Heating Oil and Monkey

I can smell Dad now: he smells of heating oil and monkey. Having consigned his adult self to fixing refrigerators and oil heaters for a living, it was all Dad could muster, given the abuse he suffered as a child and his subsequent breakdown at the age of seventeen. Repair work — Dirty, grimy work, helpful work that made others’ lives better — was tedious work of which his beautiful mind grew bored. So, every evening in order to decompress he carried a newspaper pouch heaped with leftovers across Second Street to his pet monkey, Squeako. The beast’s Sacred Feeding Time was sacred to them both. Mom refused to go. She had had enough of the monkey business — all the injuries Dad’s various monkeys had inflicted on her and Dad through the years. Often he allowed me to go with him to feed Squeako.  This was where the mere memory of Squeako and Dad combined to make that sharp blend of monkey and heating oil. It permeated his skin and clothing. I both hated and loved its pungency; it invades the nose of my mind right now.

He — Dad, not the monkey — could have been an architect. As with any creative, not all of his ideas were home runs. But, judging from his many brilliantly conceived ideas such as the the Luggage Buckle, and the Tricycle Go Cart (fastest in the hood), and the Duct Tape Butterfly Bandage On the Six Inch Chainsaw Wound (self inflicted), the Taj Mahal For Primates turned out to be one of his best. He designed and  built an elaborate network of rooms and runs: a heated feeding room, an exercise room, sleeping space and the piece de resistance (in Port Angeles we called it the piece of resistance): the Sun Tower. Ah the Sun Tower, but I digress. Another time, perhaps, you and I will pick fleas together in the Sun Tower. Right now, I want to talk about Dad’s music.

As a professional musician myself, I can say with confidence that Dad’s musical talent was of the highest caliber; he possessed an excellent ear and a fine-tuned, silken voice of phenomenal range. His rhythm was on point, his interpretations were marked with great insight and tenderness. This was a man of great creative potential, potential of pure essence stripped of him at an early age by his own father who quite thoroughly abused him. At the age of seventeen Dad, before he was Dad to me, snapped under the strain of abuse. To say he never recovered his essence would be a gross understatement, though it helps to believe he did the best he could.

So, it’s a thing worth thinking about. Abuse often triggers the onset of mental illness. Here’s a link: http://healthland.time.com/2012/02/15/how-child-abuse-primes-the-brain-for-future-mental-illness/

Abuse, a prolific breeder, begets a many things. It begins with verbal abuse which, in turn, spawns emotional abuse. You can’t document verbal or emotional abuse. Can’t take a picture of it. Hard to get a witness. It’s insidious that way. Makes you think you are the crazy one. Then, abuse breeds more abuse: physical, sexual and where does it stop? So a person copes by shutting down all but the most basic survival system. That’s what happens to so many abuse victims. They, in turn, abuse because abuse and subsequent shut down have stamped their imprints onto their psyches. Such was the case with Dad when he was a boy, and it all started with words. Not only is this worth thinking about but it’s worth changing ourselves for.

Abuse –our rampant societal ill — from parent to playground to President — smells to the mind a whole lot like an uncleaned monkey run. Abuse starts with our words. Escalates from there. Like a slow buildup of discarded banana peels, buckwheat pancakes, oatmeal slime and sodden newspapers, the stench builds as the breakdown of waste continues to pollute that which was once clean and new, until that place becomes unreachable.

Such wasted space robs us all.

Mental illness is a huge problem. And where does much of it begin? Perhaps it begins with the quieter thing to which we have grown accustomed: verbal abuse. We do not have to scream at or beat another person in order to abuse. Perhaps we as a race have grown so accustomed to a verbal abuse so subtle that we do not realize we ourselves are abusing others with our words, with our put downs and our withholding. Abuse spawns more abuse,  so why not prevent what we are able to prevent? Why not nip it in the bud and stop our cruel words, our unkind actions? Or let’s stop withholding and actually dare a conversation about the effects of withholding? This is where it begins.

Dad failed to reach a potential that matched his gifts. He didn’t need to be famous or spectacular to be successful. Most of us don’t. He did need to live the way he was designed, in accordance with his gifts. Verbal abuse, physical abuse and subsequent mental illness stole real life from him. Adult he, in turn, abused his family, withheld from us. And, when life got to be too much for him he went to that dark fortress he had erected in his mind, one not unlike the Taj Mahal For Primates. Instead of giftedness, he smelled of heating oil and monkey.

Perhaps I am being unfair. On church days he added Old Spice to the mix.

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.”