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Why it took me 30 years to admit my father was mentally ill

Whenever the topic of my childhood comes up, the conversations are never good. I have said it more than once — it would have been easier if my dad had a physical illness. Maybe then, even as a young child, I would have been able to tell people that something tangible was wrong with him, and I wouldn’t have assumed it was my fault.

The funny thing about my childhood is that it was presented to me as “perfect.” My parents were missionaries, and then my dad was a pastor, so I spent the rest of my younger years growing up in church. I don’t know much about my dad’s mental health diagnosis back then, but I do know his issues were difficult to hide, especially after my parents divorced when I was 10.

After the divorce, I was the oldest child, so I was in charge. This meant that I was normally the brunt of my dad’s unpredictable emotional outbursts. At the time, it seemed like it was better that way. I could buffer my younger brother and sister from the most intense emotions and I could keep them in line — since it was my job to discipline them when we were at my dad’s house for the weekend — by pretending everything was OK.

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It’s this pretending that I picked up somewhere along the way that has been the greatest hindrance in my healing. I really and truly thought my family was OK by the time I finished high school. I couldn’t explain why I couldn’t remember a time when my chest didn’t feel tight with anxiety. I kept my severe anorexia and bulimia a secret for more than 10 years — a side effect of the stress in my household and the only way I could cope — until I slowly began to open up and rehabilitate in my early 20s. Sometimes I still get scared when I don’t eat by the rules.

My dad wasn’t all bad, as any child of a mentally ill parent can tell you. The most confusing part about my relationship with my dad is how happy and upbeat he could be. When he was “on,” he made my childhood seem exciting: He’s paying attention to me! We’re having such a good time! Maybe it isn’t as bad as it feels!

And when he was “off,” which came at the flip of a switch, I didn’t and often still don’t know how to process it. When he closed himself up in his room for more than eight hours when we went to his house on the weekends, when he would berate me because I washed a pot and put it away without drying it, when he would leave us at home alone and go out to get a haircut without returning for hours on end: Where did he go? Do you think he’ll come back? Is this how I’m going to feel forever?

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It took my family decades to admit my dad was mentally ill. It wasn’t until recently we found out he had been formally diagnosed. This was after I didn’t talk to my dad for seven whole years because the toxicity in our relationship was crushing me. He continued to go to church and compartmentalize his life the best way he knew how. After we reconnected following such a long break, things are surprisingly the same.

The only difference is that I am different. I’m a parent now. I’ve gone to therapy. I’m slowly learning to love myself. I’m seeing things from a higher position than a helpless 10-year-old who didn’t know how to protect her brother and sister from what was going on. I’m starting to think maybe it really wasn’t all my fault. Maybe my dad was just sick.

When I see my dad now, my heart still hurts — but in a different way. I can look at him and see that his pain is not my pain and his sickness is not my sickness. I can also look at him and remember what it felt like to be so excited to be his daughter. My dad’s illness makes me sad, not because it’s anyone’s fault, but because there have been a few times in my life where I have glimpsed his true self, without the limitations, and I know I’m missing out.

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