The Crumpled Pan: When Mental Illness Takes Over
Mental illness has a way of creeping up on you. You never quite know what to expect. My first experience with mental illness was when I was twelve years old. My father was strong, confident, intelligent. Healthy? I thought so. Little did I know that he was battling his own demons that threatened to reveal themselves at any moment. You could know someone your whole life and still be completely blindsided by mental illness. That’s how mental illness works. There’s no invitation. There’s no plan. There’s no, “okay, well I’m going to have a manic episode at 3:15pm so can I schedule my hair appointment around that?”. It just happens. One day, you wake up, and everything is different. And, if you’re like me, and was completely unprepared and uneducated on what mental illness even was, then it’s extremely terrifying.
I shouldn’t have had to learn about mental illness by experiencing it. By watching my father transform into a stranger before my eyes. By visiting him in the hospital, anxiously waiting for him to come home after months of treatment. We need to make educating our youth on mental illness a priority. Whether it’s through the education system or through open conversation at the dinner table. Let’s not be afraid to shed some light on the darker parts of ourselves so that, when someone else is feeling lost, trapped and alone, they won’t be afraid to reach out. Nobody should ever have to feel scared to make the first steps towards bettering their own situation. There needs to be a change. So let’s start right now. The following is a non-fiction narrative about my first experience with mental illness.
The Crumpled Pan
I look out the window as my mom drives my sister and me home from our summer vacation. I notice a lonely, crumpled up rim of someone’s tire on the side of the road. “Do you remember the pan?”
My sister laughs an uneasy sort of laugh; one that told me she knew exactly what I was talking about, but also remembers that, at the time, it wasn’t that funny. “How could I forget?” she says. I join in too with a laugh of my own. Should we be laughing?
Although a lot of memories from my childhood have washed away since my father’s death, this one I can’t seem to forget.
* * *
Was it raining? I feel like it should have been raining that day. Or maybe it was the sound of the rushing water hitting the sink. He was washing dishes in the kitchen. Despite having a dishwasher, there were always dishes to be done. Maybe they didn’t fit inside because they were too large and awkward, or maybe my dad just liked busying himself with a mindless activity. He was washing a pan—the sort of pan you’d bake cookies on. Oatmeal cookies with little M&Ms, the ones my mom always made. “Can you get the plates from the dining room?” My father pointed his gazed toward me. Although it was a question, he wasn’t really asking. I nodded and made my way to the dining table. I gathered up the plates, piling them on top of one another, placing all the silverware on the top plate. I noticed a bowl hidden on the piano. I wandered back into the kitchen, the tower of plates threatening to topple over should I misplace my footing. As I placed them on the counter beside my father, I asked him, “Did you want me to get the bowls, too?” His grip tightened on the pan, knuckles turning as white as the bar of soap that rested on the edge of the sink. “The bowls…” He paused, as if trying to convince his mind to take another direction. The water poured into the sink, threatening to spill out onto the kitchen tile. “The bowls,” he said again, lifting the pan into the air. “The bowls are part of the same damn family as the plates!” His voice reverberated off the walls.
My sister, who was watching television in the living room prior, stood in the doorway. My dad began to slam the pan he was washing earlier onto to the edge of the sink, over and over and over until it was unrecognizable. It looked like a piece of tinfoil that someone had crumpled up after unwrapping their sandwich. Each time the pan hit the sink, my body folded into itself until I was sitting on the floor, unaware of how I got there and unable to move. What did I do wrong?
My sister kneeled beside and helped me onto my feet. Together, we ran for the stairs, taking them two at a time, and threw ourselves into her room, slamming the door behind us. “Who should we call?” My sister asked, her voice doused with fear, hand outstretched with the phone, its cord haphazardly twisted around her wrists. “Call the police,” I cried into my hands. My ten year old brain couldn’t come up with a better alternative. She shook her head. “No. I’m calling Mom.”
I didn’t argue. I just sat there and waited. “Mom will be home in an hour,” my sister said as she placed the phone on the receiver and began to untangle herself from the cord. “My Barbie is downstairs.” I had to go rescue her. She couldn’t be left alone with him. I saw what he did to the pan, I didn’t want to think about what he could do to my Barbie. “No,” my sister said. “Wait until Mom gets home. Your Barbie will be fine until then.” I didn’t want to argue with her. Neither of us said anything after that. The kettle started whistling. The sound pierced the silence between us. I reached for the door, my sister waving at me to knock if off, but I turned the knob, opened the door, and crawled to the edge of the stairs. I could see my Barbie laying in front of the television, the lights from my sister’s show reflecting off of her.
As I began plotting ways to grab hold of my Barbie, my dad appeared in front of me and I almost toppled down the stairs. My sister crouched beside me, placing a protective hand on my shoulder. “Would either of you like a cup of tea?” I exchanged a bewildered stare with my sister before we both turned back to our father and said, “No, thank you.” The corners of his lips twisted into a smile and headed back towards the kettle that began to scream with impatience on the stove.
My dad was a friendly, cuddly giant; he had rosy-red cheeks and was always warm—even in the winter. We’d tell him to turn up the heat, and he’d tell us to put on another layer… When we already had a long sleeve shirt, a sweater, and our winter coats on. That man, the man who crumpled up a pan like it was yesterday’s news, the man who offered me and my sister tea like the Mad Hatter…that man was not my father.
My mom came home shortly after and her screams mimicked those of the teakettle’s. “How could you do something like that? Are you out of your damn mind?” She didn’t know that he was exactly that: out of his mind. There were signs that indicated there was something chemically imbalanced in his brain. Signs that, when looking back, seem so obvious. Like when his hands would shake violently if excited or agitated, causing him to drop whatever he was holding. Or when he wanted to cover up the skylight because he was paranoid that people would climb up on the roof and spy on us. Or when he would disappear for hours on end and not tell anyone where he was going. Still, we didn’t put the pieces together. Dad was just quirky, we thought. When he was demoted at work because the company was going under, he agreed to see a doctor because he couldn’t handle his depression anymore. He had to take a leave of absence from work. Little did he know that he would never return.
Diagnosis: bipolar disorder. Shortly after, he was admitted to the hospital when the doctors got his medicine wrong.
Even though my dad, the cuddly giant, was still there in some way, more often I’d find myself face to face with the Mad Hatter. We would tip toe around him, careful not to set him off. And, when he asked me to get the plates from the dining table, I grabbed the bowls, too. The pan laid out, crumpled, in the driveway for weeks. I tried not to look at it—I didn’t want to remember the day that bipolar disorder uninvitedly exploded its way into my life. My sister and I would pass it every single day as we came home from school until, one day, it was just gone.