“I think it’s pretty, the way Daddy’s hands glow and the smoke climbs in to the sky,” I said to my older brother. He stops talking, smokes all day and then it gets bad. But he’s so sick that he can’t be our Daddy right now.” Schizophrenia is a word I learned even before I could speak properly. But I knew the word I could barely pronounce was attached to Daddy. Outside of our little apartment, for the outside world, for the aunties clad in satiny salwar kameez or cheap wool pants and ill-fitting sweaters, who would take the train down to the Fort Hamilton Parkway subway stop to visit my mother, for them the diagnosis was simply depression. God wouldn’t have brought my parents and my brother and sister from Pakistan to New York, only to leave them in darkness. He would get better and then we would carry on with the hopes and dreams that my parents had originally imagined in their little North Nazimabad house, in the humid coastal city of Karachi.
“It’s not pretty,” Kamran replied curtly, only ten years old but already aged beyond his years, the unfortunate side effect of being the only boy sandwiched between two sisters, the unwitting man of the house when my father sat with his thoughts. “He lost his job and we have all of these bills, of course, of course he’s depressed,” Mummy said. He wouldn’t have brought me into the world just as Daddy’s mental illness began to spiral out of control, when he was still a young man, not even 40 yet. Daddy’s depression simply hit the pause button on those dreams. The label of depression made complete sense to our immigrant community. Lying became ingrained in my DNA for almost 40 years.
One day my daughter came home and excitedly told me that there were voices in her head.
“I like Joy a lot, Mom, because she makes me happy.
The rational side of me, the one that was Westernized and educated, said there was no grand explanation needed.
God wouldn’t have done all of that if he didn’t plan on making it better. How many of our uncles and aunties, having left behind good jobs and respectable homes in Pakistan, grew depressed and disheartened when the American Dream did not embrace them right away. It became a comfortable shawl that I wrapped myself in even though I had no rational reason to do so.
I was educated and knew the medical reasons behind schizophrenia, how it was an unfortunate gamble involving genetics and environmental stress factors in which the loser had to pay with his sanity.
We weren’t allowed to use the words paagal, or its English translation, for any reason in our house.
It’s a tradition I’ve carried on within my only family.
It is the corrosive suspicion in my heart that makes me question not only the innocuous actions of my loved ones but also myself for any signs of illness.