Dysfunctional Families

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An Alphabet for Joanna

Many months before Joanna’s short escape, I stayed at a friend’s empty house in Buffalo, and visited my mother at the nursing home every day for a week. Each day I dropped down deeper inside her world. On my second visit, we retreated to her shared room. Her roommate wasn’t there. Beside Joanna’s single bed stood the last surviving piece of the bedroom set she’d inherited from her mother, an antique dresser topped with a bevelled-edged mirror in a curving walnut frame. I’d arranged for this to be used instead of the bland dresser issued with the room. There was a brass keyhole in the top drawer, but if there had ever been a corresponding key, it had been lost years ago.
Joanna sat on her bed and examined a wall-mounted fluorescent light fixture, running her fingertips over the bubbled texture of its yellowed plastic shade. She gestured toward it, invited me to appreciate its enigmatic power. “I like this,” she said.
I faced her in a chair I’d dragged in from the TV area across from the elevators. I’d positioned a meal tray so that it was between us, an improvised work space. I’d covered its surface with an array of coloured markers and two pages torn from a sketchbook.
When I’d visited the day before, there hadn’t been any photos on her side of the room, but now I noticed she had found and propped up three pictures on her dresser. There was a framed photo of my son, Levi, that I’d given her for Christmas four years earlier, when he was a newborn, and there were two loose snapshots. One was of the base of the Eiffel Tower, which Joanna had taken during our weekend trip to Paris together in 1994. The other photo was of me.
I picked up this last picture and studied it. I’m sitting by myself on the blue-and-green floral couch in our living room in suburban Detroit. I’m probably fifteen years old. I’m wearing a baggy acrylic sweater and my hair is pulled back against my head on the sides, a big puff of curled bangs clawing at my eyebrows. Everything in this photo now looked ugly to me: my clothes, the pink walls behind me, the purple calico print tablecloth on the side table, that awful couch, the ruffled muslin curtains my grandmother had made for us, just like the ones in her own house.
Joanna leaned forward, her soft, plump arm touching mine, and she too looked at the photo in my hands.
“You’re my beautiful baby,” she said. I kissed her cheek.
The room was dark. I crossed to the window over her roommate’s bed and pulled the fraying cord to raise the blinds. I sat down on the edge of the mattress and looked out through a tangle of bare tree branches to the street below.
Joanna had followed me over, and she stood behind me as we looked out the window silently for a moment. Then she pointed across the street and said, “You see that thing there . . . ”
“I’m not sure what you’re pointing at, the houses or the cars parked on the street?”
Her dark brows drew together. “I don’t know,” she said, and turned away from the window.
We settled back on her side of the room, sitting again with the meal tray I’d set up between us. I used the little speaker on my phone to stream the Beatles record she owned when I was little, back when we lived with my grandparents. It was the only record she had salvaged from the two years she lived in California before I was born.
“What colour marker do you want to use first?” I asked her. She hesitated and then pointed to purple, looking back up at me for reassurance. “Oh, that’s a great choice,” I said.
My mother held the marker awkwardly, looking down at it uncertainly.
“Here, I’m going to draw a circle on the page like this, and you can colour it in,” I said as I drew a wobbly round blob. “Oh, you’re doing such a good job,” she said.
After some hesitation, she slowly started to make short purple strokes along the inside of the circle. I continued to praise her as I drew a cluster of triangles and dots on my own page. After a while, she stopped moving her hand to watch mine.
“Yours is so beautiful,” she said.
“So is yours,” I told her, but I couldn’t redirect her attention back to her own page. “Here, we’ll draw this together,” I told her, putting my own drawing away in my bag.
My phone played one of the Beatles’ many hits from the year she went to see the band play Olympia Stadium in Detroit with her girlfriends. That was the year she turned fifteen. She’d told me about that show, how she couldn’t hear a single note they sang, the music drowned out by the sounds of the girls screaming around her. We sang along—“She loves you and you know that can’t be bad”—as our heads bent toward each other over the purple ring Joanna had made in the centre of the page. I added a black dot in the middle of the ring, then drew round petals around the perimeter, making a psychedelic flower with a cartoonish eye at its centre.
“Oh, that’s nice,” she said.
I continued to draw on her page, asking her to choose colours for me. “We’ll do this together,” I said again. “We’re collaborating.”
I adjusted my sense of time as we sang and I drew, listening to the whole double album with the door shut. We dropped out of time and space. We were the only two people in the world. We were alone at the bottom of an ocean.
Someone knocked and the door opened. It was John, a man I’d met the day before in front of the nurses’ station, beside the TV. He had told me he loved me as he shook my hand. He had the red face, bright-blue eyes and silver brush cut I associate with Midwestern football coaches. Like Joanna, he was wearing loose-fitting elastic-waist pants and fuzzy socks with no-slip strips. No shoes.
“Oh, hi!” he said, lighting up as he saw me. “What are you girls doing?”
“Oh, we’re just spending time together,” I said lightly, and looked back down at the drawing.
“I told you yesterday that I loved you,” he said.
This guy, I thought, and kept drawing.
“This is my baby,” my mother said, her hand on my arm. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
“Yes, I told you that yesterday,” John said. He turned his square body to me again. His eyes glinted in the flat fluorescent light. “Can I kiss you?” He was blocking the door.
“Nope,” I said with a big smile.
He smiled too. “Okay, I won’t do anything you don’t want. But I love to see you. Why don’t you visit more?”
I winced. “I live in Canada,” I told him.
“Oh,” he said, satisfied. “When are you coming back?”
“Soon,” I said. “I’ll be back soon.”
“Okay, you come see me. I love your mother, but I really love seeing you.” He winked. “I’ll leave you girls alone now.”
Joanna and I returned to our own zone again, but the spell was soon broken by screams on the other side of the door. My mother was not disturbed; she seemed to not hear the noise at all. I pretended I needed to go to the bathroom as an excuse to open the door and look out . . .
“You can just go to this one in here,” Joanna said, pointing to the bathroom between her room and the one next door.
“Um, okay, I just want to—” I poked my head out. I could hear a fight, but I couldn’t see a thing. “It’s okay, I’m fine,” I said, pulling my head in and shutting the door again.
When I opened the door an hour later to walk to the elevator with my mother, a woman of indeterminate age sat on the floor in front of me. This is a horror movie, I thought; this is the nineteenth century. The previous year, when Joanna had first moved from a nice assisted-living facility into this rundown nursing home, the only thing she’d said to me was, “There are a lot of people suffering here.” She had always been sensitive to the pain of those around her. Not long after this, she lost the ability to speak in complete, coherent sentences.
Her current home was the only place that would take her when the assisted-living facility pushed her out of their system—a system I’d chosen for their well-maintained buildings, for their reputation for keeping residents in their care after savings ran out and they transitioned to Medicaid. But my mother’s diagnosis of frontal-lobe dementia had made her an unattractive resident. Inappropriate was the word they used when they first approached me about finding her a new place to live. “She’s an inappropriate resident.”
I opened the door from our pocket of calm and saw a woman whose hands were wrapped around the doorknob of the room across the hall from us. The woman was hunched down on the floor with her knees pressed to her chest, the weight of her small, wiry body hanging from her grip on the doorknob. Our eyes locked and she began to sob. As my mother and I passed her, she stood up and followed us, asking for help, trying to get my attention. Joanna muttered, “Just ignore her,” as we inched sideways, gripping each other’s forearms, toward the elevator.

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A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

He took his glasses off and rubbed the bridge of his nose the way men in movies do whenever they encounter a particu­larly vexing woman.

“I’m really confused. You need to give me something here. What’s making you depressed?”

His reaction made me think briefly of residential schools, though at the time I couldn’t understand why. Maybe it was the fact that he operated his therapy sessions out of a church. That certainly didn’t help.

I wasn’t sure what to say. Can a metaphor or simile capture depression? It was definitely heavy, but could I really compare it to a weight? Weight in and of itself is not devastating; depres­sion is. At times it made me short of breath and at times it had the potential to be deadly, but was it really like drowning? At least with drowning others could see the flailing limbs and splashing water and know you needed help. Depression could slip in entirely unnoticed and dress itself up as normalcy, so when it finally took hold others would be so surprised they wouldn’t know how to pull you to safety. They’d stand there staring—good-intentioned but helpless. Empathetic, perhaps, but mute. Or, as in the case of this particularly unqualified ther­apist, angry and accusing. Not that I necessarily blame them. I’ve done the same thing.

When what was left of my family moved to the rez we lived in a two-bedroom trailer—my sister and I in the smaller room, my three younger brothers in the master bedroom. My parents had no bedroom, no bed. They slept in the living room on the couch and recliner. As one may assume of such circumstances, privacy was precious, if it existed at all. Doors never stayed closed for long; at any moment someone could barrel in unannounced. This meant there was no place for my mother to hide her illness.

I’d mostly known her as having bipolar disorder, though she’d been diagnosed and rediagnosed many times. Postpartum depression, manic depression, schizophrenia. Most recently, my mother has been diagnosed as having either schizoaffective dis­order, which is a version of bipolar disorder with elements of schizophrenia, or post-traumatic stress disorder, depending on which doctor you talk to. None of these phrases gave her relief. In fact, they often seemed to hurt her, turning every feeling she had into yet another symptom of yet another disease.

What these words meant to my siblings and me was that our mother’s health was on a timer. We didn’t know when the timer would go off, but when it did, our happy, playful, hilarious mother would disappear behind a curtain and another would emerge: alternatively angry and mournful, wired and lethargic. When she was depressed she’d become almost entirely silent. She’d lie on our brother’s bottom bunk and blink at us, her soft limp limbs spilling onto the stained, slate-coloured carpet. I’d sit on the floor beside her, smooth her hair—bottle red with grey moving in like a slow tide—and ask her what was wrong. She’d stay silent but her face would transform. Damp, swollen, violet, as if the words she couldn’t say were bubbling beneath her skin, burning her up from the inside.

Terminology is tricky. Initially, depression was known as “melan­cholia,” a word that first brought to my mind a field of blue cornflower and golden hay. Its trochaic metre gave it an inher­ent poeticism, an ingrained elegance. It was delicate, feminine. Hamlet’s doomed lover, Ophelia, definitely did not suffer from depression. When she floated down that river, decked in gar­lands, stones in her pockets, she was in the throes of melancholia.

The term first appeared in Mesopotamian texts in the second century BCE. At the time, they considered melancholia a form of demonic possession. They weren’t alone: ancient Babylonian, Chinese and Egyptian civilizations all attributed mental illness to demons overpowering the spiritually weak. Exorcism—which often entailed beatings, restraint and starvation—was the only known “cure.” Even during the Renaissance, when thinking about depression began to reflect the more progressive views of the early Greek physician Hippocrates, a heavily Christian Europe had another way to describe those with mental illness: witches. They were “cured” by being burned at the stake. Sometimes, as part of their trial, suspected witches underwent an ordeal by water. They were tied to a rope and thrown from a boat. If they sank they’d be pulled back to a safety of sorts, their innocence proven, but their illness unchecked. If they floated, like Ophelia, they were considered a witch and sum­marily executed.

My quite Catholic mother believes demonic possession is a real danger. She pretty much used the 1973 film The Exorcist as an instructional video for my siblings and me. It was mostly effec­tive. I played with a Ouija board only once, reluctantly, and though I remained firmly in control of my body, I still try to avoid the game (and pictures of Linda Blair) at all costs. I know demonic possession is impossible, probably, but it still scares me more than I’d like to admit.

So when my mother, now living in an adult care home in Florida, told me she was hearing demonic voices and thought she needed an exorcism, I was legitimately terrified. Not because I thought she was possessed—she didn’t mention anything about floating above her bed, and her voice sounded normal. I was scared for her. She truly believed demons were real and could take control of the spiritually weak. If she believed she was being overtaken by these demons, logic dictated that she was spiritually weak. As if her depressed mind didn’t have enough to guilt her with.
She wouldn’t tell me what the voices were saying to her. She just reiterated over and over that she was a sinner, that she had impure thoughts, that she hadn’t been going to church enough. None of this seemed to me like enough reason to call in an exorcist.

Evidently her priest down in Florida disagreed. He said it did, indeed, sound like she was in the midst of a spiritual battle, that she should contact the church about sending an exorcist right away. Though he himself was part of the Catholic Church, he never offered any assistance with her “spiritual battle,” never offered to bring in an exorcist to slay her inner demon. He just gave her his half-baked opinion like a torch and watched as she caught flame.

As far as analogies go, comparing depression to a demon is a pretty good one. Both overtake your faculties, leaving you dis­connected and disembodied. Both change you so abruptly that even your loved ones barely recognize you. Both whisper evil words and malformed truths. Both scare most people shitless.

According to Diane Purkiss’s The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations, European colonists widely considered Indigenous peoples to be devil worshippers. In fact, during the Salem witch trials, the people of the Sagamore tribe were blamed—described by early Puritan minister and master­mind of the witch trials, Cotton Mather, as “horrid sorcerers, and hellish conjurors . . . [who] conversed with Demons.” One person on trial claimed to have attended a black mass with the Sagamore Indians. Mercy Short, another accused witch, took it one step further: she claimed the Devil himself was an Indian, describing him as “not of a Negro, but of a tawny, or an Indian color.”

Literal demonizing of Indigenous people was a natural exten­sion of early tactics used to move colonization along. In 1452 and 1455 the Catholic Church issued papal bulls calling for non-Christian people to be invaded, robbed and enslaved under the premise that they were “enemies of Christ.” Forty years later, when Christopher Columbus accidentally arrived in the Americas, European monarchs began to expand on the ideas contained in those bulls, issuing policies and practices that have been collectively referred to as the Doctrine of Discovery. These new policies dictated that “devil-worshipping” Indigenous peo­ples worldwide should not even be thought of as humans, and thus the land they had cared for and inhabited for centuries was terra nullius, or vacant land, and Christian monarchs had the “right” to claim it all. The Doctrine of Discovery was such a tantalizing, seemingly guilt-free justification for genocide, even U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson adopted it as official policy in 1792—and we all know how much Americans wanted to distinguish themselves from Europe at the time.

The Doctrine of Discovery is still cited in court cases today whenever Canada or the U.S. want to shut up Indigenous tribes who complain. In an attempt to stop this lazy, racist rationale, a delegation of Indigenous people went to Rome in 2016 to ask the church to rescind these papal bulls. Kahnawake Mohawk Kenneth Deer said that after hearing their concerns, Pope Francis merely looked him in the eye and said, “I’ll pray for you.” Two years later, after the delegation’s second trip to Rome to discuss these papal bulls, they were told the matter was being sent to another committee. Nothing else has been done, though pre­sumably the Pope is still praying for us.

“Can you imagine going to a funeral every day, maybe even two funerals, for five to ten years?” the chief asks. He’s giving a decolonization presentation, talking about the way colonization has affected our people since contact. Smallpox, tuberculosis, even the common cold hit our communities particularly hard. Then, on top of that, we had wars to contend with—some against the French, some against the British, some against either or neither or both. Back then death was all you could see, smell, hear or taste. Death was all you could feel.

“What does that type of mourning, pain and loss do to you?” he asks. We reflect on our own losses, our own mourning, our own pain. We say nothing.

After a moment he answers himself. “It creates numbness.”

Numbness is often how people describe their experience of depression.

I was sixteen when I wrote my first suicide note. I was alone in my room, for once. It was cold; the fire in our wood-burning stove must have gone out. I was huddled beneath the unzipped sleeping bag I used as a comforter, listening to the only modern rock station my ancient radio could pick up. The songs washed over me. My brothers laughing, crashing and crying washed over me. My mother half-heartedly yelling at them while she watched a movie with my sister washed over me. My father’s absence washed over me.

Even though the trailer was full I was alone. I was alone and I felt nothing and it hurt so much. More than grief, more than anger. I just wanted it to end.

Tears fell on the paper faster than I could write. It was hard to read in parts. I didn’t care. As long as it reassured my family they shouldn’t blame themselves, it would do the trick.

I looked at the knife I’d smuggled from the kitchen, pressed its edge to my wrist. Nothing happened. The blade was too dull. I’d have to stab hard and slash deep just to break the skin. I was crying so hard.

I reread my note. I looked back at the knife. Even though it could hardly peel a potato it scared me more than the void I felt.

I lay back down, disgusted with myself and my lack of resolve. I tried to listen to the radio. I couldn’t hear anything.

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Borderline Shine


Small child. Time bends. I observe:

Noise. Rushing, jangly energy. There is my mom. Short, curly, blondish-red hair, trying to smile, always trying. She works in the house, caring for five kids. She is young and pretty. Watching, waiting, laughing. She cooks and cleans, and I watch her sometimes. Special times when she is really with me. Spinning a globe, pointing a finger. Laying out a marvellous array of Christmas crafts. I am often merely in her shadow as we tend to business in the little town —at the post office, grocery store, driving here and there in the long green Buick. I recall few conversations. I am a small child, watching, waiting.

More often I am my father’s shadow. We drive in the red pickup truck; go fishing, to construction sites, to the gravel pit. He also is quiet, though softly laughs when I do speak. I know sometimes he is sad and anxious. Most of the time he is sick. This dad is not the man crashing and raging, driving his family before him. That dad is a shadow figure the others hide me from. That dad demon is not the one I curl up with, watching hockey, not the one I listen to sleeping, his snoring my comfort. Not the one who silently enters my room and checks that I am sleeping safely every night. The demon dad is seething, full of rage, hated and hating.

I watch my brothers.

Steven, the oldest, is quiet, sad, and angry; the growing image of Dad. Intelligent and sensitive. Hurt already.

I see Bruce, here and there, already trying to escape, his sardonic humour masking confusion and helplessness. Trying to be strong, though he’s terrified (justifiably); trying to pretend the smacks and the punches don’t hurt. I can’t help but see my sister Jo-Anne, trapped in a bedroom with me —her bratty, spoiled baby sister. We fight, as sisters do. Not fair. I am untouchable, Daddy’s girl. She leaves. For her horses, for her freedom, for her sanity.

Theresa sees me. Theresa, my sister-mother. Nurturer. Too grown up already —caregiver by birthright, oldest child. It is known she will go places. She obediently awaits her chance.

This is what my eight-year-old eyes see, what I remember. There are layers, all players have their stories. This is the cast in my memory, the opening act.

The setting is Ponoka, a town of four thousand, in the province of Alberta, in the country of Canada. We live in a house that my dad built, decorated in glaring seventies style: velvet-gilded wallpaper, purple and orange carpet, mirrored tile, and green appliances. This house is the symbol of our success. Look at us, a sweet, hard-working middle-class family. We fool no one, although the screams and bangs are never spoken of by the neighbours. We don our masks over our shame, hold our heads high. We are Greshners, and any challenge to our pride will mean an instant fight. There are few takers.

Theresa teaches me to read and write at a young age. Moreover, she teaches me storytelling. I am often in her bed, and we take turns weaving stories, back and forth, fantastic and fun. She teaches me poetry. We walk together, through streets and fields and woods. She is a photographer; I draw. At school, I quietly gather my A’s, following in her academic footsteps.

I follow my brothers in their love of the wild —summers at the lake, jackknives, fishing, and frogs.

I am a lover of animals like my sister Jo-Anne. My poor kitten, Tigger, hauled around in a baby carrier, stalked and imitated as I learn to prowl and growl.

I plant seeds of flowers and vegetables with my dad. The whole family harvests, Mom pickling and preserving. An idyllic dream of a perfect family.

Then there are the nightmares.

Adults loud and drunk, kids holding their breath. The boys rush out to hold my dad back long enough to get my mom and us girls out of the house. We cruise the streets in the car, lights off until we park in our grandparents’ backyard. We listen to our breathing, too loud, too loud, as we see my dad circling, searching, rage growing and reaching out in the dark …

My mom’s parents, Grandma and Grandpa, live two blocks away. We are there all the time. The parents and the parties are there. Also the Christmases, the summer backyard fires, games, and goodies.

The good and the bad.

My grandparents drink, too, of course. Everyone does. This is prairie culture. Drinking. Drinking and driving. Drinking and fighting. Of course. This is the way the world works. Love and fear.

Memories are like jewels on a Christmas tree. Some shine bright, glittering and precious. Some are dim and tarnished. And some lie broken in fragments on the floor.

I am cherished and often ignored. In the seventies kids are wild. I am independent.

I am okay. independent. I am okay.

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