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When My Father’s Mental Illness Made Him Think I Was Dead

I remember getting the call that my father had been rushed to the VA hospital in Phoenix. He had been in and out of the hospital a lot lately and each time seemed worse than the last. I remember it was late — by the time I pulled into the hospital parking lot it was dark.

I was nervous as a walked through the corridor to the psychiatric unit and asked to see my dad. My parents had divorced when I was 20, so as the oldest child the responsibility of my father had landed on me. This was not my first time dealing with this situation, but it was the first time I felt its weight. I had a sick feeling as I was directed into a large room with chairs and a phone on a small side table. I could tell it was a lounge and visitation area for patients and their families, but other than my father who was sitting next to the phone, it was empty that night.

As I walked in he grabbed me. This was unusual — my father never hugged or showed affection towards me. I thought he was going to hug me until he started feeling around my stomach and waistline.

He asked, “Where are the bullet holes?”

Of course I was confused and asked what he meant. He continued to feel around for gunshot wounds. I had to take a step back.

At the time I was young and didn’t understand the extent of my father’s mental illness. I proclaimed, “Dad! How can I be dead if I am standing right here?” My father was confused. He told me about a shootout with the police where I had gotten caught in the crossfire. He saw them take me away in a body bag. It did not make sense to him that I was standing before him. 

The blow hit me in that moment. It was as if someone had punched me in the gut, hard, knocking the wind out of me.

I could not imagine living my life seeing such awful things and believing they were real. I had to stop and consider that losing his children must be one of my father’s greatest fears.

My father has a hard time being convinced something did or did not occur. You can spend all your time telling him the voices are not real or that no one is conspiring against him, but you will likely never be able to persuade him. To him, they are real. 

There have been other times like this. Once he thought my siblings and I were all killed in a car accident. He said he received a call saying all four of us had died. At the time my brother was stationed in Afghanistan and the rest of us all lived in different places. There was no possible way we would be in the same car together. But schizophrenia does not operate in logic. It causes the mind to believe what it wants and there’s usually no convincing otherwise. My father didn’t fully believe we were all OK until he spoke with us and saw us for himself. Today he will tell you all of his children are alive and well.

My father still has hallucinations and moments of paranoia, but taking his medication correctly plays a huge part in keeping them to a minimum. 

I often find myself afraid for my dad. That someday his illness will take him to a level of madness he won’t be able to return from. I don’t want him living his life continually experiencing a fear we can only imagine. At least for now he still still has positive moments of reality.

I know he desires for his mind to be free. I see it every time he tells me God has cured him, and he doesn’t need his medication anymore. And I want to believe it. I want to believe with all my heart he is better and his mind is no longer haunted by such horrific thoughts. But I know there’s no magic pill or cure that will suddenly make him better. I know it every time I get a call telling me my father has been admitted to the hospital again.

We will never understand why this disease has chosen him, but I know he would never wish it on another soul. He’s too kind-hearted for that. Yet this is a lifetime for him. A lifetime of experiences many cannot understand. All I can do is hope and pray his episodes are few. That he no longer sees me being carried away in a body bag. That I no longer have to tell my dear, fragile father, “I am not dead, I am standing right here. I wish I could help you.”

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