This is the first time in my life I have ever publicly acknowledged my late father's mental illness. Enmeshed as we all are in the challenges of COVID-19, I thought it a fitting time to discuss it as it pertains to resilience during crisis and creative problem solving skills. I feel particularly positioned to offer tips on both, since I am the child of a schizophrenic man. Just admitting that, out loud, in a public forum, is a very big step forward for me, and something I would've never done while he was still alive, or while I was employed by someone else, because, sadly, the stigmas still abound. I mention it now only because I think the advice that I can offer the world right now is hopefully relevant and useful. And I feel inspired that this might be an intangible way that I can help or inspire someone as we all face this unprecedented crisis.
The way I grew up was extremely isolating. My dad lived on a farm in a rural Kentucky town so small that no one's ever heard of it. The picture in this post is a google maps image of the farmhouse driveway. I was born in a car on this road. I spent every summer with him there, along with my five siblings. He and my mom separated when I was seven, but she still came to the farm with us at first. Over the years, she stopped, and we learned to fly, to travel, by ourselves. It was something my sibs and I looked forward to every year: the plane trip by ourselves, reuniting with our brick farmhouse with its shelves of temporarily forgotten toys, running through sprinklers in the yard barefoot, shooting each other with Super Soakers. No mom around meant ultimate freedom. Boy, did I take advantage. But we always returned back to Virginia in the fall for the school year.
Until I was thirteen. My rebellious streak got stronger, my distaste for my mom's stern ruling hand increased. Me piercing my nose was the final straw of disobedience for her and she sent me to go live with my dad. I arrived as an art/music/theater/nerd in a town full of farm kids who waited with anticipation for "bring your tractor to school day." Luckily, or unluckily, as you have it, I was pretty. This helped me a little to be liked or fit in although after the boys got to know me a little they realized I wasn't a Christian, nor did I get excited about "going muddin." Being a vegetarian (at the time) was the final nail in the coffin for my social acceptance. The attention of being the pretty new girl was overwhelming at first, but fizzled out quickly.
I mostly stayed at home with my dad. I couldn't drive yet, and the nearest friend's house was two hours away on foot. Despite his illness, he was a great dad. He was mostly quiet, and very loving. When he did speak, it was to talk about the bomb the government planted under his farm, the aliens that were shooting at him when he was trying to plant, or, when having one of his better moments in a delusion of grandeur, how he went to prom with Heather Locklear. You can imagine, he didn't have many friends. No visitors to the house except for migrant farm workers. My own depression over my mother's rejection, and lack of fitting into Kentucky culture kept me mostly isolated.
You'd think this is sad: no. I look back on these years as the very best of my life. I dove deep into myself, figured out firmly who I was and what I loved. I experimented with many art forms; I made comic books, I wrote novels and poetry, I took up oil, acrylic, and watercolor painting. I skipped school and painted naked, I played guitar and wrote songs. My dad built a board in the community center tennis court so I could hit a tennis ball back and forth to myself. I cried in the rain sitting on some bleachers all by myself. I walked through the woods for entire days and was so still that deer walked right by me, unthreatened, only to be picked up in the dusk by a helpful neighbor to be returned home. I tried cigars, I tried pot, I swam in the river. These were sacred times that formed the very base of my identity and made me the confident person and artist I am today. You can do it too. If you haven't done it yet, I almost pity you. Dive within, go quiet, and create. You will emerge an incredible, strong, wild, and wonderful person whom nothing can phase.
Back to my dad's illness, I often took care of him and things around the house because he was unable. He was mostly functional, but overlooked things like nutrition and cleanliness. So I did a lot of cooking and cleaning. Since NYers cannot eat out right now, many are finding out what it's like to home cook. There's a deep beauty in lovingly preparing meals for yourself and your loved ones. I've been cooking three meals a day now for the past two years. I've lost ten pounds, I have more energy, clearer skin, and feel more connected to my family. We've saved thousands of dollars.
I was often scared when I was a kid. My dad did weird things sometimes that terrified me and my brothers. One time he took me to get an ice cream at a shop. When we arrived, he said, "We can't go in there," pointing to a rusty car parked out front, "he's trying to kill me." As a kid, you believe your dad when he says things like that. I don't say that to disturb you, but to point out that when we are terrified we can move forward, armed with our creativity, and make amazing things happen. It takes time to grow comfortable with who you are in the silence, but once you move past it there's tremendous freedom and strength, and love for yourself there.
I grew up and moved out of that situation and crafted a beautiful, brilliant life for myself despite my circumstances. It took an insane amount of hard work and sacrifice, but I did it. People along the way frequently asked me, "Where do you get your drive?! You're just so motivated!." It was mostly out of economic necessity, but also out of some chip on my shoulder that the daughter of crazy man can make her mark on the world. No matter what you're dealing with, there's always a loophole, a trapdoor to flip your circumstances around. You just have to keep believing in yourself and use your creative problem solving skills.
My mom and I were able to come together and communicate our grievances with each other and heal our relationship. We are both like two strong oak trees, and we needed to learn to be more like willows and bend in each other's direction. I admit it's hard to raise an artist, we only ever want to experiment, and that can be scary to watch as a parent. She was a single parent raising six kids as one who had to flee a relationship that went south when my dad's illness became apparent. I admire how she handled those times, explaining to her kids how to be compassionate towards the mentally ill, and how to keep loving our dad even as he said or did crazy things. I admire how she ran her household after we left, which was a bit strict for my taste, but maybe it had to be to keep things functional as a single mom of six. No woman should have to bear such things, but she bore them with strength, and writes about them in her own beautiful work- her poetry.
I trust you all to find the answer how to rebuild our world and our economy in an ethical way that takes care of other people, and our planet, when COVID-19 is no longer a threat. In the meantime, be kind and create.