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My Father and His Mood Disorder: Telling the Dancer From the Dance

Having a mood disorder can feel a lot like being “possessed.” Biblical narratives (i.e. the Gadarene demoniacs) connect possession to mental illness. Indeed, when a person is taken up by the storms of chaos occurring in mental chemistry, it would seem that they are taken over by a force outside of their control. A “demon” (albeit metaphorical or (meta)physical) enters the soul and directs it like a puppeteer a string puppet. For those who have a familial relationship or connection to the one affected, the hardest part can be parsing the person from the illness.

My father would fluctuate in his moods as mercurially as the weather in Scotland. It was hard to understand who he really was outside of the disorder like it would be hard to tell the real landscape from under the passing shades of clouds and the floating blankets of rain and snow. Rage-rage-rage! Yelling, biting and gnashing of teeth  — he became the monster, the green bulging monster that tore through t-shirts smashed plates and criticized second graders for closing the kitchen drawer so that the corner of the plastic bag would peek from its side. The rage would possess him every now and then. Like a caique tossed at sea, he would falter on one side of the room, “Look what is this gum stuck on the wall” and he would proceed to scratch it out with the thick yellow nail of his thumb; then be pulled to the other, “No one has fucking thrown out the garbage” and then he might grind the heavy wooden kitchen chair across the linoleum and plop down at the head of the table to devour what carcass sat stewed and charred on the diner platters, the ones with the green borders, placed in his reach. The way he ate so fiercely intently you had to watch. It was like watching a lion shredding a gazelle on the National Geographic documentaries. I observed him at every lunch and dinner as my place as the oldest was directly in front of him. It was frighteningly mesmerizing. The sheer relish and brute exhilaration he took in eating turned dinner into a spectacle common at the coliseum. Fascinating and horrific at once. I was convinced that if it were ever my bad luck to go through a famine, I would best escape the house as Baba would have no qualms devouring his own children.

I could tell the demon had come to settle on his head from the look of his eyes. His gaze was wild; his eyebrows would arch in a dark Machiavellian curve. I caught a flicker of red flame within his pupil. “Oh oh,” we would motion to each other in the room in silent Morse code, “Daddy’s in a mood again.” We would instinctively shut up, move out of firing range, scatter to the outer edges of the room or else scramble out of it altogether. Anything could set him off  —  the way we walked on the creaky laminate boards, the color on the cuffs of our shirt the way the rain condensed on the window panes. The “fit” would grip him from anywhere from several hours to several days. And then, just as it had come, it would go. He would appear himself again. We could approach him and make small talk. He would not bark back aggressively. He might even show tenderness  —  scratch the top of our heads, smile.

He was himself aware of these fluctuations in mood. I remember watching an episode of “The Adventures of the Hulk” with him once. Bruce Banner, the mild-mannered, intelligent scientist, would transform into a green-skinned monster that would unhinge doors, pick up trucks and throw the bad guys over cliffs. The camera would never show the whole transformation from man to monster, only the close-up details of bulging green triceps, jeans ripping under the force of bulging thighs, nostrils flaring and the eyes, those eyes that would turn hideously dark, sunken and bushy. “You see,” he confessed. “I’m like the Hulk. When I am happy and no one bothers me, I am calm, but if someone pisses me off, I can kill.” He knew that his moods fluctuated from aggressive fury to lethargic apathy. But he could not control them. This made it very hard to have a relationship with him as a “normal” father. He would bark at me for asking a simple question one day, and then pat my head the next. Sometimes when he would destroy birthday parties by yelling and creating drama by picking fights for some silly thing, I would hate him. When in a fit of rage he tore apart every single one of my collector’s edition, one-of-a-kind Led Zeppelin posters, the ones I had scrimped and saved at my summer job for, I swore I would be better off without him. So much rage and resentment he caused as the green monster, I wanted him dead. Yet at other times, he would scratch the top of my head and softly repeat “Catsy,” his word of endearment for me.

His moods made it hard for me to love him. And maybe, vice versa.

These moods make it hard to love myself. I catch myself adrift in the whirlwind of whirling thoughts  —  got to write the mortgage check, gotta check the email, did I send out that order for postcards, I have a Zoom meeting at 6:30 I can’t forget, did Chapati pluck that eyebrow a bit too hard  —  I have to stand back. Is that the demon again pulling at my thought strings? Who is in charge of my thought process  —  me, the real me, the rapid firing of my neurotransmitters, that outside spirit that has squatted in the niches of my grey matter? Do I host the demon too?

Who are we really? How do you separate the person from the personality disorder, the dancer from the dance?

On a good day, I know this, that it is not my Baba. I am something higher and deeper than my moods. It is only the demon that has come to haunch a while. Eventually it will go away. But I am human too. I hear the vileness, I see the turbulence, I sense the madness and I react in kind. On a bad day, I want to pack my bags and start a coffee plantation in the highlands of Colombia. I never want to see my loved ones that carry the turmoil of emotional dysregulation again.

The last time I saw my father, the time he put a kitchen knife to my neck because I had given away his balloon, the balloon he had given me, to the toddler next door out of kindness because it was her birthday, I swore to never see him unless he was in a casket (that’s how it happened actually). I wish now that I could have separated him from his madness. I wish I could have loved him more. He was, in his deepest authentic self, intelligent, kind, sensitive, charming and super funny. But that demon gives me pause. The monster he become made it impossible to embrace him. Sometimes I hate him even when I knew that was not really him. In my case, being raised by him becomes the fine skill of telling the dancer from the dance.

See more of Irene’s work at Greek American Girl.

Getty image via Kristina Kokhanova