I had made it out of my depression alive. I had survived by taking control of my life the way my father, who suffered from severe mental illness, never had. Not only that, but I had built a family that was the antithesis of my childhood experience.
Now that I had a bit of perspective, I was curious to examine my crash in its entirety. I spent time writing about it, questioning myself. Why had I gone through this depression? Was it genetic? Past experiences? The fall with Simon? If I had another child, would it happen again? My renewed hope gave me strength to ask some hard questions. I set about looking for answers. I started with my childhood.
Since my father never admitted anything was wrong, the other members of my family have only an “indirect diagnosis” for my father from our own personal therapists. All came to roughly the same conclusion. They theorize that he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), likely exacerbated by some form of bipolar disorder. My father has allowed his illness to go virtually untreated and would never hear of taking any form of medication. He has denied all claims that anything was ever amiss. In my early childhood, he was able to support himself and our family by working for my maternal grandfather. But gradually he spent more and more time at home. By the time I was in high school, he was unable to work, though claimed he still worked with my grandfather until many years later. My mother stayed at home, and my grandfather became our sole supporter.
“Wow, Dad, look at this one!” I was 12, it was 1982, and the two of us were at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Before us were three massive rectangular canvases, side by side, mounted on a white wall. One was bright fire engine red. Another was cornflower blue, the third a deep, lemony yellow. The brushstrokes on each were so even they melted into each other. You could just sink your eyes into the color. “I wonder what it means.”
“Well, red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors. That means they are the colors from which all other colors originate. To get other colors, you need to mix some of the primaries together. Maybe these pieces are about the origin of things — or simply the first step to creating art. Without these, there’s nothing.”
I looked up at my dad. He was better-looking than any dad I knew. He was about six feet tall, with dark, curly hair. His face was traditionally handsome, with a nice square shape and even, symmetrical features. His nose had just enough character to make his looks un-cliché. His blue-green eyes contrasted with tan skin. Two women walked by us to observe the painting. I saw them notice my dad when he spoke. I wondered if they were thinking about what a nice man he was — how smart he was. I was glad to be with him.
As we strolled around, looking at the paintings and sculptures, views of Lake Michigan sparkled through the big picture windows. Time was fluid. We didn’t need to be anywhere. The “Art Center,” as we called it, and the National Audubon Society (simply “the Audubon”) were our favorite places for spending time together. We’d take long walks and talk about art or nature.
On the drive home, I was tired. We’d been looking at art all day, and though I loved it, I was 12.
Time was no longer fluid. I wanted to get home, relax, watch TV, and maybe try on some clothes to see what I’d wear to school the next day. Dad had other ideas.
“I want to make a stop. I think you’ll find this really interesting.” He was looking straight ahead; I could see he wasn’t really focused on me.
“Um, Dad, I kinda just want to go home. It’s been a great day, but I have homework and just want to hang out at home for awhile.”
“Oh, this’ll be really interesting.” He turned the car away from our route home. My stomach got a familiar lurchy feeling, like dough was folding over inside it. I wished I could drive. Or at least that he’d listen to me.
“I’d really like to go home. … Let’s not and say we did!” I smiled hopefully, trying our old joke. I looked at him. He was still looking ahead.
“I’m going to take you to a friend of mine’s house. She’s really interesting, and she loves art. I know you’ll like her — you two really should meet.” He looked straight ahead, still not making eye contact with me.
“Where does she live?” I accepted my fate. There was no turning him back now that he had decided what he wanted. We drove a few more minutes and pulled into a funky Victorian style house in Milwaukee’s hip east side. I don’t remember much of the visit, just a nice woman named Lynne with some interesting art in her house. She was young, maybe ten years younger than my dad, and she was wearing jeans and had a bohemian-style, bluntly cut bob of black hair. Maybe they met at yoga class, where Dad was a teacher. I remember white walls, pottery, Navajo rugs.
I spent much of the time curled up in an armchair mentally planning my outfits for the next day while she and my dad chatted on the couch. I had these new red cowboy-style boots with fringes my mom had gotten for me on a shopping trip the day before. They were so cool. I couldn’t wait to wear them with my Guess? jeans
Finally we went home. It never occurred to me that she was anything more than a casual friend of his. As we drove north on Lake Drive, the houses got nicer and further apart. We pulled into our house, a large, two-story, solid brick home with a manicured yard, soft grass wide enough for any family football game. The car seemed to creep down the driveway. The yard was empty, shaded from the street by a wall of lilac bushes.
Finally. I popped out of the car and said, “Thanks, Dad, see ya later!” and ran upstairs to my room, grabbing a bag of Cheetos on the way. No one else was home. Once upstairs, I played my favorite Olivia Newton John tape and tried on my red boots with my jeans. I was thinking about school the next day. Oh, yeah, I needed snack money, my friend and I had plans to walk to the local Baskin-Robbins after school. I opened the door, my music still blasting, and walked down the hall to my dad’s den. That’s what we called what was really his separate bedroom. I knocked jauntily on the door.
“Yeah?” was my dad’s muffled reply.
“Um, Dad, I need my allowance. Remember, I didn’t get it on Friday, and we decided you’d owe me for today, Sunday?”
“Owe you? OWE YOU? What the fuck?” I heard stomping. Though surprised, I reacted automatically, knew from experience that it was time to run. I raced down the hall to my bedroom, locked the door, and put my white desk chair against it, the back rim fitting just under the coppery knob. What had I said? Wasn’t that what we had talked about?
My knees started shaking, a wild up and down motion, like they weren’t quite attached to my legs. This was a particular physical reaction, familiar and hated. The motion coincided with my heart, which was like a cartoon heart — whacking rhythmically, almost through the outside of my chest, making heart-shaped indentations. Pain with each thud. I heard his door burst open. Feet stomping loudly down the hallway. The banging of his fist into my door full force. It didn’t open, but it shook — I could feel the reverberations in the floor underneath me.
“Who do you think you are, music blasting, stomping around in those red boots? I ‘OWE’ something? You little cocksucker! You whore! I’ll show you what I owe you! Take the money, you whore!” And with that, he shoved a ten-dollar bill under my door.
I heard his footsteps retreat as he went back to his room and locked himself in.
I turned the music off. I picked up my favorite book, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. I wanted my knees to stop. I curled up in my bed and read until my legs were still and my heart was quiet. My head was no longer in that room, that house. I read until my mom brought my younger sister home from her play date and I heard them come in.
Then I heard my dad go downstairs. I recognized his footfalls — like a signature trailing down the steps. Next came the sound of our automatic garage door opening. I waited until I heard his car pull out of the driveway. I went to my door, removed the chair, and turned the knob, hearing the familiar click of the door unlocking. The button on the knob popped out and I went downstairs for dinner.