Happy Birthday, Dad? With a mentally ill parent, nothing is simple.

I am feeling All The Feelings. This time of year was always big in my family, because we had three birthdays in three weeks–my dad, September 29th, my sister and me. And then there would Halloween to top it all off. I’m still not sure how many details I want to share, in this space, because I still haven’t responded to his email. Any of it. And it’s been months. But I am writing about I feel, today, his birthday, because many of the people who read this blog have mentally ill family members/loved ones. I have a mentally ill parent. My father is really sick. And he asked me not to call him on his birthday, because he felt afraid that I would ruin it. At least, I think that’s what happened…

What happened, from my perspective, is that this spring, I was doing my best to show my dad that I loved him, especially on holidays, and even felt rather proud of myself for getting a card in the mail more or less on time for Father’s Day. On that holiday, my dad didn’t answer the phone or return my calls. My dad was leaving his home only for doctor’s appointments (I do not exaggerate) and then appeared to be not at home for over twelve hours, when I left four messages–I assumed that there had been a medical emergency. I was afraid. He emailed to tell me he was fine, but not up for talking, or something along those lines. After my fourth message. Anyway, the point is this: I don’t feel that anything on my end changed, but after that day, a lot seems to have changed for my dad. He chose to share his perspective and his feelings in a way that I feel is unacceptable and inappropriate, not to mention toxic.

I am so angry, still, that I am shaking as I type this. My head knows that paranoid delusions can happen to people who are as ill as my father is, but my heart simply breaks when he accuses me of hurting him intentionally. Obviously, I can’t know that “paranoid delusion” is the right term, clinically, but there is a pretty intense narrative on his end that insists on some seriously negative intentions behind my past behavior. I don’t know what else to call his book-length email all about me, my family and his “ruined” holidays, past, present and future. He asked for “boundaries” that seem like arbitrary rules to me–no contact for five days before, the day of, and the five days after a holiday or birthday (including mine). This is intended to protect him.

It hurts my heart that, even if I were talking to my dad every day, I wouldn’t be able to call him today. Or for the past five days. Or until next weekend. Or maybe even for the entire month, because there are so many October birthdays, and I don’t know if they all count as off-limits, or just his and mine. I feel rage when I think about how he just assumed that it would be ok to send gifts to my child on Walt’s birthday, but didn’t address how Walt or I might feel about not being able to send him anything on his.

I feel sad that my dad may not know that we have moved; if he sends a package to Walt for his first birthday, that package will be returned to him. What he does with that is up to him. I have no idea how he will feel or if he will feel anything. The dad I knew, whose feelings and/or behavior I could predict, no longer exists. It’s just. so. sad.

I feel relief and even happiness that I can enjoy this gorgeous fall Sunday without a big, dramatic time-out in which I call my father and have no idea what to expect. I felt this on the 4th of July, too. I don’t have to remember to call him when he is at his best, a window of time that I can’t even remember anymore. I don’t have to pray that the baby stays quiet or that my neighbors make no noise, because a distraction could turn his mood.

I do not feel afraid.

My father is emotionally and verbally abusive. As I type that, I am tempted to go find “proof” for you. But this is my space! Take my word for it, or not. If he comes here and finds out from my blog that I am calling him abusive, well, I’m ok with that. He once sent me a letter accusing me of being abusive towards him; I was a teenager. That was a pretty big shock. If he reads this, and he’s shocked–I can live with that. I have to type that then read it again, because I’m afraid, to this day, that I will get in trouble with him. I fear his words, and his rejection.

I don’t know what to do. I can’t make a choice, right now, about what I want my relationship with my father to look like. If I agree to his rules about holidays, then I am agreeing to a relationship on his terms. If I write to him and tell him that I will not agree to those rules, then I might be ending that relationship. I don’t want to accept this idea that he gets to make all the rules, nor do I want his so-called emergencies to dictate when I make huge decisions about our relationship. I will not be forced into an arbitrary choice about one of the biggest relationships in my life.

I know that not responding is a kind of response; I understand that doing nothing is an active choice. I choose to stay silent, as far as he is concerned. He has tried to get me to break that silence. I will not speak to him until I know what I want to say. I feel empowered and relieved about that choice.

I love my dad. I hope he has a good day. Honestly, I don’t know what a “good day” looks like for him, anymore. A mentally ill parent relationship is a minefield. I wish him a happy birthday, and I also really glad that I don’t have to watch my step, today.

I'm really glad that my wonderful stepmother is with my father, and taking good care of him. This is us on their wedding day, in 2003.
I’m really glad that my wonderful stepmother is with my father, and taking good care of him. This is us on their wedding day, in 2003.

5 Comments

  1. Mamma_Pea said:

    I’m so sorry you have to go through this. But I’m glad that you have found a bright spot in the fact that you don’t have to worry about calling him today. Enjoy your day with your loving family.

    September 29, 2013
    Reply
  2. I absolutely love your blog. I suffer from severe anxiety, panic disorder, depression and ocd. I have 2 children and could possibly be pregnant with my third. I currently am taking Klonopin and have successfully freed myself from Lexapro and Metoprolol ER Succinate. I was wondering the dosage of Klonopin you took while you were pregnant. I only take .5 twice a day and was curious about breastfeeding on it. I’m already in panic mode to go see my obgyn on the 8th and wanted to talk to you because you can relate to how I feel.

    Thanks so much – Lindsey

    September 30, 2013
    Reply
  3. Kim said:

    Thank you for writing this. Makes me and others not feel alone. What I have learned with my Dad is to no longer feel guilt. Otherwise it strips us from our own happiness and health.

    May 10, 2015
    Reply
    • Anne-Marie said:

      I don’t feel guilty. But if I did, I’m not sure I’d be able to just stop, any more than I can stop the anger that still surfaces. I have been able to replace a lot of the negative thoughts with just a different perspective, when the memories come. I used to feel upset at every memory, and now I have peace with many of them. Much more happiness and health without my dad in my life – it’s just a fact.

      May 11, 2015
      Reply
  4. Taylor said:

    Hello,
    This is so similar to my father and I. Thank you for your perspective. I am currently debating reaching out to my father for his birthday and stumbled upon your blog. I too, have been “preaching” to other family members, that we HAVE to worry about OUR health and happiness.

    December 8, 2015
    Reply

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