My pulse quickens, my stomach lurches as I recoil at the sight of an all-caps subject line. Before I’ve even opened the email, I already know what it’s about.
My father is shouting in my inbox.
“ARE YOU PISSED OFF?” is how he demands my immediate attention, thus reminding me exactly where I get my bluntness from. And nope, it doesn’t sound any more elegant in French — my translation is an accurate rendition of his tone.
I’ve been avoiding his calls, which have become more and more obsessive of late, and my phone ringer is off.
I don’t pick up the ‘phone because I don’t have the emotional wherewithal to lie again and pretend I’m well.
I don’t want to have to deflect the same old questions again or launch into another plea to defend the realness of my illness.
Yes, Daddy (this is how I address him and how he signs off his emails, not Papa), I’m sick, even though you can’t see it.
My silence is a desperate act of self-preservation.
In other words, he feels I owe him a conversation whenever he calls. Or at least, that’s what my strict upbringing would have me believe. In this context, my deliberate aloofness represents the apex of disrespect even though none is ever intended.
But I don’t have the strength to play charades anymore.
I don’t have the strength to explain I’m still not getting any help because there’s still no money for it, several years down the line. And there won’t be any until I get back to work, whenever that is.
How do you explain the parlous state of American health care to someone who’s only ever known the French system and therefore believes online medical fundraisers or folks losing their homes are isolated tragedies?
I don’t have the strength to try and describe to him what my daily life consists of now.
I don’t have the strength to tell him “what it is I actually do with my days”, as my stepmother politely puts it. To them, I sense I’ve become a lazy, good-for-nothing waste of space, a drain on my household’s finances.
I briefly wonder whether they may be in cahoots with my illness as both tell me the same thing. Of course not, this is ridiculous.
Alas, there’s no safety net for sick people in America, no support unless you can purchase it.
Still, I’m considered privileged because I have insurance even though I can’t afford the co-pays. Doing so would mean two humans and two felines going hungry while bills get further into arrears.
“We’re only ever one missed pay check away from homelessness,” I’m told whenever the atmosphere gets volatile, which is more frequently than is healthy.
But try articulating any or all of the above without self-combusting with shame.
To me, these days a productive day means getting out of bed, showering, reading. When I’m feeling extra, it also involves exercise, and lately, writing.
Depression has torpedoed everything.
It has downgraded me from capable, resourceful and accomplished professional back to, um, toddler. A toddler with boobs and a library card, but a toddler nonetheless.
And whenever I feel I’m finally getting somewhere trying to relay some of my distress, my father will say without the slightest hint of irony. “Oh, lovely! Glad to hear everything’s going well.”
This, folks, is what denial sounds like.
In my father’s world, if you don’t acknowledge difficulties it means they can’t possibly exist.
Back when he was still married to my mom, this caused a lot of friction. And then she left, with little me in tow.
She didn’t feel seen or listened to. To her, no amount of joyful optimism on my father’s part could make up for his perceived lack of empathy. And yet, he was never malicious.
When it concerns matters of the heart and mind, it’s as if regular, normal communication with him were doomed to failure. I still have flashbacks of my mother in floods of tears, yelling, sobbing while he laughs at her, dismissing her as hysterical.
She could seldom get through to him and, most of the time, I can’t either.
It doesn’t help I’ve spent most of my life thousands of miles away from him, very rarely in the same country. I’m not even on the same continent anymore.
It doesn’t help reduced circumstances have prevented me from traveling back to see him since I moved to the U.S five years ago.
It doesn’t help I’m an only child and my father obviously misses me, and I him.
It doesn’t help I live in a country occupying such pride of place in the imagination of European baby boomers that, to my parents, America remains an Eldorado of sorts. (In French, we even have a phrase when things come up roses and everything is peachy: “C’est l’Amérique !” in which America herself becomes shorthand for the absolute best of everything. Granted, the phrase started falling into obsolescence from January 2017 onward, but still.)
It doesn’t help I’ve finally understood pretending I was well was not only making me worse but also perpetuating the stigma around mental health.
Self-preservation aside, I don’t pick up the phone because I don’t have the strength to break his heart.
I read the email.
It’s an ultimatum requesting news and informing me calls do not seem to be getting through. The email also contains both my father’s and step mom’s cell numbers, in bold and underlined, as if I’d ever misplace them.
This is a copy of a message I’ve received before. My father is no fool: He knows I’m not fond of speaking on the ‘phone but always reply to emails within 24 hours.
So reply I do, stomach aflutter, anxiety like a hockey puck stuck in my throat. Still, my fingers are determined to stick to my truth this time, for everyone’s sake.
I try a little humor to soften the blow. As I liken his shouty email to the sudden appearance of a dog turd in my inbox (neither of us is subtle or susceptible, we both have a fondness for gallows humor, and a somewhat conflicted relationship with canine excrement. I mean, have you been to Paris?! Beware la merde, it’s everywhere!).
I also remind my father my smartphone isn’t a digital leash.
To answer a call is a choice; not to answer is another.
An unanswered call means I’m not up to chatting. Worse, it’s the Holiday Season and I’m loath to impose my reality on anyone else but…
I don’t want to burden him with my misery, my outsize black cloud.
Instead of a call, I suggest text messages or gentler emails. Both are a non-intrusive form of communication and well with other loved ones overseas.
And then I finally unpack my reality, pre-apocalyptic politics and dire home economics included.
More confidently than I actually feel, I write him I’m trying to survive, to rebuild a life that works, word by word. (I’ll try then collapse again for a long time before getting back up and having another go. This is it, right now.)
I sign off with something I know will resonate with his preternatural optimism: Everything is possible.
Deep down, from the very bottom of my depressive heart, I still believe this.
The 2016 Holiday Season comes and goes.
For a while, communication becomes less strained, more thoughtful.
Then it dies down altogether.
A few weeks ago, when I send my stepmother a birthday text, she doesn’t reply.
I suspect there’s rancor and resentment somewhere and who could blame my father and my stepmom? They probably feel as abandoned as I do. And by failing to live up to the ideal of the daughter rendered mythical by virtue of crossing the Atlantic, I also suspect I’ve disappointed them, too.
To my father, you’d think I was Lindbergh, not a just another immigrant.
Or maybe it’s something else, maybe they’ve adopted my approach and are holding back because there’s something the matter and they won’t say anything to protect me.
Even if the truth does set you free, it can be a very lonely place.
And it’ll remain so as long as stigma endures.
Sharing my vulnerability is the only way I’ve found be whole at last, unhindered by the weight of secrecy and shame.
Maybe my father and I aren’t that different after all: We both want to believe in the possibility of a better world, somehow.