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A Child of The Mentally Ill


I rang my father right after Christmas, we had spoken just two days prior. "Hey Maura, um I was wondering if you know what happened to my business?." "No, dad you are retired, you are almost eighty now and you don't need to work anymore its time to just relax." There was complete silence. Than he said, "do I have an airplane?" "Not that I know of did you buy one recently?"

 We spoke a bit longer and than hung up. My husband asked me how my dad was doing. "Its the full moon soon, he will be buying tons of things off the tv and driving my brother crazy!" We laughed, and though we went about our day I kept thinking about my dad and his life and journey. He has been battling Alzheimer's for the last thirteen years.

My dad was smarter than the average bear. The brain of most Alzheimer's patients by the sixth year is so shredded its but a shell with eyes that are dead and quite haunting. Usually the cheekbones are protrouding and there is just a lifeless body limply hanging in a chair in some green hallway of a nursing home, or in a bed vacantly laying and staring out the window. I am quite famililar with all of these looks for I visit my dad weekly seeing such figurines. But my dad for some reason has been able to hold some part of his brain that has allowed him to live in some assemblance. The doctors have said that my fathers intelligence has something to do with his luck.

But with a high intelligence and a colorful imagination comes a high price. My father not only has Alzheimers but a is bipolar. So, he dealt with a unknown mental disease in his early adult years and as an elder man he fell into alzheimers. I often think about him with a heart full of compassion although I can attest that my childhood was not one to envy. The seventies was an era that still had not embraced medication with a lot of mental illness. We kept my father's mental illness hidden like a teens unwanted pregnancy, or a handicapped child hidden in some victorian era novel. The shame was a heavy woolen blanket that was invisible to one passing on the street but quite heavy, itchy and uncomfortable for my siblings and I.

When I left home I ran and ran as far as I could, I drank  and drank and snorted more, I worked and worked to the top of the heap but all of this movement would not relieve me of the Shame. Than One day, I feel into a deep trance laying on my couch and I didn't want to move, nothing made me eat and the phone was not attended to for days. Little did I know that my friends were starting to worry about me. Finally, I managed to get off the couch shower and eat. But I felt hopeless like the world had stopped spinning and nothing but blackness  engulfed me. Well, guess what...you can run and you can drink and you work for that money, but you cannot ever outrun the shame of mental illness until you confront its ghosts. It has taken me a long time to be "out" about my father's illness. Recently, a I mentioned to a friend something about my dad's manics and she looked at me blankly, "what, is your dad mentally ill?" "yes, my dad is not wrapped right as he would like to say." "hm, you have never mentioned that to me ever." "well, its not like I have anthing to hide I guess I just thought everyone knew about my dad."

That is big, for when you are a child of a parent with mental illness your shame is deeply engrained. It becomes an extension of your personal reactions to things that you are not even aware of most of the time. Trust, is the main struggle of children that have a parent with mental illness.' Trust no one is the motto' my fatther's favorite mantra.  That can get you far in life but it can also make it hard to love and have relationships with friends and lovers. A child whose parent is mentally ill learns to build a life of imagination, survival,  and self-sufficiency. My mother had a big job keeping my father in check and making sure nothing was out of the ordinary to the people of the Parish. So it was left to us to keep ourselves in check, and learn how to function. I am happy to report today that we all for the most part are good citizens. But honestly, it takes but a second to remember those embarassing moments with my father in my early years.

But you can only hang on to this for so long. With a lot of work, a child of a mentally ill parent can live a normal life. But its quite challenging. It takes a lot of therapy and being honest with people about who you are and your life. You have to become brave enough to realize that you yourself are not mentally ill, but that it was your parent. It takes a bold unbending soul who wants a life free of chaos and deep depression to stand with their head high and heart wide open. No easy task for anyone. A good therapist will remind you that you were a child, and that you are not your father but seperate from your father. One thing about having a bipolar parent they manipulate thier children and take up every ounce of space in your family structure that was meant for everyone to share. But that isn't the case with a bipolar parent. Their colors spill out and electrifies the family making it hard to pay attention to any other family members success or needs.

It may sound like it was a dredgery. But there were times when the laughter emulating from our nightly dinners was fruitful and lengthy. Monty Pythons skits were done, long winded embellished stories were told. Heated political arguements were laid out. So, it was not all bad. We laughed hard in our family. When cleaning out our family house we found, The glass tubed alien that my dad had bought to scare my mother..it was life size. We sold at the family yard sale, 'Uncle Charlie' The 1950's Manequin with glass eyes in a tuxcedo. My father placed it in a chair in front of our third floor bay window and told people it was his invalid brother. Other times, 'Uncle Charlie' was in the living rooms front window. We  found hundred, upon hundreds of fed ex envelopes with yellow legal pads hidden in them. "The conspiracy lives on!" we would shout with glee, than in a moment of quietness one of us would pull a pad out and murmer "jesus". To much it was to much on somedays. But for the most part it was a cleaning out that was cleansing for us all. To be together as adults, a large green dumpster in our parents driveway. We threw and threw...the cathartic cleanse had begun. And there was so much laughter we drew neighbors.

 Such a fine line between the sane and insane. I do not hide nor back away and say "one should not say crazy, or insane." I do not hold others who have mental illness at bay. Theses are people, not things to be objectified. But the mind is not something we have all the answers to, nor do we have answers to our hearts incredible ability to forgive and embrace.

Today, its cold outside and I have not been to see my father in awhile. I must start my weekly roundtrip of about four hundred miles to see him. We usually get in the car and he tells me how much he likes my car. Than he will tell me about a friend of his who has one just like it, and how he has not the courage to call Jack and ask how his battle with ALS is going. He will go the resturant and order soup that has to be really really hot, and than he will say it about three times. If the waiter is female he will try to flirt and ask her a million questions, "whats your name?,  hey if I told you, you had a beautiful body would you hold against me!" it could be embarassing but I pass it up. He will than eat the soup as if its the best soup he has ever had. We will than preceed to a movie, in the theatre he will ask me what's the name of this movie. After a few minutes, he will fall asleep. When the movie ends we go back to his room at the home. I sit and talk to him about things going on in my life. He will tell me how he throws a kiss to my mom's picture everynight and what a nice girl she was and how he missess  being with my mom. Than he begins to drift and his head is pushed down to his chest by some invisible weight.

I than approach this man, my father. I kiss his forehead. "Bye Papa, I whisper. "I love you, you crazy ole man." He will keep his head down and his eyes closes, but a slight smile will appear and a giggle will escape his lips. When I get to the door he lifts his head, "By honey, thanks for coming be careful going home."

I am not a child of a mentally ill parent any longer. I am a daughter of a man who is elderly and needs love and tenderness, needs to be treated like a human. So, that is what I do with an open heart. On my way home the tears fall endlessly and quiet, like a soft rain.