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The Flickering Flame

A Family Story of Mental Illness

I am photographed here with my father, Edwin,  and my older sister, Gaby, making a gingerbread castle in 1971. Its walls had stained glass windows made from crushed life savers that flickered and glowed beautiful colors when you put a votive candle inside.

It was our first Christmas since my parents' divorce. I was five. My father had come back home to share with his three children some of the culinary wizardry he'd learned in Paris before he met our mother.  For some reason a professional photographer was there, photographing the picture perfect scene. I think it may have been a shoot for an article my mother was writing about the family.

My father had bi-polar disorder, or what was then called manic depression.  He died five or six years after this event, from an infected ulcer. He basicly died of self-neglect. Although he had once lain down in the intersection of Broadway and 96th Street in an incredibly inefficient attempt at offing himself, it hadn't worked.

Over thirty years later my sister, Gaby, was officially diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.  She was 47 when, two years ago, she had a manic episode that  resulted in her arrest at her job at a New York City law firm. The "Human Resources" department was firing her, and she was upset, and asked to see her bosses, and they had her arrested.  She was released from Elmhurst General three weeks later, having never accepted any medication, shrewdly assenting to the required appointment with  a counselor upon returning to her life.  She continued to spiral through this weeks-long mania, back at home with no job and no support system. And three weeks after returning to her life she jumped from the roof of her building.

Neither one of them, my father or my sister, had a mean bone in their body.  My sister could be very argumentative and she and I were prone to fights that escalated. But most of the time she was meek and mild.  My father was always loving.  His parenting was inappropriate at times... like the weekend when I was visiting, about ten, and he was depressed and he smoked pot in front of me and tried to take me to see a sexually explicit risquee film involving an underage actress.  Pretty Baby with Brooke Shields, which was out that year and all the rave.  We walked across town from his subsidized apartment in the east Village to the movie theater on Greenwich Avenue. Thank god for the long line, and I think also the glares of the people in it, my dad decided to bag the crowd and we walked back home.  On the way home he had me wait in the street while he stopped into a bar for a quicky.

Not good parenting.  But my father wasn't violent in any way, shape, or form. He never even raised his voice.

THey were both beautiful, if troubled, people, with plenty of gifts to bring the world. My father had a love of good food and poetry and Bob Dylan. He had been a news reporter, and had studied cooking at the Sorbonne. He was a man of culture, with a refined appreciation for beauty. He took us to museums. He had a great laugh, and laughed easily as we'd play Climb The Mountain, where holding his hands, I would walk up his legs and then flip myself backward through our arms as I'd land on my feet. We played flying angels. Both games I now play with my son as my soul shines with happy times I once had with my dad, now long departed.  My sister was gifted at computers and horticulture and athletics and skating, as well as carrying on the culinary passion instilled by our dad.

The majority of times, if the mentally ill commit violence, it is self-inflicted violence.  Most of those who suffer would never hurt a fly.  Unless that fly is themselves.  In 2010 CNN reported that twice as many suicides as homicides occur annually in this country.

I think it's important to keep in mind. We shouldn't fear the mentally ill.  After blogs like I Am Adam Lanza's Mother went viral, it's easy to jump to conclusions that the mentally ill are dangerous.  But there are many stories of people with mental illness getting good treatment and living productive and healthy lives where they contribute to society.

But when we add a gun hobby and a video game to the equation, when you add isolation, and denial, rather than treatment and compassion and integration into the community, maybe that is when we should fear.

To my father Edwin and my sister Gaby, two gentle and loving angels who left this world too soon, may you rest in peace.  And to all the mentally ill who have died passively,with iittle recognition or understanding before your time, may your stories teach us something- may your light still flicker from your graves.