From Madness to Manhood: In Search of My Lost Father and Myself

Camarillo State Hospital

“Kids have a hole in their soul in the shape of their dad. And if a father is unwilling or unable to fill that hole, it can leave a wound that is not easily healed.” Roland Warren.

I was five years old when my uncle drove me to the mental hospital. I was confused and afraid.

“Why do I have to go,” I asked Uncle Harry.

He looked at me with his round face and kind eyes. “Your father needs you.”

“What’s the matter with him?” I was beginning to cry and I clamped my throat tight to stop the tears.

I sank down into the leather seats of uncle Harry’s new Buick, a soft yellow beauty. It had four ventiports on each side of the engine that I imagined were eyes that could see into the future. The grill in front looked like an open mouth with huge teeth. I would worry that it might swallow me up if I got too close, but I felt safe inside the car.

Harry was a song writer and sang the words to one of his most popular songs, Sweet and Lovely, which had been recorded by Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald. He looked at me and smiled, patting my knee as he drove. “Sweet and lovely,” he crooned, “sweeter than the roses in May. Sweet and lovely. Heaven must have sent him my way.”

Harry called out the names of the towns as we drove through them–Encino, Tarzana, Calabasas. I loved the sound of the names and imagined them as kingdoms in far-away lands where I would slay dragons and rescue damsels in distress.

As we drove up to the building I didn’t know what to expect. Camarillo State Hospital looked like one of the old California missions with palm trees in front and a big bell tower in the center with adobe buildings that had grassy lawns in front. But as we got closer, I saw the windows. They weren’t like our windows at home, but had thick bars over them and they were painted a puke pink, like Pepto-Bismol.

When we walked in, I immediately wanted to go home. I tried to pull away and leave, but my uncle held my hand tight and said we had to go in. “Your father wants to see you,” he said in his quiet, soothing voice. I liked Uncle Harry. He was married to my father’s older sister, Sophie. He was a round faced, roly-poly, man with glasses and a receding hairline. He was always smiling and seemed happy and upbeat.

As we entered the visitor’s room where they said we could meet with my father, people were everywhere and they were all in motion. A man in a white hospital gown walked around in circles, mumbling to himself as he made strange gestures with his fingers. A woman ran into the room yelling, “Don’t let them take me. Jesus, save me.” Two orderlies grabbed her by the arms and took her out of the room. A group of men walked back and forth, talking, but not to each other. A woman with grey hair dressed in a long dress that had once been blue, but was now faded nearly to white, twirled in circles and sang a sweet, sad song.

“Uncle Harry, please let’s go home.” This place wasn’t like anything I’d ever experienced in my life and I was terrified.

“It’s going to be O.K.,” Uncle Harry told me. But he looked scared himself.

I noticed my father at the back of the room. He jumped to his feet when he saw us. I wanted to go to him, but I held back. He looked strange. His hair was messed up. His clothes hung on him and he had a wild look in his eyes I had never seen before. There were particles of food embedded in the corners of his mouth.

He walked our way, picked me up and hugged me. He suggested we “go for a stroll on the grounds.” I was glad to go outside and his words calmed me. We had often gone for strolls at a park near our home and he would often hoist me up on his shoulders.

My father took one hand and my uncle took the other and we walked outside. We found a bench in a grassy area outside on the hospital grounds. We sat side-by-side, my uncle, my father, and me. I looked up at the palm trees, but turned towards him when my father asked, “How’s your mother?”

“She’s O.K.” I told him. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to explain why she wasn’t here but I didn’t know. His attention shifted quickly to my uncle.

“You’ve got to get me out of here,” my father implored. He reached out and grabbed Uncle Harry’s shoulder.

“Take it easy,” Uncle Harry tried to calm him with his soft words and kind smile. “The doctors say you just need some time to rest and recuperate.”

My father jumped to his feet and started pacing and talking rapidly. “I don’t get any rest here. This is a crazy house and all I get are drugs and shots and they’re talking about shocking my brain. Get me the hell out of here, Harry.”

Harry’s voice was quiet, He got up and he put his hand on my father’s arm like he was gentling a frightened stallion. “I’ll talk to the doctors, I promise. Just calm down. I’m sure you’ll get out soon.”

I was confused and scared. Why was my father here? What kind of place was this? Why did he call it a “crazy house?’  My uncle’s assurance that “you’ll get out soon,” didn’t come soon enough for my father.

Years later, I heard it had been rumored that the Eagles’ mega-hit, “Hotel California” was a reference to the hospital. These lines from the song resonate with my father’s experience when he escaped from Camarillo seven years after he had been committed:

“Last thing I remember, I was

Running for the door

I had to find the passage back to the place I was before

‘Relax’ said the night man,

‘We are programmed to receive.

You can check out any time you like,

But you can never leave!’

Welcome to the Hotel California.”

My uncle came to visit my father every Sunday and I went with him. Being a dutiful son was something I learned early. Even at age five, I felt responsible for my parents. Though the story of why my father was in a mental hospital emerged slowly and was never talked about, I came to understand from overhearing my mother and uncle talking that my father had a “nervous breakdown.” He had become increasingly depressed because he couldn’t support his family and took an overdose of sleeping pills. In my child’s mind, the newest family member on the scene was me, so I reasoned that I must have been the cause of his breakdown and I must help fix him.

I visited my father for fifty-two excruciating Sundays with Uncle Harry. I thought about the story of Alice in Wonderland.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

My father’s condition grew increasingly worse. He was given more drugs and more shock treatments, until he didn’t seem to know who I was. The doctors told my mother he would need treatment for the rest of his life. In my first act of rebellion against my role of dutiful son, I told my mother I didn’t want to go on any more Sunday drives to Camarillo to see my father. She agreed that I could stop going.

But now my duty shifted to being my mother’s little helper while I asked myself questions that could never be voiced out loud. What’s wrong with my father? Is he “depressed?” Is he going through “male menopause?”

From an early age my mother used to ask, whenever I’d experienced a difficult situation, “So, what did you learn?” From my days visiting my father, I learned that even when we can’t get answers to questions, we should still ask them, even if only to ourselves. Now, years later, I think of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:

 “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Rilke was someone I’d learn about later in my life. But when I was younger, I lived for many years with six terrors that haunted my dreams:

  1. Is my father “crazy?”
  2. What really happened to him?
  3. Will it happen to me?
  4. Will I try and kill myself someday?
  5. How do I find a woman who will love me and not leave me?
  6. How do I become a man without a father to guide me?

This article is part of a new book I’m writing. I’d appreciate your feedback and comments.

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  1. Dear Jed, wow. What a sweet, open, poignant… reveal/sharing. Thank u! I have always loved autobios the most of all, and this presentation reminds me why… If done openly and honestly (as honestly as we are able) they get to such a soft sweet CORE of human experiencing being human! To me, that is the best w a bow on it!

    A few things strike me…. How in the not so very old days we believed implicitly/blindly in ‘professionals’, such as doctors, and how we are now more ‘engaged’ in ‘diagnosis’ and ‘treatment’ as family and individuals… Not that ‘mis-steps’ aren’t still made on all sides, but we do attempt, hopefully! Ur dad on that initial visit seemed so connected — to others and himself — it really makes me wonder how his situation could’ve been handled oh so differently… The great wisdom in your mother asking u to reflect on experiences as to what u had learned… What a great tool to to thru life with!… I hope to go forward w it at this latter mid-life date! And how open and transparent u are willing to be to grow…. Yay u! We are lucky to experience u and how u experience your world! Mazel tov! ? I can’t wait to read/engage w more of this! ? PS I have to laff at the math question we need answer in this section to prove that we are indeed human! Sometimes it is a wee struggle for this dancing brain! ?

    • Lucy,
      Thanks for the kind words of support. Glad the writing resonates with you. I very much appreciate the feedback and will continue writing which I hope will be published next year. Keep the comments coming. They help a lot.

  2. Bill Arena says:

    Thank you Jed for sharing this very personal story. I think this scenario would be very difficult and extremely intimidating even for a mature adult but to have this forced upon you at such a young age, wow, what an incredible “learning experience” you were gifted. Reminds me of the old adage, “If it don’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger. So glad this did indeed make you stronger and you can now share your experience and insights with us. I look forward to reading your book.

    • Bill,
      Thanks for the comments. For years I saw myself as the victim of uncaring parents: My father who left me so early and a mother who forced me to go to a mental hospital and be the go-between trying to help my father. When I recently had new business cards printed, they say, “Helping men and the women who love them, since 1969” (the year my son, Jemal, was born and I made a vow to be a different kind of father than my father was able to be for me). All of a sudden, I had a realization. I’ve actually been working in my chosen field since 1949. Sometimes our life-work shows up in our lives way before we are mature enough to understand it or make sense of it. Only years later do we realize that we’ve been given a great gift. Now I feel like I was given my calling and I’ve been learning how to do it ever since.

  3. Jay Gordon says:

    I was profoundly touched by how open you are about personal experiences that most of us would choose to conceal. I worry that sometimes we excert far more energy to keep secrets, rather than enjoy the freedom that comes from sharing them. But, then, that has always been an honorable characteristic of yours. You somehow always manage to inspire.

    • Jay, Thanks for your kind words. At this time of life as I approach my 75th birthday next year and 50 years working to help men and the families who love them, I’m wanting to write a book about my experiences and the journey that I’ve been on. I know it is helping me make sense of the challenges I’ve faced in my life and hopefully it will be of interest and helpful to others.
      I’m glad you were touched by the first chapter. I’ll continue to writing more and sharing more. Getting feedback makes it all the more worthwhile. And receiving it from friends like you is particularly gratifying.

  4. Hi Jed,
    Any tips on answering your number 5 fear?
    It just so happens to be my number 1 fear!
    Cheers, Martin.

    • Martin,
      Yes, I’ve wrestled with these fears all my life and continue to heal. One thing I’ve learned about #5 is that we’re all going to lose the person we love the most. For some it happens after a long life when one of us dies. For some it happens when we get left when we are children. For some it happens when we lose our way in marriage and our partnership falls apart. A key issues I’ve learned over the years is that we can heal our wounds and deal with our fears by looking closely at our family history and find where we, our parents, or grandparents had significant losses in their lives. As we learn to heal our past, our future becomes more positive, joyful, and loving.