It seems like yesterday when mental illness rolled in fast and furious like an angry thundercloud, overcasting a dark shadow over our entire family.
Mind you, forgetting the past is near impossible when your nine-year-old daughter wants to soak up every bit of knowledge she can about a man she only met twice — about a man I barely knew myself.
“Mommy, tell me another story about Grandpa Jim,” asked Molly one sweltering June evening as we flipped through an old photo album for her family tree homework assignment.
A stiff breeze from our portable fan caused a hurricane of photos to flutter at her feet. One set sail in slow motion and landed softly on her lap, where she sat crossed-leg on the floor amidst the mess of construction paper and washable markers.
“Wow, he really was handsome, hey?” she whispered, holding up an image of my Dad with his arm around my tiny shoulders. I was about the same age as Molly in that picture.
While I looked a lot like she does now, our childhoods are nothing alike.
I know it couldn’t have been easy for my own mother – a young single mom who was grappling to come to terms with it herself during a time when the rest of the world was still in the dark.
Although it was Dad who was diagnosed with manic depression shortly after their divorce, we’d all feel the devastating blows of its effects – even myself at Molly’s tender age.
Back then, mental health was a taboo topic – a dirty little secret many families kept on the down-low.
While I knew that Dad had a problem with alcohol, I was clueless about his worsening mental state that went beyond the bottle.
To this day, I can’t look at a white crib without seeing ruby red blood dripping off the railing – a cryptic memory from long ago that is still etched on my mind, especially now that I’m a parent myself.
It was a hot balmy summer’s evening, and I was in my room playing Barbie’s when I heard the banging at the front door and my mother’s cries.
*Bang. Bang. Bang. *
“Go away, or I’ll call the police,” screamed Mom, clutching the telephone receiver to her ear.
I tip-toed downstairs but should have stayed in my room.
Rather than heed Mom’s warning, Dad smashed his way through our kitchen window with his fist and climbed inside.
Shattered glass and blood splattered the floor and countertop.
“Kristyl, get to your room right now and lock the door,” demanded Mom, whose face turned ghostly white.
I ran as fast as my little legs could go, slammed my bedroom door, and attempted to barricade it with stuffed animals, sobbing into my Teddy Ruxpin.
Once the house was quiet, I crept into the hall and followed a trail of blood that led to my 11-month-old baby brother’s room.
Dad was on the floor in the corner of the nursery, rocking his infant son in his arms.
“I just wanted to see him,” he whispered, oblivious I was standing directly in front of him, ready for the shag carpet to swallow me whole.
Moments later, a friendly policeman guided me out of the house.
It turns out the broken window wasn’t the only horror we’d witness that day.
Another cop wrestled Dad face-first to the pavement and cuffed him.
“Leave my Dad alone!” I screamed while holding onto Mom’s leg, who had her hands full, trying to console my wailing brother. He clearly wasn’t happy about being woken mid-nap.
With only one free hand, Mom tried her best to shield me from seeing any more horror that Sunday afternoon, but I was too strong-willed and curious.
“Kristyl, Get back into the house, you shouldn’t see this…”
I was too upset to listen, and instead, pushed through a crowd of onlookers to try and get closer to him.
I couldn’t help notice the delight that some took in watching our family’s domestic drama unfold. It was probably a welcome change-up to their regular Sunday programming of The Muppet Show.
A police car peeled out of the complex with Dad in the backseat.
I waved, but he didn’t seem to see me then, just as he hadn’t up in the nursery.
Tears streamed down my cheeks, and I wailed for my Daddy to come out.
As the police car drove away, I watched as ‘normal’ families went back into their homes, where their ‘normal’ daddies were probably going to read them a bedtime story.
Meanwhile, mine would spend the night behind bars.
Molly was just 14-months old when I took her to meet her grandpa at an emergency shelter on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Having endured an hour-long stifling car ride into the bustling city, she was dying to be put down so she could crawl around and play.
But I held her tightly to my chest as we spotted a fat cockroach scurrying by my feet – Molly’s tiny index finger pointing excitedly at the offending creature.
I held her even closer when a resident of the shelter – a thirty-something man with a sunken face, glazed eyes, and unkempt hair – tried to brush her rosy cheek with the back of his nicotine-stained hand, his long nails encrusted with filth. He was being friendly, just a little too close for comfort.
I was ready to take Molly, run out the front door, and never look back. Unfortunately, leaving wasn’t an option. Not yet.
Nor had it been an option for Molly’s grandpa – a 51-year-old mentally ill man who had been living in emergency shelters and transitional housing since I was eight; well, not unless you count the time he was temporarily evacuated after an infestation of bed bugs invaded the heritage building where he has been residing the past four years – a vast improvement from his previous living quarters.
Intended to be a temporary placement until he could find adequate housing, my Dad–like thousands of others – quietly and unobtrusively slipped through the cracks.
His roommates: men and women plagued by HIV, Hepatitis C, homelessness and drug addiction, many of whom also suffer from mental illness. Despite his questionable living quarters, and his having a debilitating mental illness that hinders his ability to hold a job, he was one of the lucky ones. Or so I tell myself. Daily.
My father had a roof over his head, clean(ish) living quarters and family that visited every now and then, though, towards the end, it seemed fewer and fewer of us made the trip to see him, myself included.
Just looking around the musty, dimly lit common area, filled with restless residents with nowhere to go and nothing to do, it’s easy to see why.
While my Dad may have made some poor choices in his younger years, he was not a bad man. Nor were the majority of his housemates who had always made me feel welcome and safe. Years of addiction and, in some cases, abuse has crippled their ability to become contributing members of society, despite the limited resources available.
During our last visit, my father, a soft-spoken man who had kind eyes and a jovial laugh, looked nothing like the immaculately groomed millworker I remember growing up. Molly will never know the proud Dad of two who would lace up his leather work boots every morning and head for the lumberyard to earn a living for his family.
Nor will she know the man who would fill up his daughter’s piggy bank every night with his loose pocket change, or teach her to fly a kite.
As I studied her face for signs she was upset by her surroundings or company, I realized she wasn’t affected at all. She was just a baby visiting her grandpa. Perhaps we’re more typical than I first let on.
Before we left and said our goodbyes, she held up her arms, begging to be scooped up. Her delicate hand stroked Dad’s hair, unruly and peppered with grey. She poked at his belly and let out a squeal of delight.
On the drive home, I looked back in my rearview mirror at the hundreds of loitering transients on the street, many of whom are homeless or residing in shelters.
I vowed to myself that Molly would grow up knowing that they are individuals with names and that they are somebody’s Dad… somebody’s grandpa.
Rain whipped against the window, startling me from another restless sleep. I was seven months pregnant, hormonal as all Hell, swollen from my big toe to my double chin, and ready to pop.
I was also the first to hear Mom come through the front door.
“Are you guys up?” she whispered, tip-toeing into the foyer.
It was unlike her to come by unannounced, especially so early in the morning when she knew we’d all still be in bed.
I crept down the stairs and stopped short when I saw her.
The unexpected visit and her face, sullen and drained of color, both indicated something was terribly wrong.
After Mom delivered the blow to her pregnant daughter, it was my turn to tell my baby.
My dad, her grandpa had died.
Molly’s second birthday was drawing near. Fortunately, death was a foreign concept she wouldn’t really understand for a few more years.
It’s the mental illness part that still baffles her, and me, even though I was unable to escape his genes.
I was having coffee with a friend the other day, who asked me why I write about such a personal topic… if it makes me uneasy at all to share these personal, painful memories to friends, family,
The truth is that yes, I always feel a flutter of anxiety before I hit publish. It is absolutely terrifying to cut so deep into my past and bleed out all over the screen. It’s also incredibly healing to speak my truth and hopefully shine a light on a dark topic that affects so many of us.
As more attention is brought forth to mental illness and addiction so will more funding and resources.
Lady Gaga said it best in a personal essay she penned on the topic of mental health for Mental Health Awareness Day.
“We simply cannot afford to be silenced. We can no longer afford to be silenced by stigma or stymied by misguided ideas that portray these conditions as a matter of weakness or moral failing.”~ Lady Gaga
You know what? She’s damn right. Never be afraid to share your story, unapologetically.