Mental illness is prevalent in my family, as it is in many. Since before I was born, my Dad battled schizophrenia. But the disease goes much deeper than just my father. His mother was involuntarily committed to a mental institution when she was in her thirties and he was only four-years-old. And his older brother lived in a state mental hospital from the time he was 20 until he died in his 80’s—over 60 years.
While I was growing up, my dad was in and out of mental institutions. At first, I was too young to understand why my daddy would “go away” for months at a time. Then as a teenager, I was so embarrassed that I lied to my friends about where he was. At times I even lied to myself. It was so hard for me to understand why my father was not like the dad next door or the one I saw on weekly sitcoms.
Throughout his life, he took a variety of medications, but none of them seemed to help. He underwent “shock treatments” which erased wide swaths of his memory. He’d come home from a stay at the hospital having forgotten key parts of his life.
After my children were born, I longed for them to have a close relationship with their grandfather, but his unpredictable actions made him unsafe for them to be around, and I could never leave the room when he was there.
This was my relationship with my father until he reached his 70s. Then a new drug was introduced to the market that made all the difference in him. Suddenly, I was able to have conversations with him. He was interested in reading the newspaper. He talked about being proud of what my children and I had accomplished in life. For five years or so, I knew what it was to have a father.
And this is why I walk. So that researchers at UNC will have the opportunity to discover a new medication that will give people like me the chance to have a real relationship with their family members. So that individuals who struggle with mental illness will have a shot at a “normal” life. So that grandchildren can know their grandfathers.