Hello, I am the son of a Black schizophrenic Vietnam Veteran.
Joel Leon.

Honoring Fathers Who Were Dealt A Bad Hand

Coincidentally, I recently published a piece on Medium about my deceased father who is also a Vietnam-era veteran, discharged honorably with a medical release because of his schizoaffective disorder. He was unable to be a father in the sense implied by Father’s Day cards. My freshman year of college, my roommate and I joked about creating a greeting card company that made cards for fathers like ours (hers was in prison). It would say things like, “Have a Bittersweet Father’s Day! My memories of you are vague and painful.”

This was before I understood him. I didn’t understand what it meant to him to enlist in an unpopular war in an effort to please his World War II veteran father. How much it hurt him to find his parents seemed alienated from him when he got home from the service. He misunderstood their distancing and disapproval. It was the bizarre things he was saying about a black man named Alex he met in the Air Force who was a Mormon capable of telepathy, and who had also traveled to another planet. Sometimes, my father would report that he, too, had traveled to another planet. Zorcon, to be exact. To this day, I don’t know if there ever was an Alex he projected delusions onto.

Dad’s Air Force photo

Until I was in college, I didn’t understand how his mental illness warped his ability to form relationships. His care for himself was questionable, so how could he care for others? I also began worrying that I would become like him. I asked friends and family to alert me if I started saying bizarre things. Hopefully, I am correct in saying I am still not delusional.

His poor judgment resulted in my parents losing custody of us for five months. He left my six year old brother to babysit my toddler and infant siblings so he could look for work. It was also 38 degrees in the house and there was no food, so these were contributing factors to the loss of custody. But, the child protection workers were very hard on him without understanding he didn’t think clearly. Child welfare is another system that doesn’t handle mental illness very well.

Anyway, it isn’t often I get to read another story about being the child of a man with schizophrenia. I really appreciated reading yours. It was like reading Nathaniel Lachenmeyer’s book, The Outsider, which is about his homeless father with schizophrenia.

My mother has bipolar disorder, so she wasn’t able to provide any balance to the equation of mental health stability in the family. Of course, all of this is the major reason I am a mental health advocate as well. The mental health system only started to work for my mother when she was old, and my father died mostly escaping their “help.” The disability system which was to maintain people with mental illness monetarily kept us so poor we ate at the Salvation Army every weekday (it wasn’t open on weekends). There are many systems that need to change, and many advocates needed to change them. Best wishes to you!