Daddy sat in the rickety metal folding chair, his eyes hidden by the dark sunglasses he had taken to wearing day and night. During the day, I would tell myself it was to shield himself from the uneven sunlight that would shine into the living room. At night, however, the sunglasses protected us. He wasn’t violent. There were no flying fists or abusive shouts coming from our two-bedroom apartment. Not like some of the Pakistani immigrant families we knew in our community, in which the fathers would assuage their sorrows and humiliations by leaving a trail of tears and cowered silences where their children once played. No, the sunglasses shielded us from his stare, unrelenting, shadowed, looking out into space as if he was seeing another life play out. His cigarette made a slow glowing arc from the glass ashtray on the folding table to his mouth, hidden behind the curling gray smoke.
“I think it’s pretty, the way Daddy’s hands glow and the smoke climbs in to the sky,” I said to my older brother. “It’s not pretty,” Kamran replied curtly, only ten years old but already aged beyond his years, the unfortunate side effect of being the only boy sandwiched between two sisters, the unwitting man of the house when my father sat with his thoughts. “It just means he’s sick. You can always tell when he’s sick. He stops talking, smokes all day and then it gets bad. We don’t talk about it. But he’s so sick that he can’t be our Daddy right now.”
Schizophrenia is a word I learned even before I could speak properly. I don’t know when I heard it. We never said it out loud. Not in our family. Not within our Pakistani immigrant community in New York. In the world I grew up in, mental illness was a taboo topic. But I knew the word I could barely pronounce was attached to Daddy. Only when he was sick, though. Really, really sick. And only within the walls of our Borough Park apartment. Outside of our little apartment, for the outside world, for the aunties clad in satiny salwar kameez or cheap wool pants and ill-fitting sweaters, who would take the train down to the Fort Hamilton Parkway subway stop to visit my mother, for them the diagnosis was simply depression.
“He lost his job and we have all of these bills, of course, of course he’s depressed,” Mummy said. “He’ll be better soon. Inshallah.”
Inshallah. God willing. It became the prayer and the demand we based our lives on. God wouldn’t have brought my parents and my brother and sister from Pakistan to New York, only to leave them in darkness. He wouldn’t have brought me into the world just as Daddy’s mental illness began to spiral out of control, when he was still a young man, not even 40 yet. God wouldn’t have done all of that if he didn’t plan on making it better. We just had to wait. And hope. And pray. He would get better and then we would carry on with the hopes and dreams that my parents had originally imagined in their little North Nazimabad house, in the humid coastal city of Karachi. Daddy’s depression simply hit the pause button on those dreams. Inshallah.
The label of depression made complete sense to our immigrant community. How many of our uncles and aunties, having left behind good jobs and respectable homes in Pakistan, grew depressed and disheartened when the American Dream did not embrace them right away. It was easy to understand depression. In our case, it was also a lie.
Lying became ingrained in my DNA for almost 40 years. It became a comfortable shawl that I wrapped myself in even though I had no rational reason to do so. I was educated and knew the medical reasons behind schizophrenia, how it was an unfortunate gamble involving genetics and environmental stress factors in which the loser had to pay with his sanity. I knew that the sick man who filled up notebooks with grandiose ideas and inventions in cramped illegible handwriting was not the same man who sang Bollywood songs from the 1950s and 1960s, his angelic voice rising clear and deep, when he was well. I knew that celebrities, such as Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, had been geniuses that struggled with the disease. It was out in the open. The world had definitely changed since I was a child growing up in the eighties.
Just not in my community. Within the Pakistani-Muslim community in the United States, the attitudes towards mental illness have remained as negative as ever. Among the uneducated or superstitious, mental illness is a supernatural affliction, possibly from djinn possession. Wear a blessed taweez from a sheikh and pray salat, sister, and the mind will be all clear!
For the educated, mental disorders are considered a real illness but nonetheless shameful, indicating a feebleness of mind and self-control. Bad blood. We don’t want to marry into that family, their genes are bad. The word paagal, which means crazy in Urdu, still cuts through me like a knife. As a child, the world sounded like a sneer made audible. We weren’t allowed to use the words paagal, or its English translation, for any reason in our house. It’s a tradition I’ve carried on within my only family.
After my father passed away in his sleep almost seven years ago, part of me thought we were finally free of the stigma, finally free of fear, finally free of the isolation we often felt. After all, he had died as the proud owner of a beautiful little house with a lemon tree in the backyard. His children had grown and embarked on successful careers and marriages. He had grandchildren to spoil who loved their Nanoo completely with the untarnished innocence of childhood. All in all, it was a peaceful culmination to a tumultuous life. The lies should have ended. But upon his death, we found ourselves continuing to pretend that schizophrenia had never touched our lives. We all but erased any discussion of his so-called depression in an effort to honor his memory – as if the shame of mental illness could follow him into the afterlife. For us, the stigma didn’t end with his death. It simply passed on to the rest of the family.
And that family now includes my three children and my two nephews. When my children were born, I worried about what I would say to them. How I would explain that within their DNA lived a hidden disease, dormant in some, rearing its ugly head in others. The rational side of me, the one that was Westernized and educated, said there was no grand explanation needed. It was an illness like cancer or heart disease, part of their genetic makeup but one that may never emerge. But there was another side of me, born of culture, bred in secrets that held on to the stigma that mental illness retained in my society. The fear that asks “what will people say?”
So I watched them covertly, looking for signs, overanalyzing every misplaced laugh or spacey stare out the car window. One day my daughter came home and excitedly told me that there were voices in her head. “I like Joy a lot, Mom, because she makes me happy. She tells me about all the wonderful things in the world,” she said. “I don’t like Anger, though. He makes me see red.”
My heart suddenly stopped as I looked up from my book. “You hear voices?” I asked her, attempting to keep my own voice neutral even as a dull thudding sensation began to spread from my temples to the back of my neck. My husband, who came in behind her, quickly walked over to me. “Relax, she’s talking about the Pixar movie “Inside Out,” he said, putting his hand on my arm. “The main character’s emotions are portrayed as voices in her head. We just came from seeing the movie. It’s not what you think.”
I nodded and managed a smile at my daughter as she ran upstairs to listen to her iPod. I felt a sudden, dizzying rush of emotions: gratitude, fear, but most of all, love. I was shaken but I knew that no matter what may come, I would accept her and love her. I would never hide from anything that made her who she was. It was an acceptance that I had never really been able to give my own father. And I was deeply ashamed, not of him but of myself.
At that moment, I realized that the specter of schizophrenia would always hang over me because it is in everything I am today. It is the corrosive suspicion in my heart that makes me question not only the innocuous actions of my loved ones but also myself for any signs of illness. It is the source of the anxiety attacks that have plagued me since I was a teenager. It is the source of the self-doubt that haunts me whenever I am about to embark on a new challenge – the mocking voice in my own head that wonders whether my ambitions are really just delusions of grandeur. It is the lie I maintain to the world to hide the fragility I feel every morning when I open my eyes.
And it’s the judgment that I unwittingly still held against my father, the man who would try to smile at me no matter how many voices assailed him. The man who loved me completely even when he couldn’t love himself. By denying his illness for years, I denied the strength and perseverance of the man who suffered from it. I held him accountable for my shame. I blamed him for a crime he had no part in committing. And by hiding from it, I hoped that maybe I could rewrite our history. But that would rewrite the man that my father truly was. Brilliant, soft spoken, ambitious, proud, complicated, troubled, bitter, schizophrenic.
I still tell myself every day that if I pray hard enough, maybe my children will never suffer from it. Maybe they will never feel the shame that we felt growing up when people, hearing idle gossip about my dad, would avoid us at parties as if his illness was either contagious or dangerous. Maybe they will never have to look at themselves in the mirror and see themselves as pariahs.
Maybe. But I won’t hide from the word schizophrenia anymore. My children will know their grandfather in all of his glory and messiness. And they will be proud of him for everything he suffered and sacrificed and endured. I will join them in that sense of pride. I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to feel it.