It wasn't the first time he stormed from the house shouting his demands into the dark. This last time was the worst, though. It took a minute for my mother and me to realize it was even happening. He'd been loud in the yard before. Now he had moved it into the street.
I was 16, coming to know in a modest, suburban way what being the man of the house meant. In that moment it meant running after my mentally ill father. So I chased him, following the sound of his voice. The neighbor's house lights blinked on one after the other.
I found him a block up the hill.
"Come back into the house, Dad. Please."
He spun around. He looked like an animal in a live trap, his face a scribble of panic. His glassy eyes were dotted by tiny black pupils, like BBs. They cut right through me, searching for a target two miles behind where I stood.
It had been building all summer.
Manic depression is often an affliction of the intelligent, the creative, the colorful. So it was with my dad. This means the clues of onset - the verbal outbursts, the unrestrained opinions that rub against the grain of a given social moment, the odd sexual remark, and so many more - are disguised by the big personality already in place.
Mania took the bright colors of my father's soul and electrified them, made them psychedelic. As summer turned to fall, Dad lit up like a strobe and slipped further and further away from reality.
Most nights the typewriter clacked like a flock of woodpeckers downstairs. He said he was writing his memoirs. Sometimes he'd call it "The Great American Novel." It kept us awake, hostages to the noises within and without him. Nothing ever came of his incessant hammering. To this day I'm suspicious of anyone who claims to be writing a book.
Over several months I transformed from a teenager who was typically ambivalent about his father to a son who was repelled by him, who anticipated every next moment in the presence of his dad with fear and dread. Especially in public.
"Your dad is so funny!" my friends said. The life of the party, right? Only the party never stopped. Soon we got peeks down into the accompanying deep canyons of depression. The memory of how that crushed him, how the weight of sadness literally placed his chin on his chest, is as hard as remembering the manic times.
They're called blessings in disguise because they dress as crises. That horrible night out on the street, my father hit bottom. "Please come home," I begged.
He turned away from me and continued his rant. I picked him up and by God put him across my shoulder. I wept as he cursed me, staggering in the middle of the road.
It's hard to describe the relief we felt when Dad said he'd go to the hospital. There were several stays. The longest one happened concurrent with the release of the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Even now I can't watch the movie again.
One day when we visited he had just finished an art project. While it should have encouraged me, it broke my heart to see him hold out a lopsided piece of ceramics. That's because a golf club belonged in his hands, not a crooked homemade coffee cup. He was a stranger when he checked in, and he was a stranger still, only less obnoxious. I didn't understand it then: His recovery had started.
It took time to get him back. But we did. It took a ton of work on his part, and my mother never gave up fighting for him. Dad stayed on lithium for the rest of his long life. As a result his grandchildren were able to get to know the brilliant, funny, loving man that he was.
Stigma is a stubborn bitch. I thought about that up there earlier in the story when I wrote the words "my mentally ill father." It actually made me hesitate to know that you'd be reading those words.
We live in a time when a person can learn about Paxil in a commercial break during American Idol yet still fear telling her boss she's in treatment for depression.
Since research shows bipolar disease is as inherited as anything else, sometimes when I feel my moods elevate for no reason, I worry. I look in the mirror and I see my father looking back.
And if something should ever trigger the real deal, I have no doubt that I'll end up in the middle of the street. But I'm not afraid.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. For more info, see the National Institute of Mental Health website.