Ask a Psychologist: Coping with a Family Member’s Mental Illness

You can't fix everything at once



I’m getting married in around two months, and I am worried that my feelings will spoil the wedding day, for myself and for everyone else. Also, I’m seven weeks pregnant, which casts an extra spotlight on to my worries. In basic terms, my worry is about my father and my own anger and resentment towards him. He’s not abusive; he’s not a drunk; he’s still married to my mum. I know he loves me. He has, however, quit. Quit on living a healthy, rewarding life. He has no hobbies, no interests, no friends. He refuses to support my mum in attending family social events such as weddings or funerals. He sleeps for four hours each afternoon, longer on Christmas, so we don’t spend much time with him. When he is in the same room as us he will sit in silence and stare at us, not engaging in conversation. He doesn’t work. He took early retirement and it seems like money is pretty short.

I know he has been diagnosed with depression, and takes medication for it. I have also had bouts of this in the past, and my overwhelming feeling when I am down is to get better, to improve myself, so I don’t let myself or others down. He doesn’t seem interested in learning, or engaging, or anything.

I am trying to accept that he won’t change. My mother and brother seem to have come to terms with this more than I have, and don’t have the expectation I have around who I want, and perhaps, need him to be. I’d like a dad who has friends, who engages with the world, who challenges me to work harder, to achieve. Instead of a role model, I feel I have a figure in my life who only highlights the worst parts of my own personality.

I am getting married in a tiny ceremony, just mine and my fiancé’s parents will be there, which will only throw his nature into sharper relief. I worry that the day will be spoilt by my own anger towards him. I’m also worried that as a grandfather, will he be a good example to my child?

Again, I know he will not change. We shy away from any confrontation in our family, so direct talk will not work. Does anyone have any advice about how I should go about changing/forgiving so I’m more comfortable with this situation, for my wedding, and for the future?


Looking for Answers

A: Dear Looking For Answers,

Coping with mental illness (one’s own or a family member’s) can be difficult as it is, and as I wrote about last month, adding life transitions into the mix does not usually make things easier. You’re managing a lot right now. Fortunately, you know what’s important to you, and you’re also very aware of your thoughts and feelings. These strengths will serve you well in navigating your concerns.

As Meg points out in her book, people’s personalities and problems don’t change just because there’s a wedding going on. In fact, it’s very normal for weddings to bring out people’s vulnerabilities and less ideal characteristics. And you’re right that we ultimately can’t directly change other people. But, we do have a great deal of control over ourselves, in that we can choose how we think about things, and how we go about doing them.

To help answer your question about family relationships, I spoke with my colleague, Hinda Winawer, LCSW, past president of the American Family Therapy Academy, faculty member at New York City’s Ackerman Institute for the Family, and co-founder of both the Princeton Family Institute and the Center for Family, Community, and Social Justice. “Your insight puts you at an advantage,” notes Winawer. “You’re already steps ahead, in that you see that your anger is what may get in the way on your wedding day.” In other words, how you’re thinking and feeling about your relationship with your father may actually be more problematic than the relationship itself. Changing your perspective may allow you to enjoy the planning process, and your wedding, a lot more.

You may be ignoring strengths about your relationship with your father in the midst of this stressful transition and his mental illness. “You probably wouldn’t feel this kind of disappointment if you hadn’t already shared something valuable in the past,” Winawer suggests. “What things have you loved about your father? What fond memories do you have together? There is a generic pressure for everything to be perfect for the wedding, but major life transitions can be very difficult. They can be surprising and disappointing, positively and negatively. What kind of lens can you bring to your wedding that will help you to move forward in a different way?”

Another important thing to keep in mind is that you cannot take everything on at once. Weddings and pregnancies often bring issues to the surface, but you can’t solve everything during the planning process, nor can you solve everything alone. Right now is the time to make sure you’re taking care of yourself, and to notice and accept, but not fix, concerns about family members and relationships. Weddings and pregnancies also create a lot of pressure around family relationships and appearances, and it can be hard to manage negative thoughts about what other people may be thinking. Individual therapy can be really helpful in stressful times like these, both to make sure you’re taking care of yourself and coping in a healthy way, and also to gain insight into how to approach things differently. The Psychology Today directory is a good place to start to find a therapist.

As for longer-term things to think about, your dad has also been managing a lot: serious symptoms of depression, as well as an adjustment to aging, retirement, and changing family dynamics. Has he truly quit, or has everyone else given up on him? Depression can be very serious, but it is also relatively common. With the right treatments and support, symptoms can be effectively managed, and families and patients really can feel better. It sounds like you and your family have made multiple attempts to reach out to your father. But there may be other ways to engage him and to help your family move forward. Have you, your partner, or your family members spoken with your father’s psychiatrist, therapist, or other physician? Have you gotten a second opinion on his diagnosis and treatment? Conversations with providers, although emotionally challenging, can help you to feel supported. They can also bring to light other ways that you can help. Have you looked into resources for families of people with mental illness, or tried support groups or family therapy? If yes, then maybe acceptance is the way to move forward. If not, these could be strategies to consider to get unstuck.

Family therapy helps family members to understand their roles in the family system. Family therapists incorporate a family’s strengths to teach family members how to break unsatisfying patterns, and how to learn more effective ways of communicating. Winawer, who has significant experience working with families of people with serious mental illness, suggests meeting with an experienced, trained family therapist who works with adult children and their families. “It’s important to sit down as a family and talk about transitioning into a group of adults,” recommends Winawer. You can also read more on the Princeton Family Institute’s blog about the impact of transitions on a family, and about how to begin therapy.

The important thing to remember is that you can choose how to think about all of this, including considering what you can and can’t change. Also, you’re not in it alone—you have resources to help you, and many families have overcome obstacles like these. Last, you’re creating a beautiful new family with your partner. And that marriage is the most important thing.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided in Ask a Psychologist is intended by Dr. Brofman and APW to serve as general advice and guidance for all readers. The advice herein does not constitute a clinical recommendation or relationship, and Dr. Brofman and quoted mental health professionals do not take clinical responsibility for this information. Ask a Psychologist does not take the place of a confidential clinical consultation with a trained mental health professional.

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  • Satsuma Caravan

    Man, does this speak volumes. First off, the Letter Writer should know that she is *not* alone. There is so much wedding-related advice about what happens when the father cannot be there for reasons that check out as “understandable” to everyone (divorce battles, “socially acceptable” forms of illness, etc). But for those people whose families may look “happy” or “mostly happy” on the surface, while actually having “given up on life” behind the scenes, this dynamic can be crushing. Even relatives outside of the immediate family circle may be clueless about it, which can add to the pressure…

    I’m no psychologist, but the Letter Writer sounds like a real go-getter in life to me. This is the complete opposite of someone who’s given up on life. So while therapy might help (and, by all means, go-for it if you think it will!), I do have to say that I’m always left wondering if it might actually string out the pain. I would say that if the Letter Writer finds it most comfortable and practicable to talk with her fiance and/or others closest to her as a way of finding out where she might want to lay some boundaries (which could always shift over time), then that might be one of the best steps forward. As Shara says in her reply, the Letter Writer is *aware* and trying to gather a perspective on things, which puts her leaps and bounds ahead of the person who might only be “reacting” to the situation without reflecting on it.

    For the wedding, the LW can keep close the mantra: “at the end of the day, what’s important is that you get married”. Letter Writer, in the actual moment of exchanging vows, you’re extremely likely to step “out of time”, and feel the world hold close and hover around you. No matter who’s watching, or in what ways, it is likely that everyone witnessing that magic will get somehow drawn into it. Most important of all, though, is that you and your fiance will be totally transported by it… xx

  • Meg

    I think this is good advice. See these as two separate things. You’re going to get married and your father will be there and he might not be the same person you remember as a kid and you should accept that sadly. But also try to get him the help he needs. Not necessarily to get him better “in time for the wedding” or “in time to be a grandpa” but to help him.

  • Hi Looking for Answers,
    First off — being pregnant, preparing for marriage, and dealing with a family member who has depression are major things to be handling at one time. I know tone doesn’t always come across well on the internet, but I assure you that this comment is coming from a place of empathy and support.
    I’m wondering if it would be helpful for you to think a little bit more about what depression actually is. You said you’ve had times where you felt down, but that just encourages you to work harder so that you don’t disappoint the people around you. From what I know of clinical depression, that type of gumption simply disappears, along with a lot of normal coping mechanisms and ability to make decisions and follow through on them. The fact that your dad is sleeping several extra hours a day is probably a sign that his depression is still affecting him. I have two friends who suffered severe bouts of depression, and both took about a year and a half to return to normal levels of functionality — and by that, I mean a year and a half AFTER they began treatment (both therapy and medication). Of course, every case is different, but I think it generally takes a long time to get those chemicals re-balanced and to retrain the brain to more positive ways of thinking.
    There was a beautiful article here on APW last Wednesday (July 16) by Naima Coster about getting married while her dad was in the hospital, too sick to travel for the wedding. She was obviously sad that he couldn’t come, but I didn’t get the sense that she was *angry* at him for being sick…or if she was, she processed those feelings and got over them. I think it might help to think of your dad in the same way: he has a disease that is preventing him from being fully emotionally present right now. You can be sad about that, and angry at the disease, but move away from blaming him for his “choices” — because his choices really aren’t his own right now.
    I hope that helps! Best wishes. :)

    • Rachelle

      I agree with this comment completely. It can be hard not to feel personally affronted by a close family member’s illness, but it is important to keep in mind that he is not doing this TO you, or acting this way towards you on purpose – he cannot find it within him at the moment to act otherwise. It is important to frame it in your own head as an illness, which may allow the writer to come from a place of compassion rather than anger. As someone who has dealt with depression personally (in my family) and professionally (as a psychologist), it is a disease more powerful than those outside of it can imagine.

    • Meg Keene

      I just want to note that feeling angry is, in my experience normal, and part of processing your feelings (and starting to learn what you want for the family you’re creating, and what you don’t). So while I think this advice is wise, I just want to reassure anyone feeling angry that is an ok emotion too, and probably part of your OWN process of starting to cope. (Personal therapy is probably a great way to keep moving through your emotions).

      • Becca

        I agree, Meg, that anger is a normal and often necessary part of processing feelings, and I don’t think Jessica Nelson would disagree either. What’s tough about this letter is the letter writer’s understanding of depression, which I think Jessica speaks to very clearly and calmly (thank you). I also agree that it’s very important to learn what you want from and in a family you’re creating for yourself, and what you don’t, but I don’t know that it’s fair to view depression through that lens. To me, that sounds a lot like saying, “I don’t want to marry someone or create a family with someone who might someday develop diabetes,” etc. Depression is an illness, not a choice.

        Of course, that said, I do believe we have everyday “micro-choices” when we’re depressed. Getting out of bed or leaving the house might feel insurmountable, but pushing oneself to make each small choice can add up to big improvements. That’s been helpful for me– I always think, “just think about the next right choice.” If the letter writer’s father is too sick to see these choices, he might feel despondent and have “given up,” but, with a change in medication, a new kind of therapy, or some other treatment option that’s effective for him, he might rise to a baseline where focusing on small choices becomes possible again.

        This was a good post for me today, because it reminded me that, even in this safe community, there are still people who don’t understand that depression is an illness. It’s an opportunity for sharing and learning, I hope!

        • Meg Keene

          Yes, depression is an illness. It’s one I’ve dealt with for years, it’s one I really understand. But I also have dealt with depressed family members, and I know what that feels like too. And even fully understanding that it’s an illness, coping with what FEELS like neglect, from people you wish could take care of you, is hard. It’s hard even when you understand what depression feels like, so it’s definitely REALLY hard if you’ve never gone through it personally. It can make you angry that the people you need to care for you are not able (for a whole variety of reasons) to take the actions they need to heal so they can, in this case, parent.

          It doesn’t mean that feeling angry is somehow “correct” or even “incorrect,” it’s just that it’s NORMAL, and it can be the first step towards coming to terms with your reality and your feelings. It’s normal to feel angry when a parent is depressed and can’t care for you the way you’d wish. It’s normal to feel angry when a parent is ill (in a more obvious physical way) and can’t care for you the way that you’d wish. It’s part of your grieving process. And more information helps, but more information doesn’t take away your feelings (or even negate them or make them incorrect).

          • Emily

            I think this is such an important point especially because of the nature of depression as a disease.

            I don’t think it is fair, in this situation, to compare depression to diabetes or cancer, because a necessary impact of depression is the abandonment of some or all parental duties. Yes, people with diabetes and cancer are often busy with treatments and miss time with their kids, but not on the same level as a parent who sleeps four hours a day and checks out when he is around his children.

            I am not saying that depression isn’t a serious and stigmatized disorder (because it is), but that I think anger is a somewhat more natural response to having a parent with depression than say having a parent with cancer.

            Even fully understanding the reasons, it is natural to feel angry when you are abandoned by a parent. Anger is a commonly accepted part of grieving the death of a loved one or for processing the break-up of a family. Would we ever lecture someone who admitted to being angry at their father for dying?

            I do appreciate all the comments on this thread for helping me empathize more with people who suffer from depression.

          • Meg Keene

            I think (having experienced both) a better comparison is comparing a parent with depression with a parent with a limiting/ debilitating chronic illness. Both case your parent to not be able to parent you in the way you might hope for (or the way you might see other people parented). But neither have the fear that goes along with something like terminal cancer.

            IE, you might actually be very angry AFTER a parent dies of terminal cancer, which would be a normal reaction. But while they’re dying, you’re probably more focused on the illness, then on living with the ongoing lack of parenting from someone very much still present.

            Everyone I’ve known who’s dealt with a parent with ongoing severe depression or an ongoing severe chronic illness has been angry at one point or another, and that anger actually meant they were working on healing whatever (often major) loss they experienced, of what they might have hoped for in terms of parenting. I think anger is actually a good step, because you’re starting to own up to the fact that you’ve missed out on something, and that’s damaged you in some way.

            Depression is a AWFUL AWFUL illness, and a stigmatized one. But it’s not just awful for the person experiencing it, it’s awful for family (and particularly kids) too. The stigma is hard, because it’s hard to explain, “Well, my dad can’t do that because he’s depressed,” and have people get it.

          • Becca

            Hmm. Thank you, both you and Meg, for reminding me that managing one’s own depression is different than managing expectations and repercussions with a depressed parent. I appreciate the perspective.

            I felt resistant to the letter writer’s characterization of depression (“I have also had bouts of this in the past, and my overwhelming feeling
            when I am down is to get better, to improve myself, so I don’t let
            myself or others down”), but, you’re right, my understanding of my own depression doesn’t account for how it might feel if one of my parents was dealing with depression. I think I now have a better understanding of the very real loss. Thanks!

          • Shara M. Brofman, Psy.D.

            Absolutely yes to all feelings always being valid.

    • Class of 1980

      From my understanding, it can take multiple tries to find an anti-depressant that actually works for the person. Often, people have to try several medications before they see any difference.

      The letter writer’s dad must have been a good father once, and that’s where the disappointment and anger come from.

      My anger comes from never having had a good father. He was, and is, an abusive mess of a person. I wouldn’t fear him checking out at a special event; I’d fear him ruining it with his volatility. Sad to say, but I actually had a knee-jerk reaction that I’d happily trade places with the letter writer.

      Of course, this isn’t fair because our situations are totally different. She is dealing with extreme disappointment and longing. She had more to hope for in the first place, and that lead to having her expectations for a normal involved father completely smashed.

      This piece made me more compassionate by making me think.

    • Sarah

      I appreciate that so many perspectives can come together here. My dad died a few years ago (before my wedding), and he had clinical depression. He felt so much shame and stigma at the diagnosis; I felt relief. It (and a lot of therapy since then) helped me understand that the way he had parented and treated me, with so much criticism, anger and indifference, was not because of me but because of his disease. As important and liberating as it was for me to understand his disease and the limitations it gave him, I feel strongly that understanding is not the same thing as giving someone a free pass to hurt you and “get over it.” I wish I’d had the courage to be more angry earlier in my life! His condition improved after a few tries at treatment, but it always part of who he was, and it’s also a huge part of what has made me who I am. I wish so much that life could’ve been easier and less painful for him. I also wish he’d had the capacity to relate, to be empathetic and supportive, and to see the world as something other than against him. I tried my best to support him with his depression, and through the diagnosis of terminal cancer that somehow — through the jolt of mortality or the added mental health treatment or probably both — helped him open up into a warmer, more connected version of himself. The bottom line is that he was a wonderful, charming, intelligent and complex man, but he also had a health condition that caused him to unintentionally inflict as much or more emotional damage than he was able to nurture in return. He didn’t “get” it, and he couldn’t. To the letter writer, I am sorry. I hope you have some warm support and some good therapy, and that your dad might find a more effective treatment plan. I would consider whether there is a specific way you might ask him to participate, in the wedding and/or with his grandbaby-to-be. And I would give yourself permission to embrace your disappointment and anger now, not because that will make it disappear, but because then you might feel relatively less owned by it. And even being disappointed and angry, you can still love him for all of the things he is. At least that’s how it’s worked for me.

      • Jess

        “I wish I’d had the courage to be more angry earlier in my life! His condition improved after a few tries at treatment, but it always part of who he was, and it’s also a huge part of what has made me who I am. I wish so much that life could’ve been easier and less painful for him. I also wish he’d had the capacity to relate, to be empathetic and supportive, and to see the world as something other than against him.”

        I have the same exact feelings about my mom and her depression (unofficially diagnosed, but very evident). I finally got very angry a few years ago, and since then am trying to reconcile myself with that anger, to mourn the fact that I did not and will not have the relationship with her that I see in so many other people and their parents.

        With the help of a good therapist, I am learning to stop excusing her behavior towards me, to acknowledge that I don’t deserve it and that it makes me sad and angry, and to accept that I cannot change the way she sees the world. I cannot make her happier, even though I wish I could.

        Mental illness is an illness, sometimes manageable, sometimes not. It affects more than the person suffering from it – and I hope that we can learn to acknowledge that it’s ok to admit being angry and sad about it. It’s hard to be angry at someone for the way they respond to a mental illness, for the way them having that illness has affected your life, but it’s also healthy to do. It’s a situation that brings up many complex and conflicting emotions.

        Do I feel sad for my mom? Yes. Am I angry at the fact that she has a mental illness? Yes. Do I also feel like she could have responded to it differently? Yes, I do, and it’s ok for me to grieve for that choice – that option that hasn’t been taken.

  • Emily

    I find that it is much easier to process my emotions when I understand their source. That is where I get a lot of value from talking with a professional. My counselor helps me untangle my feelings and thoughts to get to the source of my upset.

    With that said, I noticed that the LW talked mostly about her disappointment in her father as a role model, but she also said that she does not get to see him very often because he is sleeping, and that when he is there he does not engage with the family.

    It is totally legitimate to be disappointed that your father hasn’t lived up to his full potential, but if I were sitting across from the LW, I would ask her how much of her anger is coming from feeling abandoned by her father versus being disappointed by his lack of ambition.. To me that abandonment seems like a potentially rich source of betrayal and disappointment.

  • katmcstime

    LW, This happened to me and it was very hurtful. My father-in-law could not manage to participate in any of the wedding festivities because of his depression. Like you, I was not allowed by anyone to express my disappointment at all without being accused of not being sympathetic toward his condition. Like you, I also believe that his depression is exacerbated by just plain ol “not giving a sh-t.” I feel that he often uses his diagnosis as an excuse to not give a sh-t. I personally do not think it’s okay, and thought he should have tried harder, at least during the wedding. Again, I have never been allowed to say this or imply this to anyone that I know without getting blasted. I just wanted you to know that I feel ya.

    • Jess

      You are allowed to want what you want from a person and feel disappointment when you don’t get it. And mourn what you didn’t get.

      Maybe you can’t control somebody else’s actions – you can’t make him try harder – but you can be sad when they don’t give you the kind of relationship you want.

      [half speaking to you, and half speaking to myself]

      • katmcstime

        Thanks, Jess :)

        • Jess

          I’m learning to internalize that message. Sometimes I just need to hear someone else say it, so I figured I’d say it for you and anyone else in a similar place.

          It’s hard because I’ve been on both sides – the side not able to be connected and the side being abandoned. Even knowing how much of a struggle mental illness is to deal with, how difficult being involved and pretending to be in a good place for the sake of an event is…

          It still hurts to be on the receiving end and that’s ok to feel, even if there are really good reasons and even if I empathize with the person emotionally abandoning me.

  • Kayla

    This discussion just makes me think about this brilliant cartoon (source: Reddit; artist unknown).

    It truly hurts my heart that so many people are still treating mental illness this way.

    • Kayla

      Apparently the image didn’t load, but it’s over here:

    • Jess

      Oh my gosh, “I don’t think it’s healthy that you have to take medication every day just to feel normal. Don’t you worry that it’s changing you from who you really are?”

      So on the list of things people find it ok to say to people with mental illness, but not to people who have physical issues.

      • Kayla

        Absolutely. For some reason, people feel like it’s fine to both a) disparage the amount of medication a person is taking for a mental illness as being too high and b) tell them they should be taking more. They’re both common.

        And, as a side note: Mental illness /is/ a physical issue.

        • Jess

          True enough – I guess I meant more apparently physical, like bleeding out your eyeballs.

      • gingersnap

        As someone with an immune disorder, I actually hear this surprisingly often. I think it’s related to the “you don’t look sick” thing. Or that people have a hard time accepting that I was diagnosed with a lifelong chronic illness at age 26. Either way, I hate hearing it.

    • ella

      http://www.robot-hugs .com/helpful-advice/


  • moonlitfractal

    I am not a mental health professional but I have been a patient for many years. I have gone through bouts of severe depression and watched my family members go through the same. After reading the letter, I am very concerned about LW’s father.

    Depression is a complicated disease, and the symptoms can take many forms, from uncontrollable sobbing and spiraling negative thoughts to an inability to feel joy or satisfaction from things you otherwise love, to probably plenty of other things that I haven’t experienced. I have experienced something very similar to what it sounds like LW’s father is going through. During those months, it was as if I was living my life under a suffocating, heavy blanket pushing through molasses whenever I tried to do anything or go anywhere. I would often find it difficult if not impossible to get out of bed, sit up, or sometimes even to breathe. It was a scary time and it impacted every aspect of my life. Luckily, I was able to change my treatment plan and things improved a great deal.

    A year or so later, my brother started to act much like LW’s father is described as doing. It sometimes seemed like he was being lazy or uncaring, but I (and my mother, from whom we both inherited the disorder) figured it was far more likely that mental illness was *preventing* him from getting out of bed, leaving his room, and generally living his life, just like what I had been through so recently. We worked hard to find a doctor who could help him (the first couple he tried were, if anything, counterproductive), and now, after several years, he is doing a lot better, though he still struggles.

    Again, I’m not a mental health professional, and every case and every family is different, but I suspect, based on the letter, that LW’s father’s current treatment plan isn’t working. I know from experience that it can take a long time and a lot of effort to find a doctor and therapist who are compatible with a particular case, and even more time to discover what treatment works best. Sometimes it just takes a long time to realize that a particular treatment isn’t working, and that there might be an alternative. Maybe after things have calmed down some, LW’s family can get together and work on finding her father a new doctor, therapist, or medication that might help him take his life back from the clutches of this disease.

  • Looking For Answers

    HI Guys,

    LW here. I just wanted to add that my father has been like this for around 10 years, rather than being in the midst of a short-long term depression. I do hope that I understand some of what that ‘treading through molasses’ feeling is like, and I’m more concerned that he has NO treatment plan, other than taking medication and each day moving slowly past. He has no therapist, having given up on even that long ago. Hence feeling so stuck. Thanks for all the valuable input so far!

    • Kayla

      One of the hardest parts of mental illness, for family members, is that it is almost unheard of for someone dealing with mental illness to lead their own treatment plan. This means treatment ends up being the family’s responsibility (at least until stabilization, and usually long after as well). Your dad’s depression has gone untreated for 10 years? It sounds like it’s time to get the whole family involved in getting him some treatment. You cannot expect him to handle this on his own.

      If there is a local NAMI chapter near you, I would recommend the Family to Family course. It would be a really good place to hear from other family members in your situation, and it will help you plan a strategy for getting dad the help he needs.

      Wishing you the best of luck. Hang in there.

    • So I totally *was* reading the situation wrong then — my apologies! In the two cases that I know best, it was very easy to start playing the “blame game,” which seemed to just make any resolutions even more difficult. But in this case, it seems like you’ve had a long time to deal with your dad being this way, and you were looking for advice on how to manage your own emotions/expectations as your life “accelerates” in a sense…in which case I think Dr. Brofman’s advice was spot-on.

      I am sort of curious, tho, how your dad is on medication but not seeing a therapist — is there someone prescribing the drugs on a regular basis? Could that person suggest some other treatment plans? I’m sure these are all things you’ve thought of already, and I know that family members can’t necessarily access this kind of info without permission, but that doctor *should* be a better advocate for your dad’s mental health.

  • I cannot speak to having a father with depression, but I can speak to being the grandchild of a clinically depressed, bi-polar grandmother. In my experience, I think there is a possibility for your father to be more participatory in life of your child. My grandmother, despite her shortcomings, was able to be present for me in a way that she was not able to be with many others. Maybe it was because I was the first grandchild? Maybe because I’m a girl? I have no idea. But she rose to the occasion for me, so to speak, in many ways. She almost never left the house – she didn’t make it to any of my dance recitals, or school graduations. But she was affectionate and caring toward me every day. She taught me how to sew, even when she stopped sewing anything for herself. I knew her limitations – everyone knew her limitations. Sometimes we tried to push her (which never ended well). Mostly, we just accepted it. My mother was always very clear with me (even when I was very young), to explain that grandma’s brain worked differently. She helped me understand where my grandmother was coming from, and that maybe her love for me didn’t look like everyone else’s, but it was there just the same. I would encourage Looking for Answers to try to re-define what love from her father looks and feels like, and pass that new knowledge on to her child.

  • ElisabethJoanne

    I sense a lot of indirect shame in the LW. She sounds ashamed her father doesn’t work harder, have friends, have hobbies, attend family weddings, attend family funerals, engage in normal conversation, etc. That may be another set of issues to address in therapy, but in the meantime:

    The choices of other adults do not reflect on you. It’s not your job to coach your father (or husband) into “acting normal” at social events, especially events within their family or with their friends. If his behavior is odd, that says something about him (maybe), and nothing about you. The fact that women are blamed for their husbands’ and fathers’ social failings (“How does she put up with such bad table manners?” “Can you believe she lets him leave the house dressed like that?”) is patriarchical nonsense.

    I know it’s not easy to internalize this. My husband suffers from severe depression and executive dysfunction. If it turns out he’ll never work, I’ll seek therapy for “having been so foolish as to marry someone physically incapable of providing for himself, let alone a family.” But most of us have enough on our plates trying to become the people we ourselves want to be, without trying to reform others.

    • Class of 1980

      “The fact that women are blamed for their husbands’ and fathers’ social
      failings (“How does she put up with such bad table manners?” “Can you
      believe she lets him leave the house dressed like that?”) is
      patriarchical nonsense.”

      I think men have historically been blamed just as much (or more) if their family isn’t “acting right”. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard “Why doesn’t he do something?” leveled at a man whose wife is acting poorly.

      Blame just comes with the territory of being married and being thought of as having influence.

  • SG

    I was actually almost at the point of writing APW about a similar issue for me. I am in a very similar situation and definitely feel like the upcoming wedding and (further, but still near in the future) children really bring up some specific issues/questions about my father’s role.

    I am getting married in March. My father has dementia and Alzheimer’s which are often, and definitely in my dad’s case, coupled with depression. Since it is a terminal disease, there are some other issues going on, so not everything I mentioned might be relevant in your situation. He was diagnosed with froto-temporal dimentia (FTD) 8 years ago and Alzheimer’s earlier this year (often dementia and ALZ manifest together). and has been on medication for both memory and depression for years. Unfortunately nothing can help the dementia and the dementia prevents him from being able to help his depression, so I can’t really comment on a situation where medication may in fact help. At least that there is a possibility of some medication that could help may be a bit of comfort for you.

    In my dad’s case, he has no short term memory so having any meaningful relationship with him is impossible, though physically and to the outside world, everything is normal and he won’t/can’t recognize that something is wrong. We used to have a great relationship, but now he is angry, depressed, and abusive. Given that it’s eight years since his diagnosis and even longer since his memory symptoms materialized, I’ve had a long time to mourn the loss of the person that was my father, but as I said before weddings and the prospect of motherhood affect that.

    My fiance and I already chose to have the wedding near my parents since it is difficult for him to travel- now 90% of our guests will be traveling from outside the country but I keep running through questions in my mind.

    Do I want him to walk me down the aisle? Will we share a father/daughter dance? Will he make a scene if he gets angry? Can I convince him to allow someone to take him back to his hotel room when (not if) he falls asleep at the reception? I can’t really offer any advice if you’re asking yourself similar questions, but I did want to comment to say that you’re not alone.

  • I am so very grateful for APW. It is so good to have a place to acknowledge family issues and be able to talk about our experiences in a real way. Weddings aren’t all tulle and lace. I wish more people knew about APW. This space truly makes a difference in people’s lives.

  • Lauren from NH

    I keep coming back to this piece wanting to say something about setting healthy emotional boundaries, but when you are in the thick of it these internal and external boundaries are just soo hard to build. With my family after we were all going through our dark time after my dad passed, learning these boundaries was crucial to restoring harmony among us. Though I was not the root of the problem with my family’s troubles, I went to counseling to deal with the stress. While it was painful to work through at first, having my couselor there to ask the right questions was a godsend in helping me process my strong and conflicting emotions. LW, you may not be able to change your dad, but maybe you can understand him and your situation a little better and change the way you feel and deal his illness as it relates to your life. Wishing you all the best!

  • light0a0candle

    I don’t have much experience with depression, but I know my father suffers through times of anti-social behavior and self imposed isolation. I know that it’s hard when a parent doesn’t conform to what you imagine, not being social or not making an effort in your view, but we have no control over the actions of other people and all we can do is focus on our own enjoyment and fulfillment in the moment. Take time to show understanding and love to even the ones we’re angry at, and that can change our whole perspective. Try not to worry, on your wedding day it’s likely you will feel full of joy and forgiveness. Try not to stress, and trust that on the day nothing matters except that you’re married. Take time to show your father love and understanding, spend a few moments just the two of you, and remember that you can’t change him or his illness. That would be my advice, small as it is.

  • Whitney S.

    So, A couple of thoughts…
    1. I think in some ways dealing with abuse is easier than neglect. Like, I know calling me names and hitting me is a no-go. Just not giving a shit? So much harder to not excuse or set a boundary on.
    2. I’m reading into what you wrote LW, but I feel like the underlying theme here is you feel “not enough”. I think that can be a common experience for kids that are neglected. Why am I not enough to rally and be there for me? IDK that the question can be answered to anyone’s satisfaction except to say the second you start making someone else’s mental health struggle about something you could have done, you’re going to be in trouble.
    3. I also found it interesting that you have concluded that talking about things directly is not an option. Although not something you have done in the past, it could be done and it might be necessary at some point in order for you to come to peace about all this. Giving yourself a voice is something I believe helps people to come to terms with the things they can’t change. Being unsure about doing so would be normal though, and a great place to get a therapist to help you with a game plan if you decide to have some frank conversations.

    • Mandertron

      100%. If you learn how to speak about the issue, it may help empower your mother to talk, too. Living with a severely depressed spouse must feel very lonely.

  • Mandertron

    Dr. Brofman’s advice is so so right, in my experience. My father has isolated himself from his family over the past ten years, partly due to untreated depression. I’ve also spent the past few years helping my mother get the resources she needed. She is Bipolar and suffers from organic brain trauma which causes a host of other cognitive and emotional issues. She was once social and eager for treatment, but has since gotten worse. She’s despondent, sleeps forever, and refuses treatment (she recently went off her meds). Her backsliding has all happened in the months leading up to our wedding. She has so far avoided all wedding activities. Trying to talk to her is like trying to pull someone out of a dark, deep well.
    What are your expectations? You cannot place the same exceptions you would have of a healthy parent on one who is not healthy. It causes so much disappointment and anguish. I wish I could get back all the years I wasted using the word “should” regarding my parents. It did nothing.
    I’ve learned to maintain the relationships to each of my parents with firmer boundaries after years of talking therapy. You may not be aware of how your feelings about your father’s illness may be affecting you in other aspects of life until you talk to a professional. If you are afraid to it for yourself, do it for your FH.

    • Whitney S.

      I’m commenting on this b/c an upvote isn’t enough. Spot on.

  • Joyce

    A suggestion: Is it at all possible to include a couple of friends at your wedding ceremony? You mention that only your parents will be there, which is adding to your worries that this will be a hard to ignore issue. One of the reason my husband and I put off our wedding for years was that I wanted to elope, but my husband wanted a wedding with his parents there. A big wedding simply was not an option, and just having both sets of parents seemed miserable with my parents included (for very different reasons than your own though). Finally we realized we can do whatever the hell we wanted, and had our immediate families and our best friends at the wedding. Did a few aunts and uncles get their panties in a bunch–yeah, but they got over it. This may not apply to your situation at all, or there may be simply no way to include others into the ceremony. For me, it made all the difference in the world to know that if my parents ended up being jerks (which surprisingly they did not) that it wouldn’t matter knowing I had understanding friends there to be my support system.