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  • Writer's pictureDorie Joy

The Night Before My Dad Died - Bipolar Disorder

On April 12, 2017, my dad passed away. He was 69 years old, living alone in an apartment in San Antonio, Texas. His life had been marked by numerous difficulties, mainly due to his battle with bipolar disorder, which persisted for most of his life. In 1997, my dad reached a breaking point. He had sold his house in Tucson, Arizona, packed up everything into a camper (the kind you hitch to the back of a truck), and embarked on a journey across the West Coast with his beloved Great Dane, Samantha (though there were so many dogs over the years that I might be mistaken). His life was a series of constant changes and challenges, with a menagerie of pets that seemed to grow endlessly, totaling perhaps 50-60 animals over my lifetime. One Easter day in 1997, my dad called me from somewhere in California. He sounded lost, alone, and utterly incapable of making sound decisions. He was in tears, and without a second thought, I urged him to come to us in Tampa, Florida, assuring him that we would help him find his way. A few days later, he arrived, camper, dog, and all. I had never seen him in such a state, and at the time, we had no idea he was grappling with bipolar disorder. We initially thought he might be depressed or going through a difficult phase, but his diagnosis wouldn’t come until later. My ex-spouse, who was patient and accepting, and I took him in, settling him in our guest room with the intention of supporting him until he could regain his footing. Living with someone who has bipolar disorder is akin to riding a roller coaster. However, not knowing about their condition intensifies the tumultuous experience. My dad would sleep all day, leaving for work while he remained in bed, and we'd return to find him still there. This phase was easier to empathize with, as we've all experienced moments of sadness or despair. Slowly but surely, we managed to involve him in household activities, he would engage more with both dogs (we had a lab), and help with small chores, gradually lifting his spirits. Unfortunately, this period of stability was short-lived. When my dad entered manic episodes (which we still didn't realize were what we were dealing with), chaos ensued. His behavior became erratic, and it was impossible to comprehend his actions, decisions, and mood swings. I felt utterly out of my depth, desperately wanting him to snap out of it and return to "normal." He would be out at all hours, making impulsive, financially reckless purchases, and associating with individuals who took advantage of him. Our interactions grew increasingly unhealthy for our relationship, and after a particularly heated argument one night, I had to ask him to leave and find his own place. Little did we know that this step would lead to his true rock bottom. Not long after he moved out, I was in a work meeting when I received a call from the police. At the time, I was employed by Chase Manhattan Mortgage, and I was sitting in a meeting with high-level managers when someone quietly approached, telling me that the police were trying to reach me regarding my dad. It was a surreal moment. My dad had been taken to the hospital; he had been living in a hotel, and his erratic behavior had prompted a call to the police. They found a gun and bullets in his possession and were concerned for his safety, so they admitted him to the psychiatric ward. At that time, I had no understanding of bipolar disorder or the Baker Act law in Florida, which allowed me to commit him to the hospital based on medical recommendations. Dad received a bipolar disorder diagnosis and improved with medication. He transitioned from the hospital to a halfway house and eventually to his own apartment. He was genuinely thriving for the first time in years, and I cherished the time we spent together. As a new chapter began with the birth of our first daughter, Alexa, my dad was actively involved in her life. He would visit frequently, care for her during my doctor's appointments, and engage in endless conversations about the world around them as he walked her around the house, yard, and block. He was content, and we were happy to have him in our lives. When we relocated to Charlotte, he followed suit, maintaining his positive trajectory. However, the nature of bipolar disorder often involves feeling so "normal" that individuals begin to question the necessity of their medication. This led my dad into a destructive cycle. In 1999, about a year after our move to Charlotte, my dad decided he wanted to purchase a farm, fulfilling his dream of living in the mountains, surrounded by animals, and embracing a simpler life. This meant moving hours away from us, and I was about to welcome our second daughter, Natalie. It became challenging to monitor his well-being from afar, ensuring he stayed on medication and managed his finances responsibly. He was inexperienced in farming, and the years on the "farm" were marked by various animals (donkey, horse, goats to name a few), some untimely deaths, unexpected expenses, and challenges. My brother and I visited when we could, bringing our children on adventures to the farm, but the cycles of bipolar disorder made it increasingly difficult to gauge his overall stability. The cycles continued, getting calls that he had been robbed when shopping for flooring in Hickory, NC and having to send him money to get home – p.s. the authorities had another story. He had a girlfriend who we never met who it turned out was on drugs and stole from him. Lots of little scenarios like this for years. My brother and I paid some of his bills to help him out, sometimes a one off and others we took on as our own. There was always something and the moments of us connecting rather than me having to talk with him about his spending, adopting another animal he couldn’t afford, taking care of his own health, etc. took place instead. As the years went on it got worse and more frequent with the ups and downs and going off the meds. In 2012, while my ex-spouse and I were finalizing our divorce and moving to separate homes, my dad decided to sell his house and moved to Chicago. This move, happening simultaneously with my transition, highlighted my dad's inability to offer support or check on my well-being. He loved me but was unable to see beyond his own struggles due to his illness. My dad's life spiraled into a relentless cycle of manic behavior, leading to hospitalizations, strained friendships, and eventual relocation to San Antonio, Texas, where he visited my cousin CJ. He settled in, securing an apartment, acquiring yet another dog, and possibly a job. He experienced a brutal attack outside a Walmart that left him hospitalized and his dog tragically alone in the car. My brother and I flew back and forth to San Antonio, attending to his needs and constantly worrying. We dreaded unknown phone calls, keeping each other informed and cross-checking details to piece together a coherent picture of his situation. I inherited my dad's eyes and noticed the similarities in our hands, specifically the nail beds, and the freckle on our left forearms that we always compared when I was a child. He used to tell me that, as a young girl, I'd pick out his work clothes. Despite his illness, my dad was a fun-loving person, genuinely liked by those who knew him. This disease robbed my dad of a better life, and it robbed those of us in his life of having him in ours. He was a good man with a good heart. He meant well. He made bad decisions and he hurt people, especially my mom. His disease robbed her of knowing what it was like to be loved and cared for and to feel special and safe. I believe that if he could have made different choices, he would have, but I don’t know. My dad's diagnosis didn't come until he was in his fifties, and everyone just thought this was how Steve was... goofy, immature, with a big temper. Back then, mental health wasn't a consideration, even though his father was a medical doctor. It was a different time, and the concept of mental health was often overlooked. My dad passed away alone in his San Antonio apartment on April 12, 2017. He was found slumped over his walker, having succumbed to heart failure. The night before his passing, he and I had spoken on the phone. We caught up briefly, but as always, our conversation eventually led to his finances and responsibilities. Displeased with my advice, he hung up on me. Little did I know that this would be our last conversation, and even now, over six years later, I still don’t know how to truly move past this event. I’m trying. I know he loved me, and I believe he knew how much we all loved him, how much I loved him – but the story I tell myself is that the night before my dad died, he hung up on me and I just am not sure how to be ok with that ending. This story has weighed on my heart for a long time, and today, on (10.10.2023) World Mental Health Day, I felt it was finally time to share our journey. If you're grappling with mental health challenges, please reach out to someone for support. If you have a loved one who is suffering, be there for them and encourage them to seek help. If you need to talk to someone for support, make sure to do it. Ask those around you how they're doing and truly listen to their answers. Offer kindness to all, embrace human connections, and remember that talking about feelings should be normalized. If you ever find yourself in need of someone to talk to, please don't hesitate to reach out to me. I'm here to listen and support.

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