Jordana Hall has an M.A. in English from Texas A&M U-Commerce, and teaches English at Wiley College in Marshall, Tx. She will complete a Ph.D. in English Studies with an emphasis in children’s literature and literature theory from Illinois State University in December 2019. She shares a deep love a fiction with fiction with her husband and six children.
Blows rain down on my face and arms as I wrap them tightly around my head. His shouts are loud, but the ringing, I know, comes from my ears as he slaps my head again and again. I stagger, and cry, and beg. I can hear Arturo yelling, but it is already far away as I stumble and fall into the deep pit that we had been digging together--a hole that we had imagined would become a secret, underground lair (fun and games). I don’t even know what made him angry.
“Stop! Stop, man!”
Rocks and dirt begin to rain down on me as Jordan struggles free from his friend’s grip on his arm and grabs whatever he can find from the pile of rubble by the pit to throw at me. He kicks and screams and pelts me with rocks in his madness while I watch Arturo rushing away to find a grown up.
It feels like forever before I hear the deep shouts of Arturo’s father as he and his son race towards the one-sided fight. Through the space between my skinny arms I see Mr. Florez pull my brother, Danny, away, wrapping his tense body up in strong arms as he struggles against the man. I uncurl enough to look at my brother more closely, but Danny’s eyes have reached that point; I know it is not really my brother that beat me bloody. His eyes are blank and there is an edge of . . . something.
It doesn’t belong on the face of a thirteen-year-old, I know, though I have seen my brother wear that same face off and on for as many years as I can remember. It is all the more terrifying for the contrast that I know I will see once he can think clearly again.
Since that frightening day long ago, I have learned that my brother’s behavior is not as unusual as I once thought, though his episodes can be very extreme. He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in his thirties when he finally sought help after having struck his daughter. He wasn’t even aware of who she was at the time. The National Alliance of Mental Illness describes the disease as a “chronic mental health condition characterized primarily by symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions, and symptoms of a mood disorder, such as mania and depression”. Raised in a period where mental illness was still stigmatized to an extreme degree, any symptoms that my brother displayed were either ignored or covered up as much as possible for fear that he would be locked away.
“But he’s so sweet with her. It can’t be true. He’s the most, gentle man I’ve ever seen, and he absolutely dotes on his little girl!”
It was a common refrain from family acquaintances after the crisis that led to his diagnosis, but I had born witness to many moments where my loving, doting brother could turn violent and seemingly insane for the slightest offense. I knew that he could and would turn on his daughter in the same way--through no fault of his own.
Once, we had both promised to babysit our young nephew, and I then refused to get out of bed. Danny grew angry, and then furious, before holding a pillow over my head. I remember struggling for what seemed the longest minutes of my life against the pressure that held my face against the mattress, the soft yet suffocating feel as he pressed just a little bit harder, then harder yet, as my arms thrashed and reached backwards scrabbling to beat futilely against him.
“I’m so sorry,” he cried, pulling at his hair as I gasped for breath when he finally let me up, having realized what we was doing. He was like that—turning on a dime. One minute he was kind and sweet, letting me snuggle against him in the dark because he knew that I was afraid. The next he was cruel, lashing out for things that I would roll my eyes at if I wasn’t too busy being terrified.
“I did that,” he would ask, looking at my bruises in shock and horror. Danny was never cruel, but he did frequently lose himself in delusions and mood swings. His illness made my childhood a nightmare at times, but I can only imagine the pain and guilt he must have felt after one of his bouts of violence, seeing the people that he cared for more than anything in the world shy away from him, often bruised and bleeding. His own fear must have been nearly as overwhelming, but like our mother and the rest of our friends and neighbors, he never mentioned his “peculiarity.” It just wasn’t done.
“You know, I’m afraid of the dark too,” he said to me once, after. “But the dark is inside of me.” His shoulders were tense, and I knew that he was thinking of the way things were when we were children, afraid of that same darkness hanging over the head of his little girl.
“Then let’s turn on the light,” I said, clutching his hand tightly.
Though mental illness is still stigmatized and misunderstood today, it is far more acceptable to seek out treatment for behavioral issues. My niece is a happy little girl with no memory of the incident that forced her father to finally seek to understand the darkness that cast a pall over our childhood. Now he regularly takes medicine to help combat his mood swings and delusions and makes regular visits to a therapist. How different might our lives had been if the world was ready to admit that there is nothing wrong with needing a little help?
“Schizoaffective Disorder.” National Alliance of Mental Illness. Nami.com
www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Schizoaffective-Disorder. Accessed on 1 Oct 2018.
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