By Moina Arcee, updated July 3 2018
I was checking on the house today and found a box of some very old personal belongings my mother saved for me. A waterlogged high school yearbook, and some correspondence with friends and family from another lifetime. In looking through the letters and pictures, I was surprised by my innocence and goodwill. My high school sweetheart looked as beautiful as she always did. I loved her deeply and madly and never told her. I still do love her, and of course, would not tell her even if I knew where she was. In the immortal words of Spinal Tap guitar player Nigel Tufnel, some things are best left unsolved.
My room was in the basement of my parent’s house. It was there, I think, that I internalized their shame and made it my own. Or maybe it was in the linen cupboard where I used to hide when I was small enough to fit in there. I had a recurring nightmare that I was falling down the basement stairs – in slow motion, like the movies. When I reached the bottom I saw something coming at me from the back of the basement. I ran back up the stairs in slow motion, and just as I got to the top a hand grabbed my foot. Woke me up every time. I still get goosebumps thinking about that old dream.
The monster was my father’s mental illness, and my fear was that I could not outrun it. No one in our family could. Dad was big and loud and mad and menacing, and when he was out of control no one could escape his wrath – his madness. His anger came from his paranoia that we were out to get him. That’s what the voices told him anyway, and sometimes the voices were more real to my father than his family was.
The good news is that I did outrun the madness; or perhaps I just survived it without going crazy myself. In fact, I became a social worker working with the mentally ill. Perhaps my career was trying to further inoculate myself against old Dad. But while I escaped schizophrenia – which runs in families according to a lot of research – I didn’t escape the collateral damage: shame, fear, and sorrow.
When you are little you soak up your environment for good or ill. There were good things about my childhood, but looking back it seems everything was overshadowed by shame, fear, and sorrow. Shame about Dad being nuts. Mom was ashamed of how he acted towards her, towards the neighbors, and towards her children. She had plenty of reason to divorce him but she never did. She took care of him her whole life, even though he often treated her like the dirt underneath his feet. Their marriage was an endurance contest. Mom won a few years ago when Dad died, quickly and peacefully.
I grew up thinking everyone knew Dad was nuts; a slight exaggeration. I felt stigmatized just like Dad did. There was no pretending we were a normal family; Dad was just too publicly crazy. The police would come to our house and wrestle him down and take him away, in front of his family. How awful that must have been for him. It was tough on us too.
The fear went away when Dad was gone – usually to the VA Hospital in St. Cloud, where he got back on his meds. The fear came back when he did. He was so unpredictable, you never knew how he was going to take things. And then there was the fear that I – his only son – would be a chip off the old block, follow in my dad’s crazy footsteps. The fear lasted until I was in my thirties. So did the hatred I had for my father. Whether he intended to or not, whether he had control over his behavior or not, he terrorized and beat us and scared the shit out of all of us for a very long time. Much of what I tried to make of my adult life was a conscious attempt to be the opposite of my father. In large part I have succeeded, although some of my successes failed for other reasons that have more to do with me than with Dad.
The sorrow is more enduring. I can see Mom and Dad as young, hopeful and devoted newlyweds. They built a bar in the basement and had people over when I was very young. I remember Dad coming upstairs to throw up – Thorazine and alcohol was not a good mix. The friends stopped coming over after a while, and Mom and Dad were left with each other, and several frightened, sad children. The sorrow is for all of us. For what we had to endure. For what we couldn’t change. For the hell that kept happening over and over my dad’s whole life. Shame on him. Shame on us. Shame on me.