When I receive a new AnonyBlogger post, my primary feeling is one of gratitude that people should be willing to trust me with their stories. Not just stories, but tales so painful that the world shifts a little on its axis from their telling.
This story, after I read it the first time, left me off-balance for hours afterward. Love and pain would both be so much easier if they weren’t so often tangled up with each other. I’m honored to bring you another story about loving someone who is mentally ill.
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I look at my children now, who come to me with their problems, and wonder how long I will be WonderMom. I can cook anything, I can make a costume for tomorrow’s previously unannounced play, I can sew a hem or a button, I can butterfly a nasty gash and I know lots about lots.
The way they need me has not yet caused that crisis wherein you realize that your parents are human, flawed, perhaps damaged, and fallible. But if I have my way, they will be safe in the protective circle of their parents abilities and support for as long as is reasonable without actually lying to them or steering them towards therapy.
Because I was not.
My safe circle ended when I was eleven. My parents were divorced several years by then and my brother was having behavior issues so he moved across the country to be with my dad. My mom – since there was no one but highly capable little me at home – took a late shift job.
Dinner. Homework. Housework. Off with myself to bed. This became my reality at the age of eleven.
Not great. Lonely. Sometimes scary. But manageable, I suppose, to a capable and resourceful girl.
Somewhere around that time though, my mother’s evening cocktail turned into several, and several turned into a fifth. I don’t know quite how long she camouflaged that problem, but when I was 14 she “quit” her job. (To this day I do not know whose idea her exit was.) And then she simply stopped being sober.
Pretty much ever.
And then eating alone, getting homework done independently and washing up the dishes became much more and much worse. Eating was not only an alone activity, so was getting food. Managing my homework turned into managing my entire education, including transportation to and from school events – sometimes very far from home – when my mom forgot to pick me up. Washing dishes became every household chore that I needed to take care of, including managing my own health and teeth. I was often alone in places I should not have been, often frightened, and often hungry.
When I was sixteen, she went on a binge and threatened to put me in foster care when I got angry. When I called my dad –the first time in my life I asked anyone for help because I could not deal with my drunken, irrational mother – he told me he thought I should learn to deal with my own problems. I never asked for help again. Not from him, not from anyone.
My mom was arrested for probation violations on my 18th birthday.
This continued until my early 20’s when finally the emotional abuse became too much and I told my mother to…go away. I was desperate. I loved her terribly, but she could reduce me to tears in a sentence, and her irrational behavior was undermining my life, which at that time included graduate school.
So I told her to go away. And I stopped calling. Stopped visiting. I just…stopped.
Until she ended up in the hospital critically ill with a mystery condition that almost killed her. She underwent emergency surgery – they weren’t even sure what they were looking for – and after 4 hours the surgeon came out to the waiting room, announced that she’d had a diverticulum that ruptured, remarked that she might not live through the night, told me she was drinking herself to death and asked why I hadn’t done anything to stop her.
I was so stunned that I could not tell him off the way he needed to be told off. I was 25 years old, sitting in a waiting room at 2 in the morning and he had just told me my mother might not last till sunrise. I could not serve him the verbal assault he deserved for suggesting that my child-and-teenaged self had somehow failed to keep her from drinking. Did he think I had not done everything conceivable to stop her, to try and live a life free from fear, abuse, loneliness and hunger? Was he fucking kidding me?
Regardless of my anger with the surgeon, my mom recovered. And then Recovered. We had a conversation where she told me that although she knew she was drinking herself into an early grave, she thought she’d simply not wake up one day. And the painful horror of this hospitalization had frightened her. I told her, calmly but starkly, that she would live through this same situation a handful of times before her body finally gave out. And that if she tried to decline the treatment, she risked an overzealous physician taking her capacity away and putting her through it anyway. Then – miraculously – her attending doctor told her the exact same thing. Here was the turning point I’d hoped for for the past dozen years.
But…what the universe gave to my mother, it took from my father.
My dad had always been a challenging individual. Taciturn and with an occasionally violent temper, visits with my dad always felt like Russian roulette. My younger brothers were prone to bickering, and I would expend enormous energy playing peacemaker so their fighting wouldn’t escalate my dad’s temper. My dad put his fists through walls when he was angry.
But my dad was unpredictable. He’d be charming as all hell at a party, make everyone laugh, freshen drinks. He’d tell me how proud he was of me one day, then berate me for being irresponsible about my educational choices the next (while I put myself through college and he contributed not a cent). He’d cancel a family trip because of empty wallets and then buy 4-wheelers for himself and motorbikes for my brothers.
And through it all was walking on eggshells. A good day could be ruined with a word or a red light.
But I could cope. I was used to it.
Then…just two years after my mom found her way to recovery, my dad had a stroke. A small one. Tiny. He recovered everything….except his impeccable balance.
My dad was a glazier. An industrial glass-worker. He installed windows and curtain walls on high-rise buildings. And now he couldn’t trust his balance. A high-rise construction site is a very bad place to work then.
He couldn’t work. But he also couldn’t qualify for disability. My dad, at 6’4” and 220 pounds, looked like a strapping man who was perfectly capable of doing anything. But he couldn’t do the thing he knew how to do best, the thing he was so well-respected for, and he couldn’t wrap his brain around doing anything else.
And that unpredictability? Those mood swings? Those periods of penny-pinching followed by outrageous spending? Those were all signs of his bipolar disorder, only I had no awareness of the condition at the time, so didn’t recognize what I was seeing. And the stroke, with its subtle residual impairment, brought him crashing down into a depressive trench so deep he could not see the upper rim.
My dad loved my husband. My first husband. And for 8 years had been on his best behavior around him. To the point where my husband was a bit mystified by my stories, and must have thought me a drama-queen revisionist historian. But after the stroke, after the depressive crash, my husband saw the man who I had lived with my whole life. He saw the slashing remarks, the disinterest, the criticism, the pessimism. I felt vindicated that my husband realized that I hadn’t invented it all, but would have preferred to be thought a liar than seeing my dad in that state.
This went on for a year or two. Then my son was born, and he seemed to brighten. He loved his grandson so very much. But the unpredictability was still there, the temper was still there, and I was….afraid. I think this state was due in part to being a new mom and the emotional reorientation (sometimes overly so) that accompanies becoming a parent for the first time and feeling responsible for so fragile a life. But whatever the reason, I became more and more aware of my dad’s instability, and it unsettled me. My dad collected guns. That unsettled me too. Although it never had before.
One day, at the end of a phone call with my dad, he said, “You know, it’s a hard place to reach in life to realize that you weren’t dealt a bad hand, but that you didn’t do enough with the hand you got.”
And here is where I wish I could go back. Here is where I wish I could rewind and rewrite. I was a health care worker. I had worked with seniors with all kinds of psychological issues, and I had some experience with adult mental health. I am also incredibly gifted with words. I am who everyone comes to when they need encouragement, or problem solving. I had both of those things on my side, and when my dad opened up about his disappointment with life – in a way that suggested he was able to see himself as less a victim than he often did – I said…nothing.
I wish I’d said, “Dad, you can re-arrange your cards however you like. We love you. We’ll wait. There’s still time. There’s always time.”
In my head, now, I say those words. I say them in a way that is true and heartfelt. I say them and I mean them and he hears me.
But I didn’t say those words. I don’t know why. To this day – this hour and this minute – I do not know why I couldn’t say such a simple and easy thing to my dad. I sat on the phone, mute or murmuring something useless like “that’s too bad.” And I gave him nothing to hold on to. I don’t know if he would have reached for what I offered, but the not offering is with me still.
A few months later, on Halloween morning, the phone rang at 6:30 am. I quelled the instant panic I always get when the phone rings at an ungodly hour by telling myself it was a wrong number. It wasn’t. My husband answered and after a few words, said, “Oh no!” He turned to me and said, “Your dad’s dead. He shot himself in the head.”
And yes, he now feels horrible for saying it that way. But…that’s what he said.
I took the phone from him and spoke with my step-mother. She sounded so calm. Her voice barely broke, but I could tell it was only because she hadn’t slept. She had gotten the news the night before. She just hadn’t been able to call yet.
My dad had driven out to the hills. He had a gun, a six-pack of beer, his klonopin and some marijuana. My stepmother thinks he’d gone there thinking to commit suicide. Apparently, he’d done something like that once before. But she thinks he’d talked himself down, because he was on his way home. But the pills, the beer and possibly the pot had done a number on him, and he crashed his pick-up truck into a fence. The property owner called 911, and shouted to my dad that help was on the way. The paramedics were on the scene in minutes.
It was dark. They didn’t see he had a gun. One paramedic called to him that they were there, that they were going to get him out of the truck. Then he turned back towards his partner to ask for some equipment, and that’s when they heard the shot.
I can’t imagine being that paramedic. Thinking you were doing everything right, that you were just helping a guy who’d run his car into a ditch. And I worry that his first thought might have been that he was being shot at. I hope he didn’t think that. I would hate for him to have felt that fear, my dad had huge respect for police officers and firefighters. He’d been in the army. He wouldn’t have wanted that young man to feel that fear.
But I also can’t imagine what my dad was feeling. Was he scared? Did he know that he was looking at jail time for driving under the influence? Was crashing the truck the last straw? Did he think he’d embarrass his wife, or his kids? Did imagining our disappointment oppress him those last few inches before he hit unbearable? Or could he just not see that after the bad part of this car-accident mess, it would – eventually – get better?
I don’t know. But I imagine it often. And I wish, I wish so much, that I could have reassured him in that moment. That I could have said, “Yep, you fucked up. But we love you, we’ll always love you, and we’ll help you get through it. Nothing is so bad it can’t get better. And this will.”
I have no place to send those words now. No outlet for those wishes. Nowhere to send that encouragement.
It has been twelve years now, and that thought – if I think it too hard or too concretely – will still bring me to tears. I hate, hate in the strongest type of despising, the thought that someone I love could ever, ever, feel so bad. It does not matter that much if in his life he was not kind to me, or that I have issues of insecurity that are clearly a result of his criticism, or that in the final years his instability frightened me. He was my dad, and in between those painful, frightening times was the man who loved his daughter even when incapable of showing it, and the person I imagine battered and bleeding alone in the dark with a gun is the man who loved me. And to this day it takes me to my darkest place to imagine him so frightened and so sad that the only way out was dead.
I watch myself carefully. I watch my son even more so. Addiction and depression both run in families. My relationship with food? Possibly complicated by an addictive personality. A few times with men? Clearly. Alcohol I can take or leave, and drugs don’t interest me. But a few times…a few frightening times… I have brushed my feet against the bottom of a well where I could not see why tomorrow mattered. And I recoil. I run. I am too afraid of those places to linger. But I watch my son.
These things are me. The girl who lived with a mom who was happy to let her go hungry, the girl whose dad ignored the evident neglect, the young woman who had no parent but herself, the new mom who got one parent back while the other slipped violently away. I am strong, resourceful, resilient and capable because of those things. They are my trademarks and I am proud of them. But I am also insecure, easily frightened, have abandonment issues and occasional irrational fears because of those things.
Would I trade?
I can’t say.