fall into the same patterns over and over? Didn't he love me enough to learn to wake up and go to work like everyone else?

It is hard to fully describe the impact that the instability and shame had on me.

Eventually after my mother tried everything, my parent's marriage dissolved.

I was terrified to start dating. After all, I was from a close knit community and one day I realized, everyone knew. It took many years to work out my own issues, to learn to control the anger, to limit my expectations and to accept reality. Looking back, I wonder how I managed.

I met my future husband. He was everything I needed, calm and patient and very understanding. My father loved him because he made me happy. He saw our relationship as a new start for him, a chance to begin anew and a reason for change. That was when he wrote me the letter and gave me the watch. "If only I could turn back the hands of time, I would erase all the pain I caused you."

For the first time, I began treating him like a person and not a burden.

I still recall exactly where I was standing in our new apartment when my father broke down. He was stable from before my engagement until a few weeks after the wedding. I was almost hopeful. My husband took it in stride and supported me through that very difficult time. With his listening ear, kind words and advice, I learned for the first time to separate my father from his demons. I viewed him in a new light, as someone in pain of the most terrible kind, the pain of insanity. I began to show him respect and speak to him with dignity. For the first time, I began thinking of and treating him like a person and not a burden.

I was wearing that watch when I got the phone call. Its face read 6:14 and I somehow knew this was the early morning phone call I always dreaded. For years I suspected that my father would die young from the toll of his issues and medications. I woke my husband in a panic. He answered the phone, listened for a moment and tears began rolling down his cheeks. He nodded his head to me and I understood at that moment that this chapter of my life was over. My father had died in his sleep. My father and all those years of pain and shame were gone.

His death was bittersweet. I knew that now he was at peace, but I had just begun to come to terms with who he was. As my younger sister told me at the funeral, "I have tears in two eyes, one for sadness that he's gone and one for happiness that his suffering is over." I just wish I had more time.

When I was 18, I began therapy to help me manage the devastation my father's illness had caused me. I remember my very wise psychologist saying, "One day when you're in your 30s or 40s, you'll thank your father for forcing you to become such a strong and good person." She was wrong; I'm still in my 20s.

The same way I learned that there are good days and bad days; I learned not to take any of these days for granted. I fully appreciate the gift of sanity, the privilege of being in total control of my mind. I can wake up and wash my hands once. I can eat a full bowl of cereal and enjoy it. I can begin my day happily playing with my children. I can love, I can learn and I can give. Through it all, I have become a better wife and mother.

If only I could turn back the hands of time, I would show you, Daddy, how much I learned from the pain you didn't want to cause me.

July 7, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 17

(17) Anonymous, February 12, 2008 9:11 PM

As Pete Earley's book title says it all, Crazy, a fathers search through America's Mental Health Maddness

How do we as a society live with ourselves as we stand by and let those who through no fault of their own suffer with Mental Illness. Fifty percent of those with mental illness do not know they are ill. What do we do offer them freedom of choice in regards to their health care. The organ with the disease is the brain the very organ used to make cognitive choices. How ridiculous. The mentally ill are smart and deserving of treatment. The mental health system convenienly allows forced treatment to remain in a punitive light rather than a chance for hope, or from relief of tormrnt that the illness commands. God Bless your father and my dear sweet brother who never had a choice in life because they were unfrotunate victims of a terrible disease that offers little hope of recovery. It is probably the least funded of all disease in regards to research. I share your saddness and I appreciate everyday that I can communicate with my brother. Your article must make your father proud. He is finally at peace with the angels.

(16) Anonymous, July 11, 2007 1:59 AM

The article from the woman making peace with a bipolar father clearly articulates the struggle of coming to terms with a loved one with mental illness -- a very, very painful journey. Unfortunately, it's a struggle that I know well, as the mother of a child with early-onset rapid cycling mixed-type bipolar disorder. The issues that I have with the article do not relate to her struggle but rather to the information she provides about bipolar. Since I am the one responsible (along with my husband) for the care of our son, I have had to educate myself pretty thoroughly about the illness, and the article's author shares some incorrect information which may mislead readers.

Examples: a "physiatrist" is a doctor of physical medicine and rehabilitation (spinal cord injuries, sports medicine). A "psychiatrist" treats mental illness.

People with mental illness often go from doctor to doctor because not all psychiatrists are adept at successfully diagnosing and treating all mental illnesses (our son was previously diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, ADHD, ODD, OCD, depression, "needing a good potch" -- really! and we went through a number of years trying different medications until we found the right combination to stabilize him).

Also, typically, bipolars begin to feel terrific due to the beginning of a manic phase and go off their meds. At the beginning of the manic phase, they may seem clear, creative, happy/normal and seem to have insight. They do and they don't. At this point, they can accomplish incredible things (virtually every classic writer, artist, composer you've ever heard of -- not to mention Shabsai Tzvi exhibited clear symptoms of bipolar disorder) but they often then deteriorate into the self-destructive behaviors that often ultimately claim them, if they don't go back on their meds. They are ill. Even with appropriate medication (whose visible side-effects may include fatigue tremor, severe acne, constant thirst, difficulty with memory/cognition), my son's mood still cycles many times a day; he can be perfectly fine and then not. Thank G-d, with medication, most people can't really tell unless they are trained or know him really well. Most people think he's a normal teenager. In fact, he goes to a "regular" mesivta, gives music lessons, teaches biblical grammar to classes of adults, and plays keyboard for Bar Mitzvah parties. That's why, when the author talks about her father being aware of his illness at all times and implying that there were choices he made about his behavior or how he dealt with his illness, I suspect that as a "child of" rather than a "caretaker of", it is probably a combination of wishful thinking and inadequate information. Decisions made in times of lucidity can be completely erased as if they never existed as soon as the illness kicks in.

Additionally, bipolars are not "dependent" on their meds in the sense that none of these meds are addictive. They "need" their meds in the same way that a diabetic "needs" his insulin. A biological process that's supposed to be functioning in the body isn't there and needs a substitute supplied artificially. I have never known a person with bipolar who functioned consistently well in the absence of medication at all times. The medications often take up to 6 weeks to reach even a basic therapeutic dosage that must then be adjusted for the individual, and many medications' visible side effects are more severe at the beginning (there are serious possible side effects for longterm usage as well -- including kidney and liver failure). Many bipolars go off the medications before they have a chance to work, and so begins the vicious cycle of their illness.

Finally, the illness itself rarely kills them (the author implies that he simply died in his sleep, possibly from the illness or the parade of medications, normally ingested). Some, during a depressive phase, kill themselves, sometimes by overdosing on the medications prescribed to help them. Some, because of the increased tendency of addiction to drugs and alcohol, do it that way. Some become violent and aggressive and provoke others to do it for them. Sometimes, the longterm side effects of the medications wreak havoc on their physical well-being. And some, live a perfectly "normal" amount of time, with a reasonably stable life. I still do not hesitate to medicate my son. Without his medications, he has no quality of life. With them, he can get married, have a job, have kids, and serve Hashem, just like the rest of us. We all have "peckelach." It's our job to be sanctify them by looking at them clearly and often, painfully, understanding them thoroughly, asking for appropriate guidance, and doing our best.

(15) Anonymous, July 9, 2007 10:45 PM

You Give Great Hope to All of Us with Suffering Kids

While I am not mentally ill, my kids have suffered greatly for most or all of their lives because of a physical illness that I have. Beyond the hassles of the resultant disabilities, they are constantly having to control their fears of my death, their fears of being abandoned, the embarrassment when I become very ill in public, and the like. I have so often wanted to tell them how much I am sorry for the pain I cause them, and sometimes I do say so to them. And, I've been blessed with the greatest gift of all (besides my life), which is the opportunity to see just how magnificent they are becoming as people, people of compassion, insight, maturity, and generosity. Still, my heart broke, and my tears poured, as I read your words. From one eye the tears were for you, for my kids, for all who suffer like this. From the other eye, the tears were tears of joy, of gratitude. I pray that some day, my children will be able to see and articulate what you yourself have come to learn in pain. May they also forgive me, forgive G-d, for their suffering, and see in it the bracha for the growth opportunity. I know that G-d only gives us what we can handle. I thank Him every day for helping my kids to make the most of it.
Thank you for your healing words.

(14) Anonymous, July 9, 2007 9:26 AM

I have Bi-Polar disorder and know how difficult it can be for the family and for my self to live with, my sympathy goes out to your family. But please also keeep in mind that with the proper medication and indivudal can lead a "normal" life I have had the same job for 16 years, I am married and I participate in life, my regular life and my jewish life. This illness had never stopped because I won't let it run my life, that is the key. Any illness ,Bi-polar, diabetes, OCD, etc. can run yoou life and take your life or you can take charge of your life I know this from first hand experience when I was first diagnosised I thought my life was over and tried to end it and when that didn't work I tried another approach I tried to live, this seems to be working much better, don't get me wrong I have my better moments but it is far better than death understanding within yourself and those around you and medication work the best. Oh and doing what makes you happy not what makes the family happy that doesn't work the family just needs to be supportive.

(13) Anonymous, July 9, 2007 7:09 AM

I can relate

My father suffers from a crippling case of OCD. There are days that he does not come out of the room where he davens until 6 or 7 pm, still wrapped in talis and t'filin. We had to be totally silent for hours so as not to disturb his concentration as if it was our fault that he had to say the words over and over again. In our house, we weren't even told that Daddy's problem had a name. All we knew was that you couldn't tell people that you were late because Daddy was davening/washing/etc. I lived the same life where I loved to go away to friends' houses for Shabbat, but inviting them back was not really an option. How do you explain starting the meal at 10 pm during the winter? Or the fact that my dad doesn't daven in shul?

During my teenage years, I lashed out in fury. I screamed and fought, refusing to submit quietly to the total control my father's illness had on the household. I refused to come to a meal at that hour. Everybody would tell me how insensitive I was, how he couldn't help it. No one could see how allowing his illness to control everyone was so bad for all of us, even for him. There were times when I actually hoped he would die in some accident.

I was sure I would never get married because of this stain on my family. As much as it was top secret, there was no getting around questions like "Where does her father daven?". Um, the middle bedroom upstairs? Thank G-d, I did marry a wonderful man who was very open and understanding about mental illness.

It took him a while, though, to understand where I was coming from when I refused to answer questions about Dad. When I would shut down if he asked me a question about him, he couldn't understand why. After years of therapy with a wonderful therapist, I've learned to see my Dad as a human being that has an illness. I've learned that my anger was okay. I've learned that things weren't approached in the right way in my house and I've learned to let go of the guilt I felt. That has also let me let go of some of the anger. I can talk to my dad now and appreciate him outside his illness. I suppose it's much easier to do now that I don't live at home and am no longer controlled on a daily basis. My husband and I have worked out a policy when we go with our children for Shabbat to my parents. We sit down for kiddush when he comes home from shul. My mom and siblings have figured out that this is really the way to handle the situation rather than everyone waiting and waiting only to have a meal that's full of resentment and anger. Things have really improved and I'm happy to say that my children have a great relationship with him. And my relationship with him has changed as well.

Thank you for this article. It was a bit of free therapy for me! :)

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