I Wrote To My Stepfather In Prison

The man I still call my stepfather has been in prison since 2007. Memories of the day of his downfall stay with me: The window was open, with late-afternoon sun was pouring in. I remember hearing the violent thump coming from above, on the roof. And the fear.

That’s when my stepfather climbed into our house, jumping down from the roof into our hallway. His face was contorted and sweaty; he was panting, wild-eyed. Otherwise, though, he acted as if the entire thing were normal. And I remember thinking: how fluidly he went from family member to stranger to criminal.

When I saw him fumbling in the hallway outside my bedroom, I kindly said "Hello" as if this man were a total stranger, not the one who rushed to me when I survived a car crash, or the one who packed me up and drove me off to college. It was like he didn't notice me; he was oddly preoccupied by some energy pulling him through the house. He seemed to just want to be there, to fuss around — or perhaps he was there reflexively; it was his home, after all — we were a backdrop. I must remember: for us, this was a strange day. For him, he was moving through a muddled mental fog.

I then walked calmly to my brother’s room, took his hand and walked him out of the house. I called 911, hands shaking, guilt surging. I called because my mother had a restraining order placed against my stepfather at this point, but if this seems extreme, know this decision was far from easy.

I was home from college the weekend it happened, and my brother, seven years younger, was in his bedroom. Had we not been living in a house deep down a long dirt road in the middle of a rural area, I would have been less frightened. But it was my brother, my manic stepfather, the woods and me.

My mother met him through Narcotics Anonymous years earlier, where he was a sort of sponsor to her when she was trying to get clean herself. I always assumed the clean years he had on her meant she’d be the one to fall first. It seems someone always falls. It was his turn.

Despite the years we'd all spent together (totaling almost six) and what became a real family, he’d taken a turn for the worse when he relapsed and began chasing the dragon after several years of being clean.

When he first relapsed, he went into a rehabilitation facility partially paid for by insurance. They didn’t have much money, but they had enough to make it work. Everything seemed hopeful, but I knew the drug game; you never assume the best.

But when he came back from rehab, he relapsed again, lost his job and spiraled; the man I knew was gone. His once docile nature became spastic and unpredictable, and it was like we lived with a replacement, some other body.

He was in pieces. He was flitting around, drug-addled and lost. His behavior, right before my mother got the restraining order, was bizarre, heartbreaking, and hard to watch. He’d come home with bags of beads bought at a junk shop (why?), which he’d string all through the night. He’d turn strings of beads into clunky necklaces, which he’d try to give us as gifts, much like a cat with a small animal at the door. He’d sharpen knives compulsively. He’d rush in and out of the house all night, arranging things outside (what were they, we wondered?)

He’d move the garbage cans around, manically clean his car or pace on our porch, looking out over a tiny pond, his frenetic energy juxtaposed against nature. And when he'd come in, high as a kite with that heavy, bat-shit presence of his looming over our entire house, we suddenly knew the house was his. We would lock our bedroom doors at night.

We later found there were a few reasons for his behavior: his drug abuse was one thing, but there was also the undiagnosed mental health issue — the quiet, passive illness that ate at his ability to think clearly. He was bipolar, though he hadn't yet been diagnosed.

I suppose the signs were always there towards the end, especially when he started using again: fleeting but noticeable signs of deep sadness, manic early-morning cleaning sprints, sudden euphoria. And every time I saw his instability rear its head, I would catch myself in my own blame.

There was something inside him doing this to him. How could I hate him for his disease? If anything, hindsight says it was guilt that co-opted my emotions. Guilt that I couldn’t help him; guilt that I felt frankly fucking pissed off that drugs were yet again taking over my life. My mother had already lost custody of us a few years earlier, gained it back and made it through the entire withdrawal and therapy ordeal. Why was this happening in our lives again? And why did she have to fall in love with another broken man? These were the sort of thoughts that cropped up whenever I couldn’t conjure compassion. And they left me feeling cold.

Watching a man lose himself is embarrassing, uncomfortable and lonely, especially when you remember who he was before the darkness took over. And because it was so dark, the restraining order came quickly. My mother did it for us, not for herself, and her selflessness was gutting. In fact, I was surprised by her steadfast resolve.

This is a woman who had already overcome addiction. She knew her way around the disease. She understood its nuances and its pull. But if my younger brother weren’t there, I doubt she'd have gone so far.

When the cops took him the day he broke into our house, I watched as they pushed his body into the back of a cop car; they handled him as if he were despicable.

Maybe he was.

To me, he looked like a frightened child, no matter how much of a junkie he was. I wish I had known that his undiagnosed disorder was making matters worse; I wish I could have told the cops. Maybe then, it could have been a rehabilitative opportunity, rather than a criminal act. What if, instead of calling the police, I just let him be? How would everything be today? Those thoughts corrupted me, despite being able to look at the situation from the outside.

A few weeks later, I’d gone back to college. The summer wore off, and it became a season of death. My stepfather remained off the premises, so I called my mother to see if she had updates on him every day. By then, my stepfather was living back with his parents a few miles away from my mother and brother, and I imagined him suffering, having lost everything, unsure of his own sanity. I imagined him getting high. I wondered if he had a violent streak.

My mother, losing the one man who really did treat her well, was sullen, anxious and calling me with updates. He wasn't getting better.

She called me one night, frantic. “His parents haven’t seen him in a few days, Lisa. What if he’s dead?”

I could hear her heart breaking; I could feel her instincts kicking in. The knowledge that something had happened was oddly palpable.

I told her I wasn’t sure where he could be, but I wanted to find out if he was alive, or find something out.

I silently Googled his name as my mother waited on the other end of the line. No one ever expects to find their family member in the news, but I was studying journalism and Google was reflexive to me.

“Mom, seriously, please just…sit down,” I remember saying.

I remembered feeling the gut-punch, the buzzing, white-hot shock, the pity, and the shame. There it was: he’d robbed a bank near my hometown and threatened the teller with a note saying that he had a bomb (but no actual bomb).

His name was right there on the screen. If I could describe the feeling, it would be akin to remembering a nightmare. It’s like the sudden relief, upon waking, that what you just experienced wasn’t real. Only it’s the opposite; it’s real. And there’s no shaking it. No forgetting.

By the time I’d read the piece, he’d been arrested. He was detoxing in jail, controlled by the horrors of his own body railing against him. A psychiatrist finally diagnosed and medicated him.

This was just the beginning of a lengthy trial; in 2014, his final appeal would be slammed. In 2007, my mother and I wrote letters of personality to the judge. I tried to remind the disappointing, seemingly uncaring state-appointed lawyer that my stepfather was more than what he seemed — he has been a stepfather, a husband, not just a criminal. But when you have a middle-aged, uneducated, blue-collar junkie on the stand, I found that there was little compassion to go around by way of judge, jury and anyone I happened to tell about the incident. There was no good side to him now, as far as many of those in the legal system were concerned; he was just a man with an intention to harm. A bomb threat in the post-September 11 world was a problem, even if he didn’t have a weapon.

Apparently, he told the cops he was trying to rob a bank because he needed the money to go back to rehab.

He was served with 13 years in prison.

One article covering the trial noted that a psychologist testified at the trial that my stepfather suffered from bipolar disorder and polysubstance abuse, but opined that they did not impair his intent, his ability to make clear decisions when it came to the robbery.

I didn’t and still don’t understand. I don't understand how far gone you've got to be to rob a bank. I don't understand that blind desperation. I wanted his mental health to be considered in the case. I wished that they’d see he was a fairly normal guy, a guy who made his rent and took care of two kids who weren’t his own — a man who was broken, but not bad.

There aren’t any real answers to my questions, but I do know that less than half of the people with diagnosed with bipolar disorder are getting the help they need. My life now is underscored by an acute awareness that all of 'crazy' people we see every day – those who behave criminally or psychotically, or are more subtly disturbed – many could have been saved if only they had real resources on a personal and community level. If only some of the taxes that went into the prison system went into free rehabilitation programming and paid time-off from work to take part. I know that getting help requires money, compassion and awareness. Coupled with the inability to finance adequate rehabilitation for drug abuse, my stepfather was never going to be anyone besides someone who fell down the rabbit hole.

My mother dealt with the loss in ways similar to my own: we both just vanished, like ghosts. We never wrote to my stepfather. Not once. And he never wrote to us, probably because we had moved and because he felt we didn't want him to. Looking back, all he really knew was that we were silent. It was like it never happened. Only it did, and while we lived free, he counted the years remaining from a jail cell.

Time went by and I went to graduate school. I traveled, fell in and out of love, moved several times, and found my dream job. All of it.

My mother, on the other hand, fell into the abyss; she didn’t relapse but she wasn’t entirely clean. She lost herself, stopped working and moved out of the house we lived in. Something changed in her. Her happiness was only seen in fragments; it slipped away gradually, until it was gone. She moved back to her hometown — a dead-beat, broke-down small town — and I could have sworn this was a symbol of the end of all things. It was a physical and metaphorical regression, and it hurt to watch.

Still, our silence continued, despite the fact that I Googled his name on occasion. I’d find articles debating the details of his case. Those articles were put on Facebook, and people (from our area, or those with an interest in law) would have conversations about my stepfather. I read but never commented.

Sometimes I’d say to my mother, “I wonder how he’s doing,” and she’d respond, “I hope he’s OK. Let’s not talk about it.” His name was not spoken. He became the elephant.

A few years later in graduate school, I worked at PEN American Center's Prison Writing Program. It felt like the right thing to do, and it somehow distracted me from the fact that I hadn't ever written him back. I could work to advocate for all these convicted criminals — incarcerated murderers, violent criminals, abusers — but I couldn't write him back.

Last Christmas, though, I decided that the silence couldn’t continue. Honestly, the guilt ran through me. Sometimes when I’d go to sleep at night (like all anxious people), I’d run through all my regrets: this and that and this and that and him: never writing to him, never once checking in to see if he’s okay, or if he’s got enough money, or if he’s been hurt by an inmate, or if he’s got the help he needed to stabilize his mental health.

It’s as though we all disappeared: from reality, from one another, from the house.

A friend said to me, “You spend all this time feeling guilty but do you realize how he let you down? How aren’t you angry?”

But I am angry. I’m angry — angry that my mother had to move from her humble but pretty house because she couldn’t pay for it, angry that my brother had to be failed by yet another man, angry that my college years were a study in grief and careful denial.

But anger has no reason. Having spent years in AA meetings with my mother, I believe compassion works better. There is such stigma against addiction, and there’s almost no working local advocacy in place for the underprivileged or middle class. Considering those systemic obstacles, it’s important to remember that beneath the surface there’s a person who is suffering and out of control. It stops being abstract when it's in front of your face.

I’ve also realized over years that the anger, frustration and loss that you feel when a person you love is hooked to some vicious substance isn’t soulless. It’s normal.

Still, the guilt remained. So I looked him up on Christmas day in 2015, eight years later after he was incarcerated I found him in the state's registry of prisoners. Seeing his face was strange: the same hazel eyes, skinnier face.

Then I sent him a letter.

I said I was sorry we disappeared, that we fought for him, that we missed him. I asked him if he needed books, or money or anything at all. I somehow felt things would make up for the vanishing.

I left out my mom’s new boyfriend, and that we moved from our house. I left out the questions I had: was he hurt? Did he get hurt in prison? Did he get treatment? Was he in a cell alone? Did he have friends? Did he have to join a gang?

And then one day, a return envelope was right there, like it had traveled out of time from the past. His letter was double-spaced, written in big letters. It was apologetic, excited to hear from me. He said he got a job in prison, he said he had tapped into some spirituality, and he said he was proud: “You became a writer like I knew you would.”

His graciousness was startling, and he seemed like the man I had once known. We’ve exchanged several letters by now, and I suspect there is a healing aspect there for the both of us; he knows he hasn’t been abandoned, and I know I haven’t abandoned someone.

Still, I can’t help but think: if I hadn’t called the police, would he have just calmly left on his own? Would he have felt so manic? Would he have felt so alone? Would he have robbed the bank?

He always apologizes — for ‘ruining’ our family, for letting my brother down, for disturbing what was so normal and idyllic. For ending the era of our lives in that quiet house in the middle of the woods. But I never expected an apology; most of the time, I feel like the sorry one.

In the end, writing these letters — and, in fact, the meditative process of writing by hand without relying on the brevity of digital correspondence — showed me the invaluable essence of human connection. It speaks to the idea that mental illness does not take away a person's humanity. It proves that life-changing mistakes do not strip away a person’s dignity, which is that intangible essence that makes someone good, even when their actions aren't.

Images: Lisa Marie Basile