Month: October 2023

This Didn’t Have to Happen

The tragic mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine took me back to reflecting on our family’s struggles with my dad’s mental health. It’s been some eleven years since I wrote about his mental illness, and how the system failed all of us. Robert Card, the subject in the recent mass shooting, bore many eerie and disturbing similarities to what I’d written many years ago about my dad. Not much seems to have changed in terms of the state of mental health care since then. Card’s symptoms were classifiable, diagnosable, and not unique.

My father died in May 2020 in a psychiatric institution while everything was still locked down during COVID. We weren’t allowed to see him in person before he died, but I’d seen him several times prior to that, where my older children got to spend some time with him, and he had been able to meet his youngest granddaughter. Prior to his full commitment, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which is a form of schizophrenia with a component of a mood disorder. This presented through his life, and in the cruelty I experienced through my childhood, with many similar and disturbing parallels to what I’d read about Robert Card from his family. The hearing voices, the paranoia, the truly believing that others wanted to harm him in his own terrifying world was an understatement. He lived terrified and angry. He heard strangers whispering his name in public. He believed in an evil consuming people to conspire against him.

My mom was the only thing that kept him somewhat grounded through his psychosis during my childhood, and went through much the same as Card’s family trying to convince him that others weren’t talking about him or conspiring against him. In my late teens, they divorced for the sake of everyone involved, and he secluded himself; much like the reports of Card’s breakup with his girlfriend, this destabilization seemed to have sparked or accelerated a downward spiral. My dad became terrified that he was constantly being pursued by evil people, scanning his brain or trying to steal his body parts. He believed his doctors were trying to poison him. He had suffered from long-term ulcerations in his legs from arterial insufficiency, which eventually led to a chronic state of infection with giant holes and visibly exposed bone. He believed for a long time that aliens, or the devil, or just evil people – were conspiring to steal his legs from him. This came to a conclusion when his legs had become so bad that doctors told him the only option to survive was a double amputation, which played right into his terrifying psychosis. He refused, naturally, as it was his worst fear imaginable. We had the compassion to honor his wishes. He died soon after of anemia of infection. It wasn’t until after his death that I fully understood that all the cruelty he exhibited throughout his life was a product of his severe mental illness, and began to pity him for his own life having been stolen from him. Prior to getting sick, he had been a skilled draftsman working in nuclear power plants, and a relatively good father until I was around four years old – I remember when his mind became ill. Later in life, my hatred for him and his cruel and abusive behavior through my childhood somehow turned to compassion seeing him as a frail shell of a man toward the end of his life, and through ensuring that he was cared for as his guardian and someone he trusted, I found forgiveness and understanding.

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