Behind closed doors- more than 63 years later
“Growing up with a Mentally ill Parent”
I remember the tip of his burning Pall Mall Cigarette as my father would wake me up every night at 3 am just to talk, as I was a daddy’s girl, so I just thought it was our special time together not realizing the pain and anguish that lived inside of him. These conversations would take place daily at 3 am sharp, since I was 7 years old, almost 63 years ago. His stories of desperately wanting to go to Hollywood to be an actor and a professional dancer were a constant thread throughout our 3 am conversations as well as his resentment towards his mother that forbade him to go. He was raised in an Orthodox home with a father and mother that had no formal education with limited ability to speak proper English. My dad’s mother ranted on how the family would not be able to survive without him living in one room in Hells’ Kitchen in NYC, using the oven for heat. They spoke Yiddish as their everyday language and as a young man my father was athletic , a natural dancer, a true lover of the arts and a voracious reader only to be stifled by guilt and disappointment further compounded by his confession to me that he had to marry over 75 years(my brother is 76) ago to a woman he did not love nor a child he did not want. Again, I was the “chosen one,” the only friend and family that he genuinely wanted. I was incredibly young, delighted and fascinated by his stories since I was the one, he could share his dark moments with… I was a daddy’s’ girl… the only one he truly cherished…I was special. Little did I realize the overwhelming toll these clandestine conversations would take on me, and the incredible loneliness that was forced upon me as I kept this tucked away from everyone I met. To this day, I wake up at 3 am daily to darkness and expecting a conversation that never happens.
I looked at my fathers’ mood swings, erratic outbursts, his sitting alone in the dark for hours at a time and his manic energy as someone who was gifted, creative, brilliant, and as someone who truly cherished me. He would explain the business world to me every day, read me the Herald Tribune and the Wall Street Journal to me after dinner and we would watch Walter Cronkite nightly from our collapsible snack tables. I thought he would do anything for his family, as I did not know any better and then it hit. I witnessed his inability to go into crowds, shop in malls, his agitation by bright lights and loud sounds, and the endless hours it took my mother to get him ready for work seemed all normal to me until his fantasies became reality and he acted upon them. His stalking of his girlfriend (he was married of course), the frequent calling of the police, and his hysterical outbursts were just commonplace until one day at work, he just froze and collapsed. My mother was told he was physically exhausted from constantly working around the clock for weeks at end and that possible he had a nervous breakdown. The consensus was that he was physically exhausted and that if he just rested and took some time off, all would be better after a few weeks. My mother had no understanding of what was going on, so she thought if she just cooked better meals, watched his diet, and kept the children quiet, he would be better.
Despite the many holes punched throughout the Sheetrock hallways throughout the house and the frequent throwing around of my mother and brother like ragdolls after dinner, I just thought they had said something unbelievably bad that made my father angry, and nothing more. It all seemed quite natural at the time, but his quirky behavior extended into buying a discotheque and going out late at night alone because he did not want people to judge him because of his age as he donned a newly created name and identity. This was not a novelty, he honestly believed he was that person. He believed he was part of rich and famous cosmetic family, and with ideas of grandeur and opulence, and this was coming from a boy that was raised in Hell’s Kitchen with a father that worked in the Garment District pushing clothing racks through the street. My mother paraded him to numerous doctors thinking that B12 shots and reduced sugar would normalize his behavior but that could not quiet the “ill” person inside. Then the night came when he went on a rampage and decided to take his anger out by slashing car tires in the neighborhood and at his so-called girlfriend’s apartment. We were all frightened as he became more violent and then a decision was made by my mother, fearing for the safety of her family and himself, to have him receive professional care .It was decided that I was to be the one that he would trust to take him to a private psychiatric hotel in Somerset County, NJ. The ride seemed endless as I was a 17-year-old driving my father to be committed and detained for months in a private care psychiatric hospital for the mentally ill. At that time there was no insurance to pay for his care as my mother drained all her savings, stopped paying bills and lost her home not knowing what else to do. There was no support or discussions on dealing with a mentally ill “bread winner” as my mother sat alone in silence as she had no one to talk to openly about her situation. That ride that I took with my father stays with me as if it occurred yesterday although it was 53 years ago. I remember walking with him into the admission area as he looked at me and asked, “Do I have to go Keke” (My childhood nick name) and with all my strength as a 17-year-old, I quietly said yes. When he was admitted for treatment, he told the nurse that he only felt comfortable giving his switchblade and gun to his daughter, if that was the only condition upon which he was admitted. At that point they quickly explained the treatment, which included electroshock therapy and hydrotherapy that my father was going to receive weekly throughout his stay and I understood as best as any 17-year-old could comprehend that he would receive individual and group counseling and remain in a locked ward. I was his 17-year-old daughter and I had to be an adult about it. As I drove the long way home with his weapons, with tears running down my face I realized that I just committed my father for psychiatric hospital all by myself. My mother could not manage the situation and she thought it was best that her 17-year-old daughter should handle the arrangements. All I knew is that I could not explain to anyone, particularly to my friends that my father was mentally ill and that my family and life was falling apart. In those days, there were no support groups for family, no financial counseling to prepare for the loss of the breadwinner that was incapacitated by mental illness and certainly no Accountant or Attorney that could explain what to do to a “stay at home mother” that had no business acumen, no financial wherewithal, or business skills. I tried to counsel her, but she was inconsolable as she climbed emotionally into that financial hole with him, still clinging on to the hope that all would be fine and that her husband would be better.
Today, we are more inclined to talk about mental health issues as both younger people and seniors alike have become mentally ill with clinical depression .We are now beginning to address diminished capacity and cognitive challenges associated with Alzheimer’s, raising a child on the spectrum and are openly addressing the challenges of mental illness but there is still a stigma about talking about it, so we all will continue to quietly suffer in isolated, alone , and ashamed. My father finally came home from the psychiatric hospital only to leave his wife of more than 38 years, assume a new identity, start a new family, and father a baby girl, which took me more than 15 years and the hiring of multiple private detectives to locate him again. I share this story for all financial planning professionals to be more aware of planning for a child on the spectrum, a family member losing cognitive abilities, drug addiction and the emotional and financial tolls of mental illness that can occur at any time. I know what it is to be a child of a mentally ill parent and how no one would ever suspect it as I held numerous high-level executive positions and the secret that I kept behind closed doors for 53 years that I finally decided to come forward and share my story in the month of May as we raise awareness of Mental Health.
Let us be open about Mental illness in the same way we discuss the devastation from the sudden loss of a loved one, the onset of a chronic physical and terminal illness, and understand that mental health issues weigh on a family in both an emotional and financial way that can be catastrophic as shared in my own story.
I share my own personal story in hopes of raising awareness of Mental Illness to those that are experiencing it themselves or dealing with a family member and say that you are not alone.
Stop the Stigma!