On Growing Up with a Mentally Ill Parent and Choosing to Abandon the Victim Mentality
I love my dad. He is a successful lawyer, taught me how to ride a bike, made me curious about travelling and diversity, shared with me his passion for culture, adventures, good books, and nature. He’s also one of the people who’ve hurt me the most, though he never meant to. My dad started struggling with mental health in his early twenties, and after having a few depression episodes he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was prescribed medication. I have never doubted his love or affection, yet his troubled relationship with feelings, his phases of depression combined with phases of hyperactivity, emotional instability and irrational expectations of my performances impacted me a great deal growing up. They sometimes still do, to be honest, even if I go to therapy and I am aware that he never meant to hurt me. He was doing the best he could based on what he had learned from his own parents, trying to cope with his emotions, trauma, and mood swings.
My dad’s mental illness made me into an insecure, oversensitive, at times self-sabotaging individual who struggles with body-image, anxiety, depressive tendencies, and low self-esteem. But it has also made me into a resilient, independent, open-minded, empathetic, passionate, and tolerant young woman determined to (amongst many other things) dismantle negative stereotypes about mental illnesses and those affected by them.
Sure, growing up with a bipolar dad hasn’t been fun — it’s caused me pain and fear of never being accepted by him or those around me. During his “highs,” he never seemed satisfied with my grades at school, often humiliated me in public, forgot to show up to my tennis matches, criticized me for not being thin enough and having no self control when eating, called me lazy whenever I declined his invitations to boring dinners with his colleagues. During his “lows,” he would look at me with teary eyes and tell me how sorry he was for making me doubt myself or embarass me in front of my friends. He would take me to road trips or hikes into nature and talk to me about the endless possibilities the world has to offer, he would kiss my hands and tell me how smart and beautiful I was and that I could do whatever I wanted to if only I was willing to put the effort into it. His behavior was really confusing, and so was I growing up. Because I believed to mostly everything he said (like all kids do with their parents), I could never distinguish which I was — the lazy and fat girl who wasn’t good at anything she tried to do, or the brilliant and beautiful girl who was capable to do anything she wanted. Thankfully my mom was always there to comfort me and give me the self-confidence I needed to move forward and trust my intuition.
Yet, I developed anxiety and doubt about my own capabilities. I was never sure of what I really looked like to others, I feared criticism of any kind, and I was always scared of hurting other people’s feelings. As a teenager, I grew really angry at my dad. I thought he had forever damaged my wholeness and self-confidence. I was never sure of the choices I made — in love, in school, in friendships — and thought I lost track of my true self because of my dad. Had he been a different, normal dad, everything would’ve been better, and I could’ve been happy. But because of him, I was condemned to never find my way and always be conditioned by his judgement.
Then I moved out to go to university, and everything started to change. I began seeing a therapist for the first time in my life, which re-opened numerous wounds I never properly dealt with and brought up painful memories. But it allowed me to see myself more clearly. To understand that the fat-phobic voices in my head telling me I am not good enough and that I am a failure are a product of my troubled relationship with my dad’s bipolar behaviors and the things he would tell me “jokingly” when I was a child. The roots of these wounds created a false way in which I perceived myself and the world. The good news is, whereas my dad’s mental illness cannot be changed, I can radically choose to change my relationship with myself and the way I treat and talk to myself. It’s definitely not easy, no — it sucks to deal with the emotional abuse your parent has inflicted on you unconsciously.
Still, through a lot of inner work and dealing with trauma, I recently started to feel as if I owe myself the chance to forgive my dad. Because I have a right to overcome my insecurities lightheartedly, from a place of love rather than hatred and frustration. Therapy has helped me struggle through my pain, to then realize that I am not the victim. I am responsible for how I choose to face what life gives me. Life is not inflicted on me passively, just like other people’s opinions or judgements. I can vibrate higher and choose to see other people’s actions as the product of their own inner troubles and suffering. I can now create boundaries and kindly ask others to respect them. I can choose to really believe myself when I tell myself that I am capable and worthy and beautiful.
However, I can only do these things if I stop blaming my dad for having inflicted pain on me and holding him responsible for my insecurities. Not because it’s easier to forget and act like nothing ever happened, but because I acknowledge that he has hurt me and I still accept that he was doing his best to raise me whilst dealing with an irriversible mental illness. Practicing acceptance and stopping to blame him has made me rediscover my own power. The power to choose. The power to determine who I am, love myself, see my strengths and do what makes me feel good just for the sake of making me feel good.
My father’s bipolar disorder has helped me putting things into perspective in life. It’s caused me an unexplicable kind of pain and dealing with self-doubt and anxiety, but it’s also taught me some of the most profound lessons about the essence of human existence I have been lucky enough to know so far. It’s made me realize that humans are made of light and darkness, and that suffering is a part of life which cannot be avoided if one desires to find peace of mind. It’s taught me that being “normal” is not a prerequisite for being loved: even at our lowest points, when fighting with our darkest demons, we are still deserving of love — we may never be normal, but we’re always worthy.