Community: Real Life

My mentally-ill Dad

What's it like growing up with a mentally-ill parent? For Carl, now 25, it was a real struggle. Here's his story.

I was never close to my Dad growing up. We barely spoke or saw each other. I was 15 when he was hospitalised. He was suicidal and he'd had a mental breakdown and showed schizoid behaviour, like thinking there were hidden messages directed at him in what the TV presenters were saying.

When my Dad's condition really deteriorated, he became very paranoid and unstable. He'd take things very personally, as if someone was making insinuations against him, even if it was completely innocent and neutral. His reactions made me wary of him, and afraid of saying that much, in case he took it the wrong way.

Feeling isolated and scared

At the time I had no idea what was really happening to my Dad; I was kept out of the loop. My Mother said things that scared me and my sisters, as if he was dangerous and volatile. I was confused and frightened by what was going on, and I felt that I had no one to turn to for reassurance or support. I didn't really have any friends. We lived in the middle of the countryside and I'd left school because of my own problems. I became scared and just withdrew into myself. My family didn't communicate, so my siblings and I were isolated and alone, just like Dad. The thought that I might end up going into care was almost welcome, because I could imagine that a foster parent might actually care about what I felt.

When my Dad reached the worst stage of his illness he attempted suicide by trying to drown himself in a small lake. He was discovered by the local farmer, who escorted him home. He was unhinged and desperate, and we were all very scared. I didn't know what would happen to our family. At the time I thought he might get violent and try to kill my Mum, who said that he had threatened to strangle her.

Being hospitalised

After my Dad was taken into a mental hospital, he was put on Lithium. He was on medication for some time, long after he was allowed back into society. During his long stay in hospital he had ECT (Electro-convulsive therapy), which involved inducing seizures by passing electric shocks through his brain. One time he escaped from hospital and found his way home. He was barely recognisable from the man who had been admitted. He had lost so much weight; he looked starved and haunted. It shocked me to see him, and I was scared of him. At the time I didn't know what he'd been through in hospital, and my mum tried to prevent anyone from having sympathy for him and denying that he had an illness as such. She said it was just his personality, and that he wanted an escape route because he was in such debt.

"Dad became very paranoid and unstable. I was confused and frightened by what was going on, with no one to turn to."

Looking back, everyone let him down. There was precious little help from the family, and the system couldn't really accommodate him. After his lengthy stay in hospital, he was returned to society to return to his alcoholic ways, with no real hope of recovery from mental illness.

Personal impact

Growing up with a mentally ill father made me realise how mental illness is misunderstood; how people are afraid of what they don't understand. People expect others to act in a predictable way, and when they don't they assume that person is capable of anything.

I sometimes think about being my Father's son, and having his genes. Thinking about my genetic inheritance leaves me feeling cold and uneasy. I tend to think of my own struggle with depression and anxiety as being a result of the environment I grew up in, the dysfunctional nature of how my parents related to each other and how they treated their kids.

I have no contact with either of my parents and I feel it's for the best. They can't hurt me anymore or mess with my head. I haven't seen Dad for years. I hope he's OK but I see no point in getting back in touch now, it would only open up old wounds.

Communication is key

For someone living in this situation, I think it's important to have someone to talk to. Family members might be a bit too close to what's going on, so an approachable teacher or friend who'll simply listen can be a Godsend. Find out about what's happening to your parent, there's lots of support and information out.

If as a family, we could have talked with one another and expressed our fears and feelings, it would've helped loads. At a time when we needed to be close and mutually supportive we were all isolated and afraid, which made the whole experience worse. I believe that part of the reason for my Dad's collapse into serious mental illness was the fact that he had nothing else to turn to apart from the bottle. Every family needs to communicate effectively and listen to one another. Perhaps if I could have spoken to my Dad it could have helped both of us to come to terms with what was happening.

Interviewed by Marcella Carnevale

Updated: 25/10/2006

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