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mental health

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Happy Birthday, Dad

Today would have been my father’s 73rd birthday. It’s always strange trying to imagine what life would have been like if he had decided to stay. Would he still be alive? What would our relationship be like? These are questions that I’ll never know the answer to.

Only weeks before what would have been his 51st birthday, he took his own life.

While this came as a shock to many, I knew it had been coming for quite some time.

I was 14 and I had moved my younger sister and myself from his home in Houston to my mother and step-father’s home in Los Angeles a year and a half earlier.

My father was undiagnosed but struggled with an absolutely textbook case of Bipolar Disorder. His swings from manic highs to deeply depressed lows narrated much of my childhood and I have spent much of my adult life trying to heal the scars left from growing up in a household that was often steeped in chaos and unpredictability.

My father was a complicated man. Brilliant, charismatic, and playful, but also at times violent and terrifyingly reckless. He was an exceptional doctor--he worked in the Emergency Room, but many of his patients requested that he be their personal physician. He had an incredible ability to connect with absolutely anyone regardless of their age or background and he was deeply moved by nature and art.

When he died, people from all over showed up to honor him. There were three memorials and the words people left in the guest books all echoed the same sentiments. That he was one of the most alive people that they had ever known. That he was a loyal friend. That he would be so deeply missed.

I often think that one of the most insidious parts of his illness was his inability to feel loved.

I know he was deeply lonely.

I know he struggled immensely with his own darkness.

Even as a child, I could see the pain flash across his eyes, in between fits of rage, and maybe some fear, too. I think he knew he was out of control. But the tricky thing with Bipolar, in particular, is the promise of the high. The delicious sense of power and euphoria that would also be wiped away if he were to receive treatment.

So he suffered. And we suffered. And honestly, the waves of that suffering still continue to extend outward, albeit more gently these days, I think, for most of us who were impacted by his wild and wondrous life that was laced with so much tragedy.

I am doing my best to heal the parts that I carry. For myself. For the world around me. But also for him.

The last time that I spoke to him, he had already made his decision that he was done struggling. Some part of me knew when he told me that my sister and I were “his legacy” that he was saying goodbye.

I think about that often. That I am his legacy. That my time here on this planet and what I choose to do with it is inextricably linked to him. That I carry pieces of both his light and his shadow, and that I also get to choose how I use both.

I talk to my father frequently, often out loud. His body may have died, but I know his soul is ever-present and our relationship lives on. Sometimes I can almost feel the way he has softened. The way death has brought him a peace I don’t think he ever had during his life. I miss him in moments. In others I am still angry with him. I’m okay with it being both.

We are dynamic beings. It only makes sense that our relationships would be as well. I can love him and not always like he who was. I can honor the beauty he brought into my life and still be honest about the pain that came along with it. And I do. Every single day. Happy birthday, Dad, wherever you are. I hope that if you’re watching, and I believe that you are in some unexplainable way, that somehow my healing is supporting yours. Because you deserve it. We all do.

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