Until recently, I spent much of my 55 years feeling “chased” by my past, struggling to stay one step ahead of my memories. It’s a past I wanted — and needed — to run from for a long time.
However, with time, I realized that I needed to heal my childhood wounds. Oftentimes, the first step in a mental health journey is to reckon with the past.
A Tale of Three Fathers
In the 1970s, my father was first diagnosed with Bipolar 2 disorder — then called manic depression— which was treated with lithium and sometimes shock therapy. He was in his mid-twenties when he was diagnosed, as most people are when symptoms surface, and I was a young child.
Living with a parent weathering the highs and lows of mania and depression was challenging. It was confusing to have a parent who, sometimes, was going to change the world, and other times, couldn’t get out of bed or make eye contact. Worse, my father could be a violent man — I suffered violent trauma at his hands more than once. One beating was so severe he had to send me out of town for a week so no one would see the black and blue evidence covering my body. Learning to live life walking on eggshells lead to much confusion, doubt and fear.
When I was 11 years old, I lived alone with my father for a year. He didn’t come home one night. I later found out that he was in jail for lunging at a police officer and wrestling for his pistol, which was drawn. He spent the next four months in a mental health facility that was designated for “the criminally insane.” I was removed from my father’s custody at that point and moved far away. Except in pictures and flashbacks, I never saw my father again.
Looking back, I realized I had three fathers. The angry, reckless one who used violence and fear as primary tools. Then there was the sullen, withdrawn one who laid in bed for days and listened to sad music, refusing to make eye contact and often talked about dying. Finally, there was the third father: The well-meaning, hard-working one, the poet who had vision and loved his kids. The father who was proud of his family and determined to give them a great life. Remembering this version of my father made forgiving all three fathers much easier.
Life After My Father and Managing My Own Mental Health
My father attempted to reunite with me years later, but the memories and fear were too great for me. He died when I was in my mid-twenties, which marked the beginning of three decades of flashbacks, panic attacks, bouts of alcohol consumption and even the occasional suicidal thought.
I hid this pain well, most of the time. I tried some therapy, which was helpful, but struggled to stick with it for long. More than anything, I immersed myself in my career, academics and athletics. A distracted mind is one that can stay a step ahead of the past.
However, everything changed when the COVID-19 pandemic began. My days went from being 95% full to just 5% full. For the first time, I was alone with my thoughts. When the initial shock of the pandemic wore off, and I couldn’t distract myself by looking outward, I was forced to do what I needed to do — to look inward.
Making Self-Care a Priority
In January 2022, I began listening to a podcast about being able to detach from traumatic life events. Suddenly, and all at once, the sporadic therapy, the yoga, the podcasts, my own stubbornness — they all came together in an epiphany about letting go. Embracing this new approach meant I could re-visit traumatic events, instead of feeling constantly forced to re-live them in flashbacks. What a truly liberating feeling.
I decided to learn more about Bipolar 2 and what determined some of my father’s behavior. How could he have ever thought it was a good idea to lunge for a cop’s gun? I often wondered. It was an enlightening day for me when I learned that people with Bipolar 2 often have an inability to comprehend the gravity of their decisions when they are in the grips of hyper-mania.
While revisiting my trauma was difficult, I found solace in knowing my father had been sick when he was violent. I have come to believe that had he fully understood the consequences of his actions, he wouldn’t have been so brutal and unpredictable. This thinking allowed me to find forgiveness, adding to my new liberation. Being able to acknowledge the past and forgive has been a major step toward peace and fulfillment.
I still have much mental health work to do, and I have committed myself to the following:
- Getting back into yoga. While a studio is always my preference, practicing yoga using YouTube videos is also a great option.
- Learning more and engaging in topics around compassionate listening, kindness, gratitude, spirit and values. I took a compassionate listening course in 2021, which was transformational for me. I now see how much more there is to learn about what is truly important in life.
- Writing about and sharing my story. Even now, I can’t bring myself to talk about a few things. But I can write about them. I find if I write about it, I stop ruminating about it.
- Focusing more on community and service. Now that I can talk about my story, I plan to be as helpful as I can to others who are struggling with the same issues I’ve dealt with.
- Seeking therapy as needed. I plan to be more proactive in managing my anxiety, which is much more in control now, but still exists.
I realize that, while I may have made great strides and had great awakenings in a short time, healing is a long-term process. All my efforts, everything I did to try to help myself, were all steps to get me where I need to be. It took me a long time to get here but I never gave up. It takes hard work and persistence to conquer trauma, but I got there, and I’m confident others can, too.
Cam Scholey, MBA, CPA, is a professional writer and speaker. After a rewarding career in consulting, teaching and writing about business strategy, Cam is pivoting his focus to writing and speaking about overcoming trauma and preventing child abuse. He is currently completing a memoir that recounts his childhood experience, emphasizing resilience and the power of the human spirit. Learn more and reach out to Cam at camscholey.com.