Growing up with a depressed parent – a complicated journey

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An anonymous Dorset Mind writer describes how navigating life with a depressed parent has shaped her – and how she’s working to heal herself

TRIGGER WARNING:
THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS THEMES THAT COULD BE DISTRESSING, INCLUDING THOUGHTS OF SUICIDE. PLEASE SEEK SUPPORT VIA SIGNPOSTING AT THE END.

I don’t claim to have a ‘bad dad’, nor even a bad relationship with him. It’s just … complicated … And always has been.
My dad suffers with a long-term health condition and also depression. He has done for the best part of my life, and I grew up accustomed to having a depressed parent, though not understanding the effect that had on my own personality.
I witnessed a lot of short fuses. I can still feel the fear that cemented me to the spot after I’d done something wrong.
My dad never screamed at us – it was what he wouldn’t say that gripped me.
From a young age I tried to accommodate this uneasy presence in the house. I learned to tiptoe around, to stay far from trouble, keeping myself quiet and unnoticeable – a habit which has followed me into my adult life. I also had terrible anxiety as a teenager which will likely always haunt me.

Disquieting memories
I hold no resentment for the way I’ve turned out, but as an adult I’ve started to shake off some of the lasting effects of my dad’s temper. I realised I cared far too much about pleasing other people, and that I was struggling to stand up for myself.
When I look back on certain memories, I immediately have a sense of complete discomfort – which is how I’d describe a lot of my childhood.
Obviously, it wasn’t all bad memories, but that’s the problem with having a depressed parent: it affects everything. I’ve struggled with depression myself and I know it is extremely hard to see things clearly when you’re that low – my deeply depressed dad is excellent at pretending he isn’t.
Now, with the benefit of maturity and distance, I can see as clear as day which parts of me are a direct result of my dad’s mood swings. A lot of my teenage anxiety was caused by the lack of stability – as an already very nervous 12-year-old, I overheard him quietly threaten suicide to my mum.

At least he’s not …
It’s become so important for me to recognise that compared with a lot of my peers, I did have a difficult upbringing.
Everyone has different relationships with their parents, but I can’t help feeling sad when I see my friends casually video call and chat with their dads – as though they are friends.
But I am so grateful to my mum
who has been the most incredible presence and wonderful force in my life.
Somehow, there’s always the “at least he’s not …” conversation. And I agree – it could have been so much worse.
However, I owe it to both my child and adult self (who remains an adamant people pleaser) to see my family life for what it was.
I never wanted to be a product of my dad’s mental illness and the first step to moving away from this learned behaviour was simply recognising it – when it happens, what sets it off and how it makes me feel.
Recognising my own reaction to my dad’s actions helped me to determine what I should do with the emotions I was absorbing from him. I found I took in a lot of his anger, often then passing it on to someone else.
I have also learned how to stop being so complacent and agreeable in order to avoid confrontation, which was a huge part of growing up for me.
I was once told by a teacher in Year 7 that I “seemed to fade into the background.” I think about that comment every time I feel out of place in a conversation, or when I feel myself slipping back into the timid girl I was growing up.
It’s sometimes exhausting, attempting to reverse an entire part of my life. But for the most part, I’ve finally grown into my authentic self.
I just wish I could go back in time and give myself a hug.

Support for you:

Visit Dorset Mind for local mental health support and to discover ways to keep mentally healthy
Young Minds have support for young people and parents.
Call Samaritans for free 24/7 emotional support on 116 123
Dorset’s mental health Connection is a 24/7 helpline open to all ages. Dorset residents or people visiting Dorset can call 0800 652 0190 or NHS 111
Please call 999 if someone is in immediate danger.

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