In a family overrun with mental illness, I find myself questioning my own sanity. On some level I think that my emotions are usually fairly normal, or at least within a normal-ish range. Then that makes me wonder, do crazy people know they are crazy, or is my adamant denial a sign of mental illness that all the mentally ill have?
I say “crazy” because in my opinion it’s become such a general term. No one in my family has ever been medically diagnosed. In fact, I am fairly confident that very few (if any) have ever sought out medical help, advice, treatment or evaluation for mental health concerns. That just isn’t the way our clan handles things. So please understand, that the word crazy is my word of choice simply because I have few better options of what to call this family epidemic. The word crazy also gives me a bit of comedy relief in what is otherwise a sad and serious affliction}
I think about my paternal bloodline, which in my case is like liquid crazy pumping through my veins. I’ve always considered myself immune. My confidence, or what used to feel like confidence, comes from the fact that I’m a rare girl, born amidst a long line of men. Maybe this was a theory I created as an insulator; a pretend force-field from the genetic attack that seemed to war with so many of the men in my family. In my usual way, I decide to analyze and investigate myself, my assumptions and my family tree with all its various nuts.
The hierarchy of insanity, as told by me
(To be fair, the pyramid visual is short lived)
On top of the pyramid sitting side by side, are my two uncles. The first to end his own life was the third born child of my grandparents. Uncle Kriss, was 26 years old when he died, on December 7, 1987. I was 3 years old. I think about him today, and I find myself comparing what I know of him, to my own life. What was I doing at 26 years old? I had been a single mother of 3 for a couple of years by then, somehow managing to hold a steady job, tend to my very young children and overall keep things above water. For a while I had a wonderful relationship, an unwavering determination to succeed and overcome, and something resembling a plan. Then, I had none of that. In some way the bottom fell out, or rather, I knocked it out and jumped down a mental rabbit hole. I started exploring my own wild side for the first time, exercising my right to unchain myself, my morals, and the limits I felt hindered by. First, I demolished my relationship, then I broke rules, and tested the boundaries that had been unbent before that point. I stayed out all hours when my children were gone, drank, smoked, even drove intoxicated a few times. Could that be considered in its own way a state of mental fracture? Maybe. As I sit here today thinking back I have to shake off the disgust I feel, and at least acknowledge that it was certainly risky behavior, but was I crazy? How unusual is it for a young woman to break out of a cage-like marriage and go on what I now consider “an adventure in self-discovery”? It’s probably mundanely common. So, I resolve to let that go. I wasn’t crazy at 26 years old. Stupid, young and impulsive yes, but crazy? No.
Sitting atop that pyramid next to his baby brother is the first born child of my grandparents. Uncle Keith took his own life on March 11, 2006, at 47 years old. This uncle I knew much better than Uncle Kriss. Uncle Keith was competitive, excitable, generous and loud! Our family is in the tire business. Every male for the past 3 generations has had a role in this business. Some just for summer jobs, others with their own branches. I remember visiting Uncle Keith at one of the tire shops. The men on this side of my family are always filthy, covered in layers of smeared black tire gunk. I remember the smell of rubber, grease, and stale cigarettes as being a staple of my childhood. Uncle Keith would pick me up with huge hands that he’d wiped with an already dirty rag, and sit me on the (also dirty) counter inside the air conditioned shop. He’d pay for a Yoohoo from a vending machine, shake it up and hand it to me to drink. His booming voice overtook his surroundings in any setting, and he had an enormous smile that took over his whole face. He had the rounded head of an autumn pumpkin, and brown hair that I’m pretty sure he brushed often but it still seemed to stick up in a rebellious sort of way. No one could boil crawfish better than he could, of course, that was his own declaration, not actually a proven fact, though you could never have convinced him of that. Several times I remember him folding a One hundred dollar bill and tucking it semi-secretly into my back pocket, before I left the shop. This also happened at Christmas time and for my birthday. Other times he was outright about it and proudly gave me the same bills to give to my brothers as well. Thinking about him now I have to say that it was as if he dressed himself in confidence, added a spritz of arrogance and topped it off with the hat of know-it-all-ness. All this, combined with his big heart and lively personality made him unforgettable, fun and amusing. In his defense, and to the detriment of the rest of us, we all seem to wake up and cloak ourselves in some level of conceit, yes, even the most humble of our clan has a head bigger than most door frames are equipped to handle.
So, I ask myself; how is it that the uncle I remember slipped into a cocoon of his own mind, imprisoned himself in despair and finally, came to the conclusion that his life was over, at 47? I remember the years before this, and a few things come to mind. At the forefront of my memory are the coins. Coins replaced the hundred dollar bills at Christmas. One Christmas at least, I remember a tiny gold-plated dime that had been shrunken to a ridiculously small size, even for a dime, and put into a small square plastic case. I must have been in my late teens that year and it’s no shock that a shrunken gold dime was a less than exciting gift to receive from the uncle famous for hundred dollar bills. Yes, I realize at this point that I sound like a very stereotypical teenage girl who wanted mall spending cash for Christmas, and you’d likely be right, that’s probably exactly who I was.
The gift itself was strange but the icing on the shrunken cake was his overzealous explanation of the importance of the coin. It wasn’t unusual for him to be animated, but I think this moment stands out because of the object of his ranting. A coin, just seemed so insignificant. Sure people collect coins, I like to call them hoarders, but for the sake of argument let’s assume these coins, specifically the shrunken gold dime, was potentially worth money one day. I could take it a step farther and assume that a coin like this would be worth an outright fortune one day, maybe then I could relate to his enthusiasm, but that seems a stretch, even for me. The logic that seems clear to me, wasn’t clear to him. To him, this coin was something fantastic worth investing time, money and interest in. I learned years later that he had collected many coins and was equally as enthralled with each one. How can I avoid the word crazy here? Another bit of information I learned following his death, came from his own father, my grandfather. Don (or Popa as I call him) told me that Uncle Keith had developed an obsession with errors in printed works like the newspaper and classified ads. The way I remember it, I got the impression, whether directly spoken or indirectly suggested, that he (Keith) had taken a stand against typos, incorrect information and/or ads he found issue with. He made angry phone calls to complete strangers to chastise them. He rebuked people for information he decided was wrong. Again I ask myself, do I see myself here? I think I’m afraid to dive into myself for the answer. I am a self- proclaimed grammar nazi, but in my defense, strangers have never heard me correcting them, no, I do that loudly in my head.
I am not yet 47, so I can’t compare the 47 year old Keith, to the 47 year old me, not yet anyway.
So now we’ve reached the part of all this where I tell you why I’m writing about this to begin with.
Yesterday. (Yesterday was September 28, 2015).
Yesterday I drove into the cemetery where my maternal grandmother is buried. I parked my car a few rows from her grave and began to cry.
(For the record, she wasn’t crazy, at least not that I’m aware of, but at this point who knows.)
I cried for many reasons. One of which was pent up emotion I had spent too much time and energy shoving back down each time it attempted to breach the surface. I cried because at 31 years old, with what must look like a picturesque life surrounding me, I felt lost, angry, empty and at the same time full of crazy. I sat there hating the sound of my own sobs, wishing I didn’t have to hear it, meanwhile I couldn’t stop it from getting louder. After a few minutes I got out of my car, walked to her grave and sat on it. I cried more. I talked to her, which I think is a pretty normal thing to do in a cemetery. But even in a moment of apparent normalcy, I felt crazy. I was talking to a slab of stone that represented my grandmother (as if that in itself isn’t purely insane) but I was also talking to my two other grandmothers who were (for lack of a more literal phrase) nowhere near there. I talked in circles for a few minutes almost scolding them for not being here for this part of my life, and I kept cycling back to the same half statement half question; “I think I’m crazy, am I crazy”? I asked a dozen questions, without expecting any answers. Why did I retreat to a field of the dead, to ask myself if I was crazy? At one point I noticed my right foot and sandal were partially covered in little red ants, and as I shook them off I realized that none had bothered to bite me. I had the thought that even the ants that gladly carry garbage, shit and rotten food, didn’t think I was worth the energy. Crazy right? Who scolds ants for NOT biting? Me, the crazy girl sitting on a grave stone, crying about everything and nothing.
My emotions have gotten more extreme in recent years. Sure I could blame it on any number of things. Justifying is easy when you want clean hands. A new marriage, a new home, exhaustion at times, hell maybe half the time I’m just Hangry (anger caused by hunger) and need to eat. But every time my emotions go off on a spree, I feel out of control. I feel them, I hear them in my voice, I see them in my face and as many times as I’ve tried to find the off switch, there isn’t one. I have the logic to take with me on these destructive benders, but logic falls short as an antidote. There was a time when these fits of rage were short lived, when I could break away from that angry armor and return to a more normal state. I could forgive, at least I think I once could, and move on without carrying behind me the heavy baggage. Now I feel chained to the anger, bound by resentment and buried under an unyielding aggression without a way out. I do eventually come out of these dark moments but they seem to take longer and longer to subside, and I’m certain they arise much more quickly and with increasing force.
There is something else.
A skeleton that I keep locked in a small dark room at the back of my mind. I hesitate to unlock that door. I hide the skeleton there, but the skeleton is not of my own creation. If I left it out in the open it would become an obstacle in my daily life. I would trip over it often, it would remain in view nearly at all times and in its intrusive way, it would incite waves of alternating rage and pity. Justification is easy. So I keep the door locked.
For the sake of being thorough in my analysis, I have to unlock the door. Welcome to daylight Mr. Skeleton, or as I call him, dad.
My dad is the middle child of my grandparents. The last living son of three. I believe he is 55 years old as I write this. I’ve seen him less than a hand full of times in the past 2 years. Is he crazy? Am I?
Craig, my dad, is an addict. I choose not to use the word “recovered” because factually I have not seen that to be true. Someone recently gave me the expression “dry drunk”, to describe someone who has quit drinking but is not recovered from the addiction. My dad is a dry drunk. On the scale of things alcohol would be at the bottom of the list. This list being the list of all things Craig has used to slowly kill himself. At this point I also choose not to speculate what other drugs belong on that list, simply because I am not a trained toxicologist.
I think the best way to approach this skeleton topic is actually to talk about myself.
I have inhaled the aroma of alcohol that seeped from his skin, his breath even his clothes. I have seen the blood shot eyes that resulted from draining a bottle of Skull Vodka by 10 am. I have found and disposed of what appeared to be crack rocks, but that could have been crystal meth, what do I know? I have seen the bulging red lumps of a vein protruding from his arm as he emerged with a “friend” from the tire shop bathroom where we both worked. I have watched as his eyes glossed over, his lids drooped, his speech slurred and his balance faltered. I have watched as he attempted the simple task of walking, as if it was his first time on two legs. I’ve seen his knees buckle as he leaned down to inspect a truck tire, the side of his face slamming against the hood of the truck on his way to the ground. I watched as he picked himself up, spoke in incoherent language and stumbled back into the shop. I faced the denial he relied so heavily on anytime someone accused him of being inebriated. I absorbed and deflected the condescending remarks of a stoned father to his ignorant daughter when money came up missing at closing time. I felt the shame of his behavior when all eyes scanned over to me, no doubt wondering if I was blind to his state of mind. I hid bottles of vodka, flushed pills that I found around the shop. I watched my daughter intentionally avoid him every day when she walked from the school bus into the shop. I tried to drown out his rants when he misplaced telephones, tools and drugs and angrily searched for them, all the while accusing everyone else of hiding them. Sometimes I watched in resigned amusement as he swept the carpet with drunken determination. I tried to talk him down when he insisted on blowing the leaves off the shop’s metal awning with a leaf blower, extension cord, ladder and frustration. Even as customers lined up waiting to be served, he fought an imaginary war with the breeze, the leaves and some unruly acorns. It was me who began to lose patience. It was me who decided that this had to be stopped. It was me who contacted police about a man driving under the influence. Then, I felt the fear of his fury aimed at me, when my actions led to his arrest. And finally, it was me who packed up the lives of my three children and myself and moved, defeated, furious and exhausted, 2 hours away. It was me who left it all behind, threw this skeleton into a small dark closet and locked the door.
So, now when I think of my emotions, about how they seem to grow, seethe and relinquish all of their own power, is it any wonder why I doubt the existence of my own sanity. Would it be sane of me not to wonder? In all that I have said, is there an answer for me? Maybe not today. Maybe by the time I get my answer it will come from some black and white newspaper ad chronicling my life story like one of those News report specials, but probably not. More likely I will spend the next 30 years of my life closely monitoring my own actions and feelings always checking them against my blood line, in search of the crazy mile markers. I hope that I never find any truly telling signs, that I too am part of the gene pool epidemic, but who knows. Until then, this is me. I think I’m at least a little crazy. And maybe that’s what keeps me sane.