This is my dad. It’s one of my favorite pictures of my former best friend. We were at an Eagles-Patriots game at the Linc in 2011. Great game. Great memories. But what you can’t see on my face is the anger I have harbored for 10 years due to his irrational bouts of mania and depression. Thanks a lot, Bipolar Disease.
My dad and I share the same name. He married my mom on August 26, 1976, barely two months after graduating high school. My mom was three months pregnant with me. How would he provide for his new wife and baby while making minimum wage at a shoe store? He knew the road ahead would be tough and was man enough to fight.
I was born six months later on March 1, 1977. It was a Tuesday and definitely a school day. Oh, I forgot to mention. My mom was 16-years-old and hobbling around her 11th-grade classes—pregnant. It’s hard for me to imagine how she did it. It’s hard for me to imagine any part of this life that they had. I respect both of them immensely for fighting for me. They certainly did that. But they didn’t fight for each other.
My Pop-Pop, whom we also share the same name, worked for the Philadelphia Electric Company and had been trying to get my dad into the company for months. The perseverance paid off. He was hired on July 11, 1977 and was finally able to answer the question and provide for his very young family. Those first two years were wonderful, I hear. But the next two years were not. I can’t go into the details here, but my mom and dad’s marriage fell off a cliff. My dad moved out in 1979 and they were divorced in 1981. And just like that, I was a child of divorce.
The good news is, I was too young to remember the split. I thought my childhood was normal. I lived with my mom during the week and my dad picked me up on Wednesday and Friday nights. I had two birthdays, two Christmases, two of everything. That was my trade for the Sunday night drop off. I’ve told this story before in a previous article called My Boy Was Just Like Me. At exactly 7:55 p.m., I was crying while watching my dad’s Ford Bronco II tail lights fade into the distance. It wasn’t fair, but so is the case for children of divorce.
Don’t get me wrong. My mom was amazing. She struggled, enduring many hard work days and late nights earning her Master’s Degree in Special Education. Maybe that was for me. I was very Special. She eventually had a great career and our relationship thrived. But there is something different between a boy and his mom and a boy and his dad.
I lived for the weekends. My dad was awesome! He took me on so many adventures in that same 1985 Ford Bronco II. We went off-roading in the mud. He would go fast and soar over this one road slant. We drove to the beach with the horses and camped out on the sand. I learned that horses like Doritos. He took me to every soccer game, baseball game, and even woke up early many times to watch me at Saturday morning bowling.
We went to the Philadelphia Art Museum and did the Rocky thing, plus we climbed rock walls and explored. It’s funny, but for as many times as he took me TO the art museum, I never went IN the art museum. Oh well, the steps and walls were way more fun.
He took me on tours of various PECO power plants to show me where he worked. My favorite was called Conowingo. It had a hydroelectric dam that you can drive over. We would park below the dam and watch the majesty of cascading water rippling downstream in the Susquehanna River. We went to the Baseball Hall of Fame and watched the induction of Carl Yastrzemski and Johnny Bench and watched the Hall of Fame Game from a guy’s backyard in left field. My favorite player, Wade Boggs, hit a very unlikely long ball that landed six feet in front of me. Nope, I didn’t get it, but my dad fought like hell trying.
He took me to Saint Peter’s village with the locally famous French Creek. This was my absolute favorite. The creek was filled with boulders that you could hop from one to the other down for hundreds of feet. Afterward, he’d take me to the shops and buy me a souvenir. We went to Boulder Field, a huge valley in the Pocono Mountains filled with boulders. So much fun! It was always just the two of us. He was my best friend—my dad.
Our relationship strengthened as I aged and we did different things together. By college, much of our bonding time was around sports and Penn State Football (where I attended.) He was remarried by this time. .. twice. But he was still my best friend.
In May 2000, I broke the hearts of my parents when I moved to South Carolina to work for GE. They were happy for me, but missed me terribly and visited several times each. My fiancé and I moved up to Albany, New York on a GE transfer in 2002 to get closer to our families. At this point, my dad was still my main man. We were tight.
I was fired from GE in October 2005, but didn’t tell my dad until Thanksgiving and I wish that I didn’t. At this time, my 12-year-old brother was being tormented and bullied at school. My dad was working a lot of overtime to keep up the house bills. He was stressed and he couldn’t handle the bullying. To top it off, here strolls in his firstborn son telling him he had lost his job.
None of us knew that Bipolar Disease was genetic, nor did we know that one of my dad’s cousins had it and my great-great grandfather was institutionalized for it. It was taboo and no one talked about it. My dad withdrew into his first bout of depression that exact month!
The proverbial blank hit the fan in May 2006. I had noticed the depression but thought it was normal for the anxiety around my brother. We invited Dad up to watch our 18-month-old while we went out for the night and came back to a disaster. I didn’t know what mania was, but that changed fast. My son was asleep and safe, but my dad was passed out on the couch. The kitchen was a bizarro scene. Dishes were in the oven. Stuff from the bathroom was on the counters and sink. The furniture was out of place. We panicked. He remembered nothing. Apparently, he was on meds and something went wrong. The first mania had arrived.
By the summer, he was calling all the time and telling me his life story over and over again. He would leave the house every night and go to concerts, parties, began smoking, doing drugs, who knows what else. He spent a ton of money, even flew to Las Vegas last minute. He would hang up on me anytime I expressed disapproval. There was a two-week-span where no one knew where he was, not even his wife. Oh, and by the fall, that fell apart too. His marriage and his relationship with my brother ended.
Life settled down by late 2006 for him and it all sort of went away. Great. The recklessness was a one-time thing and his life would be back to normal. He would still be my best friend.
Nope, not the case at all.
It took me six years to fully accept this, but my father had an exact two-year cycle of mania and depression. In the spring and summer of every even year, disaster hit our family, wiping out the nerves of my Nana and Pop, now in their late 70’s. Dad was fired from his 33-year-career at PECO for a felony (I can’t give details) in May 2010, then re-instated by his union later than year. That was a close one and my anger and impatience were growing toward the point of no return.
His next manic cycle hit hard, as predicted, in May 2012. PECO let him go for good and the “time-share company” invited him for a three-month-free-stay. Free to him, paid for by the taxpayers. And “vacation” was the term we used with our kids to spare them from knowing where he really was.
Personally, I wouldn’t claim this free time-share, no matter how good the salesman. But my dad took the deal. I can’t describe the feeling of visiting my father at his “vacation home.” It sucked. My heart goes out to any man who had to endure that. I fought for him, accepting his illness. While he was gone, I made call after call to state and county agencies for help. No one helped.
When he came home from his hiatus, he assured us that this was the worst vacation of his life. and that he’d “never go back there again.” By this time, his marriage was over. My brother wouldn’t talk to him. His house, long ago, foreclosed on. He promised everyone it was the last time.
As you guessed it, May 2014 came around and brought our friend Mr. Mania again. His “last time” became the next time and he was about to disappear from our lives again. I texted him up until the day he left. My last text was very angry, but I didn’t know it would be the last time we communicated for months. That text haunted me.
His first letter home threw me into a rage. I was still angry. It was a Friday night. I stayed up and crushed him in a reply letter … just crushed him. I slept on it and re-wrote it in the morning, got my wife’s and Pop’s approval and sent it. I didn’t hear from my dad for a while. You see, I told him off and set boundaries in that letter. “You must do four things or you will never see your grandkids again.” Again, I won’t disclose the details, but this list is what gave his arbitrator the leniency to cut his sentence after six months. It was an amazing stroke of grace on the part of the arbitrator as she had wanted to send him to the larger state-run vacation getaway. That one would NOT have been a vacation at all.
I let him see his grandkids a few months later on my terms. We had just moved to a new house and I refused to give my dad the new address. He used to show up at our previous home 3-or 4:00 a.m. and worry me all night. I wasn’t going to risk that again. He begged for a chance to visit us.
No. No. No. Not until you meet all my requirements.“
And this was one of the most difficult parts of the entire 10-year roller coaster with my father’s illness.
“Dad, why aren’t we seeing Pop-Pop? Why can’t he come visit us anymore?” my kids would ask. Talk about heart-breaking. How do you address this with honesty, while preserving your father’s name?
“Pop-Pop has been making some bad decisions and he is spending some time away right now. Think of it like a long vacation to get him better. We’ll see him again soon. He loves you very much and always asks about you.”
He did well for a few months. We even planned a trip to visit him in February. Unfortunately, that fell through due to the stomach virus. Thank a lot, Stomach Virus! We rescheduled for late March, but it wasn’t to be.
Remember the joy he had on March 1, 1977. He was a newlywed and his first child was born. Turn the clock ahead to March 1, 2015. It was also my son Kolby’s birthday. I didn’t hear from my dad all day, which was unusual. Then I got this text …
“Happy Birthday Ken. I’m so sorry. I messed up again. I have to take another ‘vacation’ and it could be a two-year trip. I’m so sorry.” I called him after the shock set in. I knew this would be the last time we would talk for a long time. He didn’t say much. He just apologized for the news on my birthday and ended the call with this statement that I will never forget. “Ken, I’ve done nothing in my life. You are the best thing that I’ve ever done.”
Well, that wrecked me. It wrecked everyone. And like Aerosmith, this was a Permanent Vacation. That’s what the whole family assumed. Three strikes and you’re out, right? This time, I had virtually no correspondence. I didn’t want to hear about anything about him. He missed our visits to PA in May, August and at Thanksgiving. The kids asked again. “Where’s Pop-Pop?” Here we go again. “Pop-Pop is away again.” But this didn’t work. My 10-year-old son knew and just played along, but my 7-year-old daughter was broken-hearted. She didn’t think Pop-Pop wanted to see her. She didn’t understand why he kept taking so many ‘vacations.’ Ouch! Fathers, I pray you never fall into this position. I told her the truth and asked her to pray for him.
It wasn’t permanent. We did see my dad again in February 2016. I hadn’t seen him in 11 months, the longest ever in my life. This time, he was completely broken and started to make changes. He began to follow my boundaries. I was happy, but I’ve seen this before, one too many times.
My anger was past the point of no return. Who could blame me? My best friend was gone. Everything he had done to invest into our relationship as a kid was destroyed. I no longer trusted him. I no longer wanted to see him. I wanted him out of my life.
Then on August 26, 2016, something amazing happened. I was in the middle of reading my Bible. If you’re not a person of faith, just read this part for the context on how I perceived it. The verse that I just happened to be dwelling on was on forgiveness. And while I am reading, a text comes in. “Hi Ken. I miss you. How are you and your family? Today, I married your mother 40 years ago and I still love her.”
Done. I’m out. My face hit the table and I sobbed. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t realize it was my mom and dad’s 40th wedding anniversary. I didn’t know that my dad never fully grieved the loss of my mother. I never realized he had suppressed loss from other things that I realize now were the absolute triggers to his Bipolar condition. How could I? I am a flawed man too, far from perfect.
I texted back, knowing exactly what to say. “Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices (2 Corinthians 2:10-11). Dad, it’s time to search your heart and if there is anything or anyone you need to forgive, do it in the sight of God. Stop giving Satan power over you. I love you Dad. Even if our relationship sucks (which it does), I still love you and I forgive you of all that you’ve done.”
A simple “Thank you.” was replied as my face hit the table again. I wouldn’t regain emotional control for what seemed like forever. But I had a new charge, a new feeling. I felt compassion toward the man that used to be my best friend. I promised God that I would pray over his broken heart and bipolar mind, every day – And I have.
Later that afternoon, I composed a Facebook post with the picture above and shared a small version of this story. It went viral with men and women liking and responding from five different countries. I spent Friday and Saturday night reading the extremely vulnerable “dad stories” of other men and responding. The outpouring was so great that I had to create a forum for this type of conversation and healing to take place.
On Sunday night, I stayed up until 3:00 a.m. creating The Dad Files private Facebook group. The idea was simple. Do you remember the 1990’s TV show “The X-files“? It was wildly popular with the tagline “The Truth is Out There.” I modeled my private men’s page after that messaging. What if a safe place existed for men to share their own version of “Not Angry at My Dad Anymore“? Each story would be called a Dad File and the tagline would be “Forgiveness is Out There.” This was my vision that night. I added my Dad File first and then invited 20 men from five countries before re-joining my kids in the tent (oh, forgot to mention that … we were camping in the back yard.)
By the end of the week, 30 more men requested entrance and four other men shared their deepest hurts and pains imposed by their fathers. Again, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring. The stories were powerful and I invested into properly commenting back with gratitude and encouragement. Then, I set up some basic guidelines for posting. You see, I don’t want a feed with my name over and over again. I want YOUR Dad Files to dominate the group. How cool would it be if a new dad entered the group and there were already 150 amazing stories that he could just read and gain hope? It’s not about me or my problems, although that’s what started it all. It’s about YOU.
Dads, YOU are my motivation. Otherwise, there’s NO WAY I’d air my dirty laundry to potentially millions of readers.
Now, let me return to my own Dad File. A lot has happened in a few weeks. But it reached a peak last Sunday night when I read this article to my dad. It was the first time we spoke voice-to-voice since early August as I wasn’t yet comfortable outside of texting. He had 30 minutes as he drove to work, and asked how I was.
“Dad, I wrote an article about us and I need to read it to you.”
“Is it a good article?” He asked with a slight tremble.
“No. It’s not, but it can help a lot of men. And it can help me.”
He braced for what he feared would be another nasty letter. “Okay, I’m ready.”
If you thought writing this article was difficult, try reading it to the man you wrote it about. Not easy. But worth it. For the first time in 10 years, he heard all of the good, bad, and the ugly of what his illness had brought upon his firstborn son and family.
He sighed … He cried … Then, he replied. And his reply was more healing for us. This is the part that I won’t go into detail about.
My dad talked. He really talked and uncovered emotions that have been buried for years.
“What can I do to make this right and to fix our relationship?” He asked.
“Dad, it’s not about you. It’s about me. I had to forgive you, to open this door that’s been closed for a long time.”
It was a great phone call.
We talked again in the morning because he wanted to think more about this article. Immediately, he said, “I slept on it and I’m okay with the article.”
“Are you sure, dad? I can cut the bad stuff. What if friends or future employers see it? Could it hurt you?”
“I don’t think so. What can I say. It’s all true and I want it to help people.” He answered.
I told him that I would try to get this article published on his birthday of September 22nd. He laughed, not knowing if it would be a good gift or not. We switched gears in the conversation and his spirits lifted as he talked about the possibility of going back to the Linc for another Eagles game this season. I smiled and said. “Dad, let’s get another picture and this time … I won’t be angry at you.”
If you are a man that struggles with your own father and need encouragement or you have a tremendous story of victory, please request entrance to the “The Dad Files” private Facebook group.
Photos courtesy of Author