“Dad’s in Hospital” were the words that greeted me after arriving home from my first school trip away. My excitement from the trip quickly dissolved and the anxiety kicked in.
I was ten, and it was the first time I had realised that something was really wrong. Not that there hadn’t been signs, I knew that his behaviour wasn’t always “normal”, he had a fierce temper, which I now see he used to mask his insecurities, and he could behave erratically.
I will never forget when he went around putting locks on all the doors to stop “them” from getting in, as his paranoia took a hold. But there were moments where everything was OK, then he was the funny, loving dad that I knew.
To me he didn’t seem particularly different or ill, which made it even more confusing, I just remember wanting him to get better and come home, something which I realised a few weeks later would not happen.
'Not only was my dad ill, but my family was falling apart, my world was beginning to crumble'
We went for a walk around the hospital grounds, I asked him when he was coming home, as I always did. He told me that he wouldn’t be coming home that he would be moving into his own place away from the town I had grown up in and where we lived as a family. Not only was my dad ill, but my family was falling apart, my world was beginning to crumble.
Dad got his own place and I spent every other weekend visiting him. When he was well it was great, we spent more quality time together than we did when he lived with us. But, sometimes, when he was starting to become unwell again he wouldn’t leave the flat and would sleep a lot. There was still an uncertainty with his mood, which could fluctuate. My mum would often come with me to be a buffer between me and his moods
As a child it was hard to navigate through everything that was happening, there were certain things I didn’t fully understand, but I did understand that his paranoia was still active. He very much believed people were still out to get him, which he would tell me about in detail. It terrified me, the thought of people out to get him and I used to feel scared that they might try and hurt me too. My mum did her best to try and shield me from the chaos, but at times it wasn’t enough.
There was no support offered to my family, the impact on my family was massive. Once my dad was discharged from hospital, that was it, we were left to deal with him and try and emotionally shield ourselves from the constant emotional uncertainty. I later learned that dad did not always comply with his medication or engage with treatment options, which explained a lot of his behaviour.
I would like to think that these days the family members of people with mental illness are offered some support because the impact of the persons mental illness can have such a enormous ripple effect on those closest to them.
My parents stayed friends, but because of my dad’s mental health could not live together. His paranoia was so bad that he never visited my hometown. He missed so much due to fear.
When my dad left , my self esteem was knocked and I was preoccupied with the loss of my dad. Being at school was difficult for me, I felt embarrassed and angry that my dad was mentally ill , this had an impact on my friendships and I was also a easy target for the bullies. It had such a knock on effect, for me even today I struggle with anxiety, especially socially.
There was no support from school, even though they were aware of the situation. I wish I had been offered some support during school from a school counsellor or equivalent.
Then there was even more stigma towards mental health than there is now. Even though I was young I still didn’t want anyone to know that my dad was “crazy”. I remember keeping it as a shameful secret. At times I even wished my parents hated each other and had an acrimonious break up like some of my friends parents, at least I could have related to them then.
These days with access to the internet and there being more general information and an increasing awareness about mental health, both parents and young people have access to more resources. I think this is such a positive development and it will hopefully continue to break down the misconceptions about mental health and help people to deal with their issues without the added burden of shame.
Looking back on things now, I understand how paralysing anxiety can be and I have more sympathy rather than anger towards my dad. I struggle with it myself on a daily basis, but I am trying not to let it consume me. I have to remind myself I am not him, even though I still fear I may end up like him.
For updates from this student Counsellor blogging about her struggle with anxiety, depression and trying to balance work, training, family and her mental health, you can take a look at the whatisonmymind blog or follow on Twitter here