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.

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.