As I grew up, I slowly began to understand why my father acts differently than others; I finally put all the pieces together when I was in junior high school and had my ‘Aha!’ moment – “So that’s why he is different than my friends’ parents!” Even after this, I struggled to maintain a healthy relationship with my father, constantly getting frustrated when we talked. However, through years of counseling, I have learned to adjust my reactions to his behavior.
Changing my reactions has been a difficult journey and I know I still have a long way to go; it is hard not to get frustrated when he does not pick up on basic social cues. Only now, in my mid-twenties, am I able to separate my father from his illness. My father is the person with an incredible talent for training animals, who loves to read, and goes to the gym three times a week. He even got a job, his first in fifteen years, as a part time janitor at a nursing home. The symptoms that he grapples with do not define him as a person and my slow realization of this has been transformative in our relationship.
In the short time I have been at PRA, I have been shocked by all that I did not know about mental health. I had no knowledge of the recovery movement, the terminology and culture that surrounds the mental health community, or the choices individuals have within the continuum of care. I may be living with mental illness, but I was never taught to examine and understand mental illness. For the first time in my life, I feel like I am equipped to talk about his illness with others in a respectful yet truthful way. For years, I never talked about my father with friends, because I did not know what to say; it was easier to just omit him from the conversation. At PRA, I am confronted daily with a new piece of information that shifts how I think about him and our relationship. I’m now starting to realize why I act the way I do, why he acts the way he does, why our relationship is what it is, and it is staggeringly enlightening. It is exciting, yet overwhelming at the same time – I have never thought about him or our relationship in so much depth for such a prolonged period.
Truthfully, I do not think that my father and I will ever have the close relationship I used to dream about. Instead, I have readjusted my expectations to a more realistic view of our relationship’s capacity, which is healthier for both of us. I know I will never fully understand him or his illness, but I will continue to work on adjusting my reactions to his behavior and be more open about father with others. My experiences with him have shaped me to be the person that I am today, and I am glad that I can now acknowledge that.