By Taylor Poor, NAMI Education Coordinator
Christal Presley’s recent memoir Thirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD is a universally meaningful narrative, but is particularly relevant to the NAMI mission. Presley’s story of the diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she shares with her father, a Vietnam veteran, is an eloquent testimony to the fact that mental illness impacts entire families, never just an individual alone.
By Christal Presley
Christal and her father both left home at the age of 18: her father to fight in Vietnam, Christal to escape the trauma she had experienced growing up with her father’s severe PTSD symptoms and a mother who denied that anything was wrong. The devout religious community of Christal’s hometown demanded that she and her mother pray silently for her father’s recovery rather than discuss it openly, and “put on a smile” for anyone who asked about their home life. In reality, Christal on a daily basis faced her father’s violent, humiliating public rages, withdrawal at home and frequent threats of suicide. While Christal’s father was able to escape into the therapeutic world of music by way of his guitar, Christal’s only escape was college, and, later, the memory loss that robbed her of most of her good childhood memories along with the bad.
Now, many years later, having barely spoken to her father since she left home, Christal embarks on a month-long effort to call her father every day. The first awkward conversations rekindle pain and trauma for both, but soon Christal and her father come to realize that the traumatic experiences they both faced have made them partners in recovery. Learning about traits they never knew they shared, a deep and powerful friendship is formed. Presley brings this journey alive with excerpts from the journal her therapist asked her to keep over the course of her 30-day project, alternating with thorough, compelling records of her conversations with her father.
Many accounts of mental illness and recovery focus on the initial pain and loss of coming to terms with a diagnosis, and struggling through the search for a path to recovery. These accounts are incredibly valuable, but Presley’s memoir offers an additional step in the journey. By the time she has come to terms with the telling of her story, she has found a good therapist, and her father is also taking medication. Therapy has given Christal the kind of perspective on her past that allows her to see that her mother’s choice to burden her with the realities of her father’s illness was a poor one, but that her parents did “what they could with what they had and what they knew.” Her narrative, therefore, is not just the typical tale of scary, confusing symptoms, but rather one of forging new connections, recovering a family member that she had once believed lost for good.
Thirty Days provides a very special kind of hope, one we don’t often encounter in the literature of mental illness. Presley’s stylistic excellence, vivid prose and disarming sense of humor make this gift all the more rewarding.
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