The person that changed my approach to mental illness was my dad, but not in a way you may think.
In 1996, just shy of my 30th birthday I was hospitalized for the first time and officially diagnosed with Schizo-Affective Disorder. (This illness was passed genetically to me from my father who lived with Paranoid Schizophrenia. Schizo-Affective in essence is a combination of Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia) I finally had an answer to what had been happening to me mentally, physically, not to mention the effects it had on those I loved. I knew what I had to do to help myself, take my medication, visit the psychologist and take care of myself physically. This was not going to go away over night, or with the magic of a pill. It was long term and I had to face it.
Like most people, however, I am stubborn and believed I knew better than the doctors, I could do this on my own. I didn’t want medication or help from them, I knew what was wrong and could get myself through it, and after all I’d made it this far, right?
My theory seemed to be working until one early April morning in 1999; I received a phone call that my dad had passed away. While his death was heartbreaking, knowing how and why he died threw me into my own reality and made me see who I didn’t want to become.
My dad lived for more than 30 years in a world of his own. He rejected treatments, doctors and hospitals; he was a wanderer, always searching for what was in his heart or an idea he was chasing. I consider that a part of who he was, as a Native American his spirit called to him and he followed, it was the part of himself that he could control and enjoy, the one part that was not taken away from him by illness. Videos were found after his death that he had made; snippets of himself trying to explain away the voices and confusion in his head, we could see that while the intelligent and talent man we knew was talking, his mind was not his own.
That moment, those images, rocked me to my core, he was not able to help himself when he needed it most. The illness that took over his mind was too powerful for him to control and without help from a doctor; he could not put the voices and images to rest.
I realized that what I had been doing was no different from what my dad had done, ignoring the doctors, and believing I was better on my own, that the voices and images were nothing to worry about. I came to realize that yeah, they were something to worry about and if I didn’t start listening and taking care of myself, I too would become a statistic – as statistic like my dad.
I tell people that he gave life to me twice, he is my father, but in his death he saved me from falling down the same path he did. I’m not saying it’s been easy, I have been hospitalized a few times over the years and at times still buck the system, but what has kept me going is knowing that I am stronger with each day and I believe he is with me, watching to make sure I stay on track and live my life, a life that was cut short for him.
His Native American spirit is in me as well, I too am a wanderer and find the greatest joy and peace when I am hiking or taking photographs, it is then that the voices settle, the mind focuses and just for a moment, I am free!
I live now for both of us.