Ep. 2-From the Front Lines: the War Against Mental Illness (November 23, 2010)

It may seem odd that it was hearing he now smokes cigarettes which hurt the most. In a twelvemonth which has brought repeated hospitalization, homelessness, hoarding and police activity, it would appear that a casual cigarette might not be worth my tears. But as crazy as it sounds (pardon the pun), this factoid truly reininforces how compromised and desperate my father’s thinking has become.

Growing up, my sister Jen and I were raised by Dad to not only reject cigarettes and their habit forming, cancer causing evils but to loathe them. Our mother, who waffled between three and four packs a day throughout my childhood, appeared to be 50 at the age of 40, couldn’t walk a flight of stairs without gasping and sweating and never found a lie she wouldn’t tell in order to preserve her habit. My sister and I were able to observe and draw conclusions on our own, but in case we were not fully deterred, my father’s braying voice would be seconds behind, loudly decrying nicotine’s deteriorating effects on the body and mind.

At the age of 15, I was grounded for four months when my father found a pack of smokes in my backpack. But now he inhales, and apparently drinks like fish too – another habit he always avoided owing to a nightmarish upbringing at the hands of his own inveterately soused father.

How many times did I hear my father’s vow to avoid becoming Norm, his alcoholic, WWII veteran, suicidal, chain smoking patriarch? Even as he struggled with manic depression, unable to hold down a job or retain our family home, even as he made litter of his personal life to match the OCD garbage dump of our residence, I could cling to the small consolation that my father’s illness was not the results of drugs or alcohol. I never allowed myself to entertain the idea that substance abuse can be cured while my father never will be. I would have been too crushed by the weight of despairing futility to move forward with my own life.

And so it was that when my father showed up at a family wedding on Saturday night, a gathering which I avoided not without regret, my extended clan reported how much worse the situation has become. He was thin and haggard, which I was prepared for. He was angry and ranting, renewing his pledge to file a lawsuit against me for my publication of this post. Momentarily I indulged the wish that my father would invest as much energy into accepting the long-term care he needs as he does into revenge fantasies against his oldest daughter, but that lament never produces results.

Many have tried to impress upon Dad that libel contains the root word, “lie.” If I haven’t shared any untruths, I am not legally responsible for the wreckage of his existence. I write these posts for myself, not for him. Without the opportunity for family therapy, without a functioning parent to help share my burden, all I have left are my words and my little sister. Because he doesn’t think anything is wrong with him. It’s everyone else: bad breaks, bad luck, evildoers and poor timing.

But it was the smoking that got me this time. Paging Dr. Freud.

My grandfather, whom I never met, died virtually alone in a VA hospital shortly after my birth. His day passes long since revoked, because for him freedom meant finding the nearest bar, Norman smoked the rest of his days away, never willing or able to make amends with the four children he left shattered. My father is on the same path. The VA, the Salvation Army and a variety of other outreach programs offerred assistance: help that my father never believes he needs. So he wanders the streets: alone, unstable, unemployed, hungry, in harm’s way and with the approaching winter, cold. Where does he get the money for cigarettes and the getaway car he drove drunkenly away from his nephew on Saturday? I probably don’t want to know, yet I am drawn to these questions. I lie awake at night pondering them.

The part of me that will always be a daughter wants to swoop in as I have in the past, to try to save the man from himself. But he requires 24-hour care and I require a functional existence that doesn’t necessitate a drain on my own finances, emotional well-being and family. Many years of therapy instilled in me to strength to draw a line. It’s him or it’s me. I have to pick me.

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