Mental Illness – An American Odyssey – 2

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It’s a Father Son Thing

 

The earliest and clearest memory I have of my father is of him having a mental break in the middle of the local Wal-Mart.

It was a mild November day in Georgia. I’d woken up extra early that morning. It was my 13th birthday and that meant shopping and lunch at some terrible chain restaurant (most likely Ryan’s Steakhouse or Shoney’s). I waited in the living room for the rest of my family to rise from their slumber and join me. I wasn’t in school, so it had to be a weekend. I flipped anxiously through a meager offering of cartoons before settling on Garfield (greatest cartoon ever next to Biker Mice from Mars).

My dad didn’t live with us at the time. By then my mom and him were in the process of getting a divorce. However, he was going to be joining our little escapade, which made me happy. He’d treated me like shit for much of my childhood, throwing me beatings in front of my friends, hitting me with my toys, but I still loved him, I still yearned for his fleeting affection.

When we picked him up, he jumped into the front seat smelling like aftershave. He had short legs, a prominent belly, and messy orange hair that I don’t think he ever combed.

“Happy birthday, fatboy.” He turned in his seat and offered me a low five.

I hated that name. Fatboy. For him it was a term of endearment. For me, it hurt. I was never fat. I’ve looked back at old pictures of myself, numerous times over the years, searching for some clue that might lead me to the root of that moniker, but I’ve come up empty. It’s messed with my head a lot. I’ve been addicted to exercise, paranoid about food, and obsessed with the scale since I was about 16. It’s gotten better as I’ve worked through my stuff these past few years, but it’s been a tough road to plough. Maybe I should have said something to him, let him know that he was hurting my feelings. I think I was just happy to have his attention, no matter how it made me feel.

We got to the store and I was the first one out of the car. I don’t recall what I was planning on buying. I collected action figures at the time, so I’m sure I had my heart set on some cheap piece of plastic with a cape attached to it. I no doubt ran ahead, skipping the lines in the pavement as I merrily made my way to the automatic doors. I loved that Wal-Mart because it had arcade games in the lobby: a Ridge Racer knockoff and Big Game Hunter (I always opted for the racing).

We made it just inside the front doors and my dad collapsed. I thought he tripped, so at first I was laughing and reaching down to help him up, but it became evident, very quickly, that something much more serious was going on. He was curled up in a ball, shaking and mumbling; saying stuff that I don’t remember. Apparently my mom knew what was happening. She pushed me and my siblings back and got down next to him. A crowd started to gather. My siblings and I had started to cry. Folks had started inquire as to whether they needed to call 911 (this was back before everyone had a cell phone). My mom waved them off, telling the crowd he was fine, and insisting that he get up.

Eventually he got back to his feet and we got him back to the car. He was shaking the whole way and telling me how sorry he was while I cried and said that it was okay. I don’t remember much after that. I know that we got him to my grandmother’s house and from there my uncle took him to the psych hospital.

Apparently he’d been losing it for awhile, displaying erratic behavior, drinking more than usual (which is saying something). He just snapped. Unfortunately, he snapped on my birthday. Every birthday since then, I remember that moment: him collapsing in Wal-Mart, telling me how sorry he is. While he was locked up he took part in some arts and crafts. He carved me this picture of a raccoon and wrote a small message on the back. It’s the only thing I still have from him. I keep it stored away. If I look at it, I cry.

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