For Mental Health Week I thought it was time to open up about my own life. I know I’m not the only person in this situation, but it’s not something that people talk about openly very often unless it’s to a best friend or someone you feel you can vent to without them giving you the sad puppy face or thinking you’re just a product of your environment. As a child and as an adult I always get the uneasy feeling that when people find out about my parents, they automatically think I might be a little out there. I’ve even gotten the response, “Well I’m surprised you turned out this well,” or “Are you scared to have children?”, “Does that run in your family?” , “How violent is he?” I hate the stigma. I always say, ” I’m fine, they’re fine, we are all fine.” because after years of answering you realize its just more comfortable that way and who doesn’t prefer to stay in their comfort zone. Now anyone who knows me knows that that’s code for, “Please stop asking me questions.” This is something very personal and something that I have never written about before, but its a massive part of me. Both of my parents are mentally ill. It made for an unusual childhood and continued to keep me on my toes throughout adulthood.
Dad: I’m moving out
Dad: You hate me
Me: No I don’t you are loved
Dad: Okay thank you I’ll stay
From early on the parent-child relationship was never standard. But then again, what is the standard for that type of thing? The thing about having a father like mine is that there’s a mandatory briefing to friends and family before they come over. A pre-explanation that even if he looks like he’s talking to you, Odds are there’s “someone else next to you” and if you respond, he can get upset. And that it’s okay to just hang out and not engage in conversation unless he directly addresses you. Sometimes It’s phone calls from the neighbors that my father is yelling to loud in the front yard while I’m at work, It can be phone calls from an Officer who explains that they’ve received a threatening letter directed to the Police Station. And it’s buying him new clothes for him to then add his own flair by cutting them up in his own, might I add (Very fashionable) way. I’ve seen him do some very creative things with a pair of jeans. And sometimes, It’s coming home and seeing him dancing in the front yard with his shirt off just laughing with his unseen company. Or giving a speech to his very own audience in the driveway. It’s hearing the front door open and close 5-6 times within the span of 10 minutes. Especially when he’s got a lot to say during his exits. It’s cleaning his room because he thought someone broke in and made a mess. It’s hugging him when he finally does let his guard down for a split second. It means really appreciating the happy moments with him, the moments of clarity. It means to do what I can to make him feel loved and safe at home.
Dad: Can I borrow ten dollars for cigarettes?
Me: Yes here ( hands over twenty dollars)
Dad: Ooohhh that’s so nice, your so sweet. You remind me of my daughter
My father is my heart, and I will fight for him to the end; he can be kind and gentle, he can be hilarious and silly and there are times when he will dance around with me singing at the top of our lungs. He’s also incredibly smart with a college degree in Agriculture. Unfortunately, He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic before I was born. It’s not a one size fits all disability. There are different behaviors and stages. The effects can be progressive and It’s a darkness that attacks each person differently. It stems from my father’s side and they say it skips a generation, but I never really knew my great-grandparents or any great aunts or uncles, I only have stories from my Grandma. “Mental illness was not something that was openly discussed in their time”, is what my grandmother told me. Somehow I understood, so I didn’t ask many questions. Schizophrenia had started to take hold of my father, as far as I know, before I was born. After my parents were married it progressed as schizophrenia does. He’d do random things like painting the apartment they lived in different colors and he would forget he was cooking or running water. He and my mother would argue a lot, but she could never understand what he was talking about because he was hallucinating and she, fighting her own demons, couldn’t handle it. It got really scary at one point. He attempted suicide by cutting the sides of his throat and wrists in the bathtub of his apartment. Thankfully my grandmother found him before it was too late. Once my grandparents saw how rapidly his illness was progressing, They made sure he got the help needed. With the right medication and amazing support system, He became stable and lived a good life with my grandparents.
Me: Good Morning
Dad: I hate you, go away.
Me: Love you
Dad: Love you too
Over the years, I can see him fading more and more into his alternate reality. It reminds me of the TV Show Flash. They have Earth one, two and three. Each one is a different version of everyone you know. So everyone and everything looks the same but personalities are all different. In each world, the events that take place are different, darker, and eviler. I feel like I’ve always been on Earth one and He fluctuates between Earth two and three. In each version of Earth, I being his daughter, am a different person. So when he does meet me back on Earth one he is usually still upset about what I did on earth two and three. He will look at me and say, “You look like her, but I know it’s not you. Why did you attack me at war? Why did you burn my house down? Why did you kill my family? You’re not my daughter! SHE’S DEAD!”. I’m not going to lie, it does hurt my feelings emotionally. But logically I know he doesn’t mean to hurt me, and he’s upset because the other version of me killed the actual me, so he is mourning me. How can I be upset at that? It’s showing that he does love me. He just doesn’t know I am right here in front of him. I can’t argue with him and say no that didn’t happen. Because to him, that’s his reality. No matter what I say he won’t budge, and I have to be considerate and know his feelings are valid. So I take a step back and say, “it’s going to be okay”. Or sometimes say nothing and walk away. Unfortunately, dealing with mental illness doesn’t come with an instruction manual, so I find ways to avoid confrontation and try to keep him as mellow as possible. I feel bad. He’s trapped in this scary, sad, and violent alternate Earth, but I have no way of getting there to rescue him. I do what I can to help alleviate the stress. Making sure he always has the tools needed for drawing and painting. Some of the best times We’ve had have been our trips to Barnes and Noble to find his Favorite CD’s so that he can rush home and rock to his favorite Jams on his old school CD Player and smoke his tobacco pipe. It gives me just that little bit of peace seeing him find Joy in something and gives me a feeling that he’s going to be alright. I always try to remember back to a moment of clarity when he actually held a conversation. He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘They are there, you just can’t see them”. I truly believed him and took it to heart. Who are we to judge and tell him what he sees isn’t real?
Me: Dad whens your birthday?
Dad: June. I’m one hundred and eighty-four years old.
Me: Well you look damn good!
Dad: I work out
Childhood with my father consisted of the two of us and his made up stories. Stories of the war and the many professions he has held. But as a child, I never knew that he wasn’t in the war and he wasn’t a policeman or a firefighter. I knew the stories were our bonding time. As time went by our bonding time became smoking. He always smoked cigarettes. To him having me smoke with him couldn’t make him happier. Whenever he was feeling like talking to me, he would bring his cigarettes and say, “Would you like to smoke with me?” I knew that was going to be the very few precious minutes of actually having the closest thing to a father-daughter conversation that I was going to get. I started smoking around fourteen, but it didn’t last long. I hated the taste and it just wasn’t for me. So after a few times, I would pretend to smoke just to hang out with him. He loved to cook for me. Now when I say cook, it means to make a bologna and potato chip sandwich with maple syrup and whip cream. It was always so thoughtful, and he put time and energy into making me, his daughter, a nice meal. So I would try to eat it but usually couldn’t get much of it down. And as much as it pains me to say, my cooking skills are a direct inheritance from him. His Specialty, however, the thing he would always make me as a kid that I loved, was Cinnamon Toast! He would get two pieces of bread, butter them, add cinnamon and sugar and then put it in the oven so it would all melt together and then give it to me with a big glass of milk. I was in heaven, and my daddy was awesome.
Dad: Your an orphan I’m not your Dad
Dad: You were dropped off at my house, I don’t know you
I remember as a child having many conversations with him about death. He would always say when people die they become ghosts, and then they get stuck. Or he would say all the people are being killed by shotguns or in the war everyone is being sliced into pieces. As a teenager with an impressionable mind, I would dwell on the advice of my father and continuously think about dying in that way and becoming a ghost. I always thought there were monsters under my bed and ghosts chasing me around at night. But I did feel safe with him; he was very gentle and kind. That’s the thing with paranoid schizophrenia, he might seem like he is aggressive or lashing out but in reality, he is just scared and trying to protect himself and his family. With my dad, his bark is always worse than his bite. He would say some scary stuff sometimes about the war and fighting. But, he also had a softer side. For instance, If I raised my voice to my dog or cat, he’d tend to their needs. He never raised his voice at me growing up. He always paid child support and made sure to give me an allowance. Keep in mind this was from his disability check so what little he had he freely shared with the rest of his family and me. He loved to get me small gifts which were very thoughtful and kind.
Me: Hi Dad
Dad: Who are you?
Me: Your daughter
Dad: She’s dead, they murdered her
All his paintings were always so calm and beautiful they would be of streams and the ocean and people relaxing. He would write letters to the governor telling them how to create world peace and to build cost-efficient homes and grow gardens to feed the homeless. There was always such a fine line between happy and sad with him. My heart would break for him when he would cry, and I would hug him and tell him he’s loved. I was too young to understand what was happening but I knew he just needed someone to listen. He has never really had any friends since I was born. He always just hung out with the family mainly my grandparents when I was growing up. They would gamble penny slots and take him to eat, and he would be happy, briefly, but happy.
Dad: Hi, you’re a nice girl
Dad: Thanks for letting me live here, my family is all dead
Me: Your okay, everything is ok
Dad: It hurts so bad…
As the years go by, the days get a little bumpier, the hallucinations get a little stronger, and the mood swings get a little quicker. But there are still moments of happiness, laughter, and light that periodically will sparkle in my father’s eyes. His trips to Earth two and three as mentioned before, become more frequent, but we take a deep breathe say a prayer and wait for the storm to pass. Life is finding the joy in every moment that you can, loving one another without conditions and loving this journey called life. If you know someone who struggles with mental illness, take the time to send them a text or call them. Remind them how much they matter and that they are loved. It is the little things in life that matter most.