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My Grandmother’s Murder and My Decade Of PTSD

Today, I’m still finding ways to cope, and I probably always will be. This is my reality after living with PTSD for a decade.

Two weeks after the murder, my tenth-grade biology teacher sent me an oversized greeting card in the mail. In different colors and sizes, students I knew—and some I didn’t—had filled it with condolences. I went to a small school in a small town and everyone knew what had happened. Mom’s mug shot had appeared on the local news just hours after she’d been taken to the county jail in handcuffs. WOMAN STABS MOTHER 20 TIMES had floated across a blue banner under her face.

Everyone knew I was there when my grandmother was killed, and there were no condolence cards for that kind of thing. Mr. M. had made his own by folding a large white poster board in two and stuffing it in a giant envelope. There were no instructions on what to write in a card like that either, so most students wrote I’m so sorry or time heals all wounds or she’s in a better place. Some notes were long, some short, some in ink, some in pencil, but they all shared the same sentiment: it will get better someday.

Everyone knew I was there when my grandmother was killed, and there were no condolence cards for that kind of thing.

The day before it happened, I was awkward and shy and ready for summer break to finally start in two weeks. I loved reading mystery novels and writing poems and posting funny surveys in MySpace bulletins. I hoped to become a writer one day, to write book reviews or interview interesting people about the things that mattered to them. I watched and rewatched the recordings of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill I’d saved on the DVR so I could quote them on my personal blog of poetry and angst. Back then, I didn’t believe in the idea that life could change in an instant. But then it did: one day I was worried about the grade I’d get on my math test and the next I was hiding in my bedroom listening to my grandmother’s murder.

I’m 25 years old now and I have never forgotten the sounds she made when she died. I have never forgotten what her blood looked like when I walked into the room after it was over—how it was nothing like the kind I’d seen in movies, not even the goriest Tarantino scenes. Last month marked a decade since I received that card from Mr. M., and sometimes I wonder if what I really wanted all those little notes to say was it will go away someday.

The summer I’d been waiting for all year turned out to be the hardest time of my life. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and was told I needed to see a therapist once a week. I was told it was normal to experience night terrors for a while, but for three months, I dreaded falling asleep. I knew that when I did finally sleep, I’d hear the screams again, see the blood again, relive that night again and again and again. All summer, I slept with the lights on and the door locked and a silver flashlight next to my pillow, and I’d wake up at the same time every night with a circle of cold sweat on the back of my shirt.

On the hardest nights, I experienced sleep paralysis… It was like having an endless panic attack while being stuck flat on my back, completely frozen.

On the hardest nights, I experienced sleep paralysis, a condition that makes you feel trapped in the space between sleeping and waking in which your body cannot move at all. It was like having an endless panic attack while being stuck flat on my back, completely frozen. I confused reality with dreams, and I’d often hallucinate, seeing figures on the ceiling above my bed. In the mornings, I would imagine myself two, five, seven, ten years older and wiser and better. Healed. Fixed. Normal. But time went on and the pain was still there.

Eventually, I could sleep with the lights off or go through a whole night without waking up, but there were triggers everywhere. Anything could spark a flashback. I jumped because a baby screamed while I was waiting in line to take my driving test at the DMV or I ran out of a movie theater because there was a pool of blood on the screen. Friends and family and therapists and books said it would go away eventually. Someday I’d be able to watch a horror movie again. Someday my eyes wouldn’t well up when someone jokingly said, “I’m going to kill you!” Someday I’d wake up and my first thought would be about something other than the murder.

Kristi DiLallo was 15 when her grandmother was murdered while she was in the next room. The symptoms of that trauma still persist; they are very real, and very physical.

Now that the tenth anniversary has come and gone, and as I get further away from the event itself, I feel like the opposite is happening: triggers have gotten louder, more constant. I’ve tried so many times to turn the volume down—through talk therapy, journaling, meditation, and even hypnosis. Over the years, there have been quieter weeks and months, but I’ve still never experienced complete silence. Most of the narratives that actually name PTSD are trauma-to-recovery stories in which time really does heal all wounds and survivors are heroes. And maybe that’s true for some people, but lately, even after all these years, I feel more sensitive than ever to the sight of blood or even hearing the word “murder.”

Now that the tenth anniversary has come and gone, and as I get further away from the event itself, I feel like the opposite is happening: triggers have gotten louder, more constant.

In the beginning, my most frequent symptoms were nightmares. For the most part, they didn’t even have to be triggered by anything; I’d simply fall asleep and have a nightmare about the murder because it was so fresh in my mind. These days, I’m having nightmares again—about twice a month or more—and the triggers can be unpredictable. Of course, some are more obvious, like an unexpected violent scene in a movie, but some are hidden in small pockets of my daily life. PTSD is a difficult condition to explain, because it’s the kind of thing people have to see to believe. We live in a time when trauma is either completely misunderstood or used as the punchline of a joke—the word “triggered” itself has literally become a meme. One of the most difficult aspects of living with PTSD is that it really is invisible: nobody sees those nightmares but me.

Six years ago, I binge-watched the original two seasons of Twin Peaks in one weekend in my college dorm room. I loved the show because it was silly but not stupid, spooky but not gory. It was one of the only crime shows I could watch without covering my eyes, and it offered a meaningful, unique portrait of teenagers grappling with the trauma and grief of a murder in a small town. I recognized myself in many of the characters, even the adults, and I admired them because their grief was loud and absurd all the time: Laura’s mother screaming and crying hysterically, her father dancing with the now-iconic photo of his dead daughter, her best friend searching for the truth about the crime. When you lose someone you love, especially when the loss feels like the stuff of horror movies, you want to scream at the top of your lungs and you want to remember what it was like to look at their face instead of a photo and you want to find out why any of this ever had to happen.

PTSD is a difficult condition to explain, because it’s the kind of thing people have to see to believe.

Last year, I was excited about the long-awaited return of the show, but it gave me the worst nightmares I’ve had in years. Eventually, after watching the first six episodes with a pillow in front of my face, I stopped watching it altogether—after a particularly gruesome episode depicting a bloody car accident involving a child, as well as two stabbing deaths. Friends who knew I loved the original show would text me after new episodes, and I would feel too embarrassed to tell them I’d stopped watching it. I worried about making them feel uncomfortable with the reality of my condition: because of a single night when I was fifteen, I just couldn’t watch the same TV show as them. Recently, I started to ask myself, why am I so ashamed of something I cannot control? Surviving a violent crime is difficult for so many reasons, and the grief and guilt manifest differently almost every single day. Some days I wake up wanting to tell everyone I meet what has happened to me; other days, I want to change my name and move somewhere new and never tell anyone ever again.

Maybe my shame comes from the expectations that other (well-meaning) people have about my trauma. When I do tell people about the murder, the usual response is, “I never would have guessed” or “You look so normal.” There have also been times when I’ve told someone and it made them so uncomfortable that they changed the subject or laughed because they thought I was joking. Even though I often feel completely consumed by the murder on the inside, there will always be people who want me to either perform my pain—in ways that they can recognize from shows and movies about tragedy—or pretend it never happened at all.

“Today, I’m still finding ways to cope, and I probably always will be. This is my reality after living with PTSD for a decade.”

When I think of Mr. M’s condolence card, which I continue to be grateful for, I think of how much other people’s perceptions of my trauma affected my own understanding of it. All these years later, the time heals all wounds narrative just doesn’t make space for wounds like mine—the kind that still sting. Most of those standard clichéd condolences suggest that you won’t be in pain forever, and as a fifteen-year-old girl in the thick of my grief, I saw that as a promise and I clung to it. So what was I supposed to do when the pain didn’t go away? Pretend it wasn’t there and be ashamed that it was.

In the last ten years, I’ve hidden my PTSD from many people in my life—family, boyfriends, close friends—to the point that I hurt myself by not bringing it up. Once, I watched a Scream marathon with a group of friends because I was too embarrassed to say why I didn’t want to. This, of course, resulted in a flood of flashbacks and nightmares I dealt with on my own. In a college sociology course on family relationships, I ran out of the classroom when the professor played a 911 call of a child screaming, “Something bad is happening in my house,” because it reminded me of the night I had to make that call. Again, I felt embarrassed and hysterical and childish, but later, when I told the professor about my situation during office hours, she responded with care and concern. Her only question was, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

I’ve learned that the only way I can expect others to try to understand my PTSD is to acknowledge it myself—and to cut myself some slack.

Since then, I’ve learned that the only way I can expect others to try to understand my PTSD is to acknowledge it myself—and to cut myself some slack. Last summer, after I stopped watching Twin Peaks, I made myself a promise: I challenged myself not to watch any shows or movies depicting murders, especially stabbing murders, for one month. My Netflix queue got a lot shorter, and the challenge definitely wasn’t something I planned on announcing to the world, but almost immediately, I could feel my mental health improve. I slept better. I didn’t wake up crying. I spent more time reading and writing and exercising. There were still other triggers around me, but I learned that setting my own boundaries gave me a feeling of control over a condition that has rendered me powerless so many times.

Today, I’m still finding ways to cope, and I probably always will be. This is my reality after living with PTSD for a decade: I Google movie and TV spoilers so I’ll know if I have to cover my eyes before a particular scene or if I should avoid watching it completely. I cry a lot, sometimes about the smallest things, and when I start, I don’t know how to stop. I get flashbacks on the subway or while I’m teaching a class or while I’m reading a book at home. And all of that is okay. I can allow myself to say no to a slasher movie and I can leave a room if I don’t feel comfortable and I can allow myself to enjoy the beautiful parts of my life, too. I don’t have to feel like a hero when I talk about PTSD, but I don’t have to feel weak or worthless or ashamed either. I know that although this will never completely go away, it does get better. Mine is not a story of trauma-to-recovery, but it is a story of trauma-to-hope, and I’m still learning how to tell it.

Creative Commons photo by Mark Strozier.

Profiles

Why The World Needs More Disabled Superheroes

Becoming a superhero is every kid's dream... but when it comes to disability, it's a dream not reflected in most comics. That's something a new wave of comic creators is looking to change.

In the comic book multiverse, anything’s possible. Characters with X-ray vision, superhuman strength or invisibility occupy each page and no one bats an eyelid. However, despite their extraordinary qualities, our heroes are flawed: they make mistakes, they have very human problems, which tempers their invincibility and makes them relatable.

Unless, of course, you’re disabled. While mainstream characters have chinks in their armor, disabled characters are usually either missing completely, or lazy stereotypes: grotesquely deformed villains, or damaged characters with an axe to grind. There are exceptions, of course–Daredevil is a famously blind superhero, albeit one whose superpowers compensate for his disability to such an extent that he might as well be sighted, and the X-Men’s Professor X is a paraplegic–but by and large, disability has largely been forgotten by comic makers.

But this could be changing. With more awareness of disability representation in the mainstream media, perhaps the superhero multiverse is due a shake up.

A Superhero With Down Syndrome

David Walker’s well known in the comic universe, having written Luke Cage and Nighthawk for Marvel Comics and Shaft for Dynamite Entertainment. As an established author and as a black man who knows what it feels like to be an outsider, he feels a responsibility to bring representation to his work.

David Welker has written comics for Marvel, Dynamite, and more.

“As a kid growing up, I did not see an adequate amount of representation that made me feel like I had a place in these large, make-believe worlds. And I still remember what that feels like. And so now that I’m in a position to create comics, I feel the least I can do is work to make other people included.”

When publisher Lion Forge approached Walker to write for Superb, a new comic about a meteor giving people all over Earth superpowers, Walker was initially on the fence. However, when he heard one of the lead characters, Jonah, had Down Syndrome, he was sold.

“I thought, if someone was going to write a character with Down Syndrome, I wanted to see it done right. I figured if someone was going to mess it up, I would rather it was me messing it up trying to do it properly than somebody to not give the character the love and attention they deserved.”

I thought, if someone was going to write a character with Down Syndrome, I wanted to see it done right.

Having volunteered with children with different developmental abilities, Walker felt well placed to tackle someone who is often misrepresented, misunderstood, or not represented at all.

“I think that everybody deserves characters they can relate to, and those characters should be painted in pictures that are as human as humanly possible.”

Walker read up on Down Syndrome, and ran workshops with children and their families. Then he got down to work. He’s not afraid to admit that creating Jonah meant confronting his own prejudices and preconceptions of what Down Syndrome was.

The cover of the Superb trade paperback, showing Jonah, a superhero with Down Syndrome.

“To admit this is embarrassing and shameful, but there were times I was writing him and I would think, did I make him sound too smart? It’s a difficult thing to admit. I realized afterwards, wow, how prejudicial is that on my part? This assumption that just because a kid has Down Syndrome means he can’t use big words or say things that are really smart, or really funny. And I got mad at myself for thinking that way. That’s our societal condition. And I just had to acknowledge that and grow.”

One concern was giving Jonah the humanity he deserved, in an interesting and engaging story.

“Jonah spoke to me a lot even before I started writing him. I know that might sound odd, but as a writer, you want your character to talk to you and to express themselves in a way in your imagination that makes it easy to write.”

“I think that everybody deserves characters they can relate to, and those characters should be painted in pictures that are as human as humanly possible.”

He also wanted to subvert the idea that disability is a hindrance.

“I wanted to make sure the message was, just because he has superpowers, his powers don’t negate his condition. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and the Down Syndrome doesn’t have to be a weakness, just part of who he is.

“Jonah’s greatest strength is that everyone underestimates him because of his Down Syndrome, which makes his Down Syndrome his greatest strength.”

Most importantly, Walker’s looking to do what he does best: to entertain, with plenty of action scenes and gripping plots. After all, that’s what his readers like, no matter who they are. “If a kid’s in a wheelchair or if they have autism or Down Syndrome, they’re still a kid, not some other, separate thing.”

The X-Men Of Disability

Across the Atlantic, in Hampshire, UK, Dan White’s been writing and drawing comics for years, producing the children’s comic Cindy and Biscuit as well as the more dark Terminus and Insomnia cartoons.

But it wasn’t until his daughter Emily, born with spina bifida, was three and Dan began to search television, books, and comics in search of characters in wheelchairs, that he realised how little was out there.

So he sat down at his desk, in his living room, and created The Department of Ability, a universe of characters, each with a disability. There’s Billy, a cat with carbon wheels, a radar and a transmitter. Jacob Claypole, who is blind with super-heightened senses and a weaponized cane, and of course, Emily, in her flying wheelchair.

There was nothing like The Department of Ability out there, Dan says. And as he drew, he realized that his project had potential outside his own living room.

“I didn’t know if the world was ready for a mainstream, fun, accessible story about Superheroes that showcases disability as normal, every day and brilliant, which disability is,” he says.

While authors have good intentions, White says many fall back onto tired stereotypes.

“A lot of authors … become unintentionally patronizing or they don’t flesh out their characters, investigate the reality of what this brilliant, diverse, talented community actually want..”

The Department of Ability is a superhero team of characters with disabilities.

 

All this community actually wants is to be seen, read or written about just like everybody else.”

Children know when they’re being talked down to, he says. “Sometimes authors go overboard in the sympathy or educational stakes, when all this community actually wants is to be seen, read or written about just like everybody else.”

“Treat children with equality of mind and they will astound you, children of all abilities have more imagination, glory, and knowledge than those who eternally dictate to them what they think they want to read and see. Engage and challenge your reader and they will adore you for it.”

As for Emily, she’s 12 now and proud of her dad and the characters he’s created. “She continues to plug the idea and its values to whomever she meets, a rare thing for an almost-teenager and gaming, music obsessive,” White says.

White’s 230-page graphic novel—which he describes as “totally original, loud, groundbreaking and unlike anything ever printed—is doing the rounds among publishers, and is getting nibbles in the UK, the US and Asia.

The publishing industry has been slow to come round to Dan’s idea, which is surprising given the attention he’s had from around the world from social media and mainstream news outlets.

It’s been a long time in the making, and he’d like to see it in print. Seeing themselves represented in print is no less than children like Emily deserve, he says.

Why Diversity In Comics Is So Important

New Jersey writer Erin Hawley—a critic who writes about comics and games on her popular website, GeekyGimp.com—has always loved Superman titles, and Betty and Veronica comics. But growing up with muscular dystrophy, there was never any question of seeing herself reflected in the pages she devoured so eagerly.

“I grew up without a strong notion of disability as an identity, so not seeing myself represented never occurred to me until adulthood.”

Erin Walker, a comics critic with muscular dystrophy, says more needs to be done to make comics more inclusive.

Now, she realizes how important it is for people from different groups to see themselves represented in the mainstream. Seeing yourself on the page; and a fair, empowering image of yourself, is vital for self-esteem. “It lets you know that you matter, that disability is part of who you are—and that’s OK.”

As well as wanting to see more disability representation in comic books and graphic novels, Hawley would love to see better-written characters, as existing characters are an “amalgamation of stereotypes and cliches.”

“Or disability is a catalyst for a character’s actions; their disability gives them a reason to be evil, to somehow get back at society or whatever. It always positions disability as a negative. This is especially true for villains or anti-heroes like Professor X.”

Other characters have their disabilities downplayed. “When we do get an awesome disabled character like Oracle (ed. – Barbara Gordon, previously Batgirl, who was paralyzed from the waist down up until a few years ago), their disability is stripped away.”

“I think I could have used someone like me in comics growing up—it would have made the transition to being proud of myself as a disabled woman much easier”

“When all you see in media is negative stereotypes, it lets you know that folks don’t consider you at all. And that’s an especially damaging message to send to kids and teenagers.”

“I think I could have used someone like me in comics growing up—it would have made the transition to being proud of myself as a disabled woman much easier.”

As White says, the time for change is nigh.

“Children and young adults tell me they are fed up with their media image and they love that my work gives them something of their own at last, which is so fun and accessible it can read by absolutely anyone.

“Representation isn’t hard, trust me.”

Essays

The Memory Queen

When Alzheimer's took my grandfather's memory, I started writing a fairy tale to make sense of our loss. But dementia cannot be defeated like a fairy tale queen.

Down the street from my grandparents’ condo in Hawaii, there used to be a nightclub with a cardboard-looking mural in front of it, depicting a woman snorkeling.

My family and I used to joke that the woman was my grandma. There was something about their similar stern, narrowed eyes, head of dark hair, and flawless light skin, despite the Oahu heat, that made the snorkeler’s face familiar. I had never seen my grandma swimming, and I had never so much as seen my grandpa in a pair of swimming trunks. But that mural was still a significant landmark, probably because trips to my grandparents’ place at that very young age usually meant that we would take a swim in their pool.

If we went to visit on a Sunday, we would shower upstairs in my grandparents’ apartment before going to our almost weekly family dinners at the restaurant of my grandparents’ choosing. Half-naked and ducking my mother’s attempts to approach me with a hairdryer, I would admire family pictures around the condo: official cruise photos in their glossy paper frames, posed family portraits, and school pictures of my sisters and me. There were almost always snacks around, which my grandparents offered constantly, despite our pending dinner, and my grandpa would often encourage me to change the television channel in the living room to something I would rather watch, even when a football game was on.

[My grandfather] loved us, he loved listening to everyone catching up, he loved my grandma. I felt privileged to have a seat at their table.

Then we would drive over to a Chinese restaurant or Japanese diner or the occasional steakhouse. With my grandparents forming the center of gravity, we would all pack into a large booth together, leaning in as they told us stories about their travels. They had a whole routine down with my grandma often enthusiastically beginning a story and my grandpa nodding in agreement beside her: a transatlantic cruise, a tour of Europe, a visit to Japan to see the cherry blossoms. One anecdote, in particular, shattered my preteen heart into a million pieces: one time, on a return flight to Hawaii, they were bumped to first-class, and found themselves sitting next to Justin Timberlake, Lance Bass, and the other members of NYSNC. As they regaled us with stories, waiters would stop by, asking for gambling tips my grandparents had picked up on their latest trip to Vegas.

Together, the two were the life of the party: my grandmother, always joking, commanding the room, a masterful raconteur; and my grandpa, her perfect complement, beaming by her side, giggling after her every punchline as though it was the first time he had ever heard it. My grandpa especially seemed to love these dinners, joyfully taking in the company of our family. He loved us, he loved listening to everyone catching up, he loved my grandma. I felt privileged to have a seat at their table.


When I finished sixth grade, my family moved from Hawaii to the suburbs of Georgia, but Oahu was always my home. In the summer months, we would return to the house where I grew up, complete with its shag carpet and ’50s flair, and resume our Hawaii lives: taking summer classes, hanging out at the mall with friends, and–most importantly of all–resuming family dinners.

Even when I left for college, I would still come back to visit whenever I could, staying with my grandparents in their condo. During the days, I would shadow my grandparents as they went about their days: watching The Price is Right with my grandfather, or watching my grandma make travel arrangements on her iPad.

In hindsight, I wonder if the midnight encounter might have been one of the first warning signs.

I was in my early 20s, and my grandparents usually let me do my own thing. One night, sneaking back into the house 2am after an evening out clubbing with my friends, I heard a rustling behind me as I took my heels off in the dark. It was my grandpa. Illuminated solely by the light leaking down the hall, he had appeared out of nowhere. My heart jumped guiltily in my chest as we studied one another. Then, I saw the bowl of Frosted Flakes in his hand.

“Want some?” he asked.

My grandparents are cool as shit, I thought to myself at the time. But in hindsight, I wonder if the midnight encounter might have been one of the first warning signs.


Long before we had a name for it–Alzheimer’s–we knew something was amiss with my grandpa.

We’d find him pacing around the apartment, moving things from one room to the next. Or we’d find him standing at the kitchen sink, washing a single spoon over and over again, which may not have even been dirty when he picked it up.

When I came to visit, Grandpa would hug me, but I could tell he didn’t know my name, or even what our relationship was.

For the most part, he was agreeable. He could pass as normal in large social situations, laughing when everyone else did, and fawning over my grandma. But if you watched him, you could see the subtle clues. He wouldn’t eat so much as push food around his plate, or offer it to others, claiming he was full despite having never taken a bite.

An old family friend said that my grandpa’s agreeable nature in the face of Alzheimer’s was a testament to what a good person he was before he was diagnosed. I appreciate the sentiment, but it always filled me with more questions. Who was he now? And what did that mean about the time we spent together? Did it mean anything at all?

Long before we had a name for it–Alzheimer’s–we knew something was amiss with my grandpa.

One summer night, my grandma gathered the relatives for dinner at a hotpot restaurant while I was in town. It felt just like it did when I was a kid. Everyone was talking loudly, telling stories about their travels. People asked me how New York was, where I’d been living for a few years, while we all cooked raw vegetables and meat slice in boiling pots of broth.

That was when my grandpa, who had been to this place before, picked up an uncooked noodle, took a bite of it, and frowned. “I don’t think I like the food here,” he said. I smiled reassuringly and showed him how to cook his noodle in the broth; no one else had noticed.

Afterwards, I couldn’t help but keep a close eye on him. I noticed my grandpa was looking through the faces of the people at the table, out of our private room. I tried to follow his gaze, but I couldn’t; I simply couldn’t understand what he was looking at.

Being so physically close to him but unable to connect was heartbreaking. I wondered if my grandpa felt that same sadness. Maybe in some ways, this is harder for us than it is for him, I thought to myself. If he can’t even remember, maybe he doesn’t understand what he’s lost.


When I got back to New York, I started writing to sort out my feelings.

The piece that started to take shape was a play. Not specifically about my grandpa, but a grandpa who suffered memory loss. It wasn’t Alzheimer’s, though. His memories were being stolen from him. There was an evil queen named Dementia, siphoning memories from David, the grandpa in the play who shared the same name as my own. And there was Mia, an estranged seven-year-old granddaughter, hell-bent on protecting David by collecting items of power from around her grandparents’ house to finally defeat the queen.

She wondered what it was like to lose all of your memories. She wanted to know how painful it would be

Mia asked all the questions I wanted to ask. She wondered what it was like to lose all of your memories. She wanted to know how painful it would be. Most of all, she wanted to know how to connect with someone she loved when he may not even know who she was.


As my trips to Hawaii became less frequent, my time there became more precious. I started spending less time with friends, and instead focused on my grandparents.

Suddenly, little moments felt very important. One afternoon, my grandma took us out for shave ice. My grandpa had a big sweet tooth, and we took our plastic cups back to the van and ate them in the car. We rolled down the windows, and my grandpa reclined his seat. I sat there, feeling the warm breeze on my face, as my grandpa finished his frosted rainbow cup, then closed his eyes for a short nap. Everyone was happy, and silent, and I couldn’t help but smile between bites.

But as much as I enjoyed these moments, I also felt an obligation to memorialize them. I tried to memorize every line of that moment–the incline of my grandpa’s seat, the expression on my grandma’s face, the exact patterns in each cup’s rainbow ice–so that the memory wouldn’t be lost in my mind, as it would be in my grandfather’s. There was an added layer of consciousness in our time, an awareness that every memory must be stockpiled for a time when I would need them for comfort.

I tried to memorize every line of that moment… so that the memory wouldn’t be lost in my mind, as it would be in my grandfather’s.

One day, my grandpa asked me if we could go for a swim together in the pool downstairs. In all our time together, he had never once shown any interest in swimming, but this time, he changed into his trunks and followed me out the door. I felt so goddamn grateful as I watched him float and bob around the water. At this point in his battle against Alzheimer’s, he sometimes wouldn’t even know who I was, yet here we were, sharing a rare moment together.

My next visit, my grandpa overheard my grandma mention I was on my way down to the pool. He perked up.

“We’ll go for a swim?” he asked, making little freestyle motions with his hands.

“Let her go, David,” my grandma said, mentioning it was time for a nap.

I went downstairs by myself, assuming he would sleep and forget the whole exchange. When I returned upstairs, however, he smiled at me.

“Swim?” he asked.

I wanted to throw up. Of all the things he remembered of our time together, that swim we had taken was one of them, and I had just shrugged off an opportunity to create another special moment we could have shared. I’d never get that opportunity back; we never ended up going swimming together again.


My play had a professional reading at the New Ohio Theatre in New York in 2013.

It was produced and directed by a coworker at the bookstore where I worked, and he assembled a top-notch cast for the occasion. I had a whole slew of professional actors at my disposal, one of which was on Broadway in Newsies, but one of my favorite people involved was the child actress playing Mia, who seemed fearless. My mom flew in for the big reading. She had never seen any of my plays, so it was a special occasion. I also had about 30 friends and colleagues in the audience, hearing my most personal work read out loud.

When the show was over, I received a lot of congratulations from the cast, crew, and audience. My mom really enjoyed seeing the process of a performance getting up on its feet. Some of my friends admitted to tearing up during the show.

But in the days that followed, I found myself getting a lot of feedback from colleagues. One note, in particular, came up consistently: Is this a kid’s show, or an adult’s show?

Mia conquered the fairy tale evil, but the very real consequences of Alzheimer’s persisted.

I was surprised. Despite the fairy tale plot, I’d never seen the play as being for kids. I saw Mia’s journey as an idealistic take on a disease that makes idealism impossible. It represented my hope that things maybe could get better, that there is something–anything–productive to do in the face of Alzheimer’s senseless loss.

The climax of the play occurs when Mia has collected all the items needed to defeat Queen Dementia. By recalling her favorite memories of her grandfather with these totems in hand, she is able to vanquish the Queen, and reclaim the key to the box where Dementia has hidden all of David’s memories. It rests on the family mantle, but when Mia reaches for it, David enters the room, startling it out of her hands to break open on the floor.

For a fleeting moment after the box breaks, David looks at Mia. There’s a flicker of recognition. But then Mia’s mom and Grandma come running into the room. The recognition is gone. Mia conquered the fairy tale evil, but the very real consequences of Alzheimer’s persisted.

Reality came crashing down with the locked box. All Mia’s hard work had culminated in a moment of clarity, but it had opened like a wound–pulsing and bright–and then healed over in the blink of an eye.


The news of my grandpa’s passing came quickly.

My grandparents were supposed to meet my parents in Vegas, but right before the trip, my grandpa was suddenly admitted into a hospice, By that weekend, he was gone. Spending the weekend with my boyfriend’s family for a barbecue, I remember crying outside a New Jersey Chili’s upon hearing the news. At the barbecue itself, I separated myself from the crowds, walked down the street to the boardwalk by the house, and wailed out my grief into the reeds lining the water, hugging myself as I did to keep myself together.

I had no illusions about how my grandpa’s life would end. I had been preparing myself for years for that call, stocking up my vault of memories. But as I gasped for air in the night, I realized that there had been part of me still believed the fairytale: that it was possible to vanquish Queen Dementia, and that I would be able to see Grandpa one more time, as he had been, if just for a minute.


I flew out for the funeral. With my work schedule and flights, I ended up in Hawaii for about 36 hours.

My mom and sisters and I stayed at an AirBnB within a few minutes of my grandparent’s condo which was so cramped, I had trouble sleeping. In the dark, I thought about that nightclub mural of my ‘Grandma’ snorkeling, and how the last time I saw it, they’d physically torn her out of it; only the ocean and fishes remained around the snorkeler-shaped gap. She was gone, but the absence of her was palpable. My grandpa, my childhood memories of going to the pool, that mural– everything was subject to change and loss. And I was the sea, feeling the gaps left by the things time had stolen from me.

At the funeral, I was given the task of handing out programs. On the outside was a photo of him smiling next to a giant spiral-cut, fried potato. It was a perfect choice–an image of the joy my grandpa got from the simplest things.

My grandpa, my childhood memories of going to the pool, that mural– everything was subject to change and loss.

The funeral itself was short but sweet. They played Taps on a bugle along with a military flag presentation, which I knew my grandpa would have loved. It reminded me of how, when my grandparents visited me in New York, he would grunt in appreciation during the pauses between lyrics in Broadway shows.

After the funeral, we all went to a Chinese restaurant for dim sum. There were faces there I hadn’t seen since my childhood.

When we walked in, my grandma was giving the waiters instructions, rearranging tables to make sure everyone was accommodated. Amidst the pinging of teacups, clinking of silverware, and whirring of Lazy Susans, people shared stories about my grandpa, and talked about things about him they’d miss.

But even there, life was moving on. At one point, during a talk about the latest movie releases, my Grandma perked up. “What’s Sausage Party?” she asked.

The table erupted in laughter.

I suddenly felt very thankful. We all missed my grandpa, and that loss will never go away. But the family will live on. Here, with all these people who loved and remembered him, something opened up, bright and pulsing. For a moment, even without him there, I was home again.

Creative Commons photo from Debs on Flickr.

Essays

My Father The Werewolf

When I was a kid, my Dad taught me all about werewolves. Little did I know he was preparing me to understand his depression.

The first time I realized my dad wasn’t like other dads, he sat straight up in bed, wide-eyed, and started screaming: “WHO ARE YOU? WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”

I would later become a smart aleck, but at the time, I was three, maybe four, so I didn’t respond to these questions the way I might now: “Hey, if anyone should know, it’s you.”

Besides, my father wasn’t joking. As he shook me by the shoulders, his eyes rolled white in his head, like the eyes of a terrified animal.

 

A moment before, I had been watching Sesame Street on the edge of my parents’ bed. My father was napping. He’d been sick for the last couple of days, so he’d stayed home from the office that day. It must have been late, because my mother, who also worked, was home. I think it was spring or summer, because it was still daylight out.

Or maybe it was a weekend in winter. How can you totally trust a 35-year-old memory? All I know is that when I remember that day, it happens in the evening. In the springtime. And my father is still there, still alive, shaking me by my tiny shoulders and yelling.

“WHO ARE YOU? WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”

Downstairs, my mother hears the commotion. She shouts up the stairs, “Bruce? What’s wrong?”

The reedy tremolo of terror in her voice gives my father, deranged, another vector than the small, shivering child he was shaking in his hands. (Did he know I was a child, let alone his child? Was he that far gone? Another answer I’ll never know.) He erupts from the bed, hurling me into the corner, and by the time I have picked myself up from the floor, the bedroom is empty.

I follow him into the hallway, sniffling. I feel the overwhelming guilt of the toddler, whose heart crushes itself under the solipsism of his newness. Whatever is wrong with my dad, I must be the cause. Yet I have no real idea of what it is I could have done.

Whatever is wrong with my Dad, I must be the cause. Yet I have no real idea of what it is I could have done.

He’s in the hallway now. Sun slants between the bannisters, painting dazzle camouflage against the staircase wall. He strides down it, something primal, senselessly screaming. My mother, also screaming, tries to meet him halfway, but with the effortless grace of an acrobat, he throws her over his shoulder. He has almost a foot of height on her; I peer from the top of the staircase as she is carried, kicking her legs, into the shadowed floor below. I don’t remember what she’s wearing, but her hair is a brown perm, laced with the gold of 1983 sunshine. Her face is toward me.

“Go upstairs John!” she shouts at me, with frantic eyes, as he carries her down. “Run!

I do run. I run back to the bedroom, where I close the door. Sesame Street is still playing. Things have happened so quickly that the very same skit my dad and I were watching together when he suddenly threw me across the room—sculptor Ernie plopping an orange nose onto a clay Bert—is still playing.

There, quaking in shock, I feel the floorboards beneath me vibrate as my parents howl and wail. Then, muffled, they both go quiet, and I hear my father sobbing. It curdles at the edges: a sob of utter existential defeat. There’s no power in it at all.

And that’s when I finally start crying too.

My dad spent the night in the hospital, maybe two. It was explained to me he’d had a reaction to a new medication; weaned off it, my dad was back a few days later, good as new. We never spoke about what happened that day. When I was younger, I thought it would shame him; when he was older, he would have no longer remembered any of it.

But that was how I learned that my dad was mentally ill.

 

As I write this, a third of a century later—my father’s ashes carefully locked in a gold-foil vacuum seal bag and placed in an understated black urn on my desk, so I can look at him as I write—I marvel at how easily my father’s severe depression was slotted into that long-ago toddler’s universe. In the span of a nightmare, I effortlessly swallowed up this new and horrible fact that the author of my being was just a flipped neuron away from being an entirely different person, one who forgot who I was, and even attacked me.

But when I think harder about it, I suppose it’s not so surprising.

Even before  his illness was revealed to me in such stark relief, he laid the groundwork preparing me to understand.

 

The Brownlee Family Clockwise from left: Sally, Bruce, and John.

According to family legend, the day my parents took me home from the hospital, they got in their first fight about how I should be raised.

Tired, my mom had asked my father to watch me while she took a nap; when she woke up, my dad and I were cuddled up in the living room’s cathode-ray gloam, watching a lycanthropic Oliver Reed bare his fangs on Channel 56’s Creature Double Feature. As someone who has been on the end of them, I can imagine her reprimanding shrieks. But from that day on, monster movies became a lifetime bond between me and my father.

A few years later, I remember cheap vinyl socks crackling as I sleepily ambled downstairs at night in my Dr. Denton’s, drawn to the flickering, fluorescent orange-blue that filled the living room like will-o’-the-wisps. My dad was in there, drinking a beer—he would stop drinking entirely because of medications a few years later—and watching The Howling. He picked me up, sat me on his lap, and we watched the last few minutes together.

I remember a lustrously coiffured Dee Wallace as a nightly news anchorwoman transforming into a gossamer blonde werewolf before being shot to death on-air by her executive-producer boyfriend. I wasn’t scared. I was fascinated. But one thing confused me.

As Dad tucked me back into bed, not even bothering to ask me not to tell Mom about this—we were always complicit on the subject of monsters—I remember asking him: “Why was the monster lady crying at the end?”

“It’s because she’s not a monster. She can’t help it. She’s just cursed.”

He pursed his lips in dry mock seriousness, nodded sagaciously, and quipped: “She must have been having a bad hair day!” (My father and I shared a sense of humor that is best described as equal parts Evelyn Waugh, Groucho Marx, and Al Jaffee’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.)

But then, I remember, he became thoughtful. He walked to the door, flicked off my bedroom light, and stood in the doorway. Molten around the edges, his far side illuminated, his profile an unknowable eclipse, he said: “It’s because she’s not a monster. She can’t help it. She’s just cursed. Love you, John.”

And then he shut the door.

 

So while it’s remarkable that I accepted my father’s depression so readily as a toddler—particularly following such a violent mental episode—it’s not so surprising when you realize that I already knew about werewolves. And what was my father if not a werewolf: the slave to the susurrus of primal tides whispering to him in a voice that only he could hear?

Panels from Tales from the Crypt No. 35, a horror comic John and Bruce used to read together. (Published with permission, William M Gaines Agent, Inc.)

Not that I believed lycanthropy was what literally had happened to my father that night when he shook me by the throat. I didn’t go into pre-school the next day, and, like Calvin, throw open my hands while dramatically intoning the title of an invisible ’50s movie marquee: “My Father Is a Werewolf!” I only mean to suggest that I accepted the fact of his personality-altering mental illness with the same innocence and appreciation of irony with which toddlers accept all fairy-tale curses.

Decades later, the werewolf analogy still helps me make sense of my father. Because, as with a werewolf, it is impossible to peel the man and the depression apart when you’re talking about him. They exist forever co-mingled, not in tooth-and-claw but in temperament.

 

Bruce Brownlee

My father, Bruce Gordon Brownlee, was born on December 30th, 1950, and died just 66 years and one month later.

As the oldest of three boys, his birthday caused him a great deal of anxiety growing up. He was never sure if there was a conspiracy between his parents to keep a few presents back from Santa to give him on his birthday, thus affecting a karmic sort of gift imbalance between him and his brothers. So, for his only son, he overcompensated. My Christmases growing up were maggoty with presents, and from my father—who never gave a gift that he wouldn’t want to get himself—my childhood was filled with formatively corrupting presents: sci-fi paperbacks, bound collections of horror comics with titles like Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear, and home-pirated VHS tapes packed with B-monster movies.

Dad spoiled me growing up, but he was generous with everyone, in quiet, understated ways that taught me a lot about what it meant to be giving. I remember, for example, that every time he went out shopping, he came home with a Hershey’s bar and a romance novel for my mother; unable to tell the covers apart, or remember the titles, he’d find ones she hadn’t read by checking the publication date. This is still, for me, the very definition of romance.

My father was generous, but he was also depressed, and the nature of depression is to be selfish.

I think about my father’s generosity a lot. My father was generous, but he was also depressed, and the nature of depression is to be selfish: to starve those who love you of the best of you, in the relentless feeding of that which can never be nourished. In that, he—the most depressed person I ever met—was also the most selfish. For my entire life, he would give me anything I asked for, as long as it was a movie or a book. But when my mother and I begged him half a dozen times to go see a doctor if he loved us, he wouldn’t lift a finger. How do generosity and selfishness co-exist like that in a person without destroying him?

I don’t know. And, of course, it did eventually destroy him. But that was my father: a lycanthrope of contrasts. Whatever he was, he was also the opposite.

 

 

Dad prided himself on his intelligence.

For a long time, I worshipped him for it. He was undeniably a brilliant man. As long as I knew him, he usually had two or three books going at once, ranging from trashy pulp paperbacks to sweeping overviews of post-Enlightenment culture. A shut-in for the last twenty years of his life, he probably read an average of a book a day. And if you were a fellow reader, to come over to his house meant having an armload of books foisted upon you: obscure Russian sci-fi novels, lectures by Nabokov, thick encyclopedias on film theory, or whatever other subjects your brief conversation might have touched on.

My dad’s recommendations were so good that, later in life, when he had been robbed of most of his memories, I would recommend books back to him that he’d made me read years before. He’d then brag to his friends about what great taste in books his son had, never knowing I’d grifted him with his own discernment and taste. (I don’t feel guilty. How many of us can say we’ve had the good fortune to read our favorite books for the first time twice?)

 

He knew just as much about film. Even more about music, if you can believe it. But none of his intelligence prevented him from being a colossal dumbass about the important things.

Take his health. The man—a three-to-four-pack-a-day smoker for most of his life—honestly believed that the health concerns around cigarettes were overblown. Since 1985, my parents lived on a steep hill, and the only sunlight he got for the last decade of his life was walking down to the corner to buy his Marlboro Lights 100s. In the last months of his life, it turned out that he had experienced light-headedness, numbness, and chest pains multiple times on this twice-weekly nicotine pilgrimage, but he never once told anyone about it. Instead, he would take so much aspirin his nose would bleed, while wrapping a frozen towel around his body like some sort of strange albino ice yogi, ignoring the tell-tale signs of what were proven later to be multiple heart attacks.

 

When he eventually had such a massive cardiac event that his heart practically exploded on the spot, my mother told me she thought he’d known he was having heart attacks but chose to ignore them as a way of killing himself. This, I think, is putting an overly heroic sheen on it, but the interpretation doesn’t surprise me. My mother worshipped my father, and there’s something noble about a slow, plausibly deniable suicide. But an intelligent, well-read man ignoring the obvious signs of his own impending heart attack while his loved ones beg him to see a doctor? That’s just the setup to a bad fucking joke.

The truth is, as I knew him, my father in his later years was a man who could intellectualize his way around anything, up to and including his own heart attacks. Intelligence, for him, had become not a tool to be applied to the real world, but something that replaced it: the ultimate nicotine patch.

A self-described “Jeffersonian liberal” and “Buckley man,” some of these justifications were political. Incapable of earning a living, my father railed bitterly against social welfare programs designed to help people like him, despite the fact that if it were not for my mother, he could not afford to treat his depression. Likewise, my father was a lifelong defender of science and sweat profusely if the mercury went above 68, but when he died, his reading table was stacked with small press treatises denying climate change.

Yet if anything, I found these rationalizations more understandable for having been political. Such intellectual infections are as subjective as they are universal; not so his other justifications, which served no other purpose than to shield him from the quick of life.

In the last years of his life, flesh-and-blood experiences became things no longer worth having. So though, through his library, he’d practically lived in Europe since he was 18, he never expressed interest in coming to visit me during the decade I lived there; there was nothing there, he insinuated, he hadn’t already experienced. Likewise, if Mozart himself had come back to life, my father–the man who took me to see Miles Davis live when I was three–would have expressed no interest in seeing him perform.

Before my father died, I once thoughtlessly told him that I didn’t care if my own kids grew up to be intelligent as long as they grew up to be kind, daring, and hardworking. To that, he didn’t say anything. He just lit a cigarette. Or he tried to. His hand was shaking so badly, he lit his sleeve on fire.

Intellect, you see, was all the self-worth he had left.

 

 

Growing up, my dad was my best friend. We were more than inseparable buddies; he was my hero.

When I was just a toddler, and his depression wasn’t as bad as it would one day become, my dad would take me down to Brookline every Sunday to a movie theater called Off-the-Wall. There, he would buy me a brownie, and we would watch old Buster Keaton shorts, while a tweed-decked septuagenarian accompanied the flickering silver screen on an out-of-tune ragtime piano. This is a quintessential “Dad” memory for me: How could anyone have a better date with their father?

When I was four or five, we played the same game every night. It went like this: right after my dad read my bedtime story to me, he would grab my favorite bath toy—a rubber rooster with a built-in squeaker that kind of looked like a down-rent Foghorn Leghorn—and jump under the covers with me. There, we would hide, snorting and giggling, until my mom came in to play her part. “Where’s Bruce and John?” she’d ask, ever the straight man, while the squirming, human-size lumps under the Return of the Jedi duvet responded in chorus: “Nobody here but us chickens! Cheep, cheep, cheep.”

My dad and I loved to draw together. He was particularly great at it, especially before his meds took away his hand coordination. One of his cartoons, called “My Pal, the Trashcan,” still sits framed on my desk, 33 years after he drew it. It’s essentially a self-portrait. My dad stands in the background with a fedora and an exclamation point above his head. I’m the pot-bellied kid, his belly button peeking out. My pal’s, quite obviously, the trashcan…not to be confused with the mythical toilet from which my father always insisted, with great solemnity, he had plucked me as a baby and for whom I am named: John.

My Pal, the Trashcan Bruce Brownlee

No one made me laugh harder. When I went to summer camp, he would send me care packages of comics and non sequitur postcards that were so hilarious that my camp counselors would read them aloud to the entire camp over mail call. One, featuring Humphrey Bogart smoking a cigarette, says on the back: “Dear John–Going through some old photographs, we came upon this baby picture of you! Boy, you sure were cute. (Note the pacifier.)” Another, which I’ve sadly lost, alleges to feature him indulging in extracurricular activities during a typical day at summer camp in the ’50s; the picture on front is Indiana Jones punching out a Nazi.

Years before MST3K, he and his brother, my Uncle Bob, initiated me to the joys of movie-riffing, ragging on movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Robot Monster until I was practically hyperventilating with laughter. He introduced me to Harvey Kurtzman, Firesign Theater, Jeeves and Wooster, Mad Magazine… influences which shape my sense of humor to this day.

We even traveled together. I remember a family trip we once took to Minnesota, where he kept me busy for three days straight by feeding me horror comics he’d squirreled away under the driver’s seat. One summer, we went down to Washington, D.C., to visit Uncle Bob, and he took me to a John Zorn concert, where the avant-garde saxophonist performed a cover of the ’60s Batman theme as if just for me.

These are the years I remember most vividly about my father.

The further back I go, the more clearly defined he was. It’s when I remember him in the later years of his life that he grows hazier. The memories themselves don’t go fuzzy; he does.

 

In 1989, my father—bullied at work for his mental illness—quit his job and became, for all intents and purposes, a shut-in.

As a writer, it makes me sad that, for what would end up being the last three decades of his life, there’s almost nothing to describe about this period, except to say it was one of slow-motion entropy. During it, he gradually lost abilities most of us wouldn’t even think to call “skills”: To pick up the phone and call someone, go visit a relative, or even just open the mail.

Within just a few years, my father’s entire life circumscribed an irregular quadrangle just a couple thousand square feet in area. One axis was the local gas station, where he bought his cigarettes; another, his bed, where he slept 16 hours a day. A third was his office, where he kept his computer and which—after his death—was so clogged with depression and ash that you would believe he’d been cremated there on the spot. The last axis was the couch, where a Dad-shaped indentation weighs down the springs to this day. It was here he read books, watched movies, and drank coffee by the pot.

 

Over time, he started refusing to see his psychiatrist regularly. This didn’t result in him being cut off from his meds: His psychiatrist continued to prescribe them based on my father’s emails and my mother’s reports on how Dad was doing.

He also stopped seeing other doctors. The result was that we no longer had any idea how many of his shakes and tremors were because of his meds and which were because of his undiagnosed illnesses.

Likewise, he wouldn’t see dentists, so he started losing his teeth. His resulting self-consciousness formed a closed feedback loop with his depression, dead-bolting him in the house. His hair grew long and lanky; he became so pale as to be nearly translucent. At 65, almost nocturnal, he had the look of a toothless white wolf.

 

Every werewolf story is about a silver bullet.

This was true for my father. But the silver bullet he believed would one day cure him wasn’t literal. It was some magic drug that would one day be fired out of the rotating barrels of a pharmaceutical company’s R&D revolver.

If you suggested that he go for a walk or a run, or go with you to a movie, or volunteer somewhere, or see a therapist, Dad would openly scoff: He’d tried all that, and the only thing that ever worked against his depression was drugs.

“No one really understands why the brain works the way it does.”

In his youth, he’d apparently abused alcohol and experimented with psychedelics; it was to his great credit that, once I was born, he’d mostly given these up for my mother. “Booze was the only thing that ever really made me happy,” he once told me, wistfully, through the literal rose-colored sunglasses he wore whenever he left the house, even on the cloudiest days.

But until I was about 27 or so, he still held out hope that the next medication he was prescribed would be the one that would finally obliterate his depression.

“No one really understands why the brain works the way it does,” he would often say, like a priest reciting a holy mystery. According to this logic, then, it was just a roll of the dice before the pharmacologists stumbled upon the mystical alignment of molecules that would make his brain work like it should. Until that moment arrived, there was little point in doing anything but wait; happiness could not be found in anything but chemistry.

Yet even from an early age, I was doubtful my father would recognize the silver bullet he was looking for if and when it ever came for him. If you asked him on any given day how he was feeling, he’d reply: “It’s the worst day of my life,” no matter whether he was comatose with depression or talking to you on your wedding day. It was almost like my dad had lost his inner compass to tell you how he was feeling: even if he acted like he was feeling better, he’d tell you he was feeling worse.

I once asked my dad what he thought happiness was; he told me it was a gin and tonic. He wasn’t joking. The only way my father could imagine the experience of not being depressed anymore was to equate it with being euphorically drunk or high. But this isn’t what wellness is. Neurotypical humans still feel sad, and hopeless, and anxious, and overwhelmed. It isn’t that they are happy all the time: it’s that they’re capable of happiness in the first place. I realized my dad didn’t understand this, and because he didn’t understand it, all his silver bullets would inevitably wear away to show the brass beneath.

No wonder the medications he thought were “working” made him manic, and inevitably led to deep crashes, which just made him ever more desperate.

No wonder the silver bullet he eventually turned to came from a can.

Tales From The Crypt No. 35 (Published with permission, William M Gaines Agent, Inc.)

 

One morning, shortly before dawn, my mother awoke from a nightmare very early to find herself sleeping alone. This wasn’t unusual—my dad was a night owl—but when she went downstairs, she found him in the living room, drinking a six-pack by himself.

It was a bigger deal than it sounds. Drinking while taking the sort of meds he was on could trigger another violent episode like the one that had happened so many years before. Twenty-odd years earlier, in fact, my mom threatened to leave Dad if he ever drank again. From then on, he never drank a drop.

But he was drinking now. It was a sign of how truly desperate things had become.

My mother didn’t leave him. How could she? She worshipped him. But as a last-ditch effort to cure his depression, they went to his psychiatrist and told him—over the doctor’s objections, surprisingly—that they wanted to try something extreme: electro-convulsive treatment, or ECT.

In other words, electroshock.

In other words, electroshock.

I was 26 or 27 and living abroad when my mother called to tell me about this.

“No one really knows why it works, but it does,” my mother insisted, blindly repeating one of my father’s holy mysteries into the telephone mouthpiece. “It’s not like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Really, the stigma of this treatment has really prevented a lot of people from being helped!”

Stunned, I said nothing.

More to fill the silence than anything, my mom told me all the possible side effects: confusion, disorientation, memory loss. But those side-effects would be temporary, and if it worked, my dad’s depression might be cured.

When she was finally talked out, I stammered: “When do you think… when would this start?”

A long pause.

It had already started.

 

Initially, I followed the lead of my father’s black humor and treated his ECT like a joke.

 

From my mother, I heard that my dad had ironically started wearing a T-shirt with Daffy Duck dressed as Napoleon to his ECT sessions. Delighted, I completed his outfit by mailing him a crushed velvet bicorne, replete with a large N stitched in French piping across the front. Eventually, I heard from my mother—my dad was always too tired to talk on the phone during this period—that this ensemble was eventually banned from the ECT ward, not because it was insensitive, but because it was making Dad’s fellow depressives laugh too much.

It was only when I came home for Christmas that I realized exactly how invasive the treatment really was.

It was a few months after his treatments began, and he’d had a session before my plane arrived.

“Look, Bruce, it’s John!” my mother said, with a not-quite-convincing air of nonchalance when he came slumping down the stairs as we arrived home from the airport.

My dad covered up his confusion, but I could tell he didn’t recognize me at all.

And suddenly, ECT didn’t seem so funny.

 

In the end, my father had about 18 ECT sessions over six months. “Far, far too many,” my mom said gravely when I asked her to confirm that number ahead of writing this. (Patients usually receive six to twelve sessions.) “We should never have kept going.”

Looking back, it’s hard not to agree. But for a while, the changes seemed miraculous.

Yes, my dad’s memory was shot. When it came to me, it was as if he’d experienced a time jump. He remembered me up until my tenth birthday or so, after which, I suddenly aged 17 years overnight.

Those memories never came back; to reminisce with him about something, I’d have to tell him the memory first. He simply had no recollection of how I had grown into the man I had become, and for the rest of his life, viewed me with a combination of love and awe, as if he wondered: How can this normal, functional person be my son?

 

But it had its advantages. For example, I no longer had to worry about whether or not I was buying books he’d already read for Christmas or his birthday. We got to watch Robot Monster together and laugh at the Billion Bubble Machine all over again, as if for the first time. And it blotted from my dad’s memory some of the more embarrassing or shitty things he’d caught me doing over the years: when I’d stolen money from his wallet as a teenager, for example, or the time he’d caught me watching some vintage ’70s porn when I was 15.

I also enjoyed my father’s utter incredulity about some of the more peculiar specifics of our shared history. For example, when I was 19, my dad once woke me up in the middle of the night in a panic. He had somehow infected my mother’s work computer with a virus that had converted the screen of her Windows 95 desktop into what can only be described as a pornographic amalgam of pulsating, 16-bit genitalia. “I don’t know what I did, but you gotta help me get it off before your mom wakes up, John!” he hissed to me through the door.

My dad was in stitches when I told him this; he just couldn’t believe it had happened.

 

The reason my mother and I were able to overlook my dad’s memory loss was because he suddenly wanted to do things again.

In the middle of his treatments, Mom and Dad took a trip up to Wells Beach in Maine, where I was conceived. There, they walked the beach and talked about their future…something they hadn’t done for years, because depression has no future.

They talked about their future… something they hadn’t done for years, because depression has no future.

And Mom wasn’t the only one who benefited. On my second visit home after his ECT, my dad asked me to take a walk with him, seemingly for the hell of it. We walked for about a half hour, talking about movies. To this day, although I can barely remember where we walked or what we discussed, the emotional memory of that walk makes something swell painfully in my throat.

The truth was that I could live with a father who didn’t remember where I came from, as long as we had a future together.

Right before I moved to Ireland, I remember coming home one night and finding my dad in the living room, sitting quietly. I thought I’d join him, but as I approached the couch, his eyes barely flickered at me before resting back on the silent TV. I must have thought he was engrossed in a movie—maybe one of those old silent movies we used to watch together—but when I sat down, I saw the television was off.

“Watching a ‘Zero-D’ movie, huh, Dad?” I asked him, recycling one of his favorite jokes–a play on 3-D movies–from when I would hide my eyes while watching scary movies as a kid.

He didn’t laugh. He didn’t smile. His eyes didn’t shift. He just kept smoking, silently. And when he was done, he stubbed out the butt and lit another one, just as quietly.

We sat there for some time, at midnight, watching nothing together. Then I kissed him on the forehead and went to bed, knowing in my heart that the next time I flew back to the States, it might be because he’d spilt his veins into the sink.

Compared to the fatalism of my father’s impending suicide, ECT seemed like a godsend.

 

My father was the one person who didn’t think the ECT had worked. But we didn’t take him seriously.

“I still hate myself,” he once told me. “Just now, I can’t remember why.”

We didn’t really listen. True, my father wasn’t really a reliable narrator of his own experience: He was the man who called wolf because there was always one hiding right behind his eyes. But that’s not why we didn’t listen. We ignored him because his memory loss seemed inconsequential compared to the fact that after years of neglecting our needs and wants, he was finally giving us new memories to remember him by.

But my dad was right. A year later, maybe two, his depression was worse than ever, except now, he was only a shell of who he once was. For a while, yes, he was disoriented enough to be more compliant with us, to go with the flow. But that compliance was never happiness.

ECT didn’t work, at least for him. It didn’t cure his depression, any more than you can cure a werewolf by ripping out his fangs. For my father, the books he’d read, the movies he’d seen, the albums he’d listened to were his eyeteeth, and by taking them out, all we’d done was succeed in making him toothless. In his compliance, yes, we mistook him for tamer, and in his tameness, we mistook him for being—if not happy—then well. But ECT had robbed him of his sense of self.

He didn’t die immediately after that. In fact, he lived another ten years. But he never tried to get better again.

John’s Wedding: The author’s wife and her parents, then from left to right, the author, Sally, and Bruce

 

When I was a teenager, I felt like I was the first person whose soul was ever scraped raw by the world. When I met others who felt the same way, we bonded to each other like barnacles. Although I don’t have that much in common with them anymore, these teenage friends are still the ones closest to my heart. It’s probably the same for you.

When my father was a teenager, he had a wickedly clever friend. His name was John.

My father and John found companionship in their love of pulp fiction, weird movies, jazz, rock, and psychedelic drugs. They also connected over their mutual battle with depression.

Then, when he was 24, John murdered his parents. He stabbed his mother to death with a butcher’s knife and killed his father while he was watching TV, smashing the elder’s skull in from behind with a single blow from a sledgehammer.

For his crime, John was institutionalized for life. After that, my dad never seemed quite comfortable making close male friends anymore.

I often wonder about this friendship. What was it like for my father?

For a few years, you have this friend, who loves all the things that you do and shares all the things you’re going through. For the first time, you feel understood. But then, this friend, this doppelgänger, turns out to be a maniac and has to be locked up.

Do you come to believe the inevitable endpoint of your depression is insanity, then being locked away forever?

If so, perhaps it was a foregone conclusion that once my father attacked me and my mother, he would believe that he should be locked away. And if the outside world wasn’t going to do it, his subconscious would.

After all, every werewolf story also ends up with self-imprisonment—ostensibly to protect others, but really so the werewolf can protect itself from the wounds of the world.

 

Tales From The Crypt Issue No. 46 (Published with permission, William M Gaines Agent, Inc.)

There’s a theme in literature, closely related in its own way to the duality of the werewolf myth, that I know resonated with my father.

“What makes Hornblower a hero is that he secretly believes he’s a coward,” he once told me when crushing one of his favorite C. S. Forester novels into my hand. “It’s what makes him act, but it’s also what torments him: the insistent belief that if another man were in his place, he would have acted without the same fears and self-doubts.”

What appealed to him in the adventures of Horatio Hornblower was the enormous divide—present even in great men—between our perception of ourselves and the qualities of the person we want to be. It is, I think, a divide that every self-aware adult can identify with; only sociopaths feel there is no divide within themselves at all.

The divide never goes away, but those of us who are able to achieve contentedness in our lives are able to bridge this gap over time, establishing a link of understanding between the reality of our condition and our own expectations of ourselves. A life well-lived is one that adds new boards and nails to that bridge every day.

As for depression, it’s the chasm that exists between. You build your bridge, don’t look down, and pray it never swallows you, because if it does, you’ll fall forever in that bottomless gulf, and die without ever landing.

That was my dad. The bridge he tried to build for himself earlier in his life inevitably broke underneath him. And in the gulf into which he fell, he fell forever, stranded within arm’s reach of both the person he was and the person he most wanted to be. We, those who loved him, wanted him to climb out, but the gulf was too wide. Once he fell, the closest we ever saw him come was when his fingers scraped the sides.

My father was my hero, but he was also the person I spent my whole life trying as hard as I knew how not to be. It’s filled me with complicated feelings about him—feelings I don’t know I will ever entirely know how to resolve.

So if, through depression, he was what I’ve called him—a lycanthrope of contrasts—then I’m a werewolf too.

When I remember him, the full moon will ever rise upon my thoughts. 

Tales From The Crypt No. 39  (Published with permission, William M Gaines Agent, Inc.)

 


Cover & Illustrations by Skip Sterling