previous segments of Where is Emma Fillipoff
Four: Mental illness runs in the family.
"Mental illness runs in the family." Shelley whispers this sentence to the camera in one of the earliest t.v. clips after Emma’s disappearance. The most prevalent theories of what happened to Emma involve some sort of mental breakdown or psychotic break. Leading up to her disappearance, Emma showed signs of paranoia and depression. Is this why she’d chosen to stay at the women’s shelter? A former roommate reported that one time in the middle of the night, she’d woken to find Emma outside, totally out of it and tripping out on the grass, and the stars. The friend had informed Emma’s father James about this odd behaviour. Although James had offered to pay for a plane ticket home, Emma insisted that she was fine and could take care of herself. Intensely private, Emma had been mortified to learn that her friend had called her father. Shelley never heard about the incident until much later. Had she known, she says she would have flown out.
After significant probing from Shelley, staff at the Sandi Merriman House admitted that Emma often acted very paranoid. They said that Emma went through a period of selling all her stuff. Following this, she began to throw things away. She would carry both her own stuff and objects from the shelter first to the lawn, and then to the curb. A lamp, a fan, a chair. When staff made her bring the objects back, Emma would protest. “It’s making too much noise,” she’d say. “It’s saying things to me.” As soon as the items were back inside, Emma would try to get rid of them again. The second time she would haul them across the street to the courthouse.
Video surveillance footage from the 7-11 and the YMCA reveal that Emma often seemed afraid to go outside. And on the day of her disappearance, a witness saw Emma standing at a crosswalk, but refusing to cross. For years, Emma had been a manic walker. She almost always walked barefoot, clutching her shoes in her hands, refusing to put them on. Her feet would become bloody from walking so far. Thin and conveniently vegan, people hardly ever saw Emma eat. Shelley thinks she developed an eating disorder. Whether this was the cause or result of her mental distress, we don’t know. Shelter staff also reported that Emma used to overhydrate, consuming gallons and gallons of water at a time. This is common for people who undereat. Rarely, overhydration depletes your body’s electrolytes and causes something called water intoxication. The condition can be fatal. Interestingly enough, symptoms of overhydration mimic psychotic tendencies, including “inappropriate behaviour, delusions, hallucinations, confusion, and disorientation” (Source: Farrell and Bower, PMC). And yet, it is impossible to conclude that overhydrating led to Emma’s psychological deterioration. Quite often the symptom appears as part of a mosaic of unusual and compulsive behaviour.
A year before she was last seen, Emma had returned home to Perth, Ontario. A congenital knee condition had been giving her back problems and she was looking into treatment. In retrospect, Shelley realizes that during that time, Emma was acting “way too happy… it didn’t look drug induced… it looked like she was avoiding life, wandering around Perth all day and all night.” She stayed with friends and with her father, often cooking for him though rarely eating herself. Whenever she ran into her mom, she’d say she was on her way somewhere.
“Can’t stay,” she’d say. And off she’d go, fanatically walking. With her mother, Emma maintained a certain distance. Perhaps she was afraid that Shelley would see through the happy, flighty façade. Her father James didn’t ask as many questions. Like Emma, he is non-confrontational and secretive. Though he worried that Emma never ate, he felt she deserved her privacy. Very seldom would he ever bring up his concerns with Shelley. When Emma was in her early twenties, James divorced Shelley for a younger woman. The divorce was pretty brutal and Shelley is quite open to the fact that around that time she suffered from a full-blown mental health crisis. For three years, she had to quit teaching and go on disability. She describes lying on the bathroom floor all day, trying to will herself up in time for when her youngest child got home from school. Emma had been around for part of the separation and witnessed some events that must surely have traumatized her.
Shelley: “I really lost it Erica, not only did I have a breakdown but I went after James. I did a lot of things that really really disturbed Emma and I didn’t have a chance to give her my side. To tell her I was sick. That it wasn’t her mother acting in that manner… Something had really happened to me. I never had the chance to explain it to her. So she witnessed quite a violent attack on James one night at his house and she had to call the police and have me removed… Emma couldn’t handle that. Someone who was non-confrontational, even verbally. To see me going bezerk. I mean I was bezerk, I had a knife in my hand. I was really gone. I wasn’t going to hurt him.”
Emma: “My parents’ marriage in shambles.
My father turning to me.
My mother hating us both.
And me. Always the good listener.
Too nice to say that it hurt me too."
Shelley and Emma never ended up talking about what happened. Soon afterwards, Emma moved to Victoria, limiting her contact with her mother to cryptic flowery emails and vague elusive phone calls.
Shelley and James are on much better terms now. They often have family dinners together with their other children. Emma’s absence is blatant and painful, but seldom mentioned.
“No one will tell me what they think,” says Shelley. “Because I know what I know.” Throughout the case, the rest of Emma’s family has kept a low profile. Behind Emma’s posters, Shelley is really the face of the search, though both Emma’s father and youngest brother agreed to interviews with the Fifth Estate. Ultimately, the Fifth Estate did not include the younger brother’s interview in the documentary, but this was the CBC’s choice. Apart from Shelley and Emma’s youngest brother, the family refused to watch the program. Perhaps it is too heartbreaking. Especially if they allow themselves to consider at all the fact that they advised Shelley not to go get Emma. Shelley had always been the disciplinarian parent and they didn’t think Emma would be able to cope with this. In any case, everyone had Emma’s best interest at heart. Nobody intended for things to come to this.
End of Part Four.
-Written by Erica J. Schmidt
Where is Emma Fillipoff
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