It was routine to walk past the front door after school and see my dad postured in the living room, the same way as when I’d left the house that morning. He would invariably be found sitting sunken and absorbed by the black leather cushion, laptop on his lap, with a few devoted beer-bottled companions by his feet.
To this day, my father is one of the smartest and hardest-working people I know. However, his actions throughout my childhood didn’t reflect these qualities and paved the way for especially brutal attributes. It doesn’t matter how exceptional of a person you are, a grave mental illness has the power to overshadow your identity. It also has the power to make your own loved-ones question themselves.
As a child, I could never decipher how his character could be so contradictory. How could one flip between the extremities of caring and heartless, open-minded and judgmental, kind and brutal so easily? How could I explain this kind of behavior to others and myself — was I just being oversensitive? And how could I make his (oh-so-precious) “happy moments” last longer? These questions trotted around my head for years, and it took me a long time to realize these weren’t thoughts a child is supposed to have in the first place.
The environment we grow up in is bound to affect our mentality and it goes without saying that being raised under his roof impacted mine. I spent years struggling to comprehend the difference between normal and irrational behaviors, learning to trust other adults, and developing healthy coping skills. Little did I know, I wasn’t alone in this situation: in fact, 68% and 57% of mentally ill women and men are parents. It is common that their children, in turn, adopt various hazardous habits and symptoms such as feelings of guilt, disorientation, inability to communicate, and isolation.
I was surprised to find that children of alcoholics tend to share distinct traits (14 are listed on the Adult Children of Alcoholics Organization’s website), to name a few: attraction to compulsive personalities, feelings of guilt when standing up for ourselves, confusion between love and pity, developing dependent personalities, living life from a victim’s standpoint, and having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. While I do not condone systematic self-diagnosis and radical labeling, it was extremely helpful for me to find where many of my own mental habits stemmed from. From there, I have been able to make tremendous mental growth in recent years.
No matter where I’ve lived, whether it be in Asia or Europe, mental illnesses have been attributed to myths and stigmas because many people don’t have the chance to learn about them properly. For most of my life, I couldn’t reason my father’s behavior and wasn’t until years after his recovery that, through fragments of resources, I could make sense of his illness. If I were to go back in time, I would give my younger self countless pieces of advice and information. I would’ve explained to young Irène that nothing about the situation was her fault, that it was abnormal, that the presence of trusted adults in her life was essential, and most importantly that her father’s dependency didn’t define him as a person.
My dad returned home from his emergency rehabilitation treatment by the time I was in middle school. It was then I discovered an entirely new side of him — a side that had been buried under the weight of his addiction for the last decade. His soberness caused him to lose weight, giving him a sudden physical sprout of energy. Mentally, he had a more balanced mindset and personality. Some of the best memories I have of him come from our walks around in Paris after he gained his health back, in which he’d point at every little corner of the city and spew out historical facts like a walking encyclopedia.
This is why I believe that being able to gain an accurate understanding of mental illnesses starting from a young age is vital. It is an issue that no one should have to shoulder alone, including those who are affected by a loved one’s disorder.
Although mental health is still overlooked in many schools and communities, it is a blessing that a range of external resources (especially online ones) are becoming increasingly available for people with internet access. I look forward to seeing our society grow from grass-root awareness to one that actively defeats the taboo associated with mental illnesses as a whole.
Below are some online resources that you can use to learn more about mental illness: