When I was a teenager, my dad went mad.
Yeah, sure, I can put that in a more inclusive way, or allow for the fact that he had Multiple Sclerosis with associated brain lesions so he wasn’t mad mad or something. Nevertheless, he went mad.
There’s no ideal time for a parent to go mad. It’ll scar you for life as a small kid, as a tennager, or as an adult. It’s impossible to deal with, even with a diagnosis (which we didn’t have until I’d fled our house at 16 to get away from it). The person you thought you knew is now a different person. And that different person is mad.
The descent into madness had been so slow – only on TV does it happen over the advertisement break – that we didn’t see it happening. Like a tree growing… you know it’s happening and a glance once a year tells you something has changed, but you can’t prove it, it’s just happening too slowly.
Imagine trying to explain to people that the tree in your back yard was very, very slowly getting larger. They’d either agree with you and dismiss what you have to say, or disagree… and dismiss what you have to say.
So we got on with it: living, going to school, moving house, popping to Gateway or WM Lows, living our lives as my dad went mad around and between us.
There were specific incidents that should – should – have told us that he was mad. He sold my record player to a friend of his without telling anybody else in the family (including me) when I was about 10. When the guy came to pick it up, my dad threw in all my records too. Because I wouldn’t need them any more, since I didn’t have a record player.
My mum and my younger sister and I watched this happen but said nothing. It was weird. Perhaps a bit mad. But, well, what can you say when this type of thing happens? To complain that something is wrong with the picture in front of you when it seems so very mad is also mad, isn’t it?
Four years of this type of madness later, I asked for a dot matrix printer for my birthday, mostly because it would help me pursue my dream of running a (school) magazine. And he bought me one.
Before I opened the box, he put me in the car and drove me to the nearest town. There I went into Lloyds bank and withdrew my entire childhood savings, £250, and handed it to him. He took £200 of it to pay for my birthday present, and then drove me to another bank to open a current account with the remainder. They opened the account, but it was NatWest, and their customer service did then and still does now involve stopping only millimetres short of telling customers to go fuck themselves. The guy in new accounts took the money and my filled-in application, turned away, turned back, slammed the window closed and drew the blind. After 5 minutes just stood there, I left.
My mad dad went mad that I didn’t have anything to show for handing over £50 to the NatWest. Two weeks later I had an account and a card – not the account I’d applied for and not a card I could use anywhere, and sorting this took three trips into town by bus because my mad dad wouldn’t drive me because it was my fault.
Of course, this person, this mad dad, wasn’t my actual dad. (My friends often called him my step-dad, and when I said he was my real dad, because biologically and legally he was, they would be surprised: why would a real dad be like that? He’s obviously your step-dad). My real dad is the one I vaguely remember from when I was little, who tried with no success whatsoever to get me into football, who bought kites and took me to the park to crash them into the ground.
He was the guy who, after my sister was born and it was clear that my mum could no longer cope with the horrors of the side effects of the Pill and neither of them liking condoms, volunteered to have – and got – a vasectomy. Now there’s a good guy. (Seriously, straight men and bi men with female partners: get the snip. There’s no greater present you can buy your female partner/s).
I’ve got the letters he wrote to me when I was a baby and a toddler and he was away with the RAF working in maritime Canada and the Falklands and various other cold and miserable places for months at a time. He tells his “darling Boo-Boo” (me) to be good for mummy and talks about the fun we’ll have when he’s back home, in six weeks or three months or whatever the 1970s MoD had decided.
And yet that’s not the memories I have of him, at least not without really thinking hard. The memories I have are of the guy who sold my record collection without asking me. The guy who made me pay for my own birthday present. The guy who picked up the phone one day when I called from a payphone to tell my mum I was cut and bruised from the (homophobic, although I obviously didn’t say that) bullying I was having at school that day who told me to get over it and then hung up.
I’m glad my mad dad is dead.
Sometimes I miss my real dad.
Header image from Needpix.com, uncredited