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…]

Eight Little Known Secrets About Being a Man

Secrets of being a manIt isn’t easy being a man (or a woman) these days. Roles are changing. The world is changing. It can feel like the very foundation of who we are has been built on an earthquake fault.  Just when we think we can walk around safely, the ground begins to move and we are knocked off our feet.

My parents tell the story of my circumcision (one of the many hazards of being male, and still a hazard for many women in the world). My father was behind me as they spread my new-born legs and cut away my foreskin. It was supposed to me a ceremony of celebration of manhood. Not for me and not for babies who are abused in that way. I let out a scream and arched a stream of urine over my little head, which hit my father in the eyes.

I’ve been fighting assaults to our humanity ever since. Here are a few things about being a man that I’ve learned along the way:

  1. Sex Matters: Males and Females Are Different in Every Cell of Our Bodies

According to Marianne J. Legato, M.D., Founder of The Center for Gender Specific Medicine, Everywhere we look, the two sexes are startlingly and unexpectedly different not only in their internal function but in the way they experience illness.” This difference goes right down to the cells in our bodies. David C. Page, M.D., professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) says, “There are 10 trillion cells in human body and every one of them is sex specific.”  [Read more…]

Taking on My Father’s Wound

Mens health helping handMy involvement helping men and their families began for me on June 12, 1965 when my father came to my college graduation, an encounter I described in Part 1. Although I hadn’t seen him since I was a child I recognized him immediately. I went looking for him when I came off the stage, but by then he had disappeared. A letter from an uncle told me my father was living under an assumed name in Los Angeles and I went looking for him that summer.

When I found him I was relieved, but also frightened. He had been committed to a mental hospital following his suicide attempt when I was five years old. My uncle had taken me to Camarillo State Hospital to visit him and I dutifully went weekly, though the mental hospital and the patients terrified me. Even as a child, I felt that my father’s “break down” was somehow my fault and that it was my duty to try and help him.

The family story was that my father had broken down under the pressure of trying to support his family when he was unable to find work. In my child mind I believed that if I hadn’t been born he wouldn’t have felt the pressure and he wouldn’t have broken down. I didn’t understand that his depression and bipolar disorder had little to do with supporting me and a lot to do with his own family history and childhood neglect.

That summer I had the great joy of being with my father for the first time as a young adult. I got to know him directly, rather than through the distorted lens of my mother’s view of him. At the time he was living in Santa Monica, California, and he introduced me to many of his friends along the board walk in that beach town. Growing up I had viewed him as a shadow figure who was “mentally unbalanced.” I felt ashamed to have a father who was so weird. [Read more…]

Fathers, Anxiety, and Depression: Can Father’s Day Begin a Day of Healing for Fathers and Sons?

3551019373_135ae07155_zI grew up with a depressed father and became a depressed son. My father took an overdose of sleeping pills when I was five years old, following years feeling anxious and depressed because he couldn’t make a living as a writer and actor. He didn’t die, but I lost his presence growing up. I grew up worried that what happened to him would happen to me. It took me many years to address my own depression and many more before I reached out for help. For too many men, we suffer in silence, feeling that somehow we should handle our problems ourselves.

Father’s day is a mixed blessing for me. I feel great joy to be alive and to have children and grandchildren I love. I also feel a great loss that my father left so early in my life and I never really got to know him. I also feel down because Mother’s Day always seems like such a big deal in the world, but Father’s Day seems like a minor event. Everyone reaches out to Mom, but Dad’s often are an afterthought, or we feel the ambivalence of a father who wasn’t totally present.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), close to 1 in 10 American men suffers from depression or anxiety, but fewer than half get treatment, a new survey reveals. The nationwide poll of more than 21,000 men also found that among younger males, blacks and Hispanics are less likely than whites to report mental health symptoms. And when they do acknowledge psychiatric troubles, they are less likely to seek professional help than whites, according to the CDC.

“We suspect that there are several social and cultural pressures that lead black and Hispanic men to be less likely than white men to seek mental health treatments,” said report lead author Stephen Blumberg, an associate director for science with the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

“These pressures, which include ideas about masculinity and the stigma of mental illness, may be more pronounced for men of color,” he said. “And these same forces may lead men of color to be more likely to deny or hide feelings of anxiety or depression.” If this is true, Blumberg added, “then the (racial) disparities we observed could be even greater.” [Read more…]

My Father’s Stay at God’s Hotel: A Slow-Medicine Approach to Healing Mental Illness

Gods HotelIt’s been a long journey to come to peace with my father’s life and how it has impacted my own.  I was born on December 21, 1943 in New York City.  My parents had tried to conceive for many years, but had been unsuccessful.  They finally were successful when my father was 37 and my mother was 35 following a procedure where my father’s sperm was injected mother, a radical approach back then.

The vague memories I have of my early life were positive.  One that sticks in my mind is a memory of being 3 or 4 sitting on my father’s shoulders, laughing wildly as he rode me around the small park in Encino, California, not far from our house in Sherman Oaks.  The San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles was beautiful in those early years of my memory with citrus groves as far as the eye could see.

But other memories were not so positive.  I have flashes of my father’s anger, times when he was irritable, angry, and withdrawn, and periods when he would disappear for days at a time.  I learned later than he had become increasingly depressed and would have been diagnosed as bipolar, if that diagnosis had existed at the time. He couldn’t find work in his chosen field as an actor, author, and playwright.

When I was five years old, my father tried to take his own life.  Although he survived physically our lives were never the same.  I grew up wondering what happened to my father and whether it would happen to me.  When I became a father I made a vow to my son, Jemal, when I held him moments after his birth.  I told him that I would be a different kind of father than my father was able to be for me and I would do everything to create a different kind of world where the wounds of our fathers were healed and children could grow up free of the pain suffered by their parents. [Read more…]

7 Tips For Becoming a Better Father

Regardless of the kind of fathering we had growing up, all of us would like to be really good fathers to our children.  I didn’t have great fathering growing up.  My Dad tried to commit suicide when I was 5 years old.  I was raised by my mother and had a stepfather who I loved, but who came and went and finally left when I was in junior high.

I married young and had two children.  After 10 years of marriage, my wife and I split up.  Fortunately I met a great woman and remarried.  She had three children and we raised our two youngest kids together.  I’ll be 70 this year and our children range in age from 37 to 55 and we have 14 grandchildren.  If I’ve learned to be a good father over the years, I’ve learned from my wife and from our children.  Here are the things we’ve found to be helpful around how to be a better father. [Read more…]