Growing up with a mentally ill father leaves you with something — beyond the pain, shame, confusion, embarrassment, fractured family relationships and therapy bills all these decades later. It leaves you with a little ghost who is quick to appear every time the world gets quiet.
Now I know what this ghost is, but I didn’t before. It may look different to each one of us, but it’s still the same — that secret we were forced to keep for all of those years from our friends at school, from the people at church and even from our extended family. The secret that we still don’t know what to do with.
It should comfort me to know that I’m not alone in this, but it doesn’t. Since there are so many people living with an undiagnosed mental illness, like my dad did, and since many parents aren’t willing to admit their struggles for fear of judgment, the exact statistics on having a mentally ill parent are harder to pin down. But we know that at least 1 in 5 adults has a mental illness, and according to the latest numbers, there are more than 73 million kids in the U.S., so the two are likely to intersect.
We have mental health resources, we have mental health awareness campaigns circulating on Facebook, but we still haven’t figured out how to reach out and crack the “happy” family shell that so commonly hides untreated mental illness underneath. These families, like mine, are the ones with the ghosts that they don’t want anyone to see, and ironically, they’re the ones who need the mental health support the most.
For those of us who survive and make it through while keeping our family secret intact, we’re not any better for it. Quite the contrary. It took me until I was 30 and the parent of two children of my own before I voluntarily went to therapy — until I felt like I was constantly drowning in anxiety with a lifelong eating disorder that continued to rear its ugly head, and I couldn’t take it anymore.
Therapy was like magic, if you could call a rigorous and painful boot camp “magic,” but at least, it gave me a safe place to finally out my family secret. My dad, who I had recently gotten back in touch with after seven years, was sick and had been sick all along. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t in my genes to be a bad parent. I would never do the same thing to my kids.
That realization came as a tidal wave of relief, but it left me with something else that I never expected. Under the hard candy shell of family perfection that I’d been shielding myself with for decades was a totally and completely broken heart. I cried every day for no less than six months, once therapy started. I couldn’t stop the waterworks, and I didn’t fully understand where this grief flood was coming from.
But now I know. I can’t compare my personal pain to the loss of a parent because I’ve never been there. But I can guess that it may be equally or even more painful at times to come to terms with the loss of a parent who is still alive. It can be isolating to cry and cry and cry when no one understands why you are grieving. It can be even harder to grieve a parent and the childhood that you never had, when that parent still tries to email you a few times a year.
David Kushner’s recent New Yorker piece, called “Can Trauma Help You Grow?,” gives people like me a small glimmer of hope. Kushner’s older brother was kidnapped and murdered in the 1970s in a horrible family tragedy that I can’t even begin to comprehend, but what he offers to fellow grievers is this: It’s true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Experiencing a significant childhood trauma or loss could actually spur on unexpected personal growth, if you’re brave enough and vulnerable enough to lean into it.
This can be true of a blatant loss of a family member, but for those of us living in mental illness limbo, it can take years or even decades longer to cross the threshold of this ambiguous grief. It’s still possible for children of mentally ill parents who grew up in a traumatic environment to reach the beautiful “other side” Kushner talks about, but before we get there, we may have to make some difficult choices along the way.
My dad is still very much here, but I’ve come to accept that we’ll never have that daddy-daughter connection I hoped we would when I was a kid. I love my dad fiercely for the person I know he can be, but back here in the real world, I’m still grieving, and my heart is still broken. He’s still my ghost, and I'm still the person who can't reach him in his little world. I don't think that will ever change.
On the bad days, I see this ghost, and it’s a constant reminder of that deep, dark secret that my family carried for so long. My heart literally hurts inside my chest as all the clichés run through my mind — I didn’t ask for any of this. Why did this happen to me? Why are we different? Why can’t we talk about anything? Why aren’t we really as happy as other people appear to be?
But on the good days — and there are more of those than there used to be — when I’ve gone to therapy and I’ve meditated and I’ve connected with some of the people I’ve worked so hard to open up to, I see that ghost as an old friend. The interconnected parts of life that are both bitter and sweet, painful and happy — I think I understand them better now. I was forced to believe in myself and even start to love myself because there was no one else to do it for me. My heart is softer and more tender to other people I see struggling with the same secret. As for the little ghost: Maybe I don’t want you to leave.
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