6 Ways the Father Wound Can Harm You and Your Family and What You Can Do To Heal

For most adults, the father wound, is invisible. Children are very aware of a father’s absence due to divorce, death, disconnection, or dysfunction. Children know the pain of a father who may not be a loving support for his family because the father may suffer from mental illness, have an alcohol problem, be preoccupied with work, or be physically or emotionally abusive. But humans are resilient. We get used to whatever we experience in childhood and by the time we become adults, the wounds have been covered over and we often forget their childhood origins.

This was certainly the case in my own life. When I was five years old, my father had what was called a “nervous breakdown.” He took an overdose of sleeping pills and was committed to Camarillo State Mental hospital, north of Los Angeles. After being hospitalized for three years, my mother was told that he would need to be hospitalized, perhaps for the rest of his life. My mother finally got a divorce and later married another man.

Gradually I came to forget the pain I felt losing my father. I learned to be independent and take care of myself and tried to make my own way into manhood without the presence of a father. But the father wound, like other effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), doesn’t go away just because our conscious mind has buried the experience or we have learned to “forget the past” and “get on with our lives.”

I became very successful in my career as therapist helping men and the women who love them. I had fourteen books published including international bestsellers, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places, Male Menopause, and The Irritable Male Syndrome. Yet, my personal life was chaotic and dysfunctional. My first marriage ended in divorce and I quickly fell in love with a woman who slept with a gun under her pillow to protect her “from men.” That marriage was short-lived. I became increasingly angry, manic and depressed.

I had multiple layers of resistance, thinking that since I was a therapist I could handle the problems myself. Being male and being a therapist kept me in denial a long time. But I finally reached out and got help. I learned that I was not alone. According to the National Center for Fathering, “More than 20 million children live in a home without the physical presence of a father. Millions more have dads who are physically present, but emotionally absent. If it were classified as a disease, fatherlessness would be an epidemic worthy of attention as a national emergency.” [Read more…]

Why I’m Writing a Book About the Most Important Problem Facing Men and Their Families Today

I’ve been writing books that help men and the families who love them since my first book, Inside Out: Becoming My Own Man, was published in 1983. Getting books published that focus on men is never easy. The perception in the publishing world continues to be that men don’t read books about men’s issues (unless it’s a sports book) and women aren’t that interested in books that help men (Men, as a group, are doing pretty well. It’s women who need help, many believe). I believe the world is changing and hopefully the publishing world will catch up.

As a writer, psychotherapist, and community activist, I resonate with these words from the philosopher Paul Tillich.

“Every serious thinker must ask and answer three fundamental questions:

  • What is wrong with us? With men? Women? Society? What is the nature of our alienation? Our dis-ease?
  • What would we be like if we were whole? Healed? Actualized? If our potentiality was fulfilled?
  • How do we move from our condition of brokenness to wholeness? What are the means of healing?”

Many have attempted to answer the question, “What is the nature of our alienation, our disease.”

I’ve come to believe that one important answer, that has been largely neglected, is the dis-ease of fatherlessness. It’s certainly a problem that has impacted my own life ever since I was five years old when my father became increasingly angry and depressed because he couldn’t find work to support his family. After struggling for years, he took an overdose of drugs. Luckily, he survived. He was committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital and I grew up without a father. [Read more…]

How My Father Escaped From the Act Like a Man Box and Saved His Life

If you’re male, sometime in your life someone has told you to “act like a man.” I heard it from my first wife when she got mad and screamed it at me after I had refused to confront a guy who had sold us a faulty appliance. I heard it again from a friend who wanted me to leave this same woman after she had taken her anger out on me…again, and punctured the tires in my car.

Most of us grew up with certain rules that required men to act and be a certain way that were different from the way women were required to act and be. Growing up I knew that a man must fight anyone who disrespects him, his mother, or his wife. I learned early that a man must be the breadwinner and support his family, no matter what.

Writer and activist Paul Kivel described these manhood mandates as putting us in the Act Like a Man Box. As I grew up I found my life work helping men and women break free from the restrictions that keep us locked down. I came to see that the Act Like a Man Box and the Act Like a Woman Box were mirror images of each other.

When I read Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique in 1963 I realized “the problem that has no name,” which is the title of Chapter 1, highlighting the dissatisfactions that women were feeling, also stirred similar feelings in me. The book begins with these words: [Read more…]

From Madness to Manhood: My Father Escapes From the Nuthouse

We were planning to celebrate my 13th birthday with a dinner at my special restaurant, The Pump Room, which served my favorite dessert, a strawberry short-cake with homemade whipped cream. But the celebration was interrupted with a phone call from my uncle, Harry.

“Edith, Muni escaped from Camarillo today,” uncle Harry told her. I could hear his anxiety and worry coming through the phone lines as I put my ear close to the receive to listen.

What do you mean, he escaped,” she asked. I could hear the fear in her voice. “He’s been there seven years and the doctors told me his condition was chronic and untreatable and he could never leave.”

“Yes, I know. They told me that too. But he escaped.”

“How the hell did he escape?” Her voice was controlled, but I could hear the panic begin to rise.

“I went to visit like always and he seemed to be better so I took him into town to get an ice cream. He told me he wanted to get some stamps and went across the street to the post office. He never came back and I couldn’t find him.”

“How…”

“He just disappeared,” Harry said. “I looked everywhere, then finally went back to the hospital and told them. They’ve put out an all-points bulletin and they feel he’ll likely be apprehended and returned soon enough, but I wanted you to know.”

When my mother explained what had happened I was shocked and disoriented. After I stopped visiting my father when I was six years old, I stopped thinking about him. It was too painful. Bill entered my life and my father’s memory faded. My mother didn’t talk about him and he became a shadowy figure who slowly disappeared from my world, like cigarette smoke dissipating from the air. [Read more…]

From Madness to Manhood: Sunshine and Shame

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley was a delight. It seemed that summertime lasted forever and our little home in Sherman Oaks was the center of a wonderful universe from which I began to explore. The front yard was big and it was lined by trees, which I soon began climbing. I was a small, slightly built boy, always one of the shortest boys in my classes, a fact limited my potential to impress the girls. My mother always told me not to worry that I would grow to be a tall man, even though both she and my father were short. “Yes, but your uncles are tall,” she would tell me and I looked forward to the time when I would get my growth spurt. I hoped and prayed to be six feet someday, but I never grew taller than five feet, four and three-quarter inches.

There was a split rail fence that enclosed the yard without cutting us off from the neighbors. The split rails and the rest of the house was built by the man who sold the house to my parents in 1944 for $4,500. He had worked for the phone company. Times were difficult during the war years and the phone company couldn’t pay him. He finally had to leave to find a new job and the phone company paid what they owed him in telephone poles, which he used to build the house and the surrounding fence.

In addition to the fence, the house was made of roughhewn timbers. There was a large fireplace in the living room made out of stones that were brought in one at a time from the river that ran two blocks from the house. There was a large mantel piece above the fireplace where my mother placed mementoes from her time in New York. One I still have is small container with the face of an old man with a beard and turban and a cover on top. I always thought he looked very exotic, like one of the wise men who came baring gifts from afar. [Read more…]

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. [Read more…]

Lost Fathers: How Deaths, Divorces, and Disconnections Impact Our Health and Happiness

1j5rneyi28q-zara-walkerLike most people, I’ve come to accept the inevitable losses in my past as part of life, something everyone experiences. As we get older we must deal with our parent’s death, the loss of friends, and other family members. But there are certain losses that have a lasting impact on our lives. As a psychotherapist and marriage and family counselor, I’ve long been aware of how the loss of close family members at crucial times in our lives impacts our health, well-being, and our adult relationships.

Recently, I’ve been reading It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shape Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. Wolynn is Director of The Family Constellation Institute and The Inherited Family Trauma Center and is North America’s leader in the field Inherited Family Trauma. In the book he says:

Depression. Anxiety. Chronic pain. Phobias. Obsessive thoughts. The evidence is compelling: The roots of these difficulties may reside not in our immediate life experience or in chemical imbalances in our brains but in the lives of our parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents. Scientific research over the past several years, now making headlines, supports what many have long intuited—that traumatic experience can be inherited. Even if the person who suffered the original trauma has died or the story has been forgotten or silenced, memory and feelings can live on, encoded in everything from gene expression to everyday language.”

He notes that the loss of connection with our mothers is one of the primary losses that may impact our emotional well-being and the stability of our adult relationships. In taking a serious look at my family history I was able to have a much better understanding of my own issues with depression and bipolar disorder, and more importantly I discovered new ways to heal these long-standing issues, without long-term use of psychiatric medications. [Read more…]

Sex, Love, and Children: How Fatherhood Changed My Life

fatherhood-picMy wife, Carlin, and I have five children. I brought two into the marriage and she brought three. We fell in love with each other and the children were a bonus. Over the years they have brought us heart-ache and joy and continue to teach us lessons about life, love, and transformation.

The birth of my first child changed my life. My wife and I had practiced the Lamaze breathing techniques and had taken the birthing classes together. I wanted to be a great father, but I was afraid I’d screw things up. My wife wanted me to be in the delivery room with her so I could experience the beauty and wonder of childbirth. The idea sounded good and all our friends were doing it. But still, I worried. I passed out once when I had my teeth cleaned (I wasn’t good with pain) and wondered whether I could deal with my wife’s pain and still remain on my feet.

My only hope was that we were told that I may or may not be allowed in the delivery room at Kaiser Hospital. The labor was a long one and my wife practiced breathing and I did my best to coach her and give her chips of ice to wet her dry lips. By the time we heard, “Let’s get her into the delivery room” I wanted to go all the way. But I was told I needed to wait in the waiting room and they’d let me know when I could see the baby.

I was both relieved and disappointed. By then I didn’t think I’d pass out and I wanted to be with my wife and see our new born child, but being a good Jewish boy I followed doctor’s orders and walked out to the waiting room. But I didn’t make it through the doors. “God damn it, I’m not going to be some kind of waiting room father.” I was startled by my own thoughts. It was almost like the calling of my unborn child wanting me to be with him and his mother as he entered the world.

I pushed my way through the delivery room doors and took my place beside my wife. There was no question of leaving if asked, and it must have been clear that there would be a lot more disruption if they tried to force me to leave than there would be if I stayed. Shortly thereafter, our son was born and they handed him to me. As I looked down at him, I made a vow that I would be a different kind of father than my father had been able to be for me and I would do everything I could to create a world where men were fully involved with their families. [Read more…]

Wounded Fathers, Wounded Sons: The Legacy From Our Past

15594140256_45522894ba_zSummer is often a time of fun and family frolic. We remember our fathers and if we’re fortunate to have children, we feel the blessings of being a Dad. But for many of us this is a time when old wounds and disappointments surface. We may put on our happy face and enjoy the family fun, but inside we long to heal the disappointments and disconnections from our past.

When I was a young boy I remember my father having days of great cheer, expansive moods, and fun in the sun. I have a clear picture of riding on his shoulders, holding on to his big ears and laughing uncontrollably as we played horsey in the park close to our home in the San Fernando Valley. But I also remember his dark moods when he became irritable and angry one minute, then somber and depressed the next. This was long before anyone had heard about manic-depression or bipolar illness.

After he was committed to a Mental Hospital, following a suicide attempt, I did my best to understand what happened to him and how it might impact my own life. Like most children who grow up with parents who are suffering from depression or other similar problems, I was deeply impacted by my father’s wounds, but tried to block it out.

I heard stories that he had suffered a “nervous breakdown” because he was unable to make a living at his chosen profession as an actor and writer. I was told he became increasingly depressed because he couldn’t support his family. As an only child, I assumed that the family he couldn’t support was me, and that somehow I was responsible for his breakdown. It didn’t occur to me that he had a long history of disordered emotions, long before I was born.

In the world of children, our parents are Gods and if somehow we do something to bring them down we must be powerful Devils. I never talked to my mother about my feelings and fears and she seemed to be just as happy to push my father’s breakdown into the background of our lives and get on with the day-to-day necessities of making a living now that my father was no longer with us. [Read more…]

Healing the Father Wound: It’s Never Too Late

2797936422_4fc7547a3b_zMany of us have been wounded by our father’s lives. For some we experienced abuse growing up.  For others we dealt with neglect. Many of us were abandoned physically or emotionally. For most of us, we wanted a more loving, connected father than we experienced. Many of our fathers died too soon.

The first wound occurred for me when I was five years old. My father, a writer like me, was having great difficulty making a living during tough economic times. He wrote in his journal:

“Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers with credits a block long, unable to sell, unable to find work. Yes, it’s enough to make anyone blanch, turn pale and sicken.

            Yes, on a Sunday morning in early November, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain was about to descend.”

Four days after that journal entry, he tried to commit suicide. Like most young children, I didn’t understand the wounding that made him feel his only option was to end it all. I knew he felt shame and deep sadness that he wasn’t able to support his family the way he wanted to and he blamed himself. I learned a similar lesson. I blamed myself for him wanting to leave. “I must be a burden on him,” I thought. “If it weren’t for the pressure of supporting a family, he would be O.K.” Deep down inside, I thought there was something terribly wrong with me. “Why doesn’t he love me?” I wondered. “What’s the matter with me that he wants to get away from me?” He was 42 years old and I was 5.  The wounds didn’t end there.

Send Him to the “Nuthouse”

Following my father’s suicide attempt he was committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Although I had friends who had fathers who were “a bit strange” or “different,” I didn’t know anyone whose father was in a “nuthouse.” We all shared the common view that anyone who would try and kill himself must be crazy. And anyone who was “sent away” must be really crazy. [Read more…]