The highs and the lows: Grow­ing up with a bipo­lar dad

With men­tal health in the spot­light, Karyn Henger shares her story of how man­ag­ing her dad’s bipo­lar dis­or­der be­came a fam­ily af­fair

NEXT (New Zealand) - - At A Glance | Contents -

I’m sure I wasn’t the only per­son who couldn’t stop think­ing about Greg Boyed in the weeks af­ter his death. I didn’t know him. He was not a friend or col­league. But I think we all felt a lit­tle bit like we knew him be­cause we saw him on TV most nights. He came across as se­ri­ous, in­tel­li­gent and pro­fes­sional. But he also re­vealed flashes of a quiet, dry hu­mour. I imag­ine he would have been a good guy to work with.

His sud­den death has shocked our na­tion, and the in­creased aware­ness and dis­cus­sions around de­pres­sion that have flared up can only be a good thing. Greg Boyed is not the only man I have known to pass sud­denly these past weeks. A sim­i­lar age, with a lovely fam­ily, the fa­ther of my daugh­ter’s school friend also left this earth.

Peo­ple are ask­ing, how can you feel that bad to not want to live? Could I have done more? Could I have said more? What if? What if? What if?

But de­pres­sion is hard to un­der­stand un­less you’ve ex­pe­ri­enced it or lived with some­one who suf­fers from it. It’s not some­thing you can ‘fix’ with a few good talks or by prac­tis­ing mind­ful­ness or by writ­ing a grat­i­tude list. It’s not about be­ing strong or weak, or be­ing able to ‘snap out of it’, or have some life-sav­ing mo­ment of enlightenment.

It’s an on­go­ing med­i­cal con­di­tion – a chem­i­cal im­bal­ance within the brain, if you will – that more of­ten than not re­quires med­i­ca­tion and qual­ity pro­fes­sional care, cou­pled with strong fam­ily sup­port.

I know this be­cause I grew up with a bipo­lar fa­ther.


My dad died sud­denly from an aneurysm at the age of 77. He lived out his life but I re­mem­ber times grow­ing up when he threat­ened sui­cide, with my mum stand­ing there yelling at him say­ing, “Don’t be bloody ridicu­lous.”

Fam­ily life

Dad was the most gen­tle, lov­ing man who took his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as a fa­ther se­ri­ously and al­ways put his wife and chil­dren first. But his men­tal ill­ness made him dif­fi­cult to han­dle at times, and could dom­i­nate fam­ily life.

“Just don’t ar­gue with him,” I re­mem­ber my mum say­ing to us as kids. Trig­gers like stress or money wor­ries would send him into a ‘high’ where he’d get ag­gres­sive (not phys­i­cally), ar­gu­men­ta­tive and eas­ily ir­ri­tated. He would talk a lot of BS, to be hon­est, fan­tas­ti­cal talk, liken­ing him­self to world he­roes and telling us long sto­ries about his es­capades in life. Mum taught us to just go along with what he said, even when we knew it to not be ‘cor­rect’ or true.

Dur­ing his highs, he was prone to fall­ing out with peo­ple at work or hav­ing ar­gu­ments with peo­ple in cus­tomer ser­vice roles and there would be lit­tle fires that Mum would need to put out. He could also spend up large, so Mum was in charge of the fi­nances.

If we caught him when he was high we could stop him from fall­ing into a ‘low’ where the de­pres­sion was so de­bil­i­tat­ing he could not even func­tion. By catch­ing him we would take him back to see his men­tal health work­ers, and some­times that led to him spend­ing a stint of time at the men­tal health unit. We would mon­i­tor him along­side his health­care pro­fes­sion­als and make sure he was tak­ing his med­i­ca­tion ev­ery day, get­ting enough sleep, eat­ing prop­erly and ex­er­cis­ing. These helped tremen­dously but they com­ple­mented the med­i­ca­tion. The med­i­ca­tion was ab­so­lutely key in keeping him on an even keel.

It was also im­por­tant to keep stress at bay so Mum took care of a lot of stuff. Dad’s life was filled with struc­ture and rou­tine, and his job was fairly low pres­sure. The thing with life, though, is it does throw you curve balls. De­spite all the mea­sures we took to pro­tect Dad, and the re­spon­si­bil­ity he took to care for him­self, he still had to cope with some dev­as­tat­ing blows.

Stick­ing to­gether

In 1986, when my mum was only 43 and my brother and I were in our early teens, Mum was killed in a car ac­ci­dent. There were many days that fol­lowed where Dad would just sit at the kitchen ta­ble with his head in his hands. Some­one told me, “Your dad pro­cras­ti­nates too much”, but he wasn’t pro­cras­ti­nat­ing. He was de­pressed and look­ing back, I don’t know how he sur­vived los­ing Mum. Maybe it was not want­ing to leave my brother and I with no par­ents. What­ever it was, I am im­mensely proud of and grate­ful to my dad for not leav­ing us too.

There was more to come, though. A cou­ple of years later Dad was made re­dun­dant and then, when I was 19, my stu­dent flat was bro­ken into and I was raped. When the po­lice came the first thing I said was, “Send a so­cial worker to my dad.” He would need some sup­port un­til I could get to him.

Dad never re­mar­ried and lived alone un­til his death in 2014. It was dif­fi­cult at times help­ing him man­age his con­di­tion, be­cause my brother and I



both moved out of the area we grew up in. But Dad was re­ally re­spon­si­ble about tak­ing his med­i­ca­tion and we had reg­u­lar con­tact with phone calls, and I would have him stay with me and my fam­ily as of­ten as I could. Giv­ing him grand­chil­dren seemed to give him a whole new lease on life.

I knew my dad well be­cause it was me that took over look­ing af­ter him af­ter Mum died. I could tell by a cou­ple of min­utes of talk­ing to him on the phone if Dad was get­ting ‘high’ again.

I could say, “Dad, are you sleep­ing al­right? Has some­thing been keeping you up at night?” And he’d say, “I’m al­right, love. But I sup­pose I have been up a bit lately.”

Bless him, Dad would al­ways lis­ten to me. We’d run through what he needed to do – go take a nap, make sure he had some­thing to eat, had he taken his pills to­day? I’ll ring you again later to­day.

Small steps, one day at a time.

Chang­ing times

There were only a cou­ple of times in all the years af­ter Mum died when Dad got re­ally bad. I think it was money wor­ries that trig­gered him both times. That’s when he could cre­ate may­hem. He once bought a taxi – just like that – and up­set an en­tire gang chap­ter by ask­ing too many ques­tions about the taxi com­pany – they had shares in it or some­thing. My brother had to sort it out and These af­ter that, highs took would over Dad’s be fol­lowed fi­nances. by lows where I lit­er­ally had to drop ev­ery­thing and go straight to him. He would ring me and say, “Love, I’m so sorry, but I can’t stop cry­ing.” The sec­ond time I took him to his men­tal health unit to get his med­i­ca­tion re­assessed, we dis­cov­ered he’d been on a highly ad­dic­tive med­i­ca­tion for al­most all of his life – some­thing he should only have been put on un­til they found some­thing more suit­able. We changed his meds and once we’d got him on the right dosage he seemed al­most a dif­fer­ent man. He was brighter and more alert, and we found it eas­ier to keep him on an even keel.

The new Labour govern­ment has made men­tal health one of its pri­or­i­ties and I’m so glad, be­cause in my ex­pe­ri­ence it has been un­der-re­sourced and un­der­val­ued. The ser­vices, to be blunt, have not been what they could be but with a lack of re­sources what more could they do?

When Dad was first di­ag­nosed with manic de­pres­sion (as it was com­monly called back then) as an 18-year-old, he was given elec­tric shock treat­ment. Imag­ine. It seems so bar­baric (yet is ap­par­ently still given in gen­tler cir­cum­stances, when med­i­ca­tion does not work). Treat­ment has come a long way and so have ap­proaches to care and recog­nis­ing the im­por­tance of sup­port­ing the fam­i­lies too.

Call to ac­tion

The stigma of de­pres­sion has also lifted a lit­tle in re­cent years thanks to the good work of peo­ple like Mike King and John Kir­wan, and the Men­tal Health Foun­da­tion. But I still see a fundamental lack of un­der­stand­ing about men­tal health in New Zealand, in the way peo­ple talk about it in the me­dia, in the work­place around the wa­ter cooler, and in pri­vate homes. Calls are be­ing made in the me­dia for peo­ple who think they might be suf­fer­ing from de­pres­sion to reach out. But maybe it’s up to us to lis­ten bet­ter and recog­nise de­pres­sion for what it is – a med­i­cal con­di­tion for which its treat­ment needs to be taken more se­ri­ously.

If you or some­one you know is strug­gling with de­pres­sion, call 0800 111 757 or text 4202 to talk to a trained coun­sel­lor for free. For other men­tal health is­sues, call Life­line on 0800 543 354, the Sui­cide Cri­sis Helpline on 0508 TAUTOKO, or Youth­line on 0800 376 633.

Above: Karyn’s dad with her daugh­ters,Amy (left) and Greer when they were younger. Right: A fam­ily por­trait from theearly 70s, with Karyn and her aunt Ros (left), her mum, and her dad lean­ing on a sign post – a clas­sic Dad pose. Far right: With hisdog Beau.

Top left: Karyn, her dad and her daugh­ters on her wed­ding day in 2008. Above: Karyn’s fa­ther holds his grand­son and Karyn’s son Mikey. Left: Karyn’s dad and mum “in their courtin’ days” be­fore they were mar­ried.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.