Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Growing up Different

                                                        by Mike McCarthy
I think it’s safe to say that all children with mentally ill parents feel like they grow up different and well that’s because…. it’s true. We face many challenges that others don’t face. We have to play parent, take on added responsibilities and deal with the stress of constant uncertainty. We grow up too fast. We are adults trapped in tiny bodies. I always wanted to be an adult when I was a kid, I don’t know why but I did. When I finally became an adult it didn’t seem that important anymore. Maybe that’s because all those years I had been an adult but didn’t know it.
My mom tried to balance all the madness by spoiling me. I never asked her, but I always thought that was the reason. I never had to have a part time job, never had to do work around the house, never really had to do anything I didn’t want to. I was her special boy. She and my dad to a lesser degree treated me like I was special and in many ways I was. The chances of my birth had to be very small. My parents first met before my dad developed schizophrenia, my dad broke up with her and married his first wife. He got sick, his wife left him and my mom returned, oh and he jumped off a building, breaking his back. They got married a few years later and then had me. The chances of all that happening have to be pretty low. So maybe I am special but I also feel an outcast.
I remember days when my dad would storm into my room and question me about what the kids at school said about him. “Do they call me crazy?” he said. “Ummm, no they don’t dad, they don’t know you have a mental illness,” I was always secretly worried they would find out since we both went to the same high school but they never did, I don’t think so anyways. I had such a hard time relating to children my age, they all seemed so much like…kids. They were of course and they had childlike innocence, something that I never had.  It’s the price you pay when you grow up in unusual circumstances. I was also a shy child, I hate that word, I prefer introvert, so I didn’t say much to others and kept to myself. I was much more involved with my own thoughts and feelings, so that put me even more on the outside looking in. As I moved to my teenage years I never rebelled like others did, I always say I rebelled against rebelling. I never did drugs or got drunk, in fact I didn’t have my first alcoholic drink until I was 22. That was all kids stuff to me, just a way to mask their pain of their teenage years. Typical teenage angst. I was too good for that, I knew better, I knew it wouldn’t solve anybody's problems, including mine. I guess you could say that was a good thing since I didn’t engage in risky behavior but I also missed out, I was never “one of them” I was just a bit on the outside. Deep family secrets don’t help either. I remember days when my dad would be screaming at me and seconds later I would be outside or going to school, acting like nothing happened and even smiling and making jokes.
I became really good at pretending like nothing was wrong. I had a good teacher though; my mom was the same way. She was always smiling, happy and making others feel better. But I wasn’t her because that was just the way she was. I was isolated from the rest of my peers; I had no real companions that I could share my story with, my pain, feelings and isolation. That’s not to say I didn’t have friends I had some in high school, good friends too. Even more in college but I always held back, I was never a whole person. Never sharing the story about who I really was. Maybe that’s why I drifted towards the arts; I could recreate myself every time I performed which was pretty easy for me. Since I did it every day. When others my age were out drinking or going to parties I was thinking about deep issues of the human condition, why I am here? What does it all mean? Is this all meaningless? My brain in many ways developed a lot quicker in those areas but lacked in social terms. I was awkward and anxious and still am. I have terrible anxiety and suffer from depression. I’m sure it’s mixture of my own personality traits and my environment growing up.

So this mixture of being special and different has complicated my life. I never really dated. I didn’t want to bring someone home to all my madness and really, what did I have in common with them anyways? So, what does your dad do? “ummmm, well, he talks to himself all day.” I never blamed my dad, in fact I never yelled back at him when he yelled at me, I knew it was his illness and his chronic back pain, I hoped anyways, but I knew deep down society wouldn’t so accepting. As I have found out over the last few months working in the field: some in society are not. The majority of people still have no idea what schizophrenia is or what it does to someone. They still look at you like your weird, not sick. They don’t seem to have the compassion they would have for a cancer patient, they seem to be too bothered to care. This brings me back to my mom. She cared for my dad for nearly 30 years, took him back  after a broken mind and body and loved him unconditionally when she received at times, nothing in return. This again was something I partially adopted from my mother,never to her degree but to some level and something that set me apart again. Society and even my own family lacked my mothers compassion, sacrifice and open-mindedness.
I have always felt torn between two worlds the normal vs the madness. I no doubt have my dad’s brain and hope I have my mom’s heart. I now spend most of my time absorbed  in the madness. I work in madness, volunteer and write about the madness. In many ways that’s where I think I belong on the outside looking in. Never really accepted by the rest of them, damaged and broken like my father, hoping to restore order to my life that was taken from me so long ago. I get along great with the guys I work with probably because I have a lot in common with them. I know their loneliness and isolation and the pain that comes with never having a whole life, never being a whole person. I never really grieved my mothers death, I skipped that step I think. I went directly into action, reshaping my life around a new cause. I never grieved the loss of my dad and yes, it’s a loss, ask any child. I accepted it for what it was, that he could never really help me with my life. What I do grieve I think is the loss of a “normal life” the life that I always kind of wanted. A life I never got.
Now I’m here at 25 basically an orphan starting my life over again. Once again setting myself apart from my peers, without parents and working in a field that few understand. My old interests like acting, hockey and movies no longer give me the same feelings they used too. Maybe it’s still all new, maybe it’s too soon, maybe it won’t come back at all. It’s closing in on a year since my mom has died, since everything changed. I think I have made a difference so far, raising money, got praise at work and from others saying that we know the stigma and silence too, but when I go home, at night when I’m most alive.I still feel emptiness, just a bit on the outside. So I push harder like my mom always did, always something more to accomplish, more to do. I know I should relax more but it doesn’t seem right. I deal with my issues with therapy, meds and meditation, but I feel like it’s a war out there. Maybe right now I’m not looking for peace. Maybe one day I will be at peace with all this madness and can be whole for once. Maybe one day I can be the perfect union between the normal(mom) and the mad(dad) world.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Why I'm Here

by Mike McCarthy

Note: I'm not a real writer and don't claim to be. These are just my thoughts about my life.

The reason I tell my story now is because I'm unable to live my life in silence anymore. Growing up with a father with schizophrenia, I never talked about. Never once. In fact, I spent most of my life hiding the fact that my dad had a mental illness, but my life was turned upside down on December 11, 2011. My mother died suddenly of a massive heart attack that day. Never in a million years would I think that my mom would die before my dad, my mom was so healthy and my dad was..well, not. He smoked three packs a day, survived a suicide attempt from a parking garage that broke his back, a house fire and cancer on his back. My mom on the other hand, never smoked, drank and walked close to a mile a day on her lunch break. As a kid I always checked on my dad to make sure he was breathing when he would fall asleep on the couch, but it was my mom that would die before my eyes. 

I remember the day. I returned home after an acting performance. I remember thinking to myself that something was just a little off about her that night, maybe that's just my wishful thinking that I could have done something different, The last thing I said to my mom was, " oh, I think I hurt my ankle acting", she smiled and I went upstairs to bed. The next thing I remember was my dad calling me. As I played the events back in my head, I remember hearing a thud. That was my mom collapsing. I heard my dad say, "Michael, Michael." He never called me Michael, always Mike, so I thought he was delusional, as he often was late at night. I finally went to the steps and said, "Yes", he said, "mom just fell over." I rushed down the steps, screaming, "MOM" "MOM" "MOM." She was on her side, I thought she hit her head or had some type of head trauma, never did I think it was her heart. I was afraid to roll her over thinking it could damage something. I screamed to my dad to call 911, my mom was breathing but it was just final gasps, seconds later she stopped. The next thing I remember was rage, I punched the floor, the refrigerator and knocked over our Christmas tree that she put up hours before. I couldn't understand how this could happen, so suddenly, without warning. I knew she was gone and she was. They couldn't get her heart to start again. The EMT tried. the doctors tried but she died on our kitchen floor shortly after midnight. I already started to plan on what I would do, where would I go, where would my dad go? Those were my next thoughts after the rage wore off.

I would never sleep another night in my bed, a house that my grandparents lived in for decades and that I lived in for nearly 13 years. That night I left my dad alone, I couldn't stay there, not without her. I remember him asking my uncle, "can you teach me how to do the bills?" my mom was everything to us, my parents were married for over 25 years and after college I returned home to live there as a looked for a career. Now she was gone. As the days moved on a larger picture started to emerge. My parents were in debt and owed money on our home. It wasn't really an option for me to stay there and my dad couldn't either. A decision was made with my family to have my dad live at a personal care home for mental health residents. I told family members what none of them knew, my dad was very unstable for about a decade, at times being physically and emotionally abusive to my mom and I, but generally just screaming at his dead father for hours on end. I was worried that if I stayed there, we would both end up dead and I wasn't my mom, I couldn't take care of him like her. A week after my mom died we took my dad to his new home and without a fight from him either. I thought he would have to be 302'd or try to fight us. He didn't, he yelled a bit on the way up and we had to stop for smoke breaks, maybe he realized there was nothing left for him there. I packed up our home, took all our personal stuff, tossed it in storage and moved in with my uncle for six months. The rest of the contents of the home were sold at a estate sell and a few months later the house was sold too.

In many ways that night my mom died on our kitchen floor, a part of my life ended too. My life was cut in half, a life at home and a life without a home.As we found out in the days and months ahead my mom took secrets to her grave. My parents were in a financial mess, having debts in the hundreds of thousands but as my mom always did, she took care of it. She took out a large life insurance policy on herself and put all the bills in her name.Turning the red into black. She always took care of us, even after her death. She was a hero, struggling for years taking care of my dad in silence without anyone knowing the truth. People didn't know the man she loved so much had a serious disease. My dad's family knew but that's it, my mom's family,  her friends, who knew my dad for almost 30 years had no idea he had schizophrenia. As I sat back this shocked and horrified me. I couldn't accept this.

Why do we hide these things? We can't we talk about mental illness? Why do they have to suffer alone? Why can't we get these sick people, yes sick, proper treatment? The stress my mom was under must have been incredible, supporting my dad and I with only one income for all those years, but the thing was she never complained, never asked for help and was always smiling. Always. She was always happy and never looked stressed, but I think it was there, it had to be.

In many ways I blame the stigma and silence for my mothers death at 59. We can never know for sure, but that's how I make sense out of the senseless. My dad and my mom deserve so much better. Other people need to know what kind of person my mom was. She took her vowels serious, she never compromised, she stayed with my dad until the end, literally. The last thing she did on this planet was getting him a cup of coffee. My dad suffered in silence for years, a suicide attempt in 1981 that broke his back and left him in chronic pain, no one ever talking about "it". No one brought us a cake, no one said sorry about your dad, no one said anything.. 

So that's why I'm here, to tell my story. I decided to work in the mental health field and have been for the last seven months. I joined NAMI and other groups, anywhere I could tell my story and hopefully break the silence and stigma that surrounds mental illness. I found a new purpose in life, a new calling. In many ways the silence and stigma took every member of my family away from me, my mom, my dad and my half- sister who I haven't seen in 13 years. I love my parents, I love my dad, it hasn't been easy being a child of madness but it's who I am. I went from never talking about my dad to always talking about him. That's what he deserves. Hopefully someone reads this and feels like it's ok to talk about mental illness,about their loved one, so it doesn't grow in the darkness,in the silence, where it can do real damage, sometimes the stigma is worse than the actually disease. Hopefully someone reads this and reaches out to NAMI or a co-worker or a friend for help. I'm just trying to find my way in my new world, maybe me writing this can help some other child of madness find their way, I hope it does.