I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mental illness and genetics, and how disorders like bipolar can “run in the family”. I have posted before about how I knew something was mentally wrong with my paternal grandmother, but not having a name for it until the illness was afflicting me, as well. And I have also mentioned in previous posts that it is believed my daughter may also be suffering from bipolar disorder. But one person I really haven’t discussed, until now, is my dad.
Growing up, my brothers and I knew that my father had a bad temper. He was notorious for occasional violent verbal outbursts in the privacy of our home, but he could also be gentle and compassionate. He was well-liked by my friends and their parents, and was an influential member of our little community. People respected my father, if not feared him a bit. Standing 6’4″ tall and with a deep booming voice, he was intimidating upon first impression. And although for the most part he was able to control his temper in public, I think most people knew not to cross him.
I remember that my Dad would often “sweat the small stuff”. He had major issues with minor occurrences that at the time I didn’t recognize as “triggers”. For example, my father traveled extensively throughout my teen years. He was often overseas with his job, and when he went away, it was for several weeks at a time. The periods leading up to those travels were always times of high anxiety in our household. Getting ready to be away from his family for a month or two was very stressful for both he and my mother, but especially for my dad. He was often very short-tempered and anxious, and was very critical of my mom as she prepared for his departure. I remember that she always seemed a bit relieved when he left.
My parent’s relationship was one of mutual respect and love, but my father was very tough on my mom. He had high expectations for his children, and in his absence he had to trust my mom to hold down the fort. He was of above-average intelligence and although my mom was “situationally-smart”, she was not on the same educational level as my father. I think he worried that she could not handle us in his absence, and he didn’t like not having a firm hold on the reigns of fatherhood. In the decades prior to conveniences such as cell phones and email, it was nearly impossible to communicate with a family in the States from such places as China and Thailand, and the other countries in which my father worked for extended periods of time. Phone calls were very expensive, and mail from him often arrived after he’d already come back home. When he did return, there was a great deal of anxiety involved in the re-settling process, getting used to being a family again after such long absences. Although my parents argued infrequently, there was definite tension between them following the return from a long trip.
When my father was at home, he was often under a tremendous amount of self-induced stress. He was a perfectionist, very clean and neat, and always working on a project. He built the home we occupied, and there was always something new he wanted to add. He could never just sit still and read the newspaper or watch TV. He was always moving, always fidgeting. As I look back now on his behavior, I believe that, like myself and my young daughter, my dad also suffered from ADHD. He could focus only on those things that entirely held his interest. Activities not to his liking simply could not be tolerated. He could not sit still in church or at school meetings, much like a small boy with “ants in his pants”. But he could spend endless hours in his workshop or in the garage, tinkering with his tools or repairing his father’s antique tractor. But as soon as one project was complete, always with perfect and flawless results, he was immediately on to the next distraction.
One of the only times he actually sat down and sat still was to complete the New York Times crossword, which he worked in ink and all capital letters (to understand the importance of this ritual, please read my earlier post, “The Crossword” at https://crazyaboutbipolar.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/the-crossword/
Then there were the times when he lost his temper. And it happened quickly. There was no “warm-up” period of silent fuming and then gradual release of his anger. Instead, I believe (again, like me), that my dad was a rapid-cycler. He could move in and out of a fury several times in a week, and then it might be months before his anger released again. One day, my father came home and my mom immediately set in on him with her frustrations about how she couldn’t convince my brothers and me to keep our rooms clean. She felt like she had no authority over her three teenagers, and asked my father to please intervene. My dad replied, “I’ve just walked in the door and you’re already nagging me about the kids. I can’t even sit down for five God-damned minutes before you start in on me”. She continued to complain that our rooms looked like a pig sty, and we wouldn’t put away our laundry or make our beds. I was sitting on the bed in my room, reading, when I heard him throw down his briefcase and slam behind him the French doors that separated the kitchen from the hallway leading to our bedrooms. He transitioned from fine to furious in a matter of moments, and by the time I realized that he had launched into one of his “moods”, it was too late. He pushed through the door of my room, and threw open the closet doors. He started grabbing hangers of clothing from the rod and throwing them on the floor, saying nothing. But the look that had come over him scared me, and I remember being speechless, as well. He then pulled me from my bed and for a moment I thought he might hit me, even though he’d never laid a hand on me before. Instead, he ripped the sheets and blankets from my bed, adding to the pile that had accumulated on the floor of my bedroom. He then proceeded to do the same in my brothers’ rooms, as we gathered in the hall together, too stunned to respond. And then he turned and yelled, “I want everything off these floors before dinner”. And that was it. He stormed down the hallway to his own room and slammed the door behind him. An hour later, when my mother called us to dinner, our bedrooms were clean and my father assumed his place at the head of the table and asked us about our days, as if nothing had happened. This kind of random, manic outburst was not uncommon. He never physically harmed us, and the moment would pass without comment or reflection. Those episodes were never to be mentioned again. It was as if he needed get something out of his system before resuming his more typical calm and quiet behavior. “Jekyll and Hyde”, we called him behind his back.
I recall the night my dad learned his own father had passed away. He received a phone call after returning home from my brother’s high school band concert. He listened quietly to the speaker on the other end, telling him his father had suffered cardiac arrest a few hours earlier and died. He wrote down the details on a yellow legal pad. And then he hurled the phone across the room. This was the ’80s, and the phone was a wall model, a “harvest gold”-colored receiver at the end of a spiral cord that stretched 20 feet. My dad screamed as he threw it, and the phone flew the full distance of the cord before retracting and flying back across the kitchen. But not before hitting the picture window in our living room and shattering it. My mother never told anyone how it really happened; the man who came to replace the glass believes to this day that her ficus tree tipped over into it.
Another time, I asked for help with my math homework. My dad was an electrical engineer, and his brain worked numbers in a way I simply could not understand. I was not mathmatically inclined, nor did I inherit my dad’s aptitude for equations and I struggled to understand the subject. My father was excited to help me, because I so seldom asked for his assistance. He pulled out a bag of M&Ms to help me with the fractions, separating the colored candies on the kitchen table to help demonstrate the lesson. But when he wasn’t looking, I kept sneaking the candies and eating them. When he finally noticed what I was doing, he simply fell apart. He went from calm and helpful to completely without control in a matter of moments. He yelled at me, “I’m trying to HELP you and all you can do is disrespect me! I can’t believe you can’t get this – we’ve been working on this for an hour and you still don’t understand! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?????” And with his large hand, he swept the book, papers and remaining candies onto the floor with one motion. But strangely enough, even though I should have felt humiliated, I felt nothing. No disappointment, no resentment for being yelled at, no nothing. We were all used to these random outbursts and we all knew not to let them bother us because we knew that within an hour or so, he’d be back to his “normal” self and the episode would never be discussed again.
Once, following a day of skiing, my father was unloading the equipment from the back of our Ford Bronco. We had thrown the skis and poles unmethodically into the rear of the vehicle, and when he tried to remove one of the ski poles from the pile of equipment, the wrist strap became tangled around one of the skis. Although he was in a great mood all the way down the mountain following a fun day with his kids, the scene in the trunk of the vehicle unnerved him. He fell apart quickly, tugging and pulling on the guilty ski pole until finally, with one great yank, the pole finally released from the rest of the messy pile. With it came some of the other equipment, and several skis and poles tumbled onto the floor of the garage. He kicked the pieces that were on the floor, then hit the offending ski pole against the door of the garage with such force that he bent it in half. He threw the now broken pole into the heap with the other skis and stormed into the house. My brothers and I quietly unloaded the rest of the trunk and put away our equipment. And, as usual, by the time we got inside the house, he had calmed down and said nothing of the incident. The broken pole was hung on a peg in the garage, where it remained as a reminder of his temper for the next twenty years. My dad never threw it away, and we didn’t dare.
Some of his mania bubbled to the surface not always in the form of anger, but as euphoria or high-energy playfulness. One night, he and my mom were preparing to attend a holiday party and my brothers and I were promised the special and rare treat of a visit to McDonald’s drive-thru. As we approached the window, my father asked for our orders so he could relay the information to the young woman taking the orders through the microphone. I remember that my dad was in a particularly good mood that evening, almost hyperactive. He repeated our orders back to us before delivering them to the McDonald’s employee, and he started to laugh and told us, “That reminds me of a song!”. When it was his turn to order, he sang our requests into the microphone to the tune of “The 12 Days of Christmas”: “Three chocolate shakes, two Big Macs, one Filet of Fish, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree……”. The order taker started to giggle and said she’d see what she could do. When we got to the window, our meals were delivered to our car but alas, there was no “partridge”. My father turned on his charm, winking to the teenager working the window and asked, “What about my partridge?” The young woman shuffled around for a few moments and when she reappeared at the window, she had fashioned a “partridge” out of a cardboard drink carrier, complete with eyes and a beak scribbled on with a pen. My father was delighted. He sang loudly all the way home, then recounted the story to my mother with a great deal of animation. My mom was worried that everyone at McDonald’s would think my father was drunk, which he was not. He was simply “up”.
That is not to say, however, that my father did not drink. But he was never, that I can recall, drunk. As a large man, he could handle his alcohol, and as a large man living in the ’70s and ’80s, alcohol was part of his daily life. As I think about it now, I believe it’s safe to assume that he was self-medicating with alcohol and his other vice, cigars. But despite his size, he limited himself to one drink per day. Not unusual by any standards during that time. He drank a martini every weeknight with dinner, but substituted it on the weekends with one cold beer. He would drink more at public functions, but at home it was always only one cocktail. In fact, he even taught me how to make his drink so that it would be waiting for him when he got home from work: always the same glass, filled with ice. Pour the gin until it covered the cubes, then top it off with vermouth. Two green olives on a toothpick and the cocktail was complete. I mixed my first gin martini when I was eight years old. My mother would not allow him to smoke his cigars in the house, so he took them outside after dinner. Even on freezing Vermont evenings, my father could be found outside on the patio, quietly staring at the sky and smoking his cigar. He continued this ritual well into his 50s, when his doctor finally told him those cigars would kill him. He traded his cocktails for an occasional Budweiser, and gave up the cigars completely.
My father died 6 years ago. He was visiting my home in Colorado with my mother. He spent the day playing with my three children, his only grandchildren and the loves of his life. He watched a hockey game, ate pizza and drank his one cold beer. He went to bed and never regained consciousness. I wish I could say he died quietly. He started to breathe with difficulty in his sleep, and my mother called to me to try to wake him. Even though he never again opened his eyes, it took him several long and violent minutes to die of a heart attack on the floor of my children’s playroom, where the paramedics laid him to perform CPR. My 8-year old daughter had woken when the ambulance arrived, and stood screaming and crying at the sight of her strong, robust grandpa lying lifeless on the floor of her home. She never knew his anger, she never experienced his outbursts. He had learned to quiet his temper around my children and left this world a peaceful man. Did he simply outgrow his rage? Did his mind grow quiet as he grew older? Because we never gave his “condition” a name, there is no way to know.
Had I known then that there was a name for his mood swings, it might have helped me prepare for an illness that was possibly part of my future. I inherited his strong profile and long limbs. My youngest daughter inherited his clear blue eyes and his fine hair. But we both inherited his tendency toward angry outbursts and the inability to calm our strong emotions. Will we “outgrow” our tempers as he seemed to do? Or will we balance them with medication and therapy, two things he never made available to himself? When I was young and I exhibited the same stubborn streak as my dad, my mom used to shake her head and say, “Like father, like daughter”. If only I knew then what I know now.
Like father, like daughter. A grand understatement.