There are memories of childhood, and then there are those stories that you were told over and over. It becomes unclear whether they actually happened, you misremembered, or you just recall being told the stories at dinner all those endless childhood nights.
One thing I do remember is that both my mother and father were affectionate. I remember having trouble sleeping. I still have trouble sleeping. I needed my bedroom door open, the hallway light on, the closet door shut to keep out monsters. My mother would sit by my bed and sing a song to me in German that had the word “Shlaf,” in it. Sleep. She would kiss me and leave.
But I wanted my father, too. He would lie next to me, with his arm around me. It may sound creepy, but it wasn’t. It was just nice.
But there’s one moment that I’m not sure is a memory or the endless repetition of a story, a teasing story, but one that is now just a story. We are at the kitchen table in our very modest house in Indiana. I’m three, maybe four. I have my arms wrapped around my father’s legs. I say, “I’m going to marry Daddy.” My mother laughs, and says, “What about me?” And I say, “you’ll be old, but he’ll be shiny and new.”
A Drawn Out Love
Twice a year until I was in my twenties, we would visit my dad’s mother in Memphis. My grandmother was white and in typical Southern, racist ways, she had an African American maid, Pearl. Pearl had worked for her since my father was seven. She rode in the limo with us to bury my grandmother, whom she outlived. Every visit that I remember, she would serve us breakfast and she would laugh and say to me, “You looooved your daddy,” drawing out the word love.
A drawn out love. How I loved my father and still do, even though he’s dead. You can love a dead person. A person dies, but love doesn’t. Something deeper than memory.
A clear memory, a real one rather than a story, is of the first time my father tried to kill himself. We never talked about it, so it can’t be an often-repeated story. Who would want to repeat that night?
My mother was sitting at the kitchen table crying. My mother never cried. I was five or six. Where was my father? Why was my mother crying? It was late. It was past dinner time. He was never late, we always had dinner together as a family. It was dark out and I wasn’t in bed. Everything was wrong. Then the yellow station wagon drove up into the garage. I ran into the garage. My father walked out. Normally, he would hug me, pick me up. But he didn’t look at me. His lips were blue. “Daddy? Daddy?” I went after him as he walked through the garage door into the kitchen, where, unbelievably, my mother still sat crying. He didn’t say anything back to me.
Then things again become unclear in my memory. Policemen were there. They left. My father left. Somehow, I went to bed, but I don’t remember how. In the morning, my mother told me that Dad was sick. We went to visit him, that I do remember.
My father was a French scholar at the University. When we visited him in the hospital, he gave us some crafts he’d made. One was a tiny stool with a stenciled design painted on it. Something a child would make. I think he made a leather belt that we saw at another visit. He was very quiet. He was always somewhat quiet, but he seemed — broken. I didn’t understand then the concept of a broken man, but somewhere in my child’s brain, I did know something was very wrong with my father. My love.
It changed my life.
Typical and an Exception
There is much literature on paranoid schizophrenia. There is an unfortunate amount of television shows that depict paranoid schizophrenics as dangerous and violent. But the majority of schizophrenics harm themselves, not others. The majority of schizophrenics do not stay married, do not remain fathers to three children. The majority end up in and out of hospitals, homeless, in and out of work. Permanently broken.
My father was the exception and also typical.
No medication really worked. Unlike depression and anxiety, the effectiveness of treatments for paranoid schizophrenia is poor. You can numb those with paranoid schizophrenia, tranquilize them, but underneath the haze, the demons still lurk.
My father was typical in that way and unique in that his wife stayed with him until the end. He presented as a normal person for most of his life. There were breaks, for sure, but mostly no one had any idea he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. He was known as a gentle, musical, loving, funny French scholar. He had friends. He loved his wife and children. In that way, he was unique, lucky, blessed. He was special.
In my teens, I wanted to know more. I asked my mother. She told me that when he was eighteen — the typical time for schizophrenia to present — he had what was then called a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized. He dropped out of Williams College. He thought he was Jesus Christ, among other things. This was the sixties and he was aggressively treated with electroshock therapy. This upset me for years, if not decades. How could someone do that to my father? How barbaric.
One of the first depictions I remember of electroshock was a movie about Edie Sedjwick. In it, they show her with a leather strap in her mouth, and as she gets shocked her entire body convulses.
Mental illness is still stigmatized and not well understood. It may seem in these years of Trump that the world is getting worse, but the mentally ill are no longer subjected to treatments that amounted to torture, as they once were. They are not chained to walls, subjected to earlier versions of electroshock therapy, not dumped in ice water, put on the rack, or whatever other medieval horrors you can think of.
Something very common seems to happen in the progression of medicine. As time goes on, the medical establishment discovers that smaller doses work better than larger doses. Birth control is given in much smaller doses than it once was, the same goes for the morning-after pill, and the same goes for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly electroshock.
My father was probably given what now would be considered abnormally large doses or electroshock. Then there is schizophrenia medication. It keeps getting better and his medications kept changing as the years went on.
In my teens, I became involved in keeping track of my father’s medication. My mother would, understandably, get overwhelmed by the management of my father’s illness. Also understandably, she would often retreat into denial.
In college, she would call me and complain that Dad was being difficult, annoying, a pain. That was a signal to me: he needed to see a doctor, he needed a medication change. He needed — something. These conversations with my mother were so hard. She was his lifeline, but how could she handle it? Forever? Alone? I was the bearer of bad news. I’d say, “Mom, he’s mentally ill. He needs help.”
My Father’s Messages
The way he expressed his illness most explicitly was, ironically — as I’m a writer — through letters. I didn’t keep those from my young adulthood, but I kept the ones from the end of his life. They are heartbreaking, but they are proof. They are his suffering, something I wished, and will perhaps always wish, I could have alleviated.
This letter is from 2009. His handwriting was beautiful.
I wanted to help him. I wanted him not to feel so alone with his problems. All I wanted were those two things, but what could I do? My son and I were not sending “messages.” He was paranoid. I called him. I flew to visit him. I took him to his psychiatrist and asked if we could change his medication.
In another letter he threatened to kill himself. He was suffering so, from all the “messages.” In the session with his psychiatrist, I begged for help, much like my father begged me for help. I also begged my father. “Please don’t hurt yourself.” I may have said, “I’m here for you, I need you.” I don’t remember exactly. But I do remember him looking at me and saying, “you don’t what it feels like to be me.”
I didn’t and don’t. And, despite my BA in psychology, despite my year of working with the mentally ill in halfway houses during college in Boston, I will never know his pain. He knew I loved him. I know he loved me. But that wasn’t enough. The drugs weren’t enough, love wasn’t enough. In the end, the messages won.
Somewhere I have his suicide note. I didn’t read it until the one-year anniversary of his suicide.
I know for certain that when he had gone missing I got on a plane and by the time I arrived he had thrown himself head first out of the second story window of a homeless shelter. I know for certain where the desk was where he wrote the note. I saw the window from where he jumped, I walked below it, where his body landed. It was next to a garbage dumpster.
I don’t know for certain how long he bled out. I don’t know for certain how much pain such a short fall caused. I worry about those things, less than I did, but still. It hurts to think of him suffering.
The people at the homeless shelter were astonishingly chipper. I said, “he knew I was coming.” And the man’s eyes, whose face I can still see, brightened. “Yes,” he said, “when he heard you were coming he seemed so relieved. He went to the desk and wrote the note and then jumped. He was finally free of his pain.”
Free of his pain. I called a dear friend and told him that my father had died by suicide, and I was so worried about his pain, his suffering. The friend said the same thing; “Well, he’s not in pain anymore.”
This didn’t comfort me at the time. Honestly, it still doesn’t.
I know for certain I am here to keep his spirit alive, all his love and kindness and humor and intelligence — all his beauty, and all his pain. He was so much more than his illness. It’s been almost ten years since his death, and I think that’s the one thing to take away from such an experience. Our mentally ill loved ones are complex, beautiful people, who happen to be ill. They are not just their illness.
There are memories of childhood, and then there are those stories that you were told over and over. Refusing to acknowledge my father’s illness, or the destructive power of it, wouldn’t be helpful. But to know how much more to him there was than his illness, is vital. Ultimately, the mentally ill are not so different than those who don’t identify as mentally ill — they are here to live the best lives they can. That is all any of us can all do. That, and keeping them alive in memory.