Sunday, August 21, 2011


This is one of my favorite Dali paintings. It is called Cannibals in Autumn. I truly enjoy surrealist art, I love how the goal is to explore the images of the mind. Dali is one my favorite painters, his world intrigues me. I stumbled upon this painting when I was 21 and going through some intense therapy. I was taking an Art History class and when the slide of this painting came up, I felt like I was looking at how I was feeling.

I am the daughter of a man who suffers from extreme mental illness. My father is bipolar, depressed and, in my opinion, a sociopath. He doesn't live in this world. I imagine that his world resembles a surrealist painting, twisting and turning in on him. He has brief moments of peace, but a majority of his life is spent in a dark place. When he was a young man, there was no such thing as a school therapist or "warning signs" for depression. My grandparents had no way of knowing what was wrong with their son, or how to deal with it. My father chose alcohol as a way to self medicate, and it would take him decades to stop drinking.

When he stopped drinking, it took a long time to realize that he was mentally ill. He had been an alcoholic for so long, that no one knew what behaviors were alcohol related and what ones weren't.  When he first got sober, he slowly re-entered, or in my case entered, our lives.  When I was 12 he vanished again. He reappeared when I was 16 and managed to consistently stick around for a little over a decade. It took almost that entire time to understand that he was mentally ill and incapable of being a "normal" father.

In my early 20's, I started to have panic attacks. In all honesty, I probably had mild panic attacks all through high school, but I am very good at hiding when I am upset. In fact, my panic attacks involve me going very still and very quiet. I tend to shut myself off, go to a room or sit in the shower for a long time. I lived with Jill for almost two years before I told her how scared I was. My anxiety was overwhelming, my sense of failure pressed down on me. No one would ever love me, or accept me. I was disappointment to my family and myself and nothing I could do would change that.

It is hard to explain what extreme anxiety is like to someone who has never experienced it. It is not a logical disease. I know that getting a C on a paper does not equal failure, but in the midst of an anxiety attack I could convince myself that I should never go to that class again because I was going to fail it. Anxiety destroyed a lot of my relationships, it held me back from being successful, and it made me turn in on myself. I became like the cannibals in Dali's painting.

Ironically, my father was the first person to suggest that I go seek help. I think he saw what was happening and related. I know he was concerned about the copious amounts of alcohol that I was consuming.  Jill walked me to my first counseling session. This was the time that we truly became friends. I had been so sure that if I told her how crazy I was, she wouldn't want to be my friend. In fact the opposite was happened, she showed me what a true friend can do.

At the same time, I started talking to a guy I knew. He had also decided to lay off the drinking and make more positive choices about how to live his life. Though I barely knew him, I felt safe sharing things with him, he always listened and didn't judge. He was always there to walk me home and hang out and watch a movie.  I was lucky that he stuck around and asked me to marry him.

It took a solid year of weekly therapy to get my anxiety under control. I had to learn what feelings were and how to express them. I had to realize that there are more emotions than angry and happy. I let go of a lot of fear and slowly began to forgive my father for abandoning me for alcohol. He and I had the best relationship we could for five years. He took me to Paris.

There he told me that he wanted to take a trip with  me so that no matter what happened in the future, we would always have that memory together. When we got back to Manhattan, I figured out that he was refusing to take medication for his bi-polar issues. We had a huge fight about it. Over the next two years, we watched him slowly return to the dark place he fought to get out of. He is currently in prison, convicted of embezzling 70 million dollars, mostly from the elderly. We no longer have contact. I don't know that we ever will again.

I still deal anxiety on a daily basis. There are times in my life when it is worse. I have triggers, sitting around with nothing to do, too much stress at work, long periods of time without working out, illness.  I take medication to help control my anxiety. I fought this for a long time. I felt like taking medicine would make me look weak or admit I couldn't control myself, than I thought of my father and took myself off to the doctor.  Wellbutrin makes me a happy person. It helps me keep things in perspective. As my doctor says, you can't will your brain to change its chemistry.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Matthew 6:26

I am learning to cast my cares on Christ. To press in and lean against His strength. One of my favorite song lyrics is: "and if our God is for us, than who can ever stop us". In my life, my anxiety has often been the thing that has stopped or hindered me. As I move towards motherhood and embrace my roles as a wife and teacher, I am learning to accept and even love the quirky part of me that worries all the time.

I am also learning to give my father up to God. My Dad has delved so far into his mind that only the power of Christ's love can save him from himself. There are days when I am anxious for him. There are days when I am angry at him and there are days when I simply miss him, but there is never a day when I don't think of my Dad and pray for him.

The gift my father gave me was the ability to say that I was ill and needed help. I hope that I can offer that same gift to my child. If they are displaying signs of mental illness, I hope that my experiences will enable me to direct them towards help and to empathize with them. There is nothing more brave than admitting that you are hurting and need help.   I pray that I will continue to give more up to God and trust him to work out the road bumps that make me nervous.

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