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When You Share the Same Mental Health Diagnosis as Your Dad

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My dad is 83 years old and has a gargantuan capacity for empathy. He is a sensitive soul who isn’t afraid to divulge his emotions or show them openly. I’ve seen him cry unapologetically. He’s got an enormous heart and a deep-rooted soul. I don’t call my dad “father” because he is more than a father; he is my friend.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

While I’ve been living with bipolar disorder since 2008 when I was 28, he was just diagnosed in 2015 at 77. Like father, like son.

I have bipolar type 1, the more severe version which can feature hallucinations and psychosis in addition to mania and depression. He has bipolar type 2, which is less severe, leans depressive and can still be agonizing.  We both share a passion for journalism, devouring the New York Times on a daily basis or binge-watching political talk shows on MSNBC. We love words and phrases and have so much fun playing Scrabble together; I should probably let him win sometimes. LOL.

My dad is a different kind of dad. And not just because he is bipolar. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he stayed home to take care of us kids — my sister and I — at a time when such a thing was considered odd at best. Nowadays, people call it a “stay-at-home dad” and it is widely accepted.  But in the ‘70s, you were considered an outsider if you were male and staying at home with the kids. He liked the term “house husband.”

He cooked, cleaned and played with us while managing a small freelance writing business. We are both professional writers.

Dad kissed my boo-boos, read for me at storytime and took us to the park and museums. He even founded a babysitter’s club with a few of my friends’ parents and we had our own small summer camp, taking field trips to various places around Chicago with chaperones.

My mom worked long hours as the breadwinner, a public relations executive. Dad took me to swimming lessons at the Y as a toddler, the only father there sitting in a circle on the cold tile of the pool area singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with all of the other moms and kids and being ignored. No invites to play dates or acknowledgement whatsoever.

I would especially like to sing his praises on this Father’s Day because he is going through an absolutely awful bout with depression right now. I know exactly what it feels like, experiencing a year-long depression in 2008, when I cried almost every day.

Just like that depression, sometimes my dad can’t get out of bed. He finds little enjoyment in reading, which was once his favorite pastime. He’s also having gastrointestinal issues.

My parents live in Hawaii on the island of Maui, and I visited them for a total of seven months over the past year. It was nice spending quality time with them since they are not going to be around forever, and it was also a good place to wait out COVID because there was only a small caseload on the island.

Dad and I are both published authors. He has written several books about the people of Hawaii. The latest one is “Voices of Aloha on Magical Maui.”

And of course I wrote my memoir “The Bipolar Addict: Drinks, Drugs, Delirium & Why Sober Is the New Cool.” I have to say he taught me a ton about writing.

My dad is absolutely in love with Hawaiian culture and the island of Maui. My parents honeymooned in Hawaii in 1969 and it was my dad’s dream to retire there. They did it.

While I was there this winter, I woke up one morning and headed downstairs to the living room where I found my dad crying. “I’m falling apart,” he sobbed as I gave him a big bear hug and reassured him that the depression would end, it was just a question of when.

It’s been almost a year since this depression hit. I just want the pain to go away. He’s on a cocktail of meds similar to mine, but they are not clicking. And the care he is receiving on the small island of Maui is sub-par to say the least. We are trying to link him up with a doctor in the big city — Honolulu — on the island of O’ahu, where he can attend telehealth appointments.

My dad experienced depression before, during the advent of the antidepressant prozac in the 1980s, and that drug helped him a lot over the years. But then bipolar reared its ugly head and suddenly it didn’t work anymore. In fact, it may have provoked the manic episode that led to his bipolar diagnosis.

When I came out as gay to my parents, my mom cried. She worried about what I would miss out on — marriage, kids, etc. She wondered if I might catch AIDS and wanted me to get life insurance. She would come around later.

My dad on the other hand was the one who appeared to be 100 percent OK with my sexuality from the get-go. He took me to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that night, a perfect way to ease any tensions.

I’ve told him to ask his doctor about ketamine. I have heard it can work wonders with depression. Ketamine has been used recreationally as a party drug typically referred to as “Special K,” but in microdoses it can have therapeutic effects for medical purposes. Ketamine comes in a nasal spray and works within just a few hours to alleviate depression. It also comes as an intravenous treatment.

I owe my dad a debt of gratitude. Such a kind man doesn’t deserve to experience the pain and suffering of depression. If I weren’t agnostic, I would be praying for him. Praying that he reverts back to his old happy-go-lucky self, and the same compassionate dad who raised me.

I love you, Dad.

Originally published: June 21, 2021
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