I am a person often preoccupied with the past. I have so many questions, the answer to any one of which holds a key to unlocking the present. Unbidden, my mind drifts back to past situations, past events, checking for anything that might fit with what I know now and chase away the lingering shadows in my understanding. They’re like unsolved mysteries – cold cases no longer investigated but kept on file in the hope that someday I’ll find the answers.
The question that preyed on my mind the most (and perhaps the most unanswerable) was always this: How much of my father’s behaviour was a result of his illness, and how much was his real personality?
I knew very little about bipolar illness, or Manic Depression as it was called in those days in reference to the contrasting manic highs and life-sucking lows that characterized it. A serious brain disorder that leads to suicide for 20% of its sufferers, information was sparse and often outdated. There was no internet, so I couldn’t type my questions into Google and access the wealth of research available now.
Another obstacle was the wall of stigma – mental illness was something you didn’t talk about. I remember my parents’ discussing whether or not he should declare his illness when applying for a job. My father, during the brief period he accepted he was bipolar, preferred to be up-front but my mother insisted he’d be shooting himself in the foot, “You’ll never get the job if you tell them.”
She resented her in-laws and their obstinate refusal to accept there was anything wrong with their son/brother. She used to say he was ‘a devil at home and an angel in public’. The ladies he chatted to and sipped coffee with after church thought he was just lovely. Only we knew the truth. He could be a hero, once rescuing a little boy from a burning cottage, or a tyrant, who woke me at 3am and marched me to the kitchen to dry up a solitary item left on the draining board.
All this obfuscation made it difficult for me – both as a child and to this day as an adult – to know where my father ended and his illness began. In the end it was easier to chalk his cruelty and unpredictable violence up to bipolar, than face the prospect that he fully intended to hurt and humiliate me the way he did. For much of the time he was in denial of his condition, which I took as further confirmation of his disconnection from reality. How can you hold someone to account for something beyond their control?
But deep down I knew I didn’t really have the answer, and this doubt continued to haunt me, shackling me to the past where I searched for clues with the studied intensity of a SOCO combing a crime scene. It was the question behind my decision to study psychology at college, it made me junk my plans to read Literature at university in favour of Criminology & Criminal Justice – a degree whose interdisciplinary nature drew upon the research of sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists and social anthropologists and promised insight into the behavior of those who went against the grain.
I tried to talk to my father about these things when he visited the basement flat I rented while at university, but his insistence that I ‘deserved everything I got’ put me straight back in the shoes of that confused and humiliated little girl, and the spectre of my own worthlessness (and being alone with him in close proximity) left me mute and shaking.
The irony was the one thing that could offer the greatest insight into his behavior was with us in that room and had been my companion for years already. It sat on my shoulder, casting a shadow wherever I went: my own undiagnosed bipolarity.
In the intervening years, to better understand and manage my own mental volatility, I’ve learned whatever I can about bipolar disorder. I’ve discovered it doesn’t make you unaware of or unable to control your actions, neither does it strip you of your ability to differentiate right from wrong, cruelty from care.
I once worried that my upbringing and condition would impair my ability to be a parent, the abused often become abusers themselves, but my husband’s unswerving belief in me, and the love of my three wonderful and inspiring kids, have shown me the past needn’t accompany me into the present – it is within my power to stop history repeating itself.
I’ll probably never know why my father did the things he did, only he has those answers, but I’ve learned that whatever they are, they’re not important. What really matters is how I go on from here.
It’s time to lay the ghosts to rest.