A personal commentary by Matt Chapman to coincide with the “Day on the Hill” for our state’s National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter. NAMI Iowa’s “mission is to raise public awareness and concern about mental illness, to foster research, to improve treatment and to upgrade the system of care for the people of Iowa.” -promoted by desmoinesdem
In the last few years I have found myself politically active and seem to be trying to make up for years of not having the right to vote and taking it for granted when I did participate. I would like to share where my focus is and relate how I came to feel so intensely about these issues. You never know when you may find your voice, and if it took me until my 50s, so be it.
Mental health has had a big influence on my life. I came from a family that had many challenges, from depression to psychosis and substance abuse. Both parents, my brother, and two sisters have all been through inpatient substance abuse treatment multiple times. I am the youngest by five years and the only one who has not been committed. I have lost two family members to suicide.
I grew up and have always lived around the poverty line. That is why not just the minimum wage is an issue for me, but teaching trades need to be a focus, and unions need to be strengthened so we can all succeed.
I was unable to vote until I was in my 40s, due to a felony charge from breaking into a school when I was eighteen and homeless. That’s why voter disenfranchisement is a focus.
The school system failed me as a child. I believe it’s much better today, but still needs work. That is why the cutting of resources and slashing of standards are a focus.
I was abused and neglected as a child. The Department of Human Services was nowhere, though in the 1970s, that may have been a blessing. That is why I am focused on the oversight, funding, and accountability of the DHS.
I had little health insurance and no dental my whole life. The Medicaid expansion was the first actual health insurance for many Iowans. When I see folks who are denied services for debilitating conditions and hear our current governor say, “I never said it was perfect,” you better believe I am focused on electing someone who will work on reversing the Medicaid privatization.
All these issues impact those in poverty hard, but far from exclusively. The fact that we lock mentally ill and addicted people up in our state–rather than treat them for disease or illness–shows our priority seems to be doing as little as possible for those in our state who need our help.
I grew up with whoever my parents could get to take me until they got sober when I was twelve. I can remember staying at the Hawbaker farm outside Adel. That was a great experience, and when I was helping my grandmother later in her life, I would see Patty Hawbaker who took me in for a little while.
I also stayed at some other homes that were very kind, and some that were not. One thing that shaped me was the fact that when I was with one of my parents, it seemed they couldn’t wait to get rid of me and to go do their own thing.
As a young child I was withdrawn and learned to be out of sight as much as possible. I remember my sisters would hide me in a closet when things got violent. My mother had bought a tall ceramic vase, and I remember them hiding it with me, so it didn’t get broken when my parents were fighting. I drew two conclusions: 1) we were both fragile, and 2) when I was out of sight, I was safe. That revelation shaped my personality as much as anything.
I remember being sexually abused by older kids and adults starting when I was around six. There were a lot experiences, and the shaming and blaming used to keep you from talking left me damaged. This is your fault, you are a bad child, even using hell and damnation to terrorize me seemed to be a constant practice among my abusers. I don’t want to write more detail about those incidents, because it is upsetting to me. I have the utmost respect for those who do, especially when confronting an abuser.
I stayed at the Dallas County home one night when I was around ten years old along with my sisters and mother. We were living in an old farmhouse just east of Linden. We had moved from another house north of town when my mother was released from the Clarinda mental health facility. She had been given shock treatments after attempting suicide. We were all sitting in the living room and she came out with my stepfather’s pistol and put it to her head, then pointed it to the ceiling and shot.
My mother and stepfather had been fighting at our new house, but this time it was exceptionally bad. I remember being the first one home from school and my stepfather was literally crawling around on the floor in just his boxer shorts. I had one of four bedrooms upstairs as it was an old farmhouse, and I would run upstairs before he even realized I was there.
That night while fighting he poured hot coffee on my mother and passed out in his room downstairs. My brother had pulled out a shotgun on him and my stepfather retreated.
We called the sheriff. They told us they couldn’t come out unless someone was hurt. My brother told them that he was going to have to shoot our stepfather if they didn’t come, so they did.
My stepfather woke later and wrote a suicide note. It said, “The world would be better off without the Chapmans.” He then poured gas down the upstairs hallway where our bedrooms were and down the stairs. He poured it throughout the house, lit it on fire and passed out in his bedroom.
My grandmother drove by early that morning and saw the house burning. They came to put it out and saved my stepfather. I stayed with my grandparents for a couple of days and then my mother and stepfather took me to Algona where we stayed for a few months. It was bad. This would be an example of the DHS dropping the ball.
My biological father had checked into treatment and my mother would call him in the day. She told me to keep quiet, which I was very good at and we snuck away on a bus. My brother had a small house rented in Panora, so they dropped me off there and both went to treatment.
I remember having mats in my long hair and terrible teeth. I would wake up and vomit in the night regularly. I lost eight molars by the time I was eighteen and had been to the dentist only once to get a filling other than extractions.
My parents got out of treatment and got one of my sisters and me. We stayed at the Evergreen Motel on Hickman road and then rented a duplex on Franklin Street. It wasn’t long before they wanted to separate, so my sister and my mother moved, and I stayed with my father.
My father was never home and would leave me a couple of dollars on the kitchen counter to eat with. I lived like that from the sixth grade until I got expelled in the ninth grade. Being at home was wonderful, because when no one else was there, I could relax. After years of dysfunction, violence, and abuse, nothing was better to me than being alone. I also became a night owl, which I am to this day. I like to go to work when most folks are just heading home. When I get off work, most folks are asleep. I still like being isolated, and I probably always will.
School was terrible. I was withdrawn and bullied by the other kids. I had been shamed in that way that goes along with abuse, and I think there are personalities that pick up on that. All the derogatory names and power games would take me back to the mindset I had when I was younger. This left me in a state of confusion and anxiety, the ghost of which still haunts me–though not anything like the immobilizing feeling of despair when I was a child. Just as isolating myself was a side effect, an inability or unwillingness to develop relationships became a pattern for me.
My mother and father had both become substance abuse counselors. My father had me go to a few teen group meetings, but I skipped out most on of them. It was the same with school. I went as little as possible. In the ninth grade they had a meeting with my father and the principal, vice principal and a lot of staff. I had missed more school than I had attended. They had me talk to a psychologist before and I was honest with him. He then gave a report on me where I told him I smoked pot and did the occasional LSD. I rarely drank until my 30s. I had been around intoxicated people and didn’t want to be like that. But I did embrace it later in life. At 54, I found myself done again with drinking, at least as an escape.
My father, who was getting to be a big deal in substance abuse counseling programs, about crapped his pants. But he never said anything about it. He wasn’t abusive to me, just a stranger. They told me if I missed one more day, they were going to expel me. I lasted a week I think.
My father cut me off, but I still lived there. I had to forage for food, so I started working. I remember having a tooth abscess that made my face swell up, my mother ignoring it while telling me I could really damage my father’s career because I smoked marijuana. My mother had all her teeth capped. Later in life, when anger was overtaking the feeling of shame and anxiety, being denied even stabilizing my deteriorating teeth seemed cruel. I know that you must get to a place of forgiveness to others to be whole, but my path is mine, and that part of acceptance may or may not come. That I’m sharing my story is a testimony to how far someone can go.
I did ask my father when I was about fifteen if I could go to the dentist, but he pretended not to hear me. When you try to seem invisible most of the time, it’s hard to be heard when you need help.
My father landed a job at John Deere and moved to Waterloo. It wasn’t long after moving that he offered my brother $150.00 a month for rent if he would take me. After two evictions, a friend’s mother said she would take me in.
My mother and father got back together many years later, and when my mother died, my father moved in with my maternal grandmother. His mother had died of Alzheimer’s a few years before, and I think he had nowhere else to go.
He passed away in 2004, and I went to the funeral. My grandmother was in her mid-80s and had terrible arthritis, along with all the medical issues that go along with getting old.
I could see there was no way she would be able to live alone without help, so I moved from Iowa City to Dallas Center and rented a small house.
Even though she was in denial and an enabler, she was always kind to me. I was glad to have some sense of normalcy and helped her transition to an assisted living apartment and then to a nursing home. We went out to eat most Mondays, and I would take her shopping and to doctor appointments. When her heart was failing, I was able to be with her when she passed away. Those eight years were good for both of us.
When my parents passed away I didn’t shed a tear, but when Leona did, I cried and I’m glad.
When I started writing this post, my goal wasn’t a catharsis for myself, but to explain what has led to a personality like mine, and why I feel so strongly about the causes I fight for.
What brings up emotions in me while writing this is not anger at the abuse or lack of support systems when I was a child. I have worked at leaving that baggage behind, while accepting those experiences left an imprint that shaped me. The thing that makes me bittersweet writing this is the time I spent with my grandmother. I miss her like I have never missed anyone. There is something wonderful in that.
Top image: Matt Chapman with his parents.