In 1982, my father was a healthy 25 year-old man with his whole life ahead of him. All of that changed on a beautiful June day when he was involved in a serious car accident that changed his life forever.
When he awoke from his three-month long coma, he was a toddler in an adult’s body. He had to relearn everything: talking, walking, eating, reading, all of the small tasks you and I take for granted every day. Could you imagine having to start from square one all over again; looking at a pair of pants and having no idea how to put them on?
Even after he overcame his physical hurdles, he had to contend with his newfound behavioral health issues: trauma induced paranoid schizophrenia, frontotemporal degeneration, and brain stem damage. His neurological damages have some very obvious side effects, such as delayed reaction time, a staggering walk, and speech impediments, and some not so obvious side effects, such as a lack of empathy, a skewed moral compass, and sometimes, delusions of grandeur. His disabilities tend to color his interactions with others, especially those who do not know him. Strangers often assume that he is drunk and steer their kids to the other side of the street when he walks around town.
For most of my childhood, my father believed that he could manage his recovery alone, often self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. He was in and out of homeless shelters, sometimes disappearing and resurfacing months later, with no recollection of what he had been doing or where he had been. When we saw each other, he would often tell me that he was going to be the next Jesus or Marlboro man. He once crashed his car because “they” told him to. It was not easy, and most of my experiences with him were full of anxiety and disappointment. When I was 9, he moved to Virginia so that my grandmother could play a more active role in his recovery. With her help, he started going to therapy, taking prescribed medications to manage his symptoms, and focused on improving his health to stall the degeneration of his motor skills.
I was born after his accident and have only known him with his health issues. Growing up, I was not able to distinguish the man from the illness. My family never talked about my father’s illness, and I had no concept of mental health when I was eight years old; all I knew was that he was not like my friends’ fathers. I resented him for his parental shortcomings and hated the fact that I had to be the adult whenever we were together. I tried my best to avoid thinking about my father and rarely spoke about him with others.
My coping skills were not healthy but time, therapy, and surprisingly, my employment at PRA have changed my perception of my father’s illness from frustration to acceptance and understanding.
Coming up: A Daughter’s Perspective on Mental Illness: Part Two