Caged

That’s the thing about having a parent afflicted with mental illness: you feel caged. I can only imagine how my dad felt. Speaking of cages let me tell you about my dad’s monkey’s cage. Talk about the Taj Mahal For Primates, an edifice Dad took great care designing and building. The finished product boasted a warming room, a tunnel leading to a sunlit monkey run about twenty feet long, and a sun tower that jutted far above the tar papered roof of the adjacent building. It really would have been impressive except for the fact that the Taj Mahal For Primates was warmer than my bedroom at home. Dad saw to it. Why my dad afforded the monkey every comfort and failed to build warm fires for me, his flesh and blood, was something I spent a lifetime trying to figure out. Plus, the monkey had fur. Not fair.

About my dad’s monkey (there were six total). Think Rhesus. Think Mean. Fangs. Cage rattler. You would be those things, too, if you were caged most of the time. This monkey’s name was Squeako and I am here to tell you I am not making this up; Squeako was born the exact morning as I. Not kidding. The day my mom came home from the hospital with infant me in her arms she found a surprise awaiting her: a monkey in the oven. Baby monkey. In a shoe box. Sadly, while I was busy nearly dying from my own birth, Squeako lost his monkey mother in his. Thankfully I lived so I could tell you — work with me here — everyone has got to have a purpose — this completely ridiculous yet true story.  From what I understand of the situation, my near death experience couldn’t hold a candle to Dad’s concern over his monkey in the oven. An incubator, Dad said, since the mother was dead, and could we please use the baby girl’s diapers for Squeako? I had a name for Pete’s sake.

Squeako lived forty years. Just like my dad’s mental illness, Squeako watched, chased, terrified me, terrifies me still, in dreams. Growing up I simply could not get away from him, especially when Dad got bored and “accidentally” left the door to the Taj Mahal open. He laughed and laughed a scary high pitched giggle when he was pleased with himself, especially after he had done something stupidly dangerous, followed by, “See, kids, it’s funny, isn’t it?” Not funny, Not at all. I was terrified of the monkey. None of my needs registered with Dad. So I stayed cold and afraid and there was no comfort. Until I learned the power of pen on paper, the power of witness. Then I learned to express myself through music. At last, when I finally learned there was no shame in talking about mental illness I shared my truth and got some great tools to help me cope with the strain of a mentally ill father.

I was glad when that monkey died forty years later. My whole life I pitied Squeako, yet feared he would get ahold of me eventually. He seemed a perfect picture of my dad’s sickness, of our family’s torment, something I couldn’t understand, something that chased, caged us all, for a very long time.

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Squeeko looked like this Rhesus, fatter due to excessive consumption of Dads buckwheat pancakes.

The Power Of Witness

Many of us with mentally ill parents shouldn’t have “made it” this far. But we did and I’d be willing to bet it’s because the power of witness was present in our young lives. When I was littlest I was unaware of anything “wrong” with Dad. I walked with him downtown to the Post Office, letters to his Congressman in his hand. (He was convinced the government was controlling the weather and his letters demanded the government come clean.) I figured him a good dad protecting me from a government who wanted to create drought, take us all out by preventing rain from falling. However, as I developed into a teenager and my emotions grew more complex, the slow dawn of embarrassment revealed my truth, something I kept pushing away: Dad was very sick. Every day he slipped further away. I experienced his abandonment of his own self and his abandonment of me; tricky to understand because his physical self was still there. Yet his mind wasn’t. None of us knew what to do. There was little help for someone like him, not then.

When I hitched rides home from church youth group outings I dreaded all the questions people asked about why did my dad keep so many derelict cars in the yard. Why so many cats, and why the blue tarp over the roof? And the worst question of all…why did Dad insist on keeping a monkey? My own questions I could not answer. Then I remember asking my friend’s parents to start dropping me off a few houses away from mine, in order to avoid embarrassment.

We were required to keep Dad’s illness secret too. So, instead of talking to someone about it I had to pretend everything was fine. Not talking turned me into a silent observer. As a result, I found there were many good people in this world. I watched the good ones and tried to imitate their healthy behaviors. I made decisions for my future self. Even as a teen I vowed I would get help if I ever felt like I was catching whatever Dad had, and I was plenty worried I might. I could have caught it but it passed me by.  Though I could could not get help, I didn’t have nothing with which to cope. Three important things made the difference.

The most powerful thing in my young life in the face of so much secrecy turned out to be the power of witness. Kids whose parents suffer with mental illness need a witness. Otherwise they feel  completely alone, floundering in a sea of neglect and abuse. Even if the witness can only stand with a kid but cannot do anything to help their circumstance, if a kid knows someone sees them, they don’t feel quite so invisible. This is very important. Back then there was no support. Now there is an organization, NAMI, to help with advocacy, education and support. Here’s a link: https://www.nami.org/About-NAMI

Witness can take a few forms, that of a fellow human being the most critical. The second can be the witness of pen on paper.  My years as silent observer spilled out onto the page. I found the written word to be powerful and satisfying in a world where there was precious little satisfaction. Writing story or composing poetry provides a safe place for the sufferer to go and speak silently. Strangely enough, the act of putting pen to paper provides a way for the sufferer to be heard, if only for himself. It provides a record and proves the suffering exists. Third is the power of music or art. Those who suffer tend to run deep. The artistic outlet can be priceless and enriching for the sufferer as well as for those lucky enough to witness their work, because it helps transform frustration and grief into something beautiful and tangible, worthy of visual and aural consideration.

I was blessed to have a few good people who cared for me, people I considered gifts, ones I observed and tried to emulate: Grandma Coriander up on Third Street who made chicken and dumplings every Sunday, a Sunday School teacher who took our class for hamburgers every Saturday, a school teacher who encouraged my creativity — writing, music and art — but one very dear friend stood with me through it all, though she could do nothing to actually change my situation. I believe my witnesses, along with the witness of my writing and music, were the reasons I survived.

Strawberries For Slugs

Out back near the Gravenstein apple tree in the back yard Dad tended a garden where he focused his efforts on growing taters, peas, and strawberries.  I loved using a small shovel to dig up little taters with him — like digging for gold nuggets. The nice thing about taters was, they stayed fresh in earthen mounds for a long time. The peas I had to sneak about and pick when Dad wasn’t looking because by the time he said the peas were “ready” they had overdeveloped into hardened green pouches filled with marbles. He got quite protective of his peas. Difficult to understand why a dad would grow peas but not let his kid eat them when they were edible. That was the nature of his mental illness. Logic meant absolutely nothing to him. Therefore, in order to survive my dad’s version of crazy I had to do the only logical thing I knew: I had to throw logic out the window.

But his strawberries remained the biggest mystery to me. “No,  no,  no,” he would say, as I reached for a strawberry warmed by summer, “don’t you pick strawberries yet.” In the Northwest the slug population was and still is huge because it rains a lot there. Since slugs thrive in wet weather it “slugs” a lot too. I swear all the slugs in town migrated to our backyard when they heard the strawberries were ripening. Once word got out, by means of slug shortwave radio or megaphone or whatever, slugs from all over the neighborhood dragged slimy trails down misty sidewalks, across damp streets and into our very moist backyard for their annual Strawberry and Slug Festival. Dad grinned from ear to ear (you should have seen the crazy look in his eye) he was so proud to host such an event. Again, ditch the logic and for heaven’s sake, don’t ask questions and don’t even try to eat a strawberry. Every single one eaten by a slug. Drove me crazy it was so unreasonable.

That’s the thing about being a kid. You can look at a situation like that and say, “It’ll be weird like this for a long time but — note to self — when I grow up I will never grow strawberries for slugs. My grown-up garden will be for my own kids.”