The first 16 years of my life, my dad was frequently gentle and smiling, funny and dazed, enveloped in a sweet, seamless, alcohol- induced abyss. He wore a suit and Stetson hat, worked long hours, then tumbled home before entering a restless sleep.
In the years when DUI and PTSD were simply mistyped capital letters, I was terrified on the infrequent nights we attended an event, that after consuming drink after drink, he would catapult our car into a tree and kill us all.
He stopped drinking my last year of high school, had a “nervous breakdown” and in the 16 remaining years of his life, was often wrapped in madness, perhaps induced by heartbreaking grief at home and the sheer trauma of war that alcohol could not obliterate.
Housed in a VA hospital off and on, depending on whether or not he would agree to take his medications, year after year we struggled, often unsuccessfully, to get him admitted or to house him safely at home.
My dad alternated between mania and constant motion, undisciplined buying sprees, rapid speech, 72 hours of wakefulness, and a depressed, wordless, catatonic, vacant void.
He worried incessantly about the small birds and animals and how to keep them safe. I worried incessantly about how to keep him out of the car.
I remember the policeman who brought him home after driving the wrong way on a one-way street at 60 mph with 2 flat tires at 5am because he wanted to get to the beach before dawn.
After that, more than once, I let the air out of all four of his tires, the only strategy I could think of to keep him from driving all night.
My mother often struggled with how to tell the truth. I was a freshman at college, 8 hours away, and had barely unpacked. She called, suggested I come home, and told me my father had "back trouble," was not sleeping well and had gone “someplace quiet” to get some rest.
It was the best she could do in 1965.
After that, there were countless times when out of desperation or debilitating fear, we would drive 45 minutes to Northport VA hospital while my small-statured mother frantically offered someone a few dollars to keep an eye on him in the lobby after we abandoned him, pleading for someone, anyone, to figure out a way to keep him safe against his will.
Eventually, I learned that treatment for "manic depression" at that time was limited. Haldol induced stupors lessened symptoms but offered no cure. For my dad, shock therapy, convulsions, and gurneys with straps and straight-jackets chased foreboding images floating in disordered space, shadowing our family in secrecy and shame.
Day and night, time and space became chaotic, altered and unfamiliar in those ensuing years. I was 17, wearing Queen Anne heels, a single strand of pearls, and Purple Passion lipstick. It was the first time I had seen my dad since he went away “to get some rest.”
The VA brick complex was large, unfamiliar and scary. Wire mesh taunted us from everywhere rendering it impossible not to feel overcome, imprisoned, and afraid.
Ubiquitous signs, eight feet tall, four feet wide, were stapled in all the stairwells, which resembled cages more than landings. The life-size letters, bright red, likely visible from space: “DO NOT GIVE MATCHES TO THE PATIENTS.” My dad chain-smoked 4 packs of Chesterfields a day.
In the day room, 20-foot tall windows bore a dizzying crisscross lattice of dusty interwoven windowpanes. Graffiti splattered tabletops pocked with cigarette burns were smeared with sweaty spots from restless, tapping fingers. A mosaic of Thorazine-laced coffee cups dotted with sugar cubes were scattered among irregularly spaced wobbly chairs
Shapeless rocking forms with outstretched hands and fingers splayed waited for the pain to dissipate and the color to reappear while standing in spaces reserved for imaginary buses that never arrived.
Attendants in white coats jangled keys in steel locks as heavy doors bolted shut, a cacophony, all. Speckled unwashed linoleum floors and static, unbreathable, air ferried unfamiliar, unrecognizable smells. No whir of fans anywhere.
Everything was painted white. I sat with my ankles crossed, hands in the lap of my freshly pressed linen dress, as sweat poured down my back. I smiled at everyone and silently scanned the room.
My dad appeared flanked by two big men. He looked crooked. It was a Wednesday but he wasn’t wearing his suit. He was shuffling, moving slowly, swaddled in a funny looking, discolored ivory jacket that tied in the back.
Drooling, his lips dry and cracked, his eyes vacant and lost, he was silent. Somehow, horrifying hallucinations, and pharmacological stupors had seeped in under the doors. I stood up and tried not to touch anything, especially my dad. How could my father appear in a place like this? Especially without his hat?
We brought him home that day believing in magic and miracles, but not for long. Few suns would set before we were back in the VA lobby with a crumpled $5 bill in my mother’s hand.