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.

After a period of worry that I had somehow caused his breakdown, I began to worry that I had inherited his “illness” and I would grow up to follow in his footsteps. I used to have dreams of going crazy and losing my mind. This fear was reinforced by my mother who seemed to have internalized the family story that my father’s craziness was somehow related to his creative and artistic spirit.

All his brothers were very straight-laced businessmen. They were insurance salesman and made a good living. They saw my father, not only as the black-sheep of the family, but one who wouldn’t settle down and get a real job. As I got older I was drawn to creative writing and spent hours writing short-stories about fantasy heroes. My mother suggested I might be happier if I steered my interests towards business. She helped me get a summer job in the construction company where she worked as a secretary. I liked the money I was making, but it never felt right for me.

I felt deeply torn. I wanted to be a success in life like my insurance-salesmen uncles. But I also wanted to feel the emotional expansion I associated with my father. I wanted to have a real job like my uncles, but I also wanted to be free to be a creative writer like my father. Most of the time, I just pushed these thoughts out of my mind. I went outside the family story, got good grades, and went off to medical school.

In my upwardly mobile, Jewish, family, being a docta, seemed to satisfy everybody. Well, everybody, but me. Modern medicine seemed closer to factory work than creative writing, and I soon dropped out and went to graduate school in social work and eventually got my Ph.D. in International Health.

I also started writing books as a way of making sense of my life, my wounds, my dreams, and my fears. Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Overcoming Romantic and Sexual Addictions, began when I realized that having an affair with the wife of the local sheriff might be addictive and was also likely to get me killed.

By the time I reached midlife and was reflecting on my own struggles I wrote the book Male Menopause. But I finally began dealing with my father’s depression, and my own, in the book, The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression.

For years I refused to address his wounds and as a result I hadn’t really dealt with my own. I was deeply ashamed of him and angry that he had left me. I had internalized the stigma that depression is a personal failing and something we should be able to overcome on our own, or at least with the help of the latest medications.

Even though I was now a “mental health professional” I still denied that I was also wounded by my own beliefs about health and illness. I didn’t want to admit that I was depressed and at times suicidal. My shame, fear, and denial began to crumble when I read the book, An Unquiet Mind: Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison. Dr. Jamison was a professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and one of the world’s leading experts on depression and bipolar disorders.

In her book, she not only opened my eyes to the true nature of these illnesses, but shared her own experiences as someone who suffered from the illness herself. What she said resonated deeply with me. For the first time I could understand the anguish my father felt and also the desperate confusion in my own life trying to deal with my own illness. Here’s how she described herself when she was in the middle of her own struggles:

“You’re irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding, and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and ‘you’re not at all like yourself, but will be soon,’ but you know you won’t.”

I wept when I read those words. Irritable…paranoid…humorless…lifeless…critical…demanding: That was my father. That was me. That was so many of the clients I was seeing. I thought to myself, if she could come out of the closet and admit these things about herself, then maybe I could too. If she could heal and continue to be a respected health professional, maybe I could too. Maybe, just maybe, I could change the family story. I hoped that my children would not have to deal with the pain and shame that so many of us have experienced.

I look forward to your comments and experiences and ways we might, together, heal the wounds so many of us carry. May this be a time of healing for all wounded fathers and children everywhere.

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  1. Jed, thanks for the candor. I am currently struggling some with the stigma of mental illness, as I am just emerging from a major depressive episode that took me utterly by surprise. I see how it can happen to anyone. I also lost my mind and went crazy; amazingly, just 5 weeks ago I had given up on my life. It’s insane when I reflect on it now—how dysregulated we can get and how depression can color all we perceive and all we project into the future. People need to know the nature of clinical depression, how it lies, how it taints. I was too scared to commit suicide, and glad I didn’t. Healing has been a miracle, and I am humbly walking one step to the next to ensure my resurrection. My writing disappeared for months, but has returned now, to my amaze (in the depths I thought I’d never be inspired again, everything was dead on me) and I’m writing poems about the experience, which I’ll put into a book of poems about depression, I hope.

    Do you think your depression was in part biologically inherited from your dad? I have no family history of it, and was only moderately depressed once before in my life. This episode was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced. I wish I had known some key points about the illness, but I’m glad I discovered them before it got too late.

    I’m glad you made it, Jed, and share with such honesty. The stigma of mental illness is a frontier for social reform, as we understand it to be like a broken bone, but in the brain.

    Hug, Jack

    • Jack,

      Thanks for sharing. I think depression does have a biological component, but hard to separate since I also grew up with a depressed father for 5 years. Whatever the causes there are now good things we can do, starting with reaching out to others for support, and getting help when we need it.

  2. Hi Jed –
    Thanks for this post. I’m currently dealing with a manifestation of depression and it scares the crap out of me. I’ve also got 3 kids still at home and concerned about how the effects of what i’m dealing with are projecting on to them. It’s encouraging to hear a voice of experience like yours (and others) address and share these things openly and candidly. You’re a good man! Thanks again for all you do for guys like me and for making a difference.

    • Joe,

      Thanks for the reply. Good for you for owning your feelings and being willing to reach out and get help, not only because you are worth it, but to give your family the best of who you are and can be.

      Please do continue to reach out and share your journey.