My dad. There’s so many mixed emotions in that small three-letter word. Dad.
He was an awful father figure growing up. He drank and was prone to mood swings. We tiptoed on eggshells around his temper. My sister and I hated him, for how he treated our mother, for not seeming to love us enough to quit drinking.
Still, I inherited a lot of positive things from him. He’s a talented artist, pencil and ink drawings, gorgeous creations. I picked that up, I love drawing and painting. He loves reading and exposed me to different genres and authors growing up. I prefer biographies to the science fiction that he turned me on to but the love of words has never left me.
He has a passion for hunting and fishing, being out on the land. He instilled in us a respect for nature and animals. Although I would never admit it before now, some of our hikes out into the sandhills and hunting were some of my favorite memories of childhood.
In my early twenties he stopped working and everything fell to my mom. Bills, food, gas money, insurance, all on her small wage. Everyone thought he was a selfish lazy bastard and they might have been right but there was more to it than that.
My mom left him when I was in my mid to late twenties, tired of his bullshit. There was an incident where he was hospitalized and he was given the chance to go to Alberta Hospital, a psychiatric facility for diagnosis and treatment. He refused to go and she left him not long after. I was thrilled for her and cut off communication with him. He didn’t invest any energy in keeping in touch with me so why should I do the same for him? Good riddance.
Years passed without any contact.
And then I wound up in the second stage women’s facility. I can remember writing him a letter when I was in a depressive cycle. I blamed him for my life being a mess. If I had just had a loving dad, a good male role model, I wouldn’t be in such an awful situation. I wouldn’t have had two ruined marriages. I went up one side of him and down the other, releasing years of hurt and contempt. Right or wrong, I sent the letter in an angry huff.
I was surprised to get a response.
He apologized for everything. For being a bad father, for the situation I was currently in. He seemed different, broken. Not the angry man that I knew but a tired, worn out version. The apology led to scant communications here and there. I still wasn’t ready to invest any real time in allowing him to make amends. We weren’t there yet.
As the Bear got older I felt a lot of guilt that I was keeping her from my father. He would want to know his granddaughter and she would want to know him. She knew that he wasn’t the best dad when I was little so I tried to manage her expectations as to how involved he might be with her.
So we started writing letters. Sophia loved it and I imagine that my dad was over the moon every time he received her colorful chicken-scratch notes. It was during this time that he wrote about his mental illness, that he had been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder and was on medications. I didn’t think much of it, not knowing much about the condition at that point (I hadn’t been diagnosed yet and wouldn’t be for a few more years).
When I was finally diagnosed in 2020, I was initially furious with him, knowing that I likely inherited it from him. But then I started thinking about everything that I was learning about the condition. When I was a kid he was having cycles just like I was having. When he was energetic and working on projects (writing books, creating art, working on business schemes), he was manic. He would throw himself into creative processes but rarely finished them before the down cycle hit.
His depressive cycles were frightening and I was just now realizing that the use of drugs and alcohol were probably the only way he knew how to cope. I’d come to know later on that he had severe anxiety as well, getting so bad that he couldn’t drive to work anymore. We thought he was just lazy but he was suffering. He never let us in.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing a lot of his behavior because I’m not. I’m just saying that I understand it better now and I have more empathy and compassion for what he was going through. Knowing that we had the same diagnosis made it easier to forgive him and opened a door. We wrote letters more frequently (he doesn’t have a phone) and when I finally made the drive up to visit him, it was more emotional than I could have imagined.
He was sober, excited to finally see his granddaughter (he had seen her a couple of times when she was a baby). He absolutely lit up, and so did I. We talked openly and honestly about my diagnosis and he was supportive of my journey and talked about his own. I suddenly regretted all of the time that was lost, I could have reached out sooner, could have been more understanding.
He was old now, a shadow of his former self. He didn’t have much and it made me sad. The Bear and I made more efforts to see him and bring him back into the family fold. It has taken my sister and my mother more time to come around, to see past the years of hurt and accept him for who he is now.
Most people wouldn’t consider an inherited medical condition a gift. But I do. It’s what brought my father and I back together.