themighty logo

When Your Family Has to Wonder 'What Will Daddy Be Like Today?'

My wife and children live with my bipolar disorder. I live with the label, the condition and the stigma. Mostly, I live with my “selves.”

None of us has it easy. “I wonder what Daddy will be like today?” is a thought they all have, our 11-year-old boy, Rainer, his 9-year-old brother, Leo, their 8-year-old sister, Stevie, and especially the beautiful, compassionate Amanda, who has known me since college. There’s no way for me to know exactly, but it’s surely a recurring thought for them. Maybe even eight days a week.

I try to imagine all the ways it sucks for them. I’m clear on most of the ways it’s not a picnic for me, but every once in awhile even I get surprised. For example, the regret of it not being easier like it was yesterday is its own challenge. Let’s see, there are the mornings I am in the kitchen while we’re making school lunches. Yet, I am not present because I am so sad. I ask what I can do to help, knowing what would actually be helpful is if I could figure it out myself, hating that just asking took all I had.

There are the evenings when I am in the room reading to the kids before bed, but I am not all there because I have three trains of thought in my head. I imagine it to be Herculean that I keep one of them on the kids. I tell the kids I’m sorry when I can’t answer one of their questions. I was only shunting the words through my mind to my mouth. I know they must think I wish I were anywhere but with them. They are probably right. They can’t possibly know the reason I wish I were anywhere else is it kills me to let them down.

There are the times I visit my parents, and they have to guess which me has arrived on the doorstep. There’s silent and sullen Kevin, the chatty, optimistic and expansive one, or the robot trying to play a role which his programming says is expected of him. I imagine the first is frustrating. The second is scary, and the third is painful in its clear dishonesty and evasiveness.

There are the weekends, when life should be a celebration. Yet, it takes every ounce of my squeezed soul to get out of bed, and it shows. There are the weeknights, when it is well past my bedtime and I can’t put my book down, but I finally get in bed, toss and turn for a few hours and get back up at 4:00 a.m.

There is the media, which says you’re not quite doing it right if you’re not happy most of the time. Like I needed another layer of guilt. There are the (alleged) reflections of me in the television and movie characters, who are “bipolar.” I don’t feel like they represent my version of mental illness well, and they certainly don’t help diminish many myths. Why do they all have to be either wide-eyed prophets, geniuses, psychopaths or pessimists on the order of Marvin from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”?

Someday, maybe the message in the ether will ring more true for me and my young family. More like this: You are doing it well if you are honest and you continue to do your best to live with your angels and demons. You are doing it well if you always respect it is hard for you, yourself and your family and friends. too.

Someday, maybe the feeling around me when I announce I’m back in the hospital with a glitchy head will be more like #f*ckmentalillness! Here’s a wise-color bracelet with an empathetic slogan for your wrist. Here’s a cheering section. Here, look at the paper today: Washington (Ottawa, Canberra…) is all over it.

Or, and I really would settle for this, they could just stop saying, “Why don’t you try harder?” Nobody ever said that to me when I got cancer the second time. I want to hear we are doing enough if we turn up, day after day, and carry the burden of life on earth with dignity.

Image via Thinkstock.

This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project.