Phobias and living with the mentally ill

I ordinarily consider my blog to be a humor blog and if you go to my blog’s facebook page you’ll see a picture of a cheeto that I’ve been saving since 2008 because it looks like a penis.

That said, if you’re here for funny today, prepare to be disappointed.  In fact, I’d just skip this post altogether.  Dark and depressing tales lie ahead.

This is something I wrote in August of 2008 and just rediscovered.  It is probably the unfunniest thing I have ever written.  Having just re-read it though, I am really proud of it.  I originally wrote it as a semi-private / friends only post on LiveJournal but I think this is one that needs to be shared publicly.  This post sums up, better than I thought I could actually, what it’s like living with a phobia and living with someone with a severe mental illness. My hope is that it will help someone who has been in my shoes, or who is in my shoes, realize they aren’t alone.  I can honestly say, it does get better.  I’m better than I was in 2008.  I sleep in dark and silence most nights now.  I use public restrooms.  I’ve endured public transportation.  I’m finally moving on.

This post is about my dad.  He would have been 59 next Tuesday.  Happy Birthday, Dad.  It’s okay.  I turned out alright.  We all did.

As written August 5, 2008:

I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot lately, which is really a difficult thing for me and something I try very hard to avoid. My dad was not a bad man but did a lot of psychological damage to my family nonetheless. I have some pretty severe phobias and social anxiety, thanks to my dad.  It is difficult for me to be around other people. The really rough part of that is, no one really understands what I went through with my dad. I think Beth understands to a lesser degree and Beth was the only one I would bring around him in the last years of his life for that reason. But even Beth never saw him when he was doing badly. No one did. We hid him away because we knew no one would understand. It was horrible when he was bad. I had to sleep with the TV on for years because I couldn’t fall asleep without thinking about it. Every time I shut my eyes little reels would play with the sights, sounds, and smells of my father in his worst moments. I have tried everything to clear my mind of it, even visualizing an eraser erasing it away. Nothing worked and finally I just started watching TV till my eyelids grew too heavy and I fell asleep. It has only been in the last few years that I have been able to turn the TV off. My dad killed himself 12 years ago.

I know other people had far worse things going on in their childhoods than I did. I was not abused (though some might say otherwise), I was never molested or sexually assaulted. What makes my situation difficult is that people not only don’t understand, the few times I have tried to talk about it, people think it’s funny or that I am overreacting. It’s not funny, though I have learned to joke about it in order to make it tolerable. I think the problem is, unless you have been exposed to someone severely mentally ill on an ongoing basis, you can’t possibly know what its like. Hollywood underplays mental illness. Our society jokes about it but I spent 13 years living with my father and another 5 years staying with him on weekends. I have spent countess hours visiting him in hospitals and psyche wards because he tried to kill himself, or developed infections from trying to cut demons out of his body, or bashed his head into the wall repeatedly to stop the voices. I have pretended to sleep as my dad stood a few feet away, sobbing, begging god to take his life. I have seen my father forget who he is, think he is fictional characters, and turn violent against other people, though thankfully, never against us. I have had to scream “dad” repeatedly to interrupt a conversation my dad was having with himself so I could ask to go out to play. I have ridden in the car with my dad and watched his eyes unfocus, heard him start mumbling to himself, and prayed that he’d stay in control of the car. I have spent hours visiting psyche wards and I can say, as someone with a lot of basis for comparison, my dad was just about as crazy as it gets. As time went on he got worse and worse.  After a while I didn’t have people over anymore. In the later years I would only visit him a few times per year out of guilt and would leave as quickly as I could find an excuse to. I feel a great deal of guilt over that. It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t ask to be mentally ill. My brother and I both fear we’ll end up like him. After all, his father was was mentally ill and committed suicide too. Obviously we have a strong family history of mental illness.

Though having a LJ friend’s father commit suicide is what prompted me to finally get this off my chest, it was actually milk that brought it all back up again. I bought a 1/2 gallon of milk on the way to work last week so I had it with me while I was driving home. Having been on the phone all day my mouth was really dry and I looked over at the milk and thought, ‘Marley’s going to her dad’s so I’ll be the only one drinking it anyway’ so I opened it up and took a drink. That action brought back a memory which triggered this relapse in thinking about the bad times with my dad. The memory won’t likely seem that bad to anyone else as most people do not fully understand phobias and my phobia seems really silly to most people anyway, but here’s my attempt to help you understand: Take whatever you are most afraid of and multiply that fear by 1000. You are now so afraid of this thing that you’ll avoid any and all situations where you may possibly encounter it.  You have nightmares about it.  Every time you shut your eyes you imagine it.  You even avoid being around other people because they may sneak it up on you. If you do encounter it, even in a vague or indirect way, your heart races, you shake from head to foot, you can’t breathe, and go into immediate involuntary flight mode so severe that you actually put yourself in danger, doing things like trying to escape moving vehicles, or fleeing into the street. Imagine living your life like this everyday. That’s what its like having a phobia. It is not just a fear. It is a severe, paralyzing fear that controls your life.

I have a phobia of vomit. I have had it since I was a little kid and I have it as a result of my father. People often find it funny, but fear of vomit is actually a horrible phobia to have. I could encounter vomit at any given moment of my life.  Once I have encountered vomit in a situation, every time I am in that situation going forward, I am a nervous wreck, expecting to see vomit again. For example, I have seen someone pull off to the side of the road and vomit out their car door.  Now, every time I see a car off to the side of the road, my heart rate increases, I hold my breath, and I look away until I have passed. I have seen someone cough so hard they vomited so people coughing scares me. I have seen people vomit from hiccups, so people hiccuping scares me. I am afraid to use public restrooms. I am afraid to be around people drinking alcohol. I am afraid at amusement parks (though I really love them. I am afraid the entire time I am there though).  Thanks to Monty Python I am afraid of extremely obese people. I am afraid of small children.  I’m afraid to use public transportation. The list goes on and on. My heart stops at least once a week because someone says or does something which makes me afraid they may vomit. It is a horrible, horrible way to live. That said, I can now explain the milk memory and why it brought back this flood of memories I have tried so hard to suppress.

When I was around 10 years old, my dad had run to Ameristop and bought a gallon of milk. For reasons I cannot comprehend, he decided to chug it on the way home and at some point choked and proceeded to spray milk vomit all over the inside of his truck. Now, before I continue, let me tell you about my dad vomiting and why it led to my phobia.

I am not sure if it was his medication, nerves, the several packs of cigarettes he smoked a day, the fact that he didn’t sleep, or the gallons and gallons of iced tea he consumed but when my dad was doing badly he would vomit A LOT. When I say a lot, I am referring to both quantity and frequency. I remember often being in my room with the door shut, the radio blasting, my fingers in my ears and humming, and not being able to drown out the sound of my dad vomiting. It wasn’t the gagging or the hurling that was the worst. It was the vomit hitting the toilet. Gallons of it. I guess my dad’s stomach must have been stretched out pretty well from all the iced tea because it sounded like a 10 gallon bucket being repeatedly dumped into the toilet. And that was when he made it to the bathroom. He would sometimes cough or hiccup till he vomited and sometimes it would come out of nowhere. On these occasions he’d projectile vomit accross the room, or into his lap, or his iced tea glass, and it would spash up and spray everywhere. It was like that scene from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (I hate that movie, shudder) with the fat man vomiting in the restaurant. It was horrible. We only had one bathroom so I learned how to get in and out as quickly as possible and to shower very quickly. Quite often I’d go in there to find streaks of vomit down the side of the tub or on the toilet bowl. I was a nervous wreck all the time as a kid and I remember feeling so guilty for it. I hated my dad for making me feel afraid all the time even though I knew it wasn’t his fault. I was so happy when my mom finally filed for divorce but had to feel even guiltier when he attempted suicide afterwards. I think guilt is a personality flaw of mine.

So when I was 10 and my dad vomited all over his truck he came into the house and said, “I think this milk is bad. I drank some on the way home and it made me puke. I’m going to do lay down. Go out and open the windows of the truck to let the smell out and I’ll clean it up later.” At that point I became somewhat hysterical and begged my dad not to make me roll down the windows. I never told my dad I was afraid of vomit because I was afraid it would make him feel bad.  Because he didn’t know, he just thought I was being ridiculous. I don’t think it would have mattered anyway though. Most people I tell think its a stupid fear and have no sympathy for me anyway. But the point is, the thought of having to go out and roll down those windows was the scariest, most awful thought in the world to me. I was absolutely hysterical, begging not to have to do it. My dad told me if I didn’t stop acting like that he’d give me a reason to cry.  Then he took off his belt. I don’t remember if I got a spanking or not, but I do remember having to roll down the windows. It was hot and it stank and they were the old roll down type so it took forever and I got vomit on my hand. I remember sobbing the entire time and shaking all over. It was probably the cruelest thing anyone has ever done to me.

I guess the fact that he vomited like that when he was doing so badly is why I am so afraid of vomit. I know it can’t hurt me. It doesn’t even make me feel sick. It just fills me with terror and a desperate need to get away from it as quickly as possible. I guess I just learned at a young age to associate vomiting with the scary, crazy behavior my dad sometimes exhibited and learned to see it as sort of a warning sign to get away.

That’s where the old post ended, more or less.  The rest was just about how writing it out helped me deal with things.  It still does.  That’s why I blog.  I’ve realized that it also gives me perspective.  I am at a much happier and more stable place than I was just 4 years ago.  Heck, 4 years ago I was just graduating from college with my bachelor’s degree and going to law school was a long term, distant goal. Now I’m out of law school, working in the legal field, and infinitely more happy.  I have learned to cope with things better and while I am still a phobic and I certainly still bear emotional scars from the trauma I went through growing up, I don’t feel so paralyzed anymore.  I think all I ever really needed was some stability and support and I have that now.  So I guess that’s all there is to say.  If you’ve stuck with me and suffered through this very long and depressing post, I am going to assume it’s because it struck a chord with you in some way.  If that’s the case, please know that you are not alone and no matter how much it may seem like you’re the only person alive experiencing this crap, just remember, there’s nothing new under the sun.  Everything’s been done before and if it’s happening to you, it has probably happened to someone else too.  All we can do is make the most of what life hands us.




Filed under Just a day in my life.

5 responses to “Phobias and living with the mentally ill

  1. Offie

    Thank you for sharing this story.

  2. Thanks for sharing that. You have grown into an intelligent, capable woman. I’m so glad that you’ve found happiness!

  3. Jeff Hauze

    As I’m currently dealing with own mentally ill father…thanks. Seriously. It’s almost impossible to get folks to understand how the things that appear funny from the outside looking in generally suck a great when you’re looking from the inside.

    • Thank you for commenting. It means a lot to me to know that my post reached its intended audience. I wish you the best of luck in dealing with your father’s illness. It’s hard. In every way possible its hard. People don’t understand the emotional toll it takes on you either. Again, best of luck. I wish I had something more helpful to say.

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