Courtney Tokorangi has been inspired by her father’s illness to develop a documentary film aiming to reveal more about her family’s relationships and raise awareness of his illness, bipolar disease. In this heartfelt piece, she explores what led to the work and shows us that some of the most deeply personal experiences can provide the most significant inspiration. Follow her journey at https://mentalnotimaginary.wordpress.com

The Dad that I remember was fun. Dad was the parent that all the other kids thought was really cool. He came to all my school camps and I felt proud to have him there. He would bring his guitar and play songs for everyone to sing along. He would show off his Michael Jackson dance moves that had everyone in awe. His favourite joke was introducing himself by his long-winded Cook Island name, more than 20 words that I never cared to write down or remember, ending with the punch line, ‘But you can call me Nga!’

Mum says I was a real daddy’s girl. I distinctly remember the routine we had – Dad walking in the door from a day at work and me running into his arms. I loved my Dad’s hugs. He was like this big bear and I felt safe and warm in his arms. Whenever he was sitting on the couch, I would snuggle up next to him and pull his arm around me.

My dad was the best. School holidays were always my favourite. Mum was usually at work and so for two weeks, Dad stayed home to look after us. This meant closing the curtains, getting blankets and munchies, and watching the old Star Wars trilogy together over and over. When the first of The Lord of the Rings film was released, it was added to our playlist. Other films included were The Golden Child, the Rush Hour films, and the Men in Black films. This was definitely where my love of film comes from.

I learnt a lot from Dad. He taught me how to play the guitar and we would play and sing together. He taught me old songs that I’d never heard of before such as Hotel California and House of the Rising Sun. He sang and played in the church band at Rimutaka Baptist and I remember learning songs from OHP paper that he’d bring home for practice.

Dad was also a very talented artist. He mostly only drew when we asked him to, like when he made my brother and I large cardboard folders that he illustrated for us to put our own artworks into. He also decorated our cakes for our birthdays. My brother always got cars or a cricket bat. I got a Barbie in a dress cake, a Snow White and Seven Dwarves cake, and a Barney cake.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time that I became aware of my Dad’s illness. I don’t remember being sat down and told, “Your Dad has a bipolar disorder.”

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time that I became aware of my Dad’s illness. I don’t remember being sat down and told, “Your Dad has a bipolar disorder.” It might have happened and if it did, I don’t recall it. There is, however, a distinct turning point for me that I remember very vividly and it was when I stopped believing in my Dad.

It was an evening in August 2007. Dad picked me up from Girl’s Brigade and as we were driving home, he pulled over and stopped the car. He chose that moment to tell me, 14 years old at the time, that mum had been diagnosed with depression and was spending a lot of time at home in bed. He told me she was on medication and that he was going to take over things at home to give her a break. According to my diary entry, he also told me that he had been depressed since the day I was born. He told me that I couldn’t tell anyone I knew, especially mum, and that hurt the most.

At 14 years old, my understanding of this illness was pretty sketchy. At that young age, I had been told that my mum was depressed, that my dad had been depressed since my birth, and that I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone about it. Apparently, it was okay because my Dad promised me that he was going to sort it out. He was going to take the stress off of my mum, she was going to get better, and it was all going to be fine.

I cried a lot when we got home. My mum came to my room and asked me what was wrong but I couldn’t tell her. I had promised not to and I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to burden her if she was depressed. That night and the nights that followed, my Dad didn’t sleep due to stress and it triggered an episode that made him become manic. A couple of days later we moved out, leaving my dad at home, and stayed with a family friend living nearby whose daughter I went to college with.

It wasn’t great. I didn’t like not being at home but I was happy to be away from Dad. We were all a little bit happier. It was a relief to see mum getting some sleep. I think I probably watched her like a hawk since my dad told me about her being depressed. It was encouraging to know she was sleeping better and I felt like I could relax a little bit too.

I remember being angry and hurt but mostly, I felt betrayed. I’d taken comfort in knowing that Dad was going to step up and make it all better. But what did he do instead? He got himself so sick that we had to move out of our own house so he could get himself right. He let me down. I trusted him to be my Dad at that time when I was so worried for my mum and he failed me.

From that point on, I felt as though it was my responsibility to help look after my family. If my mum was depressed, she couldn’t do it on her own and it was clear to me that Dad couldn’t look after us. I started putting up the walls that eventually blocked my Dad out of my life completely. I learned that the easiest way to deal with the hurt was to block it out.

Every now and then, I would wish I could run into my Dad’s arms and bury myself in his embrace. Almost every day I wish I could show him the drawings I did, the set I painted, or the things I built. The little girl in me constantly longs for the Dad she used to look up to and to make him proud. I miss my Dad and I want him back.

Words and Photo by Courtney Tokorangi