Growing up, TV shows and books often use mental health issues as a focal point in their plotlines. While some of the depictions of mental health issues seem accurate, people who suffer with their mental health can seem dangerous and volatile. I always had an issue with that. Growing up, my father suffered from three mental health issues at varying times in his life.
He was diagnosed with depression and has been treated for that for years. Then he was told he was schizophrenic, and was briefly put on medication for that, before being diagnosed with and medicated for bipolar disorder. He was first diagnosed when I was six, and too young to understand.
Things I wish I had known
I knew from a young age that my Dad wasn’t like other Dads, and that was okay. He still always got up and went to work, and made sure we never went without food or school books or clothes.
However, it was hard to cope with as I got older. I still don’t think I ever really understood the extent of what was going on until I was in my late teens. Either way, I found that the hardest thing about having a Dad who suffered with his mental health was the effects it was having on myself and my family, and how we sometimes didn’t know how to cope.
Below are some techniques that helped me throughout the years. These may help you and your family too. Mental health issues are different for everyone, so if these techniques don’t work for you, don’t be afraid to look for other techniques or ask someone for help.
Acting out of character
When my Dad’s illness flared up, the smallest thing would set him off. Once I wore eyeshadow to school when I was thirteen, and it sent him into a spitting anger for the rest of the night. He wouldn’t look at me, he wouldn’t talk to me or anyone else in my family and then spent the night staring silently into the fire, like he was miles away.
The next day, he woke up like nothing had happened. He remembered the argument at the dinner table, but he had no recollection of the rest of the night. I only realised this far too late, but he honestly had no idea what he was doing at the time.
What helped me was to allow myself to feel what I was feeling and not to bottle up my emotions, and I did my best not to hold grudges against him for how his difficulties and behaviour impacted upon me.
Losing your temper will not help
There were several occasions where I used to have to come down from bed, because my sister and I were the only ones who could calm Dad down when he lost his temper. I learned very quickly that yelling at Dad was the wrong way to deal with these situations.
What worked was sitting on a couch with him in complete silence; no talking or moving, no noise whatsoever. He used to calm down then and we would be able to encourage him to go to bed. No matter how annoyed you are, whether you’ve been woken up and feel like this is utterly unfair – try not to lose your temper. Things tend to only get worse then and you are no closer to finding a solution and getting back to sleep.
Agreeing with him helped
If he thought that the sky was green, I agreed. If he thought he was getting on a plane when in reality he was going up the stairs, he was. For me, the worst thing I could do was tell Dad he was wrong. In my experience, what he was seeing in that moment was real to him, and I didn’t want to send him into a panic.
Because my Dad’s episodes happened mostly at night, I always used to agree with him and guide him slowly back to bed. Putting him to bed and making sure he ‘slept it off’ was my go-to solution for years. While other approaches may work for you, this definitely helped me.
Talking will help you
My Mam used to tell us we couldn’t tell anyone about what happened. I found this one of the hardest ‘rules’ to follow. I lived in a rural area where everyone knew everyone else’s business. We had a reputation to uphold as Dad worked locally.
I used to go to school and work and numbly function for the day. For me, going to school and work helped me to manage my feelings, since talking to others was not an option at the time.
When I went to college and realised how open minded everyone was about mental health, I saw a counsellor for months. Every little detail and experience I had, every perception and every emotion came pouring out. When I was done, it felt like a weight had been lifted that I had been carrying for years. Talking is the best thing you can do to understand how you feel.
It’s okay to cry
I was embarrassed of crying. I felt like I couldn’t cry because I was the oldest child and in my head, it was my job to keep everybody safe and calm. Crying is one of the best ways to relieve all the stress you’ve been carrying.
The main things that stopped me from just shutting myself away in my room were crying and writing. I have endless childhood notebooks filled with stories, thoughts, and feelings that spilled out on the pages, and crying helped me get it all out.
It’s not their fault
I know at times it feels like you would do anything to change the way things are. You have nothing to feel guilty about how you feel or how you react to difficult situations. The one thing I try to remember, even though I find it hard, is that it is not my dad’s fault. Mental illness is as real as any other physical illness, it’s just harder to see.
If you feel you want to talk to someone about what you are experiencing, there are a number of free and confidential support services.
You can also have a look at SpunOut.ie’s mental health section and Rethink Mental Illness for more information.
This article was written by a SpunOut.ie volunteer. Check out our volunteering opportunities here and get in touch if you’re interested in getting involved.