I think a lot about my father’s mental illness. My father
is a schizophrenic has schizophrenia.
When I was 12, he was working at a large commercial bakery owned by a large local grocery chain and ducked into the break room to get a sip of water and to get some respite from the smothering heat. As he was walking to the bathroom, he slipped on a wet spot caused by a leaky water fountain and hit the back of his head on the edge of a break room table. He developed a intracranial hematoma as the result of his fall. He spent a week in the hospital for monitoring and tests and was released under medical supervision. Less than a year later he was diagnosed with manic depression and by the time I was 15 he had developed schizoafffective disorder, which was marked by severe paranoia, mood swings, violent outbursts, and sleeping. Lots and lots of sleeping. His medical cocktails included Ativan, Stelazine, Lorazapan and many others whose names I find it hard to remember. By the time I was a senior in high school, he had been committed twice, once in a private care facility, and once, when the insurance ran out, in a Texas State Hospital.
I remember as a teenaged girl listening to my father whisper his secrets to my mother when my sisters and I were supposed to be sleeping. More than once I heard him refer to the spot of his old injury as ” Heaven’s Gate”. He spoke of visions and omens. Before you roll your eyes, I will mention that this would have had to have been sometime around 1990, years before Marshall Applewhite led his cult in a suicide pact.
Before his illness, my father was a superstitious man. My mother believes that his mother was a witch and through the years told me stories of strange candles anointed with herbs and alters laden with offerings hidden in the secret confines of my grandmother’s bedroom. I was told that my father dabbled in witchcraft and necromancy after his father died of a heart attack during a triple bypass surgery. When I was not quite a teenager, my mother told me that one night, after whispering passages from a book given to him by a brujero, my father suffered violent nightmares, and woke up with long scratches riddling his legs and arms.
The day that my grandmother died, my father saw what he called an omen. On the way to the grocery store, he saw a mama opossum walking with her young. As he was making his way back home, he saw the animal dead on the side of the road with her babies clinging to her lifeless body. When he walked through the front door, I told him that my aunt called and wanted me to tell him that my grandmother was found in her living room, dead from a stroke. He carefully placed the groceries on the kitchen table and walked into his bedroom. I didn’t mention to him that I’d seen a strange dark figure walking in between the houses that morning as I performed my daily chore of taking out the kitchen trash.
That was the atmosphere that I grew up in: manic highs and lows, superstitions, omens, and stories.
As I get older I think more and more on the stories that my mother told me about my father’s young life and I start to question the scientific. I begin to wonder more and more about the supernatural and the effects that it could have had on my father and the effects on his health.
When I was a little girl, no more than 5, I saw a face in the glass of my bedroom window, leering and red. It was there as plain as day and I screamed for my mother who, of course, saw nothing. Years later, when I was older, I looked out of that same window and watched in horror as I saw a man approaching one of my younger sisters, who was playing and swinging by herself on the swing set. I tore through the house to jump to her defense, and when I finally got to her, I saw that she was alone. She didn’t know who I was talking about when I mentioned the strange man to her. By the time I was a teenager, I often played with spells, toyed with conjuring spirits, and opened myself to the unknown, dark or otherwise. Once, after an enthusiastic study of the Necronomicon, complete with whispered invocations, I woke up to find the family bathroom teeming with black ants and other insects. Freaked out, I told my mother what I’d done the night before and she made me promise that I would never play with things that I didn’t understand again. She took the book from me and burned it in the barbeque pit. All of this in the same bedroom that I’d had night terrors in as a child and in the room that all three of my sisters will do this day say had bad mojo long after I’d moved out.
My sisters and I have since wondered if I somehow wasn’t more successful at my fledging attempts at magic than I realized during my teenaged years. As my father’s mental health began to deteriorate as he got older, I noticed that he was more and more focused on my old bedroom.
One weekend, when I was in my early twenties, I went to visit my dad, to take him some groceries, offer to take him out to lunch and just to make sure that he was ok. As I walked through the house, I noticed that the edges of the door to my old bedroom were taped shut, under layers and layers of silver duct tape, not a crevice left uncovered. When I asked him why the room was sealed, he told me that there was an old woman who walked out of the room at night and wandered the house . He said that the tape was the only thing that would keep her in. I felt a chill down my spine when he told me that the woman scared him when she would look at him and he didn’t think that the tape would work much longer. I don’t know what was more frightening, the details of his delusion or the possibility that it was true. Other than the tape, he was in good spirits, he was still bathing and seemed to be taking his meds, so I shrugged it off as just another one of his weird ideas.
At the height of his last really bad episode, a couple of months later, my father was sent back to the state mental institution, to monitor his meds, get his symptoms under control and to hopefully get him back on track. This downward spiral is the frightening part of mental illness. Sylvia Plath had it right when she called depression the Bell Jar. Once you have reached that tipping point and tumble in, it’s almost impossible to get out without a chemical ladder to ease your way.
Before he was about to be transported to the state facility, I was volunteered by the rest of my sisters to go back to my father’s house and gather some of his clothing and other small comforts that he could take with him to the hospital in order to make his stay more comfortable. My key to the front door didn’t work so I had to climb through a small window that was in the bathroom, above the shower, to get into the house. As I carefully made my way into through the window I noticed that the air was heavy and thick and even though it was sunny outside, the inside of the house was gloomy and dark. The bathroom was covered in soda bottles, standing upright, side by side so that I had to pick my way through a narrow path to the bathroom door. I looked at the bedroom to my right and I noticed that the tape still lined the edges of the bedroom door, but it was starting to curl and peel away in some places. I quickly made my way through the house and sifted through the trash to find the things that he needed. I couldn’t believe how much the house had deteriorated in such a short time. Even the walls were filthy and it looked like he hadn’t taken the trash out in weeks. As I whispered the word “radio” out loud, I heard a small click come from the back of the hallway where the bedrooms were and heard the faint sound of music coming out of my old bedroom. My bedroom that was behind the taped door. My heart was racing as I threw my father’s things into a duffel bag that I’d found and I quickly made my way to the front door. The music was playing faintly through the house as I slammed the door shut and quickly jumped into my car.
I told my sisters what happened. We agreed that while my father was in the hospital none of us would enter the house alone again, and even then, only in the earliest of daylight hours.
My father has improved since then. He has a sister who has taken it upon herself to take care of him in a way that I, or my sisters, cannot. She renovated the rotten parts of his house, redecorated, and had a priest come to say a blessing over the repairs when they were complete, from what I was told. For this I am and always will be grateful to her. He is doing well with her at the reigns, but life with the mentally ill isn’t easy, and somehow I am always waiting for the other foot to fall and when things won’t be so great again.
I wonder if my father’s illness was somehow made worse by both his and my novice attempts at witch craft. I wonder if he is more sensitive because of his illness or susceptible to hauntings because he spends so much of his life in the lines between reality and perception. Who is this old woman who he mentioned to me? Who are the figures that I saw as I was growing up?
I know that it is dangerous to blame mental illness of demons, spirits and ghosts. The history of the treatment of mental illness is riddled with stories of exorcisms, terrible suffering of the mentally ill, and often times, even death. The dark ages of medicine were a horror story unto itself.
I do believe, however, that it is dangerous to disregard the spiritual when dealing with illness, particularly considering a history like my father’s. Who is to say that the things that he experienced were not real? Based on the solely scientific, one could say that I was also suffering some level of illness, since I have also had experiences of my own.
I have more questions than answers, but I am still looking. Maybe one day I will have an answer.