“so you feel like you have lost your dad…you feel a loss. But at the same time he is alive, he is here, but he is a stranger.” I hadn’t come to terms with it up until then. The truth of the situation hadn’t enveloped me; closed in on my like it did in that moment of clarity. I wonder if the therapist saw a wave of deep realisation flicker across my face; perhaps it turned white or red whilst the tears pricked my eyes. Coming to terms with the fact that my dad is seriously mentally ill is not an easy one; the image of his raging face, dead behind the eyes has haunted me. Yet at the same time I find it difficult to believe that this has happened to me; my seemingly comfortable middle class family. It is not an imaginary story out of one of the Jacqueline Wilson books I used to read, but my kind, caring and intelligent father has transformed into a monster.
There is no doubt that mental illness is becoming increasingly recognised and accepted in society; people are more open about admitting they are suffering and more knowledgeable in how to deal with it. It is thus comforting to realise that people recognise that just because we cannot physically see mental illness, like a broken leg or even the effects of a terminal disease, people are still internally suffering and we need to treat it in the same way we would wipe a bloody wound. The mind is a complex labyrinth; sometimes we wonder helplessly down those dark passages and struggle to find the way out.
However, not much attention has been paid to the loved ones who have to live with a mentally ill person day in and day out; watch them deteriorate before your eyes whilst you are completely powerless. That is my reality. At first we thought it was just the alcohol, mixed with his depressive and anxious tendencies which my mum had struggled with for years. After his alcoholic rages or his days of inertia he would always say sorry; he would always look at us and you could see the remorse in his eyes. But last summer that changed. It stopped just being the alcohol which overtook his personality but something deep inside now fuels an aggressive paranoia and persecutory complex. He no longer shows any remorse. The confliction between hating him and deeply pitying him clashes inside of me like a thrashing riptide; drowning me until I can longer put a label on what I am feeling.
I had been working in a French campsite for two months at the end of my gap year, nine months ago now and the plan had been for my mum, brother and dad to fly out to see me and spend a week in a chalet in a little village by the beach. During those two months my dad became progressively worse and was suspended from work. Perhaps I was in denial or too wrapped up in my time in France but for some reason I thought we could have a happy family holiday. I couldn’t have been more wrong. On the fourth night the heavy drinking started, after having an argument with my mum in which his accusations did not make sense he exploded like I’d never seen before. I remember him shouting, pointing the salad server at my mum; dead behind the eyes whilst he screamed endless abuse. Then for the first time ever, he went for her physically. I don’t remember it properly- it remains a distorted and fragmented nightmare.
A window smashed, my brother stepped in and pushed him over a wall. Then before I knew it we were walking the streets of this tiny French village helplessly trying to thumb a lift. We were about to give up, when my mum hopelessly put her thumb out and a French woman slowed down; she said she did not normally slow down for strangers as she was once attacked herself. She drove us to the nearest town, all the hotels were closed apart from one; they were about to close but saw our distressed faces and let us stay. I didn’t believe in guardian angels until that night.
Nine months down the line, he is locked out of our house and has a restraining order against it and my mum; he tried to break in and sent her extremely threatening and abusive messages. He has lost everything yet he still continues to go round blaming everyone else for his actions and live in his twisted, delusional world. Away at university, I sometimes feel like I lead a completely double life and for a while I was numb; I have in fact managed to settle in. Yet this ongoing confliction and confusion haunts me and the worst thing about it is that it is relentless; he continues to cause pain and will refuse to get help. Most people’s response is that ‘it will get better’ ‘he’ll get help’ but as an intelligent middle class man there is no way that he will be sectioned despite his horrendous actions; there is certainly no way that he will admit himself.
I hope my story shows how mental health needs to be taken seriously and it needs to be prevented and treated as soon as possible; my dad exemplifies how there is clearly a loophole in the system. At the same time, one should also think of the effects it has on loved ones; it can be a poisonous, continuous illness that can spiral so out of control that the unimaginable happens.