I was three years old when my father, Phil, tried to end his own life by walking naked into the snow. He threw himself onto a rock, cut his head and passed out on the icy ground. His feet froze solid. He survived, but he had to have all his toes amputated. This is one of my first real memories of him, hobbling beside me with his bandaged feet and a cane.
I was upset because he and my mother used to hold my hands and swing me in the air between them in the park. He couldn’t do that anymore, and I cried. Pretty much ever since then, my father has lived on and off the streets of our home city of Montreal, Canada. He has a severe case of schizophrenia that means he can’t – and won’t – live inside a family home. He has lived in government housing at times, but he ended up homeless again only eight months ago. His illness, these days paired with alcoholism, goes in and out of extreme phases. At its worst, he can’t remember to bathe or eat. He never forgets that I’m his daughter, but he does forget that anyone apart from himself matters. That’s when he returns to sleep in the park he’s haunted for the past 30 years, since I was a toddler.
My parents met at McGill University in Montreal in 1975. Phil was 21 and my mother, Natalie, was 19. He was a poet, hailed by fellow Montreal native Leonard Cohen as an exciting new talent. Mum was studying psychology. Phil was handsome and hugely charismatic, and she was a slim, fragile beauty. They fell in love and became inseparable. Within 18 months, they were pregnant with me. I was born in June 1977.
Phil was stable in those bohemian early days with my mother. He’d suffered his first big psychological breakdown at the age of 20, just before they met, and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Two of his cousins had the same illness, so it was in the family. But he was doing fine when he got together with Mum, and he stayed fine for a little over two years. With hindsight this was lucky, because the pregnancy caused ructions with both their well-heeled, traditional families. My struggling student parents – Mum was breastfeeding me during her final exams – had to cope with my arrival alone.
But the calm didn’t last. They moved to the country north of Montreal after college. Phil’s illness began to creep back. He started hearing voices, and his behaviour grew volatile and aggressive. He couldn’t hold down a job, so they ended up on welfare with a young child. Mum went back to college, taking me with her, to do a teaching degree to support us. That was when Phil’s sanity broke down completely and he tried to commit suicide in the snow. The doctors said he would never walk properly again after he lost his frostbitten toes. But he did figure out how to walk, and even to run again – a mark of the resilience that has helped him to survive all the gruelling years since.
I can’t remember exactly when Phil started living on the streets, but it wasn’t long after he tried to kill himself. He refused psychiatric help or medication because he was too delusional to comprehend that he needed it. I call him Phil now, but he was still Daddy to me then.
I remember sitting on his lap before he was sick and laughing wildly at his silly jokes – he’s always been very funny – and loving that he was so big and strong. I never stopped loving him, throughout everything. But, as a child, the love became mixed with another powerful feeling towards him: terror.
I never had a sit-down talk with anyone about his illness. It was just part of our lives. I overheard people using words like “loony” or “nutcase” to describe him. Even my mum. She was so young then, and she was trying to cope. Mum and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in an unrenovated building in Montreal’s Westmount, one of the city’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. After weeks of not seeing Phil, he would reappear at our door, dishevelled and often drunk. Sometimes he was lucid, but mostly his arrival was like this huge explosion. Mum would always let him in. She’d feed him and make him up a bed on the couch for a few nights. She wanted to help.
I dreaded him showing up – this wild, scary-eyed alien version of my father. I had nightmares about it. He sat in our old blue armchair in his dirt-stained clothes and shouted at his imaginary voices, spewing nonsense to nobody. He made crazy faces, he smelled of bodily filth and tobacco, he knocked things over. There was always drama and screaming. One of his recurring delusions was that he was Jackie Onassis’s son – he even went to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts once to find her, and had to be escorted back over the border by police. He also believed that cars were evil. He slashed all four tyres on my mum’s car to “protect” us so many times that she started parking it kilometres away. She couldn’t afford to keep replacing them.
There was nowhere to escape in our tiny flat. I reacted at these times by withdrawing, by becoming almost mute. Even when he was calm and I could play with my toys in the living room, I was always on guard for any hint of a new episode. I’d observe him out of the corner of my eye and give regular reports to my mother in the kitchen: “Mum! He’s staring at the ceiling now!” I hated the madness, hated the unpredictability, and hated that we were so alone. And I longed desperately for my daddy.
When he disappeared outside, we didn’t know if we’d ever see him again. Being homeless in Montreal is brutal – it hits minus 20°C in winter. Almost no-one is on the streets by choice here. It’s the severely mentally ill who end up there because they slip through the cracks; they are too far gone to consent to treatment. He’d usually been drinking – alcoholism is like a co-disease of schizophrenia, as it helps to dull the senses and quiet the voices. Often, we’d hear that Phil was still alive because he’d been arrested for being disorderly, or for being half-naked. He was constantly in and out of jail or secure psychiatric wards. Inside they’d forcibly medicate him, and things would improve briefly after he was released, but then the whole ugly cycle would start again.
As I grew up, my fear of Phil became mingled with intense shame. One day, when I was about nine, I saw him waiting for me outside my school. He was filthy and mumbling to himself, trying to spot me in a sea of kids. I went white with shock. He was still only in his early 30s, but he looked decrepit. I ran past him as hard as I could, screaming at my friend that a monster was following us. I didn’t stop running for 20 minutes. Another time, when I was in high school, I spotted him frantically rummaging through a garbage bin in the city centre. I was on my way to a movie with my girlfriends. My heart started beating out of my chest. I turned around and walked away in an ice-cold panic.
My friends had no clue why I behaved like that. I attended one of Montreal’s best schools, where all the students came from “respectable” homes. It was rare for a student to come from a single-parent family, so I already felt different. How could I reveal that my father was a mentally ill street person who sometimes wore his underwear on his head, and kept getting thrown in jail? I told my best friends simply that my dad wasn’t around, and they were too well-mannered to probe.
I had no counselling or therapy to help deal with my awful secret. Talking cures weren’t so common then. Once, I did visit the school guidance counsellor at my mum’s suggestion. But I was so used to hiding the truth that as soon as I stuttered out the words, “My father has schizophrenia”, I started heaving with gigantic sobs, and couldn’t say another thing. Incredibly, the counsellor didn’t follow up and try to see me again. I never went back.
Mum tried to make life as normal as possible for me; we had our little routines like watching TV together in the evenings, and she took me camping every year for our summer holiday. Still, being in a one-parent family meant I was often alone. I bottled up my feelings so tightly there were times when I feared I was going mad, too. Schizophrenia is genetic, after all, and there’s no way of testing for it before it manifests. I monitored my thoughts constantly, banishing anything that seemed weird. I shelved art projects that seemed too wild. I thought I seemed “normal”, but there was always that grain of worry. In men, schizophrenia is usually diagnosed around the ages of 19 to 21, but in women it’s later, about 26 to 27. It took me until my 29th birthday before I felt I was truly in the clear.
When Mum and I moved house in my teens, I pleaded with her not to give Phil our new address. She agreed. We decided to meet him only at a cafe if he was well enough, or in the park if not. To this day, Phil doesn’t know where either of us lives. He has our phone numbers, but that’s it. It was the right decision because not having him randomly burst into our lives with his cluster-bomb craziness meant I could savour the nicer moments. I’d long ago given up hope of any fatherly nurturing, but little things meant a lot – like when he read me a new poem he’d written, or gave me earrings for my birthday that he’d scrimped and saved to buy. He’d give me five bucks whenever he could too, even though he needed it. Mum said I should always accept it.
Then something unexpected happened. When I was 19, I started to take photographs of my times spent with Phil. My maternal grandfather had given me my first camera a few years earlier, and I had become hooked on photography. Seeing Phil from behind a lens, in stark black and white, was extraordinary. There it was: the truth about my father, the truth about us. Suddenly, I began to make sense of this vast, murky soup of emotions I’d had for so long. I started to untangle the deep morass of shame I felt. Shame about him, and even deeper shame (and guilt) at myself for feeling ashamed.
Anger bubbled up inside me about why I’d always felt so dirty and tainted, why I’d had to deny his existence. The camera made me face everything. I started making peace with Phil, and with myself. I also told my closest friends about him, and gradually stopped trying to hide the truth from everyone else.
My whole life I’d heard people say that street people were disgusting, that they should get a job, that they stank. I’d seen the callous way Phil was treated by police, the constant discrimination. When I was having a coffee or a stroll with him, strangers would often ask if he was “bothering” me, or if I needed help.
I wanted the photos to show that there’s more to someone like Phil than people realise. Not to deny the hardship and mess of his life, but to reveal the worth and beauty in it, too. I took pictures of him writing his poems, which he’s never given up and still sells on the streets (he hates begging). I photographed him playing his pan pipes, which he also plays to earn money. I photographed him talking to the birds and trees he loves, and also later as he was passed out in an alcoholic haze among them. And, most importantly, I photographed all of us – Phil, my mum and me – because this was our family.
I continued taking photos of my father over the years, and occasionally still do. I’m 33 years old now, and I’m a professional photographer. In my 20s, I spent time living in New York and India, but I have been based in Montreal for more than two years. I recently broke up with my boyfriend, but I’d love to have a family of my own one day. I see Phil almost every week, sometimes with my mum and sometimes alone.
Now that he’s in his 50s, Phil’s illness has levelled off. There are fewer highs and lows. He still abuses alcohol, but he takes his medication more regularly, which, he says, makes his imaginary voices seem a manageable “two rooms away”. I’d like to say that everything is wonderful, but that wouldn’t be true. Phil still loses the plot and I still have difficult times with him, and that’s probably never going to change. But the good thing is I can now accept all that. I love Phil, and I’m happy to tell the whole world he’s my father.