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The Story of My Family and the Mental Health System That Failed Us

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

They say hindsight is 20/20, but I’m here to argue that not everything is so crystal clear. Looking back, connections can be drawn, themes realized, but true understanding, true closure, is something that forever eludes me.

Like many with traumatic upbringings, I don’t remember it all. I have some fragments that stick in my mind’s eye like shards of glass. Those are my go-to memories. They’re not what you may think. The moments that traumatize me that I do remember are moments when the system failed. A-ha moments when I knew that not only was something horrible happening, but I was also smarter or morally superior than the grown-ups.

The same year I entered the high school, a gangly, flannel-clad skater who couldn’t skate, my sister left for college. The first week I got called down to the guidance counselor. Was that normal? I didn’t know. I still don’t. I was eccentric, but I didn’t rock the boat. Was I in trouble? I was just a good kid dressed up like a punk. I didn’t even cut class. I sat down in her office. “How’s your sister?”

“Uh… good I guess?”

“She’s incredible,” she probably corrected me. “How’s your mom?” she asked through her teeth, wincing at me like I was hard to look at.


Again, wrong answer, according to her face. “You know, with all of her attempted suicides and all. Is she feeling better?”

That’s when I lose signal. Total feedback.

I couldn’t articulate it then, but I knew it was ridiculous. My parents, sister, friends’ parents, teachers, all knew my business. But this, this is something I didn’t deserve to know? I was 14, not 4. That’s around the time I realized my inclinations were right. The world was B.S. Mom knew it, and she was the smartest lady ever.

I didn’t bring it up. Soon after, for unknown reasons, I was asked to see the school social worker weekly instead of that guidance counselor. I never opened up to her, but we talked about Nine Inch Nails and it got me out of class, so I didn’t protest.

After all, things weren’t all bad. I had a ton of friends. We weren’t rejects, we rejected. The little we knew of the world, we knew we didn’t like. What was lost in translation and eloquence was made up tenfold in pride and loyalty to each other. A coed fraternity of freaks. I had an emo/punk band and our EP, entitled “Don’t Tell Your Guidance Counselor,” made a killing within its very intimate (small) market. I hated being home, I coasted through school and I lived to be with my friends. My mom would go away sometimes, but it was OK, I thought; she had a doctor. I wouldn’t see her for weeks on end. I told her I didn’t like the smell of hospitals and she totally knew what I meant.

After trying everything (*dozens of medications), my father consented on my mother’s behalf to put her through a controversial, rarely used, intensive course of electroconvulsive therapy. Yep, they still do that. After several dozen sessions over the course of a few years, my mother was not only still violently depressed, but she didn’t and still doesn’t remember anything from before the treatments.

Then May 2004 happened. I was about to turn 18, about to graduate, busy and butting heads with my dad, who by this point was my point of contact among my parental units. He’d call me names, tell me I was worthless, compare me to my sister incessantly. He wasn’t strict; he was controlling. He’d eavesdrop on my phone calls, go through my drawers and find contraband and then just gossip or embarrass me about it.

I slept in the guest room that night. I don’t remember why. It was for some reasons like the phone chord reached the bed or the TV was bigger. Whatever the reason, it would change the course of my life. I woke suddenly to a creek in the hall. Bizarre. My big house was mostly silent even during the day, never mind after midnight. Someone was in the hall. Creek. Creek. Creek. The floorboards spoke.

My mother stood there, foaming at the mouth. “Dad!” I screamed.

He came out into the hall from his room. “Oh, God!” he whined. He wasn’t a religious or moral man by any means. But this is what he’d say when he was overwhelmed, or stubbed his toe, or when they charged him for bread at a restaurant.

He stood there. Not frozen. I can’t safely tell you it was indifference, that wasn’t quite it. Laziness? He was more still than mom, who stared a glassy stare, foaming, teetering. I know it must have been seconds, but it felt like days in that hall. Purgatory. My signal flickers but I can make it out. “What did you do?!” he asked, equal parts upset and disgusted. I ran towards my bathroom, which is where she seemed to be walking from. Puke, everywhere.

My dad did nothing.

I carried my mother. I sat her up on her bed. I dialed 911. He stood and watched.

I described what I knew. I put my fingers down her throat. She choked as I hit her back. I begged her to stay. He watched.

Her eyes rolled back. I slapped my mother across her face. “Wake up, Mom.”

Lights and sirens. Neighbors and cops. I didn’t like their tone with her. I didn’t like the way they touched her. Static.

That was a turning point. In short, I ended up realizing that my father, who lucky for him, worked from home, was extremely controlling of our entire family. He’d eavesdrop, manipulate, lie, steal. And the biggest victim was my mother. Even before she was sick. She couldn’t leave the house without him, even to get her hair done. Couldn’t speak to her family except those under his roof and even that was sometimes pushing it. I stopped listening to my father’s unreasonable demands. I got my first tattoo. My mom’s signature.

With all this going on I barely graduated. I became more involved in my mom’s care and he resented it. And as much as he wanted to hold me down, like my sister I managed to eventually get away to college. I felt in many ways like I was abandoning my mom, but she really wanted me to go. He was left home with only her, his one person to control.

With me more involved, she started to get better. I was finishing up college. My sister was married. My father was no longer in control of anyone. He was obsolete. And just at that moment is when the severe mental illness in my family, like a parting gift, was passed from my mother to my father.

He called a family meeting. June 2009. My sister hadn’t spent one single night at home since 2003. We both made the drive from the city. He told us he had brain cancer. They’d spent tens of thousands on specialists. He knew something was wrong and finally someone found something, he didn’t have long. My sister and I hugged him. We told him we loved him. My mom was flat.

My sister and I prepped for the worst as we returned to our respective lives. I called my mom. She told me it wasn’t true. He’d spent a large chunk of their life savings on specialists. Neurologists, oncologists, etc. They all referred him to a psychiatrist.

I drove home and punched my father in the face.

The next time I’d see him was my college graduation. It was also the last time I’d see my parents together. The night I graduated college I came home to my parents’ house. I wouldn’t be staying long. Like most of my peers, I was Brooklyn bound. I woke up to my mother, like years before, but this time it was a phone call at 6 a.m.

“Dad?” I answered. My mother didn’t own a cell phone because she was never without my father.

“Hi sweetheart. It’s Mom.”

“Where are you guys?” I asked.

“It’s just me. That’s why I’m calling, honey. I left.”

She left. In something I imagine like the end of Shawshank Redemption, she slowly hid her keepsakes and belongings in the garage over months. She waited for me to finish finals and be home. She took their one car (she hadn’t driven in 15 years) and their one cell phone and she packed the car in the middle of the night and left for Tampa.

I stayed and helped my dad. We went and bought a car and a phone. He managed to pull himself together well enough to get a good lawyer and screw my mom out of most of the life savings they had accumulated. In a legal sense, she had abandoned him. She couldn’t go through the trauma of litigating the fact that she was abused for 30 years.

It didn’t last. My father, with no one left to oppress, became the victim of his own control. He stopped going to doctors, stopped speaking with his extended family and would only speak about mystery pains, quack doctors and terminal cancer of various kinds. I obviously resented my father, and the conflict I felt about how much I should help this man plagued me. It effected my relationships, my own mental health and my career; I ended up working with teens in the mental health field.

He’d call me. “Son, I’m going to die. I haven’t used the bathroom in four months.”

“Dad,” I’d say. “That’s literally impossible…” I’d read to him off Google in my car on the way to work.

“Well I haven’t eaten and I’m going to lie here on the floor until I’m dead.” I’d call 911. They’d come. He’d say he was fine and they’d leave. I’d drive the hour and a half to make sure he had groceries, his prescriptions and clean laundry.

“You need someone to help you.”

“I’m going to die anyway, David. Don’t you see that? Don’t you care?” I did see it. In one year, my father lost lots of weight. Doctors still couldn’t find anything wrong. He wouldn’t eat. He’d lie in bed for 22 hours a day. And he’d call. Me and my sister. Incessantly.

“Dad, are you just calling to make sure I’m sad you’re dying?” I’d say.

“I don’t know. You never cared anyway,” he’d reply. He was weak by this point. He’d fall to the ground, call my sister or I until one of us picked up. “This is it.”

“No it’s not, Dad.” I’d call 911, they broke down the door. I’d meet him at the hospital, where he would act like nothing was wrong. I’d beg them to believe me that he needed help. The door stayed broken, because when we’d fix it, they’d have to break it down again.

We got him at home care. He would torture his helper — refusing to bathe, crying, yelling, accusing them of stealing. Agency after agency refused to keep sending their employees to my father until Medicaid dis-enrolled him siting his “rural area,” despite him living within 10 miles of at least five hospitals.

After being dis-enrolled, no one wanted my father. He refused to sign his rights away to his children, but refused the help of anyone but them. “Any day now, David!”

No hospitals would except my father in New York, so we brought him to Connecticut. He finally allowed my sister to hold Power of Attorney, and thanks to that development, we have managed to get him into a facility privately while we navigate re-enrolling him in Medicaid. Since his address is in New York, Medicaid will only pay for a facility in New York. Since he is in Connecticut, the hospitals are claiming that there is no way to assess him. He is staying five minutes from the New York border. His bills are adding up and they want him out.

The story continues. As of today, my sister has been served with papers informing her that my father has removed her Power of Attorney. My mother moved back to town, and although she doesn’t remember her own children’s childhood, she is able to make up for that by living to be the best grandmother on Earth.

Image provided by contributor

Originally published: July 26, 2019
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