When Poor Mental Health Threatens To Break Our Father & Son Bond
I thought I’d lost my kid forever this week.
And maybe I should have.
I have wrought havoc through the lives of my son and his mother, failing woefully at times to manage the destructive flames fanned by my particular brand of bipolar disorder. Before this latest calamity I quietly, and all but consciously, knew I was riding the cunning edge of mania. My mind always catches fire before the rest of my life does. Ideas for novels and feature film scripts were falling from the other world as welcome sheets of rain on a remote, drought-stricken farm. Green shoot ideas soon became splendid plots and plots became active projects as I hit the phone, lining up creative talent to take roles in my newborn slate of stories.
In the midst of my idea storm, I burst into a Halloween pre-party, had my face painted as a spooky clown, dressed to the nines in my favourite bright red cowboy shirt, donned a top hat and found myself dancing to thumping house tunes at Fluffy’s, a spectacular gay nightclub in Brisbane, Australia. By 4am everybody else was going to bed for a quick kip before heading to work. I wasn’t. I was dreaming. Dreaming about my new stories under star constellations and glittering planets watching as those same stars and planets pulsed and eventually faded and drifted away as the sun kicked in.
But really, it wasn’t the stars. The only thing that was fading and drifting away was my son. Because I let him down again. My beautiful 9-year-old boy who should have been with me last Thursday after school, but mania had already taken hold. I’d mercifully had the presence of mind to ask his mum to keep him for another week while I managed the mania. He shouldn’t have been with me. I knew that in my sensible, paternal place. But as I slowly wound down to an equilibrium, before making the icy plunge into the deep sea Midnight Zone, that meant nothing. Darker than nothing. I became desperately depressed, frozen in my blacked out room as piranhas slammed against my flimsy door in packed, relentless lines. The Reaper was there too, waiting patiently. Dear God, what have I done?
Staring from my bed at my side-table into the twinkling, framed eyes of my wondrous boy, I cried as I imagined him crying at yet another no-show from his Dad. My chest heaved as my face soaked in sheets of liquid so much more voluminous than those that came in the form of ideas. Because while the psychologists placate me by saying that if I broke my leg no-one would question me for a red-hot second, I know that’s bollocks.
It doesn’t ring true when you’re down on the good mind chemicals and you know that somewhere in that cyclone storm of bipolar mania you were making decisions. You weren’t physically incapacitated. Quite the contrary. You were making lucid, even florid, decisions that would directly impact the love of your life. The one true love I may ever have. He knows I don’t have a broken leg. I just wasn’t there for him. I hurt him.
At this point, as butterflies with razor blades for wings tore through my physical, mental and spiritual self, crippling my core, I seriously considered whether I deserved to be his father. At least his father in the formal guardian sense. I simply didn’t feel worthy. I was ready to let go this time around, to absorb that tragic loss, believing he was better off without me.
His mum seemed to tell me so too, silently, in that hollow, empty space, when she didn’t respond to emails and texts I sent to let her know that I had come good. As always, I moved. Then I steeled myself. The light came back as a twinkle, then as a hot ray. Piranhas were dead on the floor, the Reaper had found better candidates and I was ready to give my boy the very best of me again. That sweet, sensitive side of love that would prove to him that he is the centre of my universe. And so he is. Undeniably.
But then I became deeply uncertain. I was scared it was happening. I was frightened that his mum wouldn’t let him come home this time. That she would lose all faith and question the stability of the home I offer our son. After all, this is a perennial scenario playing out over years, sometimes every few months and up to about eight months. I feel her pain. I empathise with her. I genuinely do not know how I would act if the situation was reversed.
I arranged to pop in and visit our boy at the end of a school day. Adrenaline piqued, I knocked on his classroom door and asked if I could have a quick chat with my boy. He sprung out of his chair and ran for me, embracing me. I dropped to my knees, hugged and kissed his warm cheek, tears welling.
“I thought you were sick dad. When am I coming back to your place?”
“As soon as I can arrange it with your mum mate. I’ve missed you so much gorgeous, I don’t even know how to explain it.”
“I miss you too, but you’re an author Dad, you should know how to explain it.”
I laughed out loud. “That’s true mate. I should, shouldn’t I.”
But my boy makes the critical point. Good, bad or middling, I am a writer. That’s a choice I have made. Partly because writing chose me. But I also chose writing because it is the best way I know how to be a father and be bipolar at the same time. I simply don’t fit into mainstream jobs and I know because I’ve lost a few. But what it means practically, and most importantly, is that every day I am well I take my boy directly to his classroom door when school kicks off, and I pick him up the second the bell goes ding, ding at day’s end. We go without material things so that can happen and it pays off because the face-time we have is both irreplaceable emotionally and amounts to a substantial real time. Writing and ideas make this possible.
This latest bipolar manic episode has come after seven months of good health. In that time I have written and published a bipolar memoir called Clown & I, and engaged in a series of other significant writing projects.
That there is my dilemma. All those ideas I had during this episode were good. In fact those clever people I engaged in the hold of mania are the same people calling me now. They want those projects to happen. I want them to happen too. Those ideas give my life artful meaning, support my boy and I and give me daily purpose. I don’t believe I would have those projects of hope if I didn’t have bipolar. But here’s the rub: I may not need those projects at all if I wasn’t bipolar. Eight years since I was diagnosed, I’m still not sure how to feel about that.
It still does my head in.
I’ll chat about that with my boy when he comes home in a few days.