From the Front Lines: the Battle Against Mental Illness (September 7, 2010)

As I wound up the last night of a much needed three-day weekend, I turned my attention excitedly toward the new week. Overlooking some family drama which seemed minor at the time, I rested, I wrote and I refreshed. I looked forward to unleashing my creative juices to write about any number of topics: Obama’s “too little too late” Labor Day address to the unemployed American worker and the exhaustedly disappointed Left, the unofficial beginning of the Fall season and the pending return of network television – there are many places I expected my mind could take me today.

However, around 9:00 last night, my stomach tightened into Gordian knots and my veins ran cold with ice. My sister Jen and I had an inkling we were headed in this direction after some strange phone calls we had received earlier in the week. But now there could be no avoiding the truth: our homeless and severely mentally ill father Gregg was up to his old tricks. We were being harassed via phone call and email from a concerned “friend” of my father’s who had obtained our contact information through his cell phone.

There is a complicated and painful backstory to all of this. My poor father suffers from the following list of mental illnesses: manic depression with psychotic features, hoarding, borderline personality disorder, and in just in case all of that weren’t enough, throw in a gambling addiction that led to his bankruptcy of our nuclear family – more than once.

Those of you with good memories may recall that I only just purged the psychosis surrounding my mother from the tip of my pen on August 24th, in a post entitled “My Mother’s Birthday.” I wish I could pull the curtain aside and expose this much family trouble as the elaborate hoax of a creative mind, but I am just not that good with fiction. I readily believe that my penchant for essays and non-fiction comes from a firm belief that I could never concoct anything as fantastical as my own biography.

Over the decades, my father has been in and out of many treatment programs, taken numerous medications and been prescribed every alternative therapy known to humankind. Nothing has worked, not the least because my father is unfortunately the last person on Earth to believe he is perfectly sane. It is the medical community, his family, and most of all, his own children (Becky, his eldest daughter being the worst offender) who are out to “sabotage” him. He has lost everything, more than once, due to his inability to comprehend reality, and his daughters have suffered right alongside him, even if he was unable to grasp it.

Almost a year ago, I received an email from a family friend alerting me that my father, jobless and seven months behind on his rent, had locked himself out of his apartment, which was piled three feet high with garbage, and had taken to sleeping on buses. As this was one of his more malleable periods, I convinced him to commit to a three week stay at a suburban Chicago mental health facility, so I could sort out his affairs. I paid $1500 to have the garbage removed from his place and convinced the landlord not to sue him for the back rent. I took his valuables and relocated them to safety, so that he could take possession, after the long term treatment he claimed he was willing to attend had been completed.

But once again we encountered the same old problem. Once the medication the hospital had prescribed began to take root, my father believed he was fine and reneged on his pledge to entertain year-long treatment offers from two different human service organizations. When I protested that he would only endanger himself again, he signed himself out of the hospital AMA and stole away like a thief in the night. He has been a homeless wanderer ever since. Every month or so, Jen and I are contacted by one or more of the following: the police, a hospital, an unknown friend who claims my father has taken advantage of his/her goodwill. When we hear from my father himself, it is usually through email. He will not say where he is. If depressed, he makes it clear that we ruined his life. If he is manic, we are told of “great plans” of which we will never be a part. Ha ha!

On so many levels this is heartbreaking, frustrating and mentally debilitating. We worry nonstop about my father and what his end will eventually be. This may go a long way toward explaining my day job as an advocate for the retooling of Illinois’ broke and dysfunctional human service delivery system. Everytime I speak to a member of the Illinois Department of Human Services, I am told that my homeless father, who has made the rounds of every mental facility and holding cell in Chicagoland “doesn’t meet criteria” for state care – despite losing his health, his family, his job and his ability to see to his own basic needs. I am told “he has to want it.” When I point out the circular logic in asking a disturbed man to make the informed choices that are best for him, I am quickly shuffled out of the office (or off the phone).

So last night the intermittent stalking began again. Jen and I don’t answer, but are left strange voicemails or receive disturbing texts. Why am I afraid of my own father? I have heard through the grapevine that he often uses a library computer to read my work. Dad, if you’re reading this: stop scaring us and let us help you.


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