COLUMN: My story, free of stigma or shame

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime.

It seems like yesterday when mental illness rolled in fast and furious like a threatening thundercloud, casting a dark shadow over our entire family.

Mind you, forgetting the past is near impossible when my inquisitive six-year-old daughter, Molly, wants to soak up every bit of knowledge she can about a grandpa she barely knew.

But how do you explain mental illness to a grieving little girl?

I know it couldn’t have been easy for my own mother – a young single mom who was grappling to come to terms with it herself during a time when the rest of the world was still in the dark.

Although it was Dad who was diagnosed with manic depression shortly their divorce, we’d all feel the devastating blows of its effects – even myself at Molly’s tender age.

Mental health was a taboo topic – a dirty little secret many families kept on the down low. While I knew Dad had a problem with alcohol, I was clueless about his mental state that went beyond the bottle.

To this day, I can’t look at a white crib without seeing ruby red blood dripping off the railing – a cryptic memory from long ago that is still etched in my mind, especially now that I’m a parent myself.

It was a hot summer evening and I was in my room playing Barbies when I heard the banging at the front door and my mother’s cries.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

“Go away or I’ll call the police,” screamed mom, clutching the telephone receiver.

I tiptoed downstairs.

Rather than heed Mom’s warning, Dad smashed his way through our kitchen window with his fist and climbed inside.

“Get to your room and lock the door,” mom demanded.

I ran as fast as my little legs could go, slammed my door and attempted to barricade it with stuffed animals, sobbing into my favourite Teddy.

Once the house was quiet, I crept into the hall and followed a trail of blood that led to my baby brother’s room. Dad was on the floor in the corner of the nursery, rocking his infant son in his arms.

“I just wanted to see him,” he whispered, oblivious I was in the room.

Moments later, a policeman guided me out of the house.

It turns out the broken window wasn’t the only horror we’d witness that day. Another cop wrestled Dad face-first into the pavement and cuffed him, while a crowd of onlookers came out of their homes to watch the domestic drama – including many of my little friends in the cul-de-sac.

Tears streamed down my cheeks and I wailed for my Daddy. As the police car drove away, I watched as “normal” families went back into their homes, where their “normal” daddies were probably going to read them a bedtime story.

Meanwhile, mine would spend the night behind bars.

It would be a few months before I’d get to see my Dad again – even longer before I’d let down my guard.

But as we all know, kids are resilient.

While it wouldn’t be the first time Dad would be struck by a severe spell of mania, I’d never stop loving him. As I got older, I began to put the pieces of the puzzle together about his condition.

It was liberating to blame the illness for his odd behaviour.

I finally understood why he’d suddenly just leave a restaurant in the midst of eating with us, why we were never allowed to give him our telephone number or why he broke in the house that day.

Over the years, me, my brother and my Dad would find our own sense of normalcy in our unusual family dynamic. He became more like a cool uncle that we’d see every second Sunday on supervised visits, but that worked just fine for me.

Mom could have stopped us from seeing him considering the circumstances, but I’m forever grateful she didn’t.  The truth, just like the millions of other men and women plagued with a debilitating mental illness, is that Dad wasn’t a bad person.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime.

It’s been almost five years since my father unexpectedly passed away in a dingy transition home in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, but it doesn’t really feel that long ago. Especially when his curious granddaughter says, “Mommy, tell me another story about Grandpa Jim.”

There’s no fairy tale ending, but it’s a beautiful, complicated and messy story – one free of stigma and shame that I pray she will tell her own daughter one day.

Kristyl Clark is a work-at-home mom who writes monthly for Black Press and is the founder of ValleyMom.ca

 

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