Lately, I’ve been watching a handful of my good friends grapple with the difficult transitions that come with college graduation. Consequently, I’ve been thinking a lot about where I was a year ago and all that happened right before my own college graduation. Like every other student graduating in this economy, I was terrified about what was coming next, jobless, overwhelmed, and trying my best to finish planning my wedding amidst projects, final exams, and packing to move. Right as classes were ending and my architecture school deadlines were approaching, a year ago last week actually, I got a phone call telling me that my dad had set the house on fire. Two days later, I got word that he had been arrested on charges that were eventually escalated to arson. It was the culmination of what had been a 25 year long battle with mental illness for my dad, and a particularly difficult 7 years for my immediate family.
The floor where the fire was set
As I reflect on the last year, I can’t help but focus on my most vulnerable moments. I remember standing up to speak at my baccalaureate service and bursting into tears, barely able to form words because of the tremendous amount of emotion I was experiencing: acknowledging the end of my time as apart of the Wesley Foundation community, the transition into a new phase of life, beginning to pick up the pieces of our family, and recognizing that the father I knew was really gone. I remember seeing my dad for the first time since his arrest in court – realizing how little he understood the gravity of his actions and hearing him tell me how sorry he would be if he missed my wedding. I remember walking out of the court room with my family and taking a breath and trying to release it, only to have it come out with a rush of tears, punctuated by strong whimpers in the middle of the airport-style court complex of Fairfax County. I was so devastated. Then in July on my wedding day, there I was – stressed to the max, trying to coordinate all of the details in play, and stepping out of my in-laws’ car at the church after paying $400 to have my hair and makeup done, pushing feelings aside and trying to ignore the gravity of the day at hand. It was only when my father-in-law tried to share some sweet and endearing words that I started to tear up, realizing that my dad really wasn’t going to be there. The hardest moment was when I danced with my mom at our reception and we both broke down, holding each other, rocking back and forth, sobbing, and grieving in front of all of our family and friends.
As time marched on, I was married and struggling with the utter lack of purpose that comes with joblessness. I often found myself alone – spirit crushed, family broken, lacking the motivation to seek change. I was not at all where I’d hoped to be nor where I expected to be prior to the series of events that preceded my college graduation. Eventually, I found income in a part-time job with an architecture firm and a babysitting job, and I felt that things may look up despite the uncertainty that still surrounded our family. In September, I attended an event at my church in conjunction with an interfaith group called IMPACT, Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together. We were sitting around tables with persons of other faiths — Mennonites, Catholics, Pentecostals, and Methodists — discussing the worries that kept us up at night. For me, the answer was clear and immediate — mental illness.
My outrage with the mental health system began the first time my mom openly discussed my dad’s illness and the extent of his delusions with me. I remember that she had picked me up in Charlottesville on one of my first breaks as a college student and she started telling me about some of the accusations my dad had been making against her – ludicrous statements about involvement with the CIA, government conspiracy, and some kind of secret bank account that my mother was supposedly withholding. I was utterly appalled. At 18 years old, I could not believe that his doctors could allow him to live in such a manner and frankly, torture our family in such a way (I had not yet confronted the overwhelming stigma surrounding mental illness that permeates everything from public funding for services to medication research and insurance reimbursement rates.) At the IMPACT meeting, I shared with the people at my table about my dad’s illness — about how he stopped taking his medication, about how he physically abused my mom and sister, about the fire that he set in our house. I told them about the times that we persuaded him to check into a hospital, only to have him sent away after our insurance coverage ran out 8 days later. I told them about how we tried to get him intensive treatment — how we tried to get him placed in a hospital where he could receive care. The bottom line was that he didn’t believe he was sick, all the while he felt the world was out to get him and it was ripping our family apart. Our primary challenge was this – in Virginia, persons with mental illness can’t be involuntarily committed unless they are deemed a “danger to themselves or a danger to others.” There are many good reasons why this law is in place, mostly in response to the evils committed by hospitals of the past against persons with mental illness and to prevent people from being committed unnecessarily by others who may be out to get them. What the law meant for our family though was that we knew that he desperately needed more help than he was getting…but we just couldn’t get it. We knew that we were afraid of him — that he had hurt us many times, that he had spent us into financial ruin, and that we just wanted him to get better. We said “he’s sick” — they said “prove it.” Well, he did. It took him nearly murdering two people for him to gain the attention not of the mental health profession, but of the law. After his arrest, he had a brief stint in a psychiatric hospital for a competency evaluation, for which the state tried to bill my mother and her insurance company, then was promptly sent back to jail where he’s been for over a year now awaiting sentencing. Outrageous.
After sharing my story the first time with my small group at IMPACT, I shared it again with an even larger group of 400+ IMPACT members who were outraged enough by my story and their own experiences to demand change in the mental health system. I started co-facilitating a research committee on mental health with IMPACT, met with many different mental health service providers, and eventually shared my story in front of 1500 IMPACT members, government officials, and service providers. At that meeting, we were able to fund a program specifically designed to serve ex-offenders with mental illness like my dad, coming out of jail and prison, who would otherwise lack access to any kind of services or treatment during a 60-90+ day waiting period prior to the reinstatement of their insurance benefits. Still, there is more work to be done.
Today is my dad’s 60th birthday and he’s spending it alone, in jail, because of the depravity of the mental health and criminal justice system in this country. Mental illness is not something that he chose and it is not something he can snap out of, as much as I wish he could. Mental illness is a serious medical condition that requires medical treatment. Mental health system reform, funding in particular, is something that requires and deserves the attention of every single caring human being in this country. I shared a version of the following speech with the congregation of Westminster Presbyterian in Charlottesville a few months ago and to close, I’ll share it with you:
“Growing up, I had a sweet, loving father. With a masters degree from Duke University, he was a working, tax-paying citizen for over 30 years and helped raise three daughters. When I was in high school, I learned that my father had been under treatment for abnormal paranoia for the better part of twenty years. He had also more recently been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. My sophomore year of high school, he became so consumed by his illness that he stopped taking his medications. Over the next few years, he cycled on and off of different medicines while under fairly continuous treatment from a psychiatrist. His behavior, however, became increasingly more erratic and frightening. He could no longer hold a job and he became physically and verbally abusive towards my mother and two sisters. His illness culminated this past May when two weeks before my college graduation, he made the decision to set fire to my childhood home. While my mother and 17 year-old sister were sleeping upstairs, my father poured gasoline in three separate areas of our house, including the hallway right outside my sister’s bedroom. He grabbed a lighter, ignited the gasoline, and walked out of the house. My mom and sister awoke to the sound of our smoke detectors going off. By some miracle, the fire was contained to one small area in our entry hall and my mom was able to extinguish it with a bucket of water. Two days later, my father was arrested at our home and taken to jail where he’s been ever since.
Smoke damage after being cleaned
Every morning, I wake up and I wonder how he is. I wonder about who he’s with, if he’s hurt or scared, if he has anyone to talk to. I wonder why his illness had to get this far before anyone intervened. Sometimes, I put myself in his shoes and I imagine what it must have felt like to feel so scared and alone – to feel as if there was no one in the world he could trust – that he felt his only option was to set fire to the house. I think about all of the pain that he’s endured and all that he has missed – graduations, a wedding, birthdays, Christmas – all because he could not get the intensive treatment that he desperately needed. And now, he’s still not getting the help he needs because he is in jail, not a treatment facility. More than anything, I worry about what comes next. I worry about where he’ll live and whether or not he’ll be able to get insurance. I worry about whether or not he’ll take his medication or if he’ll even be able to get it. I’ve learned just how low the odds are that he’ll be able get any kind of treatment at all. My family has lost everything because of his illness – our house, our savings, and our piece of mind. We can’t support him any more. Despite everything though, he’s my dad and I love him dearly. His illness was not something he chose and I know that he deserves better.
I often find myself wondering where God is in all of this. I know that God has the ability to take our tears and transform them. For me, you are my transformation. You have the power to take all of the pain that my family has experienced and transform it by advocating for increased funding and better mental health policy in your community. I’m standing in front of you today as a daughter who wants her dad back. I don’t know if that will ever happen for me, but if I could make that happen for someone else, I would do it in a heartbeat. As my brothers and sisters in Christ, I’m asking you to please stand with me for anyone who has ever experienced mental illness themselves and for those of who love someone that has.”
Happy Birthday, Dad.