I'm Not Resentful. I'm Grateful.

Emilia Wilburn
An old family photo of a young Emilia and her dad cuddling happily

I cannot count the number of ways I am just like my dad.

I have the same deeply lined hands and creased forehead as he does. I can play any instrument that I pick up just like he can. I can sing with my very loud voice just like him. I have his hair — long, thick, almost strawberry blonde hair. He used to wear it long when he was younger, parted down the middle. When he went gray, he had the most gorgeous white streaks that framed his face. I hope that I go gray the same way.

I am like him in so many ways, except one: I do not have his severe mental illness or substance use disorder. 

Because of that, I am often confronted by the assumption that I am resentful or angry at him for having those chronic conditions, and the symptoms that accompany them.

When I think about my dad, I don’t think about the times I have seen him attempt suicide, take himself off his medication, or hide under the bed and shake. I don’t think about watching him come out of jail, wringing his hands, or when I had to beg the police officer — whom I had called to check that my dad was alive — to not perceive my dad as a threat and shoot him.

When I think of him, I think of the warm smell of patchouli on suntanned skin, and the sound of my dad’s beautiful voice as he played his guitar in the warm morning sunlight of our living room.

I think about his love of Mexican food, his fantastic talent at tai chi, and his ability to run miles on end without even breaking a sweat. I think of all the times he played dress-up with me and wore a dress to tea, or the times when he would let me cover him from head to toe in shaving cream so I could have the joy of spraying him off with a hose in the backyard.

A photo of young Emilia hugging her dad, who she's just covered in shaving cream

I think of the jokes he tells and his amazing sense of humor that has me on the floor laughing. The expert tap of his fingers on the steering wheel drumming as we listened to old Talking Heads CDs in his silver pickup truck or the time he let me try to drive it. I think of all the times when after a long day at school, there he was, picking me up and taking me to get a Costco hot dog.

He taught me to swim in the ocean, treat people with kindness, and how to appreciate my mother’s amazing cooking. 

There, of course, have been dark times, some of the darkest of my life, but they are not what I think of when I think of him. I choose to see the light shining through and to hold onto the good moments in between when he is himself. He is not his mental illness and he is not himself when things get bad, but that is ok because when he does come back to us, I treasure those moments so much more. They are precious to me. 

I truly believe that being not only a witness but also a daughter to a man with severe mental illness and substance use disorder has given me the unique and valuable gift to have deep empathy for others.

I am seeing another type of life that I otherwise might never have seen. Without these experiences, I would not be who I am both personally and in my work at Shatterproof. I cannot imagine another life where I had a different father, and I don’t want to. It is a common assumption that I am resentful toward him, but instead, I am so grateful for this experience and know there are other children of people with these chronic conditions who are as grateful as I am.  

Emilia as a toddler, standing at the piano, while dad looks on

These experiences drive my work. People with severe mental illness and substance use disorder are just that – people, with talents, hopes, dreams, and everything else in between.

They can be amazing parents in their own way and give their kids so many gifts. Someone like my dad should never be dismissed immediately as being some kind of a bad parent because he has a chronic illness. I have never felt anything but loved, respected, and supported by him in his own way. I am honored to get to be his daughter and learn from him. 

I hope by sharing this story is that I have reached someone like my dad, who worries that their child is wishing they had a different parent.

I promise you, even if your child doesn’t tell you or show it, they see you. They see the light within you. There is hope. While this is far from a universal experience, chances are, there are many others like me. I would not choose another dad in the whole entire world. This is my life, my path, and I am so beyond grateful to get to call him Dad. 

Emilia is the Program Coordinator for ATLAS®, Shatterproof’s quality measurement system for addiction treatment facilities.

Four people walking on a beach

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