Thanksgiving Day, 2014
This year is the very first year that I remember not avoiding your phone call. Every year of the past forty I have avoided what most consider a mundane task; and admit that I did this in several not-terribly-clever ways. All of which I was reasonably certain you could see right through, as you had the unfortunate hypervigilance of an individual with the brain wiring of a coyote. Always alert. Always defensive. Paranoid. Added to the delusions of power and grandeur, you could see right through my lame excuses for not calling you, in fact, avoiding you. I never gave you my cell phone number so that when I would spend the holiday somewhere other than my house you would not be able to get to me; or I would make the phone call when I knew you would be visiting your dementia-riddled mother in the nursing home.
At the sound of the “beep” I would happily leave a message full of “disappointment” that you were unavailable and suggest that I may not be available later myself if you decided to call me back, in which case I’d add a cheerful, “Happy Thanksgiving” or “Merry Christmas”, or “Happy Birthday to you” and “have a great day!” As a last resort I would cold call, always praying for that answering machine to switch on as quickly as possible so I could get through a message without you hearing my voice throughout your tiny state-subsidized apartment and rushing over to pick it up. There was only one other way it was even remotely tolerable to have our obligatory holiday chat. It was with a stiff drink in my hand and very low expectations, or an internal dialogue to ‘face my fears’ fresh in my mind prior to dialing the numbers. In which case, I preferred calling you, so I could be in charge of the time and day and what kind of hard liquor to consume prior.
And then there was this nauseous sense of foreboding I consistently got in the pit of my stomach. Like a sort of visual hell, I imagined you all alone. My dad heating up a chicken pot pie in the microwave for his Thanksgiving meal, topped off with jello cup that came prepackaged from the grocery store days ago. “Soft foods, please, my teeth have been giving me trouble and I need dentures made”, you’d suggest to us when we’d ask what you wanted for a treat in the monthly box we would send out of guilt. I dared not ask if you had company for the holiday. I knew the answer most times. You used to tell us (my sister and I) matter-of -factly that you had no where to go, but maybe you’d run into one of the residents in your apartment building. We already knew that most of them had tried to get you evicted on several counts prior, however, so I couldn’t imagine that happening. Do you even remember throwing chairs out of your second floor window in a manic phase one year? What if I was there? Would that have happened? We used to thank my mother for getting us out of that mess. I remember that it was in middle school when she remarried and we moved 24 hours away from our home state. But what if we’d stayed in our small town in Maine and been a source of motivation to keep you going? Could we have helped to keep you stabilized?
What if it wasn’t you that abandoned us, but us that abandoned you?
My dad, how you hopelessly tried to reach out to me for a connection that I didn’t feel like I wanted or even could embrace. However, you would accept and be grateful for the monthly boxes I’d send as a filler for any warmth or compassion from me. Thank you. It was all I could do. And I’m sorry that it was all I could do. It was so sad to me that you generally had no one in your life to share these stupid holidays with. That left me feeling responsible for your happiness somehow. An obligation that I never wanted. In response to this I would send a bigger box of candy or Hickory Farms savory goodies. I will never be able to atone for the guilt I have felt for a lifetime of dismissing you.
The phone call. The least I could do for you I couldn’t do well. I knew that if I didn’t keep the conversation moving on something as interesting to you as baseball or football stats, players, or games, you would enter in extraneous information about my mother leaving you forty years ago or how lonely and depressed you are and how we (my sister and I) don’t visit you so it is our fault that you are alone and miserable. I would take pause and pray that I could keep my mouth shut and stay calm. I teetered between the intense pain I felt and the need to protect you, and immense anger that you never fought the adversity you ended up in together with your reliance on alcohol to numb your pain. The sickness put you at odds with all people. Especially me. On those occasions I couldn’t depersonalize you as “a client” in my private psychotherapy practice, and I ended up feeling hurt as I’d been as a child with you as my role model for what dads do. Don’t take the bait, I said to myself. Again.
You and I danced to this argument on numerous occasions when the obligatory call took place. You would mention something about how come I never made the effort to be at YOUR house on Thanksgiving; or that (your) mother got all the time with me because I probably didn’t care about you anyway. Victimhood was a connector, you knew I hated it. Negative attention is better than no attention though. You were quite good at that. You’d had years to perfect it.
Eventually, as per usual, I took the bait, even encouraged you to some extent, by spitefully shooting back at you the fact that you were the adult back then, not me. I continued to batter you with how small children lacked the control to make the decisions you had made regarding things like medication-taking and job-keeping, “little” things like that. Had you made an effort to follow your medication regimen you could have kept at least one of your jobs, your family and your life in tact. And since you couldn’t, the least you could have done was to show an attempt to spend time with me as an adult. I knew you would never argue the facts on that. I wanted to feel better having bested you; however, I have always left feeling so much worse because the reality was just so frigging sad.The truth was that for the past thirty years you were hospitalized each holiday season. This happened between us over and over with absolutely no resolution. That’s how we connected. That’s how come I couldn’t get myself to answer that damn phone.
All I ever wanted was to be validated by you. I’d always felt that it must have been me that was the “crazy one”. You were so convincing. You made me doubt myself constantly. Did I just hear you say you were recruited by the Red Sox in college? You were a boxer? Really, you met John Kennedy? Mom had an affair? She’s alcoholic? I started this argument? I am the one who convinced you to wait on that doctor appointment? What?! Your stories were THAT GOOD. I think even you believed them.
What I needed was for you to just simply say, “I should have taken my medications and gone to my therapy appointments and encouraged you all to join me so you could understand my bipolar 1 disorder diagnosis.” That’s all. Nothing more.
The fact remains, Dad, that you didn’t understand your diagnosis yourself; nor did you ever accept it. Mental illness was taboo – so stigmatized back then that it was considered a weakness or character flaw. People didn’t understand that your brain was just not wired in the same way as most other people’s brains. It was no fault of your own. It was nobody’s fault really. Your illness was something you needed to come to terms with in order to manage it as well as you could. I saw you trying to run from it by switching jobs and locations and starting over constantly; or by drinking heavily while ignoring psychotropic medications which would only work to spiral you back into a manic-depressive cycle. But you weren’t the only one spiraling. You took us with you into the chaos, creating a surreal quality to our lives.
And then suddenly you died. We shared a most sobering three week experience while you were in the hospital. And then you gave in to the grace of God. I never got my apology. I didn’t even want it at that point. In fact, it was I who apologized to you as you lay comatose in that long, narrow hospital bed. I grew to understand your tortured mind. I knew you couldn’t control certain compulsions and that denial was a large part of your disease. I knew that you would’ve been a really great dad if your mind had been clear and you had more information at your disposal, like we do today. I know you didn’t want to be the town homeless, crazy guy. You always had too much pride for that. I know that you would never have put our lives in jeopardy with your manic driving and alcohol-induced delusional stunts.
As an adult myself, how much did I do to help you understand your medical disease, your set of genetics and circumstances? Given that I chose mental health as my life’s work, I still wonder, how much could I have actually helped you to accept who you truly were? The fact is, while you were busy running from your truth, eventually succumbing to death; I was also busy running and I’m not sure I ever stopped.
Was I ashamed of you for even a minute? No. Never. Was I angry? It wasn’t until adulthood when I realized how much I’d repressed from childhood. With a sudden trigger, I relived my life through the eyes of that vulnerable little girl who just wanted her dad to be “normal” and her parents to stop yelling and for the nightmares to stop. Most importantly though, I was hopeful. I was a believer that something would change. I’d assumed that meant you, Dad. I thought that over the years the psychosis that took over would mellow. You’d be a tired elderly man who somehow understood the value of life lived from that point on. No more looking back only to stumble over the baggage. You would get to know your grandchildren, and you would be proud of the adult I’d become despite it all.
It wasn’t you that changed, however. It was me. You were only doing what your illness dictated. After a time, I knew that. I gave up on you well before I can comfortably admit though. And I’m sorry. I pray that you didn’t suspect that. It would be unnecessarily hurtful.
I love you and I know you always loved me. I’m so sorry our world was not a better, more welcoming place for a once ambitious, hardworking man with an illness he never asked for and didn’t deserve. Nobody does. I’m also saddened that there were no programs for people like you to be able to work and grow in confidence, even with your illness as a possible setback at times – especially with this disease that stripped you of your dignity because the world wasn’t ready to deal with something they didn’t understand.
Please help me help others to understand.
Peace to you, Dad.