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To the Parents and Step Parents With a Mental Illness

Parenting is perhaps the most difficult journey most of us will ever embark upon. Step-parenting adds a degree of difficulty often under-appreciated and certainly overlooked in the annals of modern parenting. Step-parenting with a mental illness is akin to herding cats blindfolded in a rain storm amid an avalanche of catnip infused yarn balls during a laser light show.

There are a plethora of step parents out there wading through uncharted waters and doing the best they can. Knowing the statistics on mental illness, many of them are having similar struggles and they feel alone, isolated and like a failure. I know exactly what that feels like.

I’m not sure when my depression started. Knowing myself and my behavioral history, I have to assume it was in my teens. I simply wasn’t self-aware enough to realize I had a problem. In my mind, I simply hadn’t found anything in life to make me happy. I drifted from one thing to the next, from college to college, major to major and job to job. It’s difficult to have drive and motivation when you essentially feel dead inside.

Fast forward a few years and I met the woman who is now my wife. I was still not seeking treatment or aware that I had a problem. My mood swings were the stuff of legend and my temper equally so. Still, I was sure they were caused by other people and just “part of who I was.” I loved my wife, and despite everything, she loved me back. I’d frequently joke that my family was like a Kool-Aid Packet. Dump in pitcher, add water and voila! The reality is that it’s been far from simple.

I’ve never done anything but my best for my step-children. Never. From the beginning and as we grew to tolerate, then like and finally even love each other, I believed every move I made was in their best interest. I was frequently wrong, but my intentions were pure. Early on, I still hadn’t realized I had a problem. They bore the brunt of my mood swings, and my son especially knew just how to push me over the edge. Despite my intentions, I was often a terrible parent. Not only didn’t I know my children, but I didn’t know myself. I had no idea who I was, and I’m now convinced that you can’t be an effective parent in that situation. My relationship with my wife grew and regressed at occasionally alarming rates. Through my depression I’d emotionally isolated both us and the kids. Still, I didn’t realize I had a problem. As the disease progressed and my ability to function as an adult and parent regressed, I began to realize the issue was me all along. There was no overnight change. In fact, my efforts at change were so misguided that I slipped further and further from the man, the parent and the husband I wanted to be.

I knew I had a problem but refused to acknowledge that I needed help. I’ve documented my struggles here, here and here, so I won’t rehash them. My own warped sense of masculinity, pride and ignorance to the reality of depression led me astray. The more I struggled, the further I slipped. The further I slipped, the more I struggled. My ability to parent was nullified by the disease and my stubborn insistence that I “handle it” on my own. There was my wife and the kids — and me, off to the side. I couldn’t be included in much because there was no telling how I’d react. I imagine being around me was akin to finding a box of old dynamite. You pretty much stay the hell away. I was never happy or smiling, but at times I was tolerable. One misstep however sent me into an explosion of either anger or despair.

My children wanted little to do with me. That pain drove me further into the abyss and kept my family at arms length. My suffering was mine alone — at least that was how I felt. The battle was for me to wage and affected only me. That misguided thought process was not only selfish but self destructive. I often remarked to my wife that they treated me like a handyman and not a member of “their” family. I realize now how hurtful that was and that I was projecting my insecurities onto them. I was slowly becoming aware that I had a problem but still stubbornly believed I could handle it.

Almost two years ago I nearly attempted suicide. Despite isolating myself emotionally and often physically from everyone, I still needed them nearby. When everyone went to see family for Christmas I stayed behind. I sat alone on the couch one night and tried to decide between life and death.

I haven’t mentioned much about parenting so far and with good reason. I wasn’t a parent. As the disease progressed, I was less a father than just some guy who lived here. Sure, I played taxi occasionally, but I had no real connection with my kids. My son and I were constantly at odds and spent weeks without speaking. My emotional withdrawal was a pseudo abandonment to my daughter, and my son moved out just to get away from me.

Around this time last year I finally realized I needed help. I spent another night alone contemplating suicide and finally broke down. I knew the damage I’d done and was still doing. I knew I had little time to make things right. Most of all I knew I needed them more than they needed me. I didn’t have the luxury of trying to “just be happy” myself. I knew the man I wanted to be, the man I had to be and to get there I finally had to admit I couldn’t do it alone.

That brings us to the present. I’m not quite getting all of the help I should, but for now it’s enough. My mood swings are for the most part under control. I smile. My daughter and I get along better now than we ever have. Given that she’s a teenager, I’m considering that a huge win. We’re moving to a new town and the stress of the move hasn’t yet triggered a new depressive episode. I’ve invited my son and his girlfriend to move into the new home with us. We’re all excited about the future and its potential.

To the parents and step parents battling a mental illness every day, you aren’t alone and there is hope. Get help, and don’t stop until you find something that works. Let your family assist you on the journey.  Finally admitting you need help isn’t a sign of weakness. Just the simple act of acquiescence and acceptance takes courage and conviction. Bring your family back into your circle. Try to understand it isn’t just you suffering the effects of your mental illness. Everyone around you and close to you is affected as well. Make the necessary changes and reap the benefits of a more full life.  It won’t always be easy, and you’ll sometimes take a step back. As Dory says, just keep swimming.

This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.