I, for the first time in my life, am talking with a therapist about my life and my family. It’s a story I have lived, and thought about for many years. But there is something about telling an overview of the whole story in one fell swoop that it occurs to me that the life I have lived is perhaps not the average one.
I don’t mean to say that my life was harder than anyone else’s---in so many ways I had an ideal and privileged childhood--memories of ice cream trucks and summers in the pool, summer camp, friends and family adventures, laughter and love. I am just now realizing how big a factor my dad’s mental illness was in my development as a child and continues to affect me as an adult. The way I view myself, the narratives I have about my life, my personality, my strengths and weaknesses--in so many ways these stories have come from him. And I hate to say that there is no satisfying or tidy ending here--there is no “other side” to his illness. Not for me anyway.
Everything I know about his mental illness is from lived experience. He never went to a doctor to seek help or diagnosis. Other than the times that he wanted to take time off work, which was terrible because it would always be during a time that he wasn't actually depressed. He would just know exactly what to tell the doctors to make them prescribe home rest, and then he would do some home renovations or work on his art. Having recently quit a job that threw me down a steep hill into a pit of depression and anxiety, this bothers me even more now than it did before. It’s another classic thing my dad did where he just somehow, and always, got his way.
It could be flagrant rule breaking, (sneaking into Ontario Place once via boat, which gave my 12 year old, rule-following self a GREAT deal of anxiety to not only witness but be an accomplice to), or simply talking his way out of a speeding ticket. He was very charismatic. Probably still is, but I wouldn’t know as much now, since in recent years, I have mostly cut him out of my life out of self-preservation. When my parents started their everything-but-amicable divorce (when I was 30, and just got engaged myself) it triggered what my non-professional judgement assessed as my dad’s total psychotic break.
To explain the complex situation that his child-like psychology couldn’t understand, he started imagining a whole parallel double life that my mom must have lived, stealing money from him, affairs, secrets everywhere. He once showed up to my house with a banker box full of bank statements, highlighted here and there, trying to “find the secret money” that he was convinced my mom had been hiding from him for three decades. He hired a forensic accountant. Sent vitriolic emails to my mother. Called me demanding bank information for shared accounts between me and my mother...which was the only time I ever hung up on my dad.
But it’s not even as significant as it sounds, because we also barely talked ever. I, as an only child, found myself in the middle of a war zone, and I don’t use the term lightly. My dad raged a full-on war against my mom and I felt like I could save him from himself. If only he would listen to me when I told him that the things he imagined weren’t actually true, but he would only ever choose the blue pill. Some people can’t handle the red pill.
One important thing about my dad was that he never wanted kids. He probably knew that he wasn’t emotionally or psychologically equipped to have them--being trapped as a child himself. He grew up in an alcohol-soaked and often violent household. He recounts one vivid childhood memory, hiding upstairs in his bed, pillow over his head, while his dad threw his mom across the living room. In the cycles of trauma, I understand why my dad is the way he is, and often thought that he turned out pretty well, considering the circumstances.
But here I’ll interject another bizarre part about my/our lives--the bedroom where my dad remembers cowering as a child, is the very same one I called my own. My dad never left the house he grew up in. My mom hated everything about that. She never wanted to live in that house, but there was only one way in our family, and that was my dad’s. The house is my dad. Trapped in his own upbringing, and as I think about it now, it seems even more batshit crazy that he wanted (needed) to stay there. He still lives there now.
I always remember him as walking the line between the darkness and the light. As an artist, it was almost expected. The portrait of the tortured artist. So classic. I remember periods of time when he would be manic...but that just looks like someone who is ambitious, excited, and productive. These are qualities that capitalistic culture praises and rewards. The entire house would be renovated, walls knocked down, everything repainted.
Dozens of new art pieces would emerge and fill our tiny house, and his need to satisfy his manic tendencies demanded so much physical and emotional space that there was never really space for me or my mom. I never saw it that way until I was an adult, looking back at my family and the physical house and realized how much of it was a product of my dad’s mania. Artifacts of his illness.
And maybe not right away, but always inevitable was his fall into depression, and unbearable narcisissm. Alcoholism.
A personality change that wasn’t violent like his father’s, but still disgusted me even as a child. And when he ran out of beer, my mom would find the next morning that her cooking wine was gone. Or something even less appetizing. What now, in this later period of his life, he might describe to someone as his current (temporary) balance and stability, is still haunted by invisible echoes of his childhood trauma. My life resonates with these echoes and I’m only now giving myself the space to explore it.