A story of doubt, trauma and truth

In June 2018 I checked myself into a psychiatric clinic for three weeks.

In many ways, the time I spent at the clinic was one of the most profoundly validating and healing experiences of my life. I was, first of all, extremely fortunate to have medical insurance which allowed me to check into a private clinic instead of a state institution; the latter being a different kettle of fish entirely. Also, I went by free choice – I’d realised I was on a downward spiral of exhaustion, cognitive decline, and suicidal ideation, and I got help.

It took some doing though – I had to convince my psychologist that I was depressed enough, who then had to find a psychiatrist willing to recommend that I be checked into a clinic, after which I was to phone my medical insurance provider with the preliminary diagnosis and recommendation and wait for them to approve my case. I spent hours on the phone. I wept in many different offices.

All the local psychiatrists seemed to be on leave, which meant that my psychologist and I had to convince my GP to make the recommendation instead, who wasn’t very keen to do so because she’d only ever experienced me as a ‘happy’ person. (No surprise there, I’m not in the habit of blabbing my life story while someone performs a pap smear on me). Apparently it isn’t quite the done thing to go around asking to be placed in a mental institution. Other people are meant to do that on your behalf when you’ve passed the point of reasonable sanity. Or something. This is really worrisome in itself – the amount of effort demanded of me to access a mental health care facility could easily act as barrier to many people who urgently need help.

Anyway. The clinic was good for me. I met wonderful people, staff and patients alike. I ate, finally. I managed to sleep. The psychologist assigned to me there was a wonderful and empathetic human being, and I will forever be grateful for her stabilising and humorous input in my life.

The psychiatrist, on the other hand…

Upon arriving at the clinic the psychiatrist on duty (let’s call her Dr. Lourens) had to perform an intake interview. What that basically means, I soon found out, is that shortly after checking in I was meant to sit in her office and answer questions for roughly an hour, after which she proceeded to diagnose me, only meeting me again two weeks later to check whether my medication was having an effect.

Maybe some psychiatrists actually do talk therapy, but this one certainly didn’t.

She barely even listened, only making brief eye contact in between the copious notes she was making on her iPad. There was a questionnaire and she was completing it. The task was clear: diagnose and prescribe. Next!

She wasn’t cold, or rude. She was just… very busy. And not very interested.

I’d just gone through a breakup, I explained to her. The guy had left me for a close friend of mine, but really it wasn’t quite that simple, because we were in an open relationship and…

“Open relationship..?” Dr. Lourens had interjected, peering at me over her glasses. Her office was roomy, bland, filled with medical handbooks. In between questions I sat staring out the window at the mountains on the horizon, waiting for her to finish typing. I felt tired, lost.

I tried explaining. Just as I was exploring the idea of non-monogamy I met this guy in a bar, he and I and my friend (the one he ended up leaving me for) landed up having a threesome that night but it was nice, it was a fun and warm experience. And then after that he and I really hit it off, so we continued our relationship…

“Do you often become drunk?” Dr. Lourens asked. “And then partake in risky sexual behaviour?”

No. I wasn’t drunk that night. I was high, though, I said. I thought I should probably mention the cocaine use, it felt relevant. (I took a six-month detour into regular drug use during this time, which I wrote about here. It was very foolish but also a valuable learning and living experience). Anyway – that was my first threesome and it didn’t feel risky at all, it was with someone I knew well and with someone else who moved in my circles, someone who knew lots of my friends. He was nice. Respectful. Funny. Sure, we were high but there was never a sense of danger, only excitement and curiosity.

“Do you often participate in risky sexual encounters?”

How to explain myself to this middle-aged woman, who had Bible verses stuck to her cabinets, who had a picture of her grandchild up next to her textbooks?

Seen through her eyes, my life seemed positively insane.

“Yes, once,” I said. “Well, it wasn’t risky. I had a four-way, again with this guy (Lance) and two female friends.” It had been a fun night. We were celebrating my graduation, running around in my toga and smoking rolled cigarettes in between sessions of enthusiastic friskiness. We laughed a lot. We shared life stories. I felt powerful and beautiful and enveloped in friendship. I tried explaining to Dr. Lourens that none of this was sitting badly in my soul, that it fit well with my then approach to life and love (which is basically ‘do no harm, and also, don’t avoid doing things just because they’re considered taboo’).

She made notes. I suspected they were not flattering. Then we moved on to family history. Here I had quite a bit to say. There’s a lot of depression in my family, a few suicides, and, I mentioned, most of my shrinks have seemed to think that my dad has undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder.

“Bipolar Disorder?” Dr. Lourens perked up. “Which type, do you know?”

I have no idea. He is undiagnosed, after all. Anyway, from the undergrad psychology I myself have taken I thought my dad might have Narcissistic Personality Disorder instead, or perhaps Borderline Personality Disorder. Something, in any case. Maybe all of the things.

Dr. Lourens was making notes. Timidly, I floated a suggestion past her:

“Could I perhaps have CPTSD?”

A few weeks before, a friend had suggested this to me. I’d never heard of it but after some quick googling I found out that CPTSD stands for “Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” and that it occurs from repeated trauma, often in the context of an abusive childhood. Sounded plausible to me.

Dr. Lourens frowned. For a moment I thought she might not know what I was referring to but then she shook her head sharply.

“That only affects children who were sexually abused,” she said.

Oh well, in that case. I felt foolish for suggesting it. Sexual abuse was the only form of abuse that did not take place in my childhood, so clearly I couldn’t have this disorder then.

Could I just be burnt-out? I tried explaining the past six months to her: I’d just finished my Master’s degree when my long-term boyfriend and I broke up. Then I woke up in a new relationship, one with a cocaine addict (who was also a good friend and a kind person, those are not paradoxes), and we were trying non-monogamy and doing too many drugs, and then suddenly he left me and also I lost a close friend, and I was under pressure to perform at work and publish an academic paper, fast becoming broke, exhausted…

“Do you have a lot of mood swings?”

Well…I’d googled ‘effects of regular cocaine use’. Does it count as mood swings when you’re feeling on top of the world and super motivated, and then you spend a sleepless night wishing for death to take you, but only after doing cocaine? (Which, those days, was often).

“I’m quite… intense,” I tried to explain. “But apart from the past six months, I don’t think I’d describe myself as having mood swings. Well, maybe a bit. I AM quite weepy. And I did struggle with anxiety a few years back and for six months the doctor put me on a mild anti-depressant, but that was while I was holding down two jobs and studying and…”

I have felt depressed before, but I’ve never actually thought that I have depression. My blue moods have always felt too transient, situation-bound, or like deep upwellings of sadness for a world which is legitimately broken. If I do have a mental illness, I always thought, then it would be an anxiety disorder, and even that has never felt quite like the right fit. Rather, I considered myself emotional, high-strung maybe, but also emotionally vast in a healthy way. But perhaps I’d internalised the stigma around mental illness? Perhaps I was in denial about my own mental ill-health?

The intake interview was over. Dr. Lourens leaned over, taking her reading glasses off.

“Would you like to know what I think?” she said.

Yes. Yes, I really would. Perhaps she’d find a description that makes perfect sense, perhaps there is a word out there that might fit so wonderfully that I could stop feeling lost and exhausted and feel understood instead.

“I think you have Bipolar Disorder.” She looked down at her notes, ticking things off. “It fits with the risky sex, drugs and thrill-seeking behaviour, with the mood swings, and your family history also confirms it.”

Oh. She’s still hung-up on the four-way, isn’t she?

“But aren’t you supposed to have manic episodes when you have Bipolar Disorder, moments where you go shopping and spend all your money or feel powerful and amazing? I mean, I get that one might say I have the down-swings, but I don’t recognise that mania within me…” I suggested.

“That’s Type I you’re describing,” Dr. Lourens interjected. “Type II only requires instances of hypomania, and it’s more often characterised by frequent bouts of depression. Many people with Type II Bipolar Disorder lead normal lives for a long time before they’re diagnosed.”

It didn’t fit. It didn’t feel right. How could I have reached the age of 28 without anyone clocking that I might be bipolar?

Nobody had ever told me that they experienced my intensity as mental illness, not even the long-term boyfriends I’ve had, not even my family. I’d always felt…emotionally diverse, rather than ill.

“Just consider it,” Dr. Lourens said, handing me two pamphlets. “There’s no harm in thinking about it. In the meantime we’ll prescribe some medication and see whether that makes you feel better, and if it does then that’ll be confirmation.”

I supposed there was indeed no harm in thinking about it. And I would have swallowed almost anything if it might make me feel better, so I agreed to the medication.

And that was it. Without informing me, Dr. Lourens then notified my medical insurance (and thus the world) that I have Bipolar Disorder. It still says so in my files. I have never even vaguely consented to that.

Two weeks later I met up with Dr. Lourens again and we discussed my medication, which we were gradually building up to a therapeutic dose. I had heard rumours in the clinic… at least two thirds of the patients there had been diagnosed with Bipolar Type II as well. It was starting to seem like a catch-all for “I have unpleasant emotions and the doctor didn’t have time to listen fully to my personal history”. So I retained my scepticism, caught between the desire to be honest with myself and the vague sense that something was wrong with my diagnosis.

I read up about Bipolar Type II. Some of the symptoms somewhat resonated. During hypomania, it says, a person might have a decreased need for sleep. And indeed, when I’m in the throes of an interesting project or am excited about something I often lie awake at night with my mind bouncing around endlessly (it’s much better now because of healthy living and mindfulness practices). I don’t have exaggerated self-confidence (except on cocaine), but my mind does sometimes fly rapidly from one idea to the next. And I talk quite fast.

“People experiencing hypomanic episodes are often quite pleasant to be around. They can often seem like the “life of the party” — making jokes, taking an intense interest in other people and activities, and infecting others with their positive mood.” (WebMD)

That felt trueish. I’m fun to have at parties. I’m likeable. I didn’t think I was pathologically fun, but I suppose you could make a case for hypomania.

The depression bit fit less well, actually. I did experience, like I said, times of sadness. But they didn’t feel like general “low-ness”, lethargy, feelings of worthlessness, or loss of pleasure. They felt like hormones. And cocaine comedowns. And like sadness because my boyfriend dumped me. And like stuff I might need to sort out from my childhood.

I’m a cheerful person. I’m a cheerful person who also cries a lot. I’m not forcing my cheer, nor faking it; I am genuinely enthusiastic about nearly everything, and the idea that this might be a disease instead of a nice part of my personality sent me spiralling into self-doubt.

So I phoned my family and my ex-boyfriends. “Do you think I have Bipolar Disorder?” I asked them all. They all seemed doubtful. I asked my friends. They didn’t think so either.

But I gave the meds a shot anyway. We upped the dose gradually. I felt better, but that might have been because I wasn’t using cocaine. I left the clinic after three weeks and resumed my life and things were good. Still intense, still weepy. I was scared that the pills might blunt the edge of my emotional experiences but they didn’t, I still thought people were really interesting and I still had lots of energy (usually) and beautiful things still moved me to tears. I stayed off cocaine, even attending NA meetings a few times before I stopped because introducing myself as an addict felt like a lie.

That’s the thing with all the terms, all the diagnoses: I couldn’t bring myself to believe them. On the one hand they felt limiting, on the other they felt simply untrue. I’d sit in a meeting and say “Hi, I’m Sage and I’m an addict” and I’d feel like a fraud. I have made some bad choices on cocaine but I’m still not categorically against drugs. I don’t fold and phone my dealer every time I have a sip of wine.

I know that I tend to adopt new habits too fast, I know that I smoke like a chimney and that I tend towards unhealthy coping mechanisms. The problem there, it still feels to me, does not lie with addiction per se but with lack of good coping strategies and emotional regulation.

The same applies to having Bipolar Disorder – I’d talk to some other people who have been diagnosed as well, and I’d feel as if I was lying to them.

Like I was trying to be part of a club I didn’t belong to. I hadn’t spent half my life wondering what could be wrong with me. I hadn’t searched fruitlessly for the right kind of medication until the doctor found the exact right combination and my mood began settling. I don’t have a string of hurt and baffled ex-lovers and family members behind me. I didn’t feel like I get to call myself mentally ill, because I haven’t suffered, not in that way at least, not enough to find respite in a psychiatric diagnosis. But perhaps, I kept thinking, perhaps everybody feels this way? Perhaps we genuinely can’t see our own mental illness because of our blind spots?

In August 2018 I had my follow-up interview with Dr. Lourens. I felt good, calm. I still didn’t think I had Bipolar Disorder, but I was still taking the meds, just in case (but we weren’t even up to full dose yet, the pills require a gradual build-up). Dr. Lourens seemed baffled when she saw me. I gathered that the medication wasn’t supposed to work this fast, I wasn’t supposed to look this serene and well… this together yet. So she over-compensated, and that’s where she finally lost me.

“It’s amazing,” she said, leaning back. “Do you remember your intake interview? You could barely sit still, you were fidgeting all the time. You were nervy, strung-up. The medication seems to be working wonderfully.”

She was trying to convince me she’d made the right diagnosis, I realised. And she was misremembering our first encounter entirely in service of her argument. The first time we’d met, I’d barely moved. I was exhausted, sitting limp and still, staring out the window. If anything, I was noticeably more fidgety this time around.

So there I decided I was done with it. I contacted some friends and family members, asking them to act as my accountability partners as I took myself gradually off the meds again. I let my GP know. My colleagues were mostly in the loop. I wasn’t using drugs (although soon after that I encountered magic mushrooms, but that’s a whole other story), I wasn’t in a romantic relationship, I was doing yoga every day, I was reading self-help books, I felt really stable. I watched myself for plausible signs of hypomania or of depression. Nothing.

I fell in love. I tried non-monogamy again. I felt scared and vulnerable but okay. I started relaxing.

It was exactly a year after my stay in the clinic (thus in June 2019) that everything came crashing down again.

I wrote about that already so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much. What I haven’t quite discussed before, though, is how my life had changed over that past year, between June 2018 and June 2019. I had good habits in place that I now roughly managed to maintain. I had a much larger emotional vocabulary. I was much more self-aware. I had since adopted a dog, was living on a beautiful farm, was maintaining supportive friendships.

So even though the bottom dropped out of my world again, I had me. I had my knowledge of me. I had friends I wasn’t hiding facts from. I had the sense, deep in my gut, that I would have my own back and that I could trust my truth.

My truth led me down a path of learning more about trauma. Suddenly everything around me seemed to point in that direction. The notion of CPTSD floated back around, and it turns out it isn’t a disorder that only kids who were sexually abused can get. Also, I learned that CPTSD isn’t in the DSM-5 (the manual psychiatrists use to make diagnoses), explaining why Dr. Lourens had been so dismissive of it.

A few months ago I came across this piece in a book by Pete Walker titled Complex PTSD – from surviving to thriving:

“I have witnessed many clients with Cptsd misdiagnosed with various anxiety and depressive disorders. Moreover, many are also unfairly and inaccurately labeled with bipolar, narcissistic, codependent, autistic spectrum and borderline disorders. (This is not to say that Cptsd does not sometimes co-occur with these disorders.) (…) Furthermore, this is not to say that those so misdiagnosed do not have issues that are similar and correlative with the disorders above. The key point is that these labels are incomplete descriptions of what the survivor is actually afflicted with. Reducing Cptsd to “panic disorder” is like calling food allergies chronically itchy eyes. Over-focusing treatment on the symptoms of panic in the former case and eye health in the latter does little to get at root causes. Feelings of panic or itchiness in the eyes can be masked with medication, but all the associated problems that cause these symptoms will remain untreated. Moreover, most of the diagnoses mentioned above are typically treated as innate characterological defects rather than as learned maladaptations to stress – adaptations that survivors were forced to learn as traumatized children. And, most importantly, because these adaptations were learned, they can often be extinguished or significantly diminished, and replaced with more functional adaptations to stress. In this vein, I believe that many substance and process addictions also begin as misguided, maladaptations to parental abuse and abandonment. They are early adaptations that are attempts to soothe and distract from the mental, emotional and physical pain of Cptsd.”

And the penny dropped. I’d found something that resonated. I don’t fucking care if it’s not in the DSM-5. THIS feels true. I read and I read and I cried a lot as I read because finally, FINALLY, someone was explaining myself to me in a way that felt true. It felt like this was honouring what was happening in my heart, instead of explaining it away, pathologising it, labelling it, medicating it – dismissing it, really.

But. I have days when I wonder. Since entering my newest cycle of pain (there’s something about the month of June) I have caught myself wondering: Could I have depression? I run through the symptoms: Low energy. Check. Seemingly inexplicable weeping. Check. Or could I be bipolar? After all this time, could my psychiatrist have been right?

I don’t know for sure. I don’t think she was right, I think rather than bipolar I am still traumatised and also just plain sad, because a lot of difficult things have been happening in my life. At night I lie in bed breathing deeply and I listen to the beat of my heart, and underneath all the pain I feel a river of life, of strength, coursing through me. I don’t feel at the mercy of my moods, but rather at odds with the different parts of me, with the part that is scared for my life and the part that knows everything is as it should be. But this could be true AND I might be bipolar. So am I?

Time and time again, I then return to this question: Does it matter?

The empowering thing about claiming my own trauma is that there are things I can do about it. I can learn about my attachment style and my coping mechanisms, I can gradually learn to release what is no longer working for me and adopt new strategies to life. I can recognise my own fear when it comes up. I can do deep stretches and yoga and take long walks; and importantly, all those things will not only bring temporary relief but will contribute to lasting change, to rewiring my brain into understanding that I am safe now.

That’s the difference: with a diagnosis like Bipolar Disorder or Major Depression, you do what you can, you take the meds if they help, you surround yourself with a support network, but basically the diagnosis is for life, or at least potentially for life. You might get relief but you will still have this sword hanging over your head, waiting to drop. And I think that getting caught up in the story of this disorder, of depression or mania or anxiety, can make things worse instead of better. It can be disempowering.

Far be it from me to say that having Bipolar Disorder (or depression or any number of psychiatric diagnoses) is not valid. I think those terms are extremely useful. I think that medication has helped a huge number of people. I think that many people have felt tremendous relief in giving a name to their experience. I think we should destigmatise mental illness.

But I also think it’s really dangerous to give one person, a stranger with a medical degree and a long list of syndromes in front of them, this much power. Usually, if you’re diagnosed with cancer or diabetes or Alzheimer’s, doctors run a whole lot of tests. They see you again and again. They consult with each other. I know you can’t exactly do the same with disorders of the mind, but it feels reckless to me that a psychiatrist is able to make a diagnosis based on a single consultation.

I am not okay with this. I am not okay with having my life story, my spiritual and mental and physical history, my traumas, my genes, my choices, reduced to a quick diagnosis, a diagnosis made without taking my own opinion into account.

I officially have this disorder now, it’s a public fact, whether I like it or not, unless I am willing to spend huge amounts of money to get another psychiatrist to overturn the diagnosis. And if I contest it doctors can simply say “methinks the lady doth protest too much”. Which is indeed what my psychiatrist ended up saying to me, asking me that last time we met: “Why are you so against this diagnosis? Could it perhaps be that you’re resisting it because it actually feels true?”

No, Dr. Lourens. I am not resisting this diagnosis because it feels true. I will not be shrunk into doubting myself. I will not be enticed to bow to your superior knowledge. I am the expert here. No amount of guidelines and medical information and manuals can provide you with the insight needed to override my own innate wisdom. No more.

Medication is an important part of the arsenal of tools to help people who are struggling. So are psychiatric clinics, and diagnoses themselves. But in the clinic I met a frightening amount of people who land up there again and again, stuck, changing their medication when the pills stop working, taking huge amounts of sleeping aids (all legally prescribed), spending large sums on psychiatrists and counselling, and yet landing up there over and over because life simply is not becoming more bearable. It’s heartbreaking. It’s frightening.

And I believe that there is a better way, there must be a better way. It’s sad for me that many holistic practices are frowned upon by the medical world, thus pitting “science” against “the quacks” in a way that does not serve the actual people. It’s sad that most of the ill people I met at the clinic left with no more understanding of their own psyches than they had come with, taught only to depend on the doctor’s better knowledge and her prescription pad.

It’s sad that our discomfort is medicated away instead of accepted and investigated. It’s sad that we are not encouraged to learn from our unpleasant emotions, but told instead to view any strong emotion with suspicion. It’s sad also that alternative ways of living can arouse such suspicion in a doctor that they are considered symptoms of mental illness. It’s sad that our truths about ourselves are being ignored in favour of a stranger’s opinion. It’s sad that our stories are seen as symptoms instead of the rich tapestries they really are.

So: I might be bipolar. I might have a whole lot of things, as I discover whenever I go down the google rabbit hole. But unless these labels are helping me on my journey, I categorically reject them.

Instead I am taking magic mushrooms and learning martial arts and dancing in my kitchen and weeping on my yoga mat. And talking to my friends. And to wise helpers. And to Life.

I am here. It’s hard. The truth is that a psychiatric diagnosis isn’t going to make it easier.

Content warning: This post contains mentions of abuse and mental illness. It was a hard piece to write and I imagine it might be hard to read as well.

What do you get when you combine flaming intelligence, a deep-seated feeling of unworthiness, an undiagnosed mental illness and fundamentalist religion?

You get my dad.

I’ve never been sure whether I love my dad. As a child this bothered me tremendously. I’d wish he would die and then I’d beg God for forgiveness for my savage thoughts. I’d feel sorry for him, when he’d be weeping at the table after reading the Bible for instance, embarrassed on his behalf for his exhibitionism. He cried a lot, and at strange times – when something would strike him as beautiful, or as sad, or when his own feverish mind tipped into momentary despair. It took me a long time to accept my own overabundant tears as a valid way of being. My tendency to weep about every beautiful thing vaguely grossed me out for a long time, like an unfortunate genetic reminder of my dad’s need to be the centre of attention.

Now I don’t think that knowing whether or not I love my dad has much to do with anything. I have compassion for him. I am sad that the choices he made have alienated him from everyone. I’m sad that he shows no signs of developing self-awareness, I’m sad on his behalf and on behalf of everyone whose lives he traumatised, mine included. I also don’t want to be around him, ever again. And that makes me sad too.

An unauthorised biography

My dad’s early life was easy in some ways.

Growing up white, male, and intellectually gifted in a relatively well-off family in 1970s South Africa was no apparent hardship. Yet, the youngest of five children, by the time he was a young boy my grandma was seriously ill, and from my dad’s accounts my grandpa was quite harsh, following the disciplinarian model of parenting that went unquestioned in those days. I imagine my dad felt rather lost: an intense, emotional child, most likely very annoying to his siblings, head filled with grandiose ideas that no one else was interested in.

He built up a long list of grievances early on: his father, who forced them to work endlessly in the garden. His high-school girlfriend, who broke his heart. His twin brother, who didn’t always pick his side. Somewhere unacknowledged: his mother, who loved him fiercely but was always too tired to engage with him as he would have liked. There’s something there, something I don’t think he has ever admitted to himself: a deep sense of betrayal from his mother, the woman who was meant to have his back, but didn’t. This anger became a pervasive rage against all women, something that to me looks like his own anguished attempts at protecting himself against the need for approval he feels towards them. Women are inferior, yet they are dangerous. They need to be disciplined, punished, more so because he feels a helpless yearning for their love.

Somewhere during high school he found Jesus. Back then most Afrikaans people went to the Dutch Reformed Church, abiding by the faith of their forefathers in a lukewarm manner, their lifestyles comfortably sanctioned by the Church. Becoming ‘born-again’ was akin to joining a sect. Being baptised as an adult, and worse, ‘speaking in tongues’, was deeply strange. My dad embraced the strangeness. By now his identity was riding on being different; it was him against the world, and with God sanctioning his every choice there was no way he could go wrong.

When he met my mom he was a young, charismatic missionary. He’d quit conscription halfway through, after what sounds like a genuinely traumatic time in the South African Police Force – this was the early 80’s, when Apartheid riots were rampant and the police reacted extremely violently. My dad objected fiercely, but I gather that he did some things that would haunt him nevertheless. And he was bullied by his teammates, further compounding on his fear of helplessness and his faith in his own righteous ‘otherness’. This was a strange time, a time I hesitate to write about since I know so little of it – I am deeply aware of the wounds in the psyches of so many men who were conscripted then, but even today an almost unanimous silence hangs over the topic.

Women liked my dad; my mom says he was always surrounded by a group of hangers-on. But my mom, shy, beautiful, zealous in her faith yet non-performative, stirred his imagination: here was a woman who was suitably unattainable, who paid more attention to God than to him, who promised intelligence combined with submission, should he win her over.

He won her over. They were married at 21, and left the country soon after to escape his uncompleted conscription.

A childhood

A year and a half later I was born in France, where my parents would live for eleven years in total; four siblings followed.

We were very poor; my dad had grandiose ideas but very little follow-through. He’d finish a course in agriculture with the idea of starting some profitable commune-type farm, and then do nothing with it. He’d spend his time praying and going for long walks through the forest while growing increasingly excited about the signs that God was giving him. We were the Jewish nation in the desert, he said, and he was Moses, obeying God through these forty years in the wilderness. In the meantime we were living off the state. My mom stayed at home with us, because my dad didn’t want her to work, and also because we were scared of being left alone with him.

He was scary. Sometimes he could be very funny, dancing like a big Oompa Loompa through the house, reducing us to fits of laughter. Other times he was violent, throwing things, kicking a chair over. Once he hit me so furiously that I peed in my pants. There was a kind of pattern to his moods: Gradually his excitement would build – we’d wake up in the mornings to the sound of him singing in tongues, repetitively like someone chanting a frenetic mantra, walking up and down or swaying back and forth, often weeping. At the table he would tell us about his plans, about God’s plans, voice rising as we sat cowed, scared of what would come next. There was always something: my mom would not be enthusiastic enough about his ideas, or one of us was too noisy, or I broke a glass. His enthusiasm would tip over into rage. He’d rant, usually at my mom, voice rising and rising as we all shrank back. He’d break something, or throw over the table and leave in fury. The next day the house would be in a hush. My dad would sit in bed until late, weeping – nobody understood him. If he’d given me a hiding he’d come to apologise, explaining through tears that he was only disciplining me because he loved me.

We didn’t have many friends. My parents had some from whichever church or prayer group we’d be attending at the time, but usually it didn’t last long. There’d always be a fight, usually about differences regarding an interpretation of the Bible. My dad especially hated opinionated women, viewing them as abominations in the same category as lukewarm Christians, gay people, and anybody, really, who dared disagree with him.

We weren’t allowed to listen to non-Christian music, read fairy tales (Pagan myths) or be close friends with ‘worldly’ kids. Not that the worldly kids would have me, anyway. In primary school my sister Esther, just a year younger than me, made friends a bit easier than I did, her sunny personality and willingness to fall in with others’ plans serving her well. I was too awkward and intense, and easily bored by the games everybody wanted to play. I wanted to act out scenes from my favourite books: dig for diamonds in the front yard, or build a tree house, or start a detective agency. Everybody else got tired of it quickly, even Esther who was my biggest ally and loyal sidekick, while I carried on stubbornly.

In school I was that annoying child who always volunteers an answer to every question; my classmates hated me accordingly. I once threw cow dung at a boy who was teasing me and after that I gained a reputation as the girl who smells of poo. When I tried to fit in it wouldn’t work for long: Esther and I once snuck out to listen to the Spice Girls in the basement of our apartment complex with some classmates, but my dad discovered us and dragged us out in front of everyone, giving us perhaps the biggest hiding we ever got. Kids were understandably wary of inviting us to things again.

We were different from other kids. We were nervous. My mom was depressed, although I didn’t know that then, only that some mornings her eyes would be hugely swollen from crying and we’d gingerly try to be extra nice to her.

By the time I was eight I was twisting and pulling large clumps of hair out of my head, until eventually the bald spots alerted my parents. My dad cried and asked for my forgiveness: it was because he’d hit me as a baby, he said. I was embarrassed by his effusiveness and by the awkward attention I was receiving. I didn’t want to look weird, or weak, so I stopped. I read a lot of books. I daydreamed compulsively. I was very lonely.

One time my mom left my dad, fled with us when he was out of the house, and took us to a shelter for abused women and children. He found us within a few days, standing outside shouting tirades at the staff. Alternatively he cried, begging my mom to come back. It was embarrassing, and re-traumatising for all the other women and children. We went back.

The next time my mom left my dad it was to come back to South Africa. My dad was in China then, teaching English for a few weeks while getting the lay of the land: we were going to be missionaries. He was going to learn one of the many Chinese dialects, an obscure one for which he would then invent a written language, then translate the Bible into it. Meantime, while he was gone my grandparents bought us all tickets to come back to South Africa. I was almost ten by then.

My first memory of South Africa is of my aunt coming flying into my mom’s arms at the airport arrivals, both of them weeping, as us children stood awkwardly glancing at our new cousins.

Our new country was wonderful, even when my mom took my dad back – she’d been convinced by religion, I think, still striving to be a submissive wife, and by the fear of forcing a broken home upon us. Chastened for a little while, soon my dad was exactly the same: moving us from church to church because he disliked the respective pastors, forbidding my mom from seeing her family because they were putting evil ideas into her head. But the people here were nicer. I felt less foreign. I had some friends.

We were in a small private Christian school, where I promptly fell in love with a boy who eventually asked me out on a dare from his friends. My dad got wind of it and stormed the school, shouting at the headmaster for allowing such impurity. The whole school found out. I felt a pariah, crying and begging my mom daily to take me out, which she eventually did to homeschool us instead.

Then for a while she left my dad again, when I was eleven. This time it felt very real, she was even seeing a divorce lawyer. We lived in a little house on a farm, had very little money, got a pet pig, had a vegetable garden. My mom made us smoothies every morning. We took horse-riding lessons and visited regularly with other homeschooled kids.

Sometimes we’d visit my dad in his weird empty bachelor flat. We’d eat fish and chips the entire time, him forcing long mountain hikes upon us while ranting about my mom’s iniquities. It was repetitive, unceasing: his list of grudges, the people who had wronged him, his promises over and over to himself that God would help him triumph. We hated visiting him but we knew we had to. One time he refused to take us back to my mom and kept us with him for a few more days – I don’t know what made him return us eventually, perhaps the fact that we were crying all the time. Strangely, we often begged my mom to take him back. We were sorry for him, he looked so devastated.

One time I even told my mom that I thought God hated us, flinging my frightened accusations in her face, enjoying her resulting tears.

They got back together; a visiting preacher finally convinced my mom to embrace forgiveness. Also, she was heavily pregnant with my youngest brother at the time, and I don’t think she had any idea of how we’d all get by. My dad has started his own translation company by then and was earning lots of money when he was energised, sometimes working through the night for days on end.

We moved a lot. Eventually we ended up on a farm in the Kwazulu Natal province of South Africa, where I entered into my teenage years with admirable awkwardness. My dad’s mood swings endured, but they were tempered by the space around us – I would flee often into the surrounding countryside, accompanied by my dog, walking for hours on end. We were still homeschooled but we’d made some friends in Sunday School, some close friends even. I got a horse. I was also profoundly religious, strangely finding sustenance in my time alone with God, who was different from my father’s God although we gave him the same name.

Interestingly, people liked my dad. He was witty, charismatic, chameleon-like in his ability to charm dour farmers, pastors and our friends’ moms alike. After a while of course there’d be a big blow-out and they’d disappear from our life; his secretaries always quit eventually, even the farm labourers didn’t usually last long. But unanimously people would react the same, upon initially meeting him: “But he’s so nice/normal/interesting!”

It’s weird when people – especially your friends – think that you’re overreacting, when they can’t understand why you’re afraid of your dad, or why you think you wouldn’t be allowed to go to a party when clearly your dad is such a nice guy. He wasn’t a ranting lunatic – he was an emotionally astute man, not bad-looking, accomplished and engaging. In comparison, we were a rather rag-tag gang of children: shy to the extreme, clueless about pop culture, nervous. We made him look bad, if anything.

The year that I turned 14, God told my dad to take a Sabbatical. For a year he would renounce his job and focus only on prayer and worship, although we had no other income and a rather expensive farm to maintain. My mom was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer and underwent intensive chemo treatment. I went through a series of surgeries that left me on crutches and in constant, severe pain for a year. Meanwhile, my dad was gradually entering into a strange frenzy. It culminated in him telling us that we weren’t allowed to have our friends anymore, because they were all ‘infected oranges’. He disenrolled me from piano lessons, my sister from guitar lessons, and decided that we’d all learn to play golf with him instead. We weren’t allowed to go to church anymore, which was the only place we interacted with other people.

Something snapped. One day, in a rage about my mom’s ingratitude (we had no fuel left and couldn’t go buy milk and butter from the neighbours like we usually did), my dad climbed on a horse to fetch the butter himself. He promptly fell off – he was a very bad rider. We all laughed, guiltily.

He kicked us off the farm – we left three days later, five kids and my mom in an old Audi, with our clothes packed tightly into the boot, pots and pans on our laps. We moved to my grandparents’ town on the other side of the country. This time it was final. And this time I was deeply, furiously relieved.

Of course it doesn’t end there. My parent’s divorce took almost another decade, ending in the High Court. He never paid any maintenance money, exhausting lawyers and judges alike – our local magistrate ended up recusing himself whenever a case regarding my dad came up. He filed dozens of complaints against my mom, alleging that she was a neglectful parent. Tens of times he was ordered by a judge to see a psychologist, but it never happened. When we’d visit him he’d tell us about his newest dream: to have many wives, one from each South African culture perhaps, living in houses around him with his children numerous as the sand of the sea, a la Abraham. Women don’t mind sharing one husband, he said, it’s their natural position – as long as they have each other to gossip with they’re content.

Once, he kidnapped my brothers and fled the country with them – he was caught in Mozambique, just before they would have left for Madagascar. It was a hellish time; I barely know how my mom survived it. She fended for us as best she could, putting us through school somehow. Against the backdrop of such insanity, my last few teenage years were relatively normal. I saw my dad as rarely as possible; in any case I often did things that made him cut me off as his child for months on end, like having a boyfriend, like having kissed someone.

A year ago my dad contacted me for the first time in years. It’s strange how his story repeats itself: he is living in France, doing a course in agriculture, estranged from his new wife. They’re in a protracted custody battle for their two little daughters. He is fighting a righteous battle, he tells me, and he’ll win. He’ll win. God is on his side. Soon after we resumed contact his continued attacks on my life choices forced me to break contact again. It didn’t feel healthy. I was getting nothing but a sickening sense of deja vu from listening to his stories.

                                                                                Epilogue

I thought for the longest time that I should be able to forgive my father. Everybody says so: you can’t move on if you can’t forgive. I felt it a moral failing on my part: even though I did process large parts of my childhood trauma, I could never bring myself to forgive. Every time I tried I knew that my forgiveness was inauthentic.

Then I kind-of got over it. Going back again and again to my most difficult memories to eke out some forgiveness feels counterproductive. And blanket forgiveness feels untrue. More: I don’t think I SHOULD forgive my dad, not right now, perhaps not ever. It doesn’t feel like part of my journey.

I feel instead that I should straddle the line between remembering and letting go, grieving for myself and my family while allowing anger, when it comes, its justified position.

I was reminded of this last night, as I was reading a piece from Jeff Brown’s book Grounded Spirituality. Brown writes: “If forgiveness of others arises organically, so be it. If it doesn’t, there is no issue. We are not responsible for those who wound us. They can take that up with God, or whatever they answer to” (own emphasis). And “Forgiveness of others is not always the appropriate response. There are actually situations where it is more healing not to forgive. That is the genuine and true response.”

I am not responsible for those who wound me.

I am responsible for me. And I decide, I decide, what my path will be. This is true: a tremendous and continuous injustice was done to me by my father. He was not a good person. And he will never apologise – if I am hoping for vindication from him, I will never get it. There will be no reconciliation.

This is also true: Without denying the damage he did me, my father gave me many gifts. Suffering under him taught me compassion. It expanded my faith, although that faith has since morphed away from religion entirely. It opened my eyes to the pain of others. It sharpened my intuition. It gave me self-awareness and sensitivity. It made me band together closely with my siblings, forming a bond that will sustain me all my life.

I am not grateful towards my dad, but I AM grateful towards life. I wouldn’t have my childhood any other way, now. But I am also angry. I am also sad. The landscape of my heart is profoundly uneven, full of peaks and troughs. I stumble upon my wounds when I least expect to, bewildered by the anguish buried within. I still catch myself inhabiting my body with fear and awkwardness, asking for permission to exist, to be loud, to have opinions. I still stumble upon residual anger at all men.

But I have built a brave life. I people it with love. I engage with my own wounds. I recognise myself as more, much more than my own woundedness: If I am broken, I am also whole. I am triumphantly, unceasingly alive.

And although forgiveness might not be my path, I know that compassion is. I have compassion for my father, a terrified and lonely man whose choices drove him further and further away from connection. My heart breaks over the fact that there are so many like him, men and women entangled in their own rampant emotions, undiagnosed, untreated, yet so clearly profoundly ill.

He did the best he could. What freedom, to realise this – not as an excuse, not even an explanation, only as statement of fact. My dad did the best he could with the level of maturity and self-knowledge and faith that he had.

His best was not good enough. He will have to live with that forever, as will I, but I get to have compassion. And I get to move on.