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A Day in the Life of a Dad with Bipolar Disorder

“A Day in the Life of a Dad with Bipolar Disorder” originally appeared on The Good Men Project, and was reprinted with permission.

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

My wife and children live with my bipolar disorder. I live with the label, and the condition, and the stigma. Mostly, I live with my Selves.

None of us have it easy. 

I wonder what Daddy will be like today? is a thought they all have — our 11-year-old boy Rainer, or his 9-year-old brother Leo, or their 8-year-old sister Stevie, and especially my beautiful, compassionate wife Amanda who has known me since college. There’s no way for me to know exactly how often, but it’s surely a recurring thought for them. Maybe even eight days a week.

I try to imagine all the ways it sucks for them. (I’m clear on most of the ways it’s not a picnic for me, but every once in a while even I get surprised. For example, the regret of it not being easier — like it was yesterday — is its own challenge.)

Let’s see …

There are the mornings I am in the kitchen while we’re making school lunches, but I am not present because I am so sad. I ask what I can do to help, knowing that what would actually be helpful is if I could figure it out myself — HATING that just asking took all I had.

There are the evenings when I am there in the room reading to the kids before bed, but I am not all there because I have three trains of thought in my head. I imagine it to be Herculean that I keep one of them on the kids. I tell the kids I’m sorry when I can’t answer one of their questions; I was only shunting the words through my mind to my mouth. I know that they must think that I wish I were anywhere but with them; they are probably right. They can’t possibly know that the reason I wish I were anywhere else is it KILLS me to let them down.

There are the times I visit my parents, and they have to guess which “me” has arrived on the doorstep. Silent and sullen Kevin, chatty and optimistic and expansive one, or the robot trying to play a role which his programming says is expected of him? I imagine the first is frustrating, the second is scary, and the third is painful in its clear dishonesty and evasiveness.

There are the weekends, when life should be a celebration. But, it takes every ounce of my squeezed soul to get out of bed. And, it shows.
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There are the weekends, when life should be a celebration. But, it takes every ounce of my squeezed soul to get out of bed. And, it shows.

There are the weeknights, when it is well past my bedtime and I can’t put my book down but I finally get in bed, toss and turn for a few hours, and get back up at 4 AM.

There is the media: you’re not quite doing it right if you’re not Happy Most of the Time. Like I needed another layer of guilt.

There are the (alleged) reflections of me in the TV and movie characters who have bipolar disorder. I don’t feel like they represent my version of mental illness very well, and they certainly don’t help diminish many myths. Why do they all have to be either wide-eyed prophets, geniuses, psychopaths, or pessimists on the order of Marvin from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

Someday, maybe the message in the ether will ring more true for me and my young family. More like this: you are doing it well if you are honest, and you continue to do your best to live with your angels and demons. You are doing it well if you always respect that it is hard for you, yourself, and you always remember that it is hard for them, your family and friends, too.

Someday, maybe the feeling around me when I announce that I’m back in the hospital with a glitchy head will be more like #F*ckMentalIllness! Here’s a wise-colored bracelet with an empathetic slogan for your wrist. Here’s a cheering section.

Or — and I really would settle for this! — they could just stop saying, “Why don’t you try harder?” Nobody ever said that to me when I got cancer the second time.

I want to hear that we are doing enough if we turn up, day after day, and carry the burden of life on earth with dignity.

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