Accepting My Father's Death... Even Though He's Still Alive

The thunk of the hall light switch striking off at bedtime is how I remember my dad.

There was no reliable way of knowing who’d approach in the moments after that sound reverberated through my bedroom wall ― my father, or his monster.

He was terrorized relentlessly by untreated bipolar disorder, a shape-shifting creature that wielded the power to thrust him into a violent state over something as insignificant as someone forgetting to turn off a light. At other times, it made him the most captivating person in the room. He’d speak animatedly, excite easily and impulsively declare we all abandon school for the day to head to the local mini golf course. My siblings and I never put up a fight.

Perhaps it sounds like an unconventional upbringing ― and in many ways it was ― but I don’t like to label my childhood as “abnormal” (mainly because who even has a “normal” childhood, anyway?). When I was a teenager, though, my father’s mental illness often felt like the uninvited houseguest who wouldn’t leave.

In many ways, bipolar disorder is still the elephant in the room. Though it affects roughly 5.7 million American adults today, it remains shrouded in stigma. We still use the term “bipolar” to describe someone who has a moody outburst. In reality, bipolar disorder is not a simple case of moodiness. It’s a serious condition that can have a devastating effect on both the sufferer and their family.

“Help me,” my father whimpered one evening, appearing trembling and naked in the living room as I was finishing up my ninth-grade homework.

“What’s wrong with Dad?” my 8-year-old brother, Sonny, asked.

“Nothing. Turn off the TV and do your homework. Dinner’s almost ready,” Mom replied despondently, before directing Dad back to the bedroom to dress.

It was a familiar scenario: an odd outburst followed by a return to the mundane, as if it had perhaps been a figment of our not yet fully formed minds. Though we knew, in reality, it meant the beginning of chaos.

Two years later, following an argument with my 16-year-old sister, Madalin, my father hurled the contents of her bedroom into the hall, sending ornaments and furniture shattering theatrically. Consumed by mania, he barricaded himself in the emptied space and agitatedly paced from wall to wall for hours, before disappearing to the shopping mall. Understandably devastated, Madalin fled to a friend’s house, vowing never to come back.

It was a familiar scenario: an odd outburst followed by a return to the mundane, as if it had perhaps been a figment of our not yet fully formed minds.

Later that night, as we sat down to dinner, he returned, riding a Segway triumphantly. It felt like a scene straight out of a Farrelly brothers’ movie. I half-expected him to deliver a comedic punch line. 

“Look what I bought! It’s a new family toy to bring us together!” he declared cheerfully, as if having no memory of the turmoil he’d left behind that morning.

But we weren’t together. Madalin had left an empty seat at the table. And it remained that way, every other dinner thereafter. 

I spent many family dinners after that fantasizing a new Dad 2.0 would appear in my father’s place. One who wouldn’t cause me to fear having school friends over or make me spend another day feigning nonchalance when that switch flicked in his brain and my mother sent us to our rooms to tidy up, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. At other times, I yearned to be close to him ― the man trapped inside the cage of his illness.

Then, as if by osmosis, around my 18th birthday my father’s monster started to wither. It began with less rapid shifts in his mood, which I later learned were the result of a new regime of mood-stabilizing medication. And under a strict treatment protocol, Dad came into focus for the first time in my life.

He took up cooking and gardening, and he began making fart jokes ― which he struggled to finish without dissolving into laughter, inevitably screwing up the punch line. We held long conversations while eating his buttery homemade shortbread and stayed up late watching David Letterman reruns together.

“You forgot to turn out the hall light,” he said one evening, appearing at my bedroom door after we’d finished laughing over an Andy Kaufman sketch.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it, really,” I responded ― a prickle of fear racing over me.

Dad blinked slowly, his face expressionless.

“Well… try not to forget next time. Goodnight, my darling girl!” he said, breaking into a smile. He then flicked out the switch just outside my door.

I knew then my father was free from the terror of his illness. Perhaps we were all free.

Invigorated by the prospect of a new chance at life, Dad signed up for a gym membership and took up jogging, soon clocking up to 30 miles a day. Everything seemed to be falling into place.

Unfortunately, it was just beginning to fall apart.

The high of endorphins flooding his brain had sparked an idea: abandoning his mood stabilizers. Unbeknownst to the family, he abruptly discontinued his medication after returning energized from a morning run, convinced he was renewed and cured. Unfortunately, he was one of the estimated 87 percent of bipolar patients who relapse into mania after ceasing long-term treatment. 

Unfortunately, he was one of the estimated 87 percent of bipolar patients who relapse into mania after ceasing long-term treatment.

His speech became rapid and littered with erratic thoughts within months. He stopped sleeping and started spending hours in online chat rooms, fixated on the idea of moving to a foreign country. Home became an uncertain environment once more, in which chaos could erupt at any moment. The father I had gotten to know over those couple of short years had, in essence, died.

I saw him very little after that. I left home for college to live in a dorm on campus. He called occasionally, though the conversations were regularly dominated by incoherent ideas spoken at a frenetic pace that was impossible to follow. My parents’ marriage was also showing visible cracks; Mom appeared nervous and emotional each time we spoke, and increasingly vague about Dad’s whereabouts. My sister and I remained in touch via email, though she asked me not to pass her new contact details on to our parents, consciously distancing herself from the rest of the family.

The calls from my father became more infrequent, until one day, after two months of silence and just days before my 25th birthday, he called to inform me he’d decided to leave my mother and move overseas.

“I’m starting over in Thailand. I met someone there online,” he said in an oddly calm voice.

“There’s just not enough here for me anymore.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this would be the last conversation we’d ever have.

Despite several attempts to have him return to psychiatric care in the weeks that followed, my father was no longer willing to accept the existence of his disorder, preferring instead to live for the dizzying highs of his manias.

A month later, he boarded his flight to Thailand, and just like that, in the flick of a switch, my father was gone.  

On my 31st birthday, I received an email from him with no subject line. It had been six years since we’d last spoken ― just days before his abrupt departure. The email didn’t ask how I was or include a birthday message. It was a request for a large sum of cash and a plea to wire it quickly, written as if intended for a business associate. My heart heaved. I clicked the red cross in the corner of the window and never replied.

Today, at 34, now almost a decade since my father’s estrangement, Father’s Day is a weird time of year for me. I often watch strangers purchasing silly cards and packs of socks at department stores and wonder what it would be like to be one of them again. But I won’t dial my father’s number or send him an email; not because I want to erase him from my life or because I resent him for the years his illness stole from our family, but because I want to remember him in the few years when he really came alive.