photos: Photo by Deanna Cheng.

Breaking free of stigma

Deanna Cheng talks about the stigma around mental health—and how it’s impacted her father’s relationship with his family

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When I was little, my Dad was my hero.

He was the good cop to my Mom’s bad cop, giving us pop and chips over fruits and veggies. He grabbed us and tossed us up in the air because he believed we could reach the clouds if we wanted to.

To me, my Dad was a man full of colour and laughter, a strong man, capable of protecting the family he loved. I never thought anything could break him.

One time, while I was riding on the back of his bicycle, my foot got caught in the spokes.

I was kicking without paying much attention when I felt pain. I cried out and my Dad rushed me to emergency.

My wee ankle was fine, just swollen.

Then and now
Today, my Dad is a shell of his former self. He has paranoid schizophrenia. A diagnosis that, as a kid, meant he lived half in reality and half in a fantasy world. I grew up with my mom calling him “crazy,” but I didn’t understand what this meant.

Somewhere, he lost the very spirit I remember him for. His passion. His courage.

He’s not the man I remember. The person he is today is part of him but it’s hard to believe he is the same man I knew as a toddler.

He had visitation rights. My brother and I would visit him at whatever apartment or psych ward he ended up in. Back and forth, my Dad would relapse into an “episode” every couple of years.

Now, he lives in a single room occupancy (SRO) hotel by Oppenheimer Park. My Dad shuffles forward to the glass door with his hunched back and slight bald spot, mumbling. His SRO fits a single bed, a small round table, two chairs, and a fridge.

He rarely leaves his room. It’s his domain where he has control over his everything. No danger. No anxiety. Less paranoia. I don’t know if he does anything beyond sleep and eat.

My Mom drops by to take him out to eat or give him fresh produce from the garden. I see him maybe two or three times a year.

I struggle with the language barrier. He speaks Cantonese, and I speak English, I understand everything he says. My Cantonese doesn’t go beyond the basic polite conversation and my Dad, not used to having an adult daughter, keeps trying to feed me and ask if I have enough money.

Despite the distance and growing up without him in my daily life, I feel warm when I hear his voice and I still love him deeply. I know he loves me.

I love a stranger, and he is my Dad.

My brother, on the other hand, may grunt once or twice in our father’s presence but then leaves the room quickly.

I don’t really blame him because he was too young to remember anything else. I was almost four and my brother was about two years old, so I remember just fragments of the journey itself on the day we left my father in Alberta for Vancouver. I remember gnawing at the weird spongy material of the car door, and the single-bed motel room where my mom, my brother, and I slept.

Then, we ended up at a halfway house in Kitsilano, one for battered women and their families. My parents divorced shortly after.

When I asked my Mom about that day, she told me that my Dad had become unruly and scary. She was working two jobs and every time she came home, my Dad berated her for leaving the house, claiming it was unsafe. He’d hit her sometimes.

As young as I was, I remember some of those moments. I remember my Dad yelling. I remember protecting my brother by throwing an arm around his body. He never struck us but those moments left a different scar. He had stopped working and never left the house.

Before everything
Back in his village in China, my Dad was an artist. He painted landscapes—ideal “feng shui” paintings. My Mom says he would’ve made a living back home. In small town Alberta, lack of success as a painter made him doubt his skills. Throw in Chinese cultural pressures to be the breadwinner because “the man is the head of the household,” and he fell into a depression.

My Mom claims antidepressants are the cause of my Dad’s mental health. She vehemently claims there are no mental health issues on my Dad’s side of the family.

I believed her for the longest time. But after a while, I began to understand that mental health issues are largely ignored in Chinese culture. In my experience, relatives who act “odd” are kept out of sight.

If someone asks about them, the topic is hastily changed to business, upcoming holidays, or other gossip. No one talks about these family members. They brush them off, or warn everyone to stay away from them. Great shame consumes people’s faces when you talk about the “odd” relative.

I tried to understand my father. I took psychology courses. I volunteered with teenagers and children with special needs. I tried.

As a kid, somehow, I thought if I could understand him, then maybe I could get him back: the man who was part of my childhood, who laughed out loud and tossed me in the air towards the sun, who took us to the park for picnics, and teased our mom into worrying less about the future. This didn’t happen.

Wishful thinking
As a kid, I thought my love would “cure” him. I hated how the world treated him.

How my grandparents ignored him. How my brother doesn’t look him in the eye. Today, I’ve come to accept my dad will remain the person he has become. I drop off drawing pencils and blank notebooks. Nothing.

He’s ashamed of his lost ability. My Dad says his hands shake too much. He can’t hold the pencils well because of his medication. So my hope that art will save him remains small, but it’s still there.

My mom still cares for her ex-husband. It may be a bit of her deep love for him and a bit of familial obligation. My brother and I were never banned from seeing him. In fact, our mother insists we visit him from time to time.

When we were younger, he used to find out where we lived and would slash my Mom’s car tires because he wanted us stranded at home. His logic was, as long as we remained in one place, he'd know where we were, and he’d know we were safe.

Still, what stood out to me is that a diagnosis didn’t take away my Dad’s love for his family and his need to protect us. And in a difficult situation, my Mom chose to support the man she loved any way she could even if her upbringing did not prepare her for it.

Future hope
There may never be a happy ending for my father, no golden bow to tie up all the loose strings of the childhood version of my Dad and the one I know today.

My Dad will continue as he is, calling my Mom every so often to take out the new filling in his teeth because he believes the government is tracking him through it. And

I will continue to tell him that’s not true.

My hope is, moving forward, that the cultural stigmas I grew up with will stay in my family’s past—that the shame and lack of understanding will not follow us into the future.

I want future generations, starting with my own, to recognize what is happening and continue the dialogue surrounding mental health.

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