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Dear Dad, Don't Read This

by Phar West Nagle about a month ago in Family · updated about a month ago
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A gift of bipolar disorder and generational trauma

I inherited a lot from my father – my stark brown eyes, my dry sense of humor, my love of numbers…and a crippling case of bipolar disorder paired with a helping of generational trauma.

Generational trauma. That’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot these days.

Maybe if I had heard of it when I was growing up, things could have been different. Maybe I would have realized then and there that the traumatic moments I was experiencing weren’t really my fault; they were the result of everything that had happened before I even existed. Maybe when I received my bipolar diagnosis I could have looked at those who came before me and learned from their triumphs and their mistakes, instead of falling down a rabbit hole of gaslighting and self-loathing.

That’s a lot to ask of a kid.

My mom likes to talk about how involved my dad was, how all the other moms that she knew when I was young were jealous of how hands on he was and how much he enjoyed being a dad. He worked hard to make a living to support us, but he also made sure work wasn’t his whole life. During the summer he would often call in sick on Fridays so he had more weekend to devote to things like taking us out on the lake to go water skiing. He took us to Disneyland one year, a road trip that took us over a week because he wanted to make sure we saw all the cool stuff along the way.

And he always made sure that we were able to pursue our interests and supported most of our ventures, academic and otherwise. Unlike me, my brother was really involved in sports, but he and my mom always made sure that I got something to equal out against all those expenses. He showed me the basics of how to care for a car, and even fixed up my mom’s old Mustang to be my first car when I was sixteen. I still own and cherish that car to this day.

Sometimes he’d pick me up from school without my brother in tow, and we would talk about things like science and philosophy on our drive home. In the same vein, he was the first to support me trying on new religions. For years I’ve told people he’s where I got my smarts, my honesty, my convictions in my beliefs.

He did a lot to show us that he loved us, even if he didn’t say it all that much. My brother and I always knew that we were wanted.

These things are all true. But like anything in life, that’s not even the half of it.

My mom was hurt when I told her I don’t remember a lot of my childhood, as she thought that they had done all they could to provide us with good experiences and happy memories. I don’t think she even believed me, considering I’m usually known for having an exceptional memory. But after so many years, I can’t bear to tell her the whole truth – I do remember everything. And I desperately wish I could let so much of it go.

The good times I remember loosely, like a warm blanket draped over me as I curl up on the couch to pass the time. I know it’s there, I know it’s comforting, but it’s not something I’m focused on.

The bad times I remember like the twist of a knife, so close to my heart that it’s a wonder I survived.

I remember the volatile screaming from both sides and the tears that so often rolled down her face. I remember the explosions every time my mom so much as spoke to another man, and I remember that periodic “conversation” about whether my brother was even his kid. Never mind the fact that they looked nearly identical.

There were those family drives we all joke about now, as if they were normal – he would load us all into the car and yell ceaselessly, because in the car we were a captive audience with no hopes of escape. We’d get ice cream before we headed back home, half an hour from town. That made it better, right?

I remember being terrified as he drove us home from a party completely drunk, which wasn’t as uncommon of an occurrence as I would have liked. I remember hiding under my desk after an argument, only to be pulled out from beneath by my hair so it could continue to his liking.

How could I ever forget sitting on the couch the summer before eighth grade, minding my own business in a new purple shirt I had just gotten from Hot Topic the week before? He came inside after a fight with my mom about who knows what, looked at me, and told me with no provocation that I was getting fat like my mom is. I can’t blame this moment entirely, of course, but I developed an eating disorder within the year, and I know I never wore that shirt again.

One Christmas, late in my teenage years, we spent the day opening gifts and playing in the snow as a family, only for the night to become a catastrophic fight that culminated in my mom throwing a fishbowl at him and the two of us almost leaving together in tears. I got cold feet just before opening the car door, because I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving behind my dog, who I considered one of my only reasons left to live. And the fish survived, by the way. My mom renamed him the Christmas Miracle Fish.

I remember sitting in my car, the car that he had fixed up for me, and sobbing in the parking lot of my community college because I finally called him out for constantly calling my desired career path a waste of time and money – he had this ironic idea that psychology was just one big scam. He ended that conversation by telling me to have a nice life. Just a week later, it was like he had forgotten that it had happened and I was expected to sit at his birthday dinner like I hadn’t just shattered all those egg shells I’d been walking on.

Even though my relationship with him is better now in my adulthood, the relative peace we’ve procured is still occasionally broken by some cutting line that leaves me devastated despite all my progress. The most memorable of these was the tirade about people with mental illness, and how anyone who’s suicidal should just kill themselves and get it over with already – despite his intimate knowledge of my own history of self-harm and suicidal ideation, and despite the issues my husband and other loved ones were having with their mental health. Hell, despite his own experiences – because I know for a fact that he thought hard about ending it when he was younger as well.

Statistically, one in ten people with bipolar disorder die by suicide. Pretty sure that’s a road you don’t want to go down, Dad.

See, my bipolar disorder came from his side of the family. Even though I’m the only one who ever sought out a diagnosis, I can say with near certainty that he, his brother, his mom, and even his grandmother all dealt with it as well. Pointing this out to any of them was a lost cause and caused more problems than it was worth. My own issues combined with his created a perfect storm of tears and screams and loathing.

Now that I’m older and have had the luxury of therapy and medication, I’ve been able to see how hard it all must have been for him. I know I was a tumultuous wreck before I found the right dosages, and I wasn’t raising two children during that process. I can see a lot of the reasons things happened as they did in hindsight, and I know he did his best to raise us in a better environment than he had been.

Despite everything, he succeeded in that. Things could have been so much worse.

He was almost the black sheep from the start, the middle child who was pointedly named after one of his mother’s ex boyfriends, much to the chagrin of his father. And his mom was an evil woman, someone who used the cover of religion to make herself seem righteous and good while being the most aggressive and spiteful woman you could ever meet. She made my mom’s life a living hell when they started dating and long into their marriage, until the day that we all stopped speaking to her about fifteen years ago.

Even in just my lifetime, there’s a lot that could be said about my grandmother. When I was little, she would tell me and my brother that my parents were going to get divorced just to sow the seeds of discontent, and she once smashed a Disney movie that we owned with a hammer because it was “evil.” I had a black Barbie doll that I absolutely loved, and she would constantly try to take it away from me and did her best to keep it out of any photo she could manage.

From the time we were little, we could already tell that she favored her other children far more than our dad. Her daughter was the princess, and that daughter’s child could do no wrong. But it was my dad’s older brother who was the real favorite. The same older brother who inherited his mom’s mental health issues and then combined it with alcoholism and wife beating. The very same older brother that tried to kill my dad by breaking a Pyrex punch bowl over his head when they were kids, which my dad thankfully managed to block with his elbow. He still has the scars from that day, as the wound was so severe that it was spurting blood with each heartbeat and needed several stitches to close.

So yes. I know in my heart that things could have been much, much worse. But they also could have been better. He may have had his reasons, but a reason still isn’t an excuse.

I love my dad. I truly do. He’s changed quite a lot in recent years – in both good and bad ways – but enough that we have a pretty good relationship now. And he’s an incredibly loving grandfather to my children. I respect the choices that he made in order to give his family a good life, and I appreciate all he taught me. At least half of the time, he was a pretty good dad.

But dear gods, I hope that I am not like him. We are certainly both more than our brain chemistry dictates, but I worry that I’m fighting a losing battle with my mental health. I’m terrified that some of the moments I remember fearing him most will end up carrying over to my own children if I don’t stay vigilant. It’s so incredibly easy to get overwhelmed as a parent, and I’ve definitely yelled a few more times than I would have liked already. Any fear in their little eyes shatters my heart, and every day I promise myself I’ll do better. I’d like to think that each day, I do.

I’ve never understood the concept of generational trauma more than I have in the last few years. But I am determined to break these cycles. My husband and I are both trying so hard not to make the same mistakes those that came before us did.

Because I don’t want that life for my kids, and I don’t want that guilt hanging over my head forever.

I don’t want my kids’ friends to tell them they’re terrified of me and avoid coming to our home. I don’t want my kids to question whether their parents even like each other. I don’t want anything I say to make my kids hate their body or their dreams or anything about themselves, and I want them to have an understanding of mental health early on so they can better understand the warning signs. Bipolar disorder has a genetic component, after all, and it wouldn’t be surprising if I’ve passed my curse on to them.

But, more than anything, I want to be able to say I’m sorry if I’ve done something wrong, and to let them know that they are not the problem and that I love them no matter what. Because really, that’s all I ever wanted.


About the author

Phar West Nagle

Poet, author, lover, mother, friend.

Lover of mystery, the supernatural, psychology, philosophy, and the poetry that lives in all of us.

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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Comments (4)

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  • Kathryn Salazar27 days ago

    Beautiful writing! I feel the same about my father. I inherited his love of writing, medical knowledge, and music. I also inherited his social anxiety and awkward , strong sense of empathy toward all people. He was the only person that understood me, and when he passed away, I felt like I had lost everything in life that was important to me. Loved your writing, it really struck a chord with me. Keep at it, beautiful words!!!

  • Carol Townend28 days ago

    Beautiful and very much heartfelt. There are many mental illnesses in my family, and some of my children do carry some of these traits even now, as adults. We have to do the best with what we know, and like parents who have no mental illnesses, we often make mistakes. I'll be the first to say my own problems (PTSD which was also mistaken for BPD/EUPD in the many earlier years of mental illness) have impacted my children who are now adults, though I have never hurt them and I love them with all my heart.

  • Taucha Postabout a month ago

    That was beautifully shared

  • Maddy C Phillipsabout a month ago

    I absolutely adore this. You've so eloquently set out something very similar to how I feel regarding generational trauma and my desire not to pass it on to my daughter, and I imagine many others will relate to your words. Thank you for sharing this.

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