Why I Delayed Telling My Dad About My Mental Illness

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I’d been diagnosed for a year before I considered telling my parent about my mental illness. I was in graduate school, struggling academically and socially, when my therapist suggested I had depression and could likely benefit from antidepressants. I took his suggestion and soon saw an increase in my mood, concentration, and overall outlook. Once my symptoms abated, I thought about sharing my diagnosis with my father.

You may wonder why I didn’t share my struggles with my dad, why I didn’t lean on him during my decision to take medication. Well, you’d have to understand my dad to understand why I couldn’t reveal my disease earlier. My father is a worry wart with an extreme case of symbiosis. To put it plainly, he lives for me and did for my mother when she was living. He has said as much, and that fact has always caused a great deal of stress for me.

My dad was always the parent that worried when I wasn’t in my room in college but had my mother’s more rational outlook to talk him off the ledge. The year after my mother’s death, daddy drove over 100 miles to check on me because my answering machine had a busy signal and he thought something had happened to me. (In my defense, I’d been in the library studying for eight hours and these were the days before cell phones or even voicemail.) Now imagine how extreme his reaction would be if he found out that something was really going wrong.

Eventually, I shared my diagnosis with my father, telling him as little as possible about the disease and my prognosis. I knew that words like “suicide” and “hospitalization” when connected with depression, though not relevant in my situation, would trigger his worrying. Even though I was better with medication, my dad wanted me to quit school and come home so that he could take care of me. He wanted to come visit me at school to make sure that I was okay, even though he’d seen me weeks before. He called every day asking for play-by-play updates of my symptoms and to tell me about everything he’d read about mental illness.

Listening to my father was exhausting, as was having to reiterate that I was almost 30 years old and was taking care of myself like the intelligent person he’d raised. Through 13 years of remission and relapse and new, more refined diagnoses, my father has remained stalwart in his attention to my disease, so much so that I no longer give him any details. When he has details he imagines the worst; he worries me about it and triggers my symptoms. If he calls me and I don’t answer my phone for legitimate reasons — I’m in therapy, on the subway, in a movie, on a date — he calls my family members to grill them about seeing me. They, in turn, blow up my cell asking me to deal with my dad and his behavior.

The reality is my father’s over-protectiveness is my biggest trigger, because it makes me think that my dad finds me incompetent to manage my life and disease when, in fact, I’ve shown myself to be the complete opposite. I work. I always take my medications. I always share with my doctors. I check myself into the hospital if I feel like I need extra help. I’m the model mentally ill patient. But when my dad becomes overbearing, I wonder if I am indeed as competent as I believe. I wonder if I could’ve managed my disease better to prevent my hospitalizations, even though I know they were medical in nature. Then I start to feel bad about myself and tell myself that I am incompetent because of my disease, which triggers a cycle of depressive thoughts and feelings — all because my dad can’t regulate his own feelings of stress and worry.

I know that I can’t be the only person living with mental illness who has an overprotective parent, but sometimes I think that I’m the only 43 year old who still deals with it. The stress of telling my parent about my mental illness is sometimes hard to manage, but I try to counter it with the realization that it’s good to be cared for and loved by a parent. There are days that I wish I’d lied to my dad about my disease for years, but those are fewer than those in which I’m grateful.

Tracey Lloyd lives in Harlem, where she fights her cat for access to the keyboard. You can find more of her experiences living with bipolar disorder on her personal blog, My Polar Opposite.

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