Mental illness is no stranger to my family—for example, I have three aunts that have been diagnosed with major depression, all my father’s sisters. But being country people, my family is not very sophisticated in the language of mental illness. All that was ever said about mentally ill relatives is that they “weren’t right” when I was growing up. One of my father’s first cousins lived with undiagnosed Down’s syndrome, I believe now. All that was ever said about Florene was that she had a “child’s mind”. Her mother, Era, took care of her until she died, then Florene was put in a nursing home that provided round-the-clock care until she passed away herself.
So my dad is no stranger to mental illness, but he lacks the vocabulary to really discuss it with me. A Veterans Administration psychiatrist has been seeing him for about a year now, trying to see if he will admit to depressive symptoms. He was referred to the psychiatrist because he complained of memory problems. Daddy talks to her every time they send him to see her in an effort to show he is complying with treatment to continue his VA benefits. But lately she is pointing out that he may not need to see her anymore if he won’t discuss his problems with her.
My dad is and probably will always be an enigma to me and others who know him. He can be very happy-go-lucky at times, telling jokes and stories and “carrying on” as we say down here in the South. But he has very dark moods as well, going for hours without talking because I think he’s afraid he may say something he can’t take back. He saw combat in Vietnam, so he is asked all the time about PTSD. But the only symptoms of that he will admit to are nightmares, where he dreams about killing people with his bare hands and guns malfunctioning at just the wrong moment.
One time he asked me, “Depression—what does that mean?” He went into detail about how he didn’t want to do anything, just wanted to sit around the house, but said, “But I’m not depressed—I’m just tired and don’t feel good like I used to.” I told him depression wasn’t about crying all the time like people think it is—it could be being tired and not wanting to do activities you once enjoyed. But I’m not sure he believed me.
So I have to wonder—is my dad bipolar just like I am, just undiagnosed? It took 35 years and a major nervous breakdown for me to be formally diagnosed, while I believe I started manic symptoms as early as eight years old. They manifested a lot like my daddy’s “happy” personality—wanting people to pay attention to me and doing silly things to attract their attention. So I am left with questions I may never get answers to as to the familial origins of my disease. And my daddy can’t get the help he may need because he’s basically too proud to admit he needs it. That stigma may stand in the way of his life’s end being fulfilling and happy. And I do not know one thing I can do about it.
Julie Whitehead currently writes and blogs from Mississippi at her personal blog. She has been a university lecturer, a disability examiner, and a freelance writer. She carries a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and blogs to create awareness and help others understand the disease and its effects.