My Dad, Mental Illness and Me


Content warning: personal experiences with anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide.

Mental illness has been a significant part of my life for the past 10 years. In fact, part of me thinks it has probably been with me from the day I was born. I was always very anxious and during my teenage years this, coupled with the awkwardness of puberty and desire for perfection, led to a full-blown eating disorder. Two years in its grasp, I was seriously unwell and even though I needed support more than ever, I was so embarrassed that I pushed everyone away. I isolated myself from those I loved as a means to protect them and myself. 

Nearly 9 years later, I have proudly shaken my eating disorder demons, something many doctors told me would be impossible. Many of the same obsessive features have manifested in different forms, including recently, but I am continuing to learn how to manage this part of myself that I am increasingly aware exists. When I really take the time to think about my experience with mental health, the part that frustrates me the most is not the time I wasted or experiences I missed out on, it is the feelings I attached to the experience. Being ashamed, guilty and feeling the need to hide it from others. I believe that this is unique to mental illness because it has a stigma. There are associations, judgements and stereotypes of being crazy, weak, attention seeking, of choice. But mental illness is none of these things. It is an illness, just like cancer or diabetes. Yet, I believe, these diseases and others warrant a level of intervention, understanding and support that mental illness simply does not have. 

I can’t deny that I have fed this need for secrecy through my behaviour in the past. I held those same stigmas towards myself, which made it harder for me to receive the help that I needed. But I have had enough, and this past year it was my dad’s experience with mental illness that has provided me with space to be honest, and whilst it has been hard and scary, it has also been extremely liberating. 

The first time my dad attempted to take his life was in 2013. I was just starting university and naturally, just like my younger brother and mum, we were in complete shock. It was unexpected and we felt helpless. Once dad recovered in hospital, we went on pretending that the event never happened, maybe to protect dad’s reputation or maybe as our way of dealing with the pain. This continued for years, sitting in the pit of my stomach like a stone, and of course without the proper support, dad’s mental health deteriorated further until he attempted to take his life a second time in February last year. The second attempt was far more serious, but thankfully as a result of the combination of an amazing medical team and luck, he did happen to survive and after two months of intensive care, rehabilitation to learn to walk and psychiatric treatment, dad came back home. 

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Unlike the last time, we can no longer hide what has happened. This is not only for our own mental wellbeing but also because we believe people deserve and should know. Additionally, we physically cannot hide it. Dad now lives with a permanent disability, he has nerve damage in his leg, which means he cannot walk properly without a brace, drive or work again. As a result, I, along with my mum and brother, have become almost like part time carers. He also has brain damage, which most painfully for me, is expected to worsen in the future. He can’t remember almost anything from my childhood. 

It is really hard sometimes. It has been very traumatic and sad, but we are lucky and by talking about it and opening up to others, I have realised I am not alone. I can share things that helped me get through the tough times and for the first time I feel like people can really get to know the real me. Mental illness has been a part of my story and it has shaped the person I am today. It has made me appreciate the time I do have more, it has allowed me to love deeper, to see the bigger picture, to serve my community, it has provided me with a perspective I wouldn't otherwise have. I am grateful for that and I am grateful for my friends, family and my boyfriend.

Some lessons I have learned:

  • Sleep is really important for wellbeing, especially mental wellbeing. 
  • Exercise not only helps with sleep but it also helps to boost mood. Any exercise is beneficial, just do something you enjoy. 
  • There are plenty of services out there, however, what works for some people might not work for you. It can be a process of trial and error. You just have to start somewhere to find the support that suits you and your needs best.
  • Remember that saying, if people cannot handle you at your worst, they don't deserve you at your best! True friends and those that love you will always be there.
  • Don’t be afraid to take your time and slow down. I truly believe the fast-paced nature of the modern world can be really overwhelming and feel quite competitive. If you need to have a break, take a break. It will be more beneficial in the long term. Life is not a race.
  • Personally, I found treating my mental health holistically has been the most beneficial. Medication can be useful and so too can talking and getting advice from the right professionals. 
  • Try and identify your triggers that make you feel like shit (i.e. alcohol or social media or toxic people, whatever it may be). Limit these where possible. 
  • Recovery and managing a mental health condition is not linear. It can be a slow process and there will be bumps along the way. Try to be kind to yourself. 
  • A note about being kind, also try your best to be kind to others. You never know what internal battle someone else may be facing. 
  • Don’t give up; the one certainty in life is change. At your worst there are still better days ahead. Sometimes you just have to keep pushing.

Written by Ella

Edited by Samantha Callender

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Any information on this blog is not a substitute for professional advice. It is written from personal experience and research only. If you are in crisis, go to your nearest emergency room, call lifeline on 13 11 14 or dial 000.

Leanne Westlake