The Bradford Pear is a pretty rounded tree with fluffy white flowers that is found all over the United States. It looks nice, but in reality, it is a scourge. Its weak structure means that it’s branches break and crack, turning that pretty white puffball of a tree into a scarred monster, a broken thing that can’t be glued back together. Most experts say that if you have one in your yard, you should cut it down immediately, not just because it will eventually break, but also because it is incredibly invasive, cross pollinating with other pear varieties to create Frankenstein-like creatures that are hard to get rid of.
My family isn’t all that bad, we aren’t monsters, but we do have a lot of issues, unspoken issues that have gotten into our roots and caused some of our branches to break. We aren’t the pretty white puffball anymore, we have cracks that are threatening to split us apart, just like the cursed Bradford Pear. These cracks have formed because of poor or mental health habits, unrecognized problems that have now seeped their way into our core in a slow and steady drip.
My dad has trouble communicating. When he comes to visit, we talk for hours about politics, history, art, literature and poetry, nature and geology, sociology and religion. I love talking to him because he has such a vast knowledge and is always ready to learn something new, but we never talk about anything personal. I don’t know anything about his health, I don’t know how most of his side of the family is doing, he never even called to let me know my grandmother had passed away. I know his mother had dementia in her later years, but I don’t know if it was Alzheimer’s. I don’t know about any of my family’s health history. He avoids any sort of uncomfortable conversation, so it’s hard for me to bring anything up to him that might fit in that category. I can’t talk to him about my little sister’s mental health, I can’t tell him that I worry his own mental health is in need of attention. I’m afraid he would be so offended he would walk away and I wouldn’t hear from him for months. He’s done it before. He’s cut me out of his life for trying to communicate an issue that he found uncomfortable. We have since repaired our relationship, but I am always careful to keep our communication light so as not to spook him.
My sister and my dad were so close when we were young. The relationship between them is under duress at the moment, it has been severely strained for close to five years. She sunk into a deep depression five years ago and cut herself off from all of us. She’d still talk to me and our middle sister, but she hid any truth of what she was going through. She was a shell, a puddle of tears and lies wrapped in human skin. Even thought he now knows that she was abusing drugs and suicidal, he takes it personally. He feels like she abandoned him. He doesn’t realize that we all had to repair our relationship with her in some way, and that we are all still working towards making things right, keeping her whole, keeping our family together and healthy.
I’ve seen my husband’s family crack under the pressure of grief and loss, and I don’t think it can be repaired. You can’t put the branches back on once they have broken from the trunk, they will just whither and die anyway. I see how this fissure has affected him, how hard he tried to keep everything together, and how much it hurt when he failed. I might fail as well, but I’m not going to give up. This is what I told my dad in a long email I sent him last week. It was a risky email to send, because depending on his mood, he might take offense and cut off communication completely. I told him it was worth it for me to try, that my sister was ready to cut him out of her life. I told him I needed him to fix things with her so that she could continue to fix herself. I told him stories about having to go over to her house and fish her out from under a pile of stale blankets, force feed her tea and soup and physically push her out the front door.
I don’t understand why he has such a hard time talking to us. I believe he has undiagnosed depression, but for all I know he could see a therapist regularly. He could be on anti-depressants. I don’t know because he would never tell me. Maybe the stigma of having mental health issues is embarrassing for him, or maybe he just doesn’t want to admit that he might need a little help. I’ll probably never know, and there’s not much I can do except push him and my sister to reconcile and talk. Maybe they will find some common ground, maybe they will even find that spark that they used to have so long ago.
It’s difficult to talk about the mental health struggles of my family members and not mention my own battles. The truth is I’m in a very great place right now, and I take steps every day to keep it that way. I haven’t always been healthy though. I alluded to my dark years in a previous post, but never elaborated on what it was like for me. Similar to my sister, I spent a couple of my early college years floundering and failing. I dropped out of school, got a job at a seedy bar, dated a terrible guy who did drugs and drank way too much, and I alienated myself from those who cared for me the most. I lost myself completely during those years and frankly I don’t remember much about them. I remember being in the dark a lot, and I suppose that’s what depression is like. I don’t know if it was depression or if it was just a darkness brought on by poor life choices, but someone showed me the light and I turned towards it and never went back. That someone was my dad. He recognized that I needed help, and he gave it to me in the only way he knew how. He took me on a month long cross-country camping trip. We bonded over campfires and tequila, we wrote and took photographs, floated rivers and hiked mountains. Neither of us will ever forget that trip.
I just wish that he would see the same need in my little sister and help her too. She needs him more than I do right now, and he needs her too. He can’t be whole without her in his life. I need our family tree to be strong. We need to cut down our flawed Bradford Pear, and plant something sturdy, a tree whose branches can stretch out into the sky and sway in the breeze, one that can withstand heavy wind and rain and still stand tall. I’ll be damned if I’m not going to fight for that.