Memories of Madness: My Dad’s Bipolar Disorder

August 15, 2014
A smiling man talking to a student in his office.

I have seen his blue eyes twinkle in good natured fun and humor as he laughed hysterically after a passionate rapid-fire speech . . . yet also witnessed the doldrums of his depression, his melancholy mood, and his exhausted, tired voice. I’m not referring to the famous Robin Williams—I’m talking about my father. The similarities run beyond the physical attributes of the graying hair of a receding hairline, long sideburns, and somber blue eyes—as they both shared a life-long battle with mental illness that most of society found difficult to understand and comprehend.

At a very young age my mother tried to explain to me and my sister that the actress Patty Duke suffered from something called manic depression and so did my father. This was the late 80s and Patty was diagnosed just a few years earlier, in 1982, and was the first major celebrity to admit such a diagnosis. At the time all I remembered was watching a nice lady on TV and not really understanding what this actress and my dad could possibly have in common. My only memories of the mental hospital were long corridors and being fascinated with the peephole on my father’s room door, which was installed backwards so staff could check in on the patients in their rooms.

It was hard to explain his diagnosis over the years to others. They'd look puzzled, and more often than not, uncomfortably squirm and ask, “So is he often sad?”

Around that time, the name of his disease was changed from manic depression to bipolar disorder. Explaining to others what either term meant was difficult, but as a teenager, I tried the best I could. Your emotional state is very much like a roller coaster: One day you feel exhilaratingly ecstatic as the car clicks to the top of the highest peak, then the next moment, the car is plummeting off the track, leaving you dangling precariously. Consumed with self-doubt, you wonder if it is worth trying to save yourself at all.

Maybe my father did mimic Robin’s acting skills in a way because one of the key characteristics that I have heard time and time again from therapists was “how well your father can hold it together in public.” To the outside world, he was a hard-working farmer who worked from sun up to sun down with only a few days off a year and a husband who attended church on Sundays. To us, his family, it was similar to living with the quirky character Mork from Mork & Mindy that Robin Williams played; we didn’t know what the day may hold based on my father’s unpredictable state of mind.

It wasn’t until college doing research for a speech on bipolar disorder that I discovered a book, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. A relatively new book at the time and before the era of the internet, it was written by the foremost experts on manic-depressive (bipolar) illness. As she was pursing her degree in medicine, Kay Redfield Jamison found herself experiencing the same symptoms as her patients. It was a book that helped me understand how to separate my father as a person from the symptoms of his illness and a turning point for me in providing empathy and understanding instead of judgment.

I’m happy to say that this roller coaster has safely arrived back at the dock it started from . . . for now. My father today is alive and doing well with medication and therapy. He is only a few years younger than Robin Williams and Robin’s passing was a poignant reminder that mental illness is a lifelong battle with many ups and downs. Like the peephole, I’m on the outside looking in so I will never truly understand what goes on inside my father’s mind.

If you, too, are on the outside looking in, take a look at our free collection of Trauma-Informed Care resources.

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