Like Father

by Wren Guilmain


Early in my diagnosis, I pushed myself way too hard. I tried to cure my bipolar disorder by sheer force of will. It didn’t work. I was sent home from my volunteer job at one of Ottawa’s many summer festivals.

Yep, so unhealthy was I that people were refusing my free help.

I thought normal people can work 10 days of 12 hour shifts, because all the friends I had made from volunteering did. I understand now that that workload is not normal, but at the time, I made it to about the sixth night before my supervisor told me to go home.

I didn’t.

I went to my dad’s.

My father and I had a pretty bad history. He was a recovering alcoholic. I was a resentful 19-year-old. It was a bad mix. Before that, he had been an alcoholic with little or no mention of recovery, and I had been younger, and under the impression that every problem I ever had could be traced back to him. Things changed when he completed rehab. I agreed to go out to let him buy me lunch on Father’s Day. It would seem backwards if it wasn’t a huge concession on my part just to see him at all. Our reconciliation wasn’t a smooth process. Four days after Father’s Day, I went to his Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and was so overwhelmed I disappeared for two weeks.

It was still pretty uncomfortable to go see my father, but I looked at it in terms of relative discomfort—going to his basement apartment in Vanier would not be as uncomfortable as going back to my mother’s and having her poke at me about why I had stopped volunteering. I wasn’t ready to admit I had failed at “not being bipolar.” And nothing could ever be as uncomfortable as that first AA meeting.

My dad had never been there for me as a child. In fact, when we weren’t ignoring each other we were doing our best to hurt each other. I don’t think either of us understood why until I showed up on his doorstep with an overnight bag and a tube of cookie dough, looking for a place to crash rather than have to face my mother’s perkiness and pointed questions.

He didn’t even question it. He might have been afraid to, so fragile was our newfound relationship, but I think he just understood that I needed to wallow. He gave me a small glass bottle of Coca-Cola and asked me if I needed anything. Not what happened or what I was doing there.

“If you can make me not bipolar, that would be good,” I said between sips of Coke that, in hindsight, probably weren’t what someone who had just taken a sharp drop out of hypomania needed.

“Sorry, Boo Boo, can’t do that any more than I can make me not an alcoholic.”

My dad, who had been a mortgage broker during my childhood, worked the nightshift at a dépanneur—a convenience store—since he finished rehab. It was two doors down from his apartment. He told me, when he left me dazed on the pullout couch, that if I still couldn’t fall asleep, if the racing thoughts just wouldn’t stop, I was welcome to visit him at the store.

I didn’t.

I fell asleep watching Benny and Joon. It was the most sleep I had gotten in over a week. When I saw my dad again, he was coming back to the apartment with cinnamon brioche from the boulangerie, and the sun was up.

My mother and I now debate  whether or not my dad knew he had cancer, then. I didn’t know it at the time, and I don’t think he did either, but Dad would die of organ failure that October. They found the cancer on a Wednesday, all over his abdominal cavity; he was dead on Friday morning. It has been eight years, and I’m as at peace with the loss as I ever expect to be.

That is to say, I’ll never be completely at peace with it; I’m my father’s daughter, and it only took me 19 years and a really bad hypomanic episode to figure it out. I will never relate to my mother’s determined cheerfulness like I related to my father’s melancholic humour. Our relationship was so strained because I learned my stubbornness and sarcasm and even my avoidance from him. To him, I was life’s little comeuppance for all his character flaws. To me, he was a hypocrite. Everything about ourselves that we disliked, we loathed in each other. It might have gone on like this for the rest of his life, if his recovery and my diagnosis hadn’t forced us to come to terms with ourselves.