A Recovery Blog

This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

More On My Family

I never met my father's father. Handsome and charming, he was the next to youngest child in a relatively large Irish Catholic family. He also was an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler. He tried to make a living as a salesman but I think it was really my grandmother who was the breadwinner. Though she dropped out of high school her senior year, she wound up becoming a very respectable social worker.

My father later took up genealogy as a hobby and could tell me and my brother the history of both his and my mother's family but rarely would he speak about his father of what it was like growing up in a dysfunctional family. I would try to ask him point blank questions but he would still answer rather generally and sadly. I didn't press him on it because I didn't want to hurt him. It's not that my father was fragile exactly but I always sensed that he could be if pressed too hard. All I knew was that something bad had happened to my father and his mother but it wasn't to be talked about. But despite his scholastic successes (graduating with high honors from Columbia University and Columbia University's law school) and his eventual career success as a corporate advertising lawyer, he couldn't stop that dysfunction from creeping into his own household.

My parents got married in the early 1950's and sensibly waited six years before they had a child together. My brother was born on my father's birthday. And this is where life started to get a bit hard because my brother very soon showed signs of having emotional problems. Despite being a very bright child, he didn't learn to read for many years. He went to a progressive private school and managed to get by playing chess and learning the art of debate but his grades were erratic even after he learned how to read. And during this time he was dragged to various therapists which he derogatorily referred to as "shrinks".

I was born three years and nine months after my brother. I was an "unplanned" birth. Starting in kindergarten I went to public school. I must have been psychologically tested too but the results were "normal" and so I began my "normal" childhood. I went to school less than two blocks away from home. Around most people I was pretty shy. I sucked my thumb till I was seven. I even had a Lionus blanket which was really a folded sheet that I called my "thing". My mother wound up secretly throwing it away to stop me from sucking my thumb. I also wet the bed on occasion. I can still remember my mother's annoyed but dutiful response when I would knock on my parent's door. After changing my sheets, she would lie on the other twin bed until I fell asleep. Nonetheless, I did well in school and had a circle of friends and so my parents' attention was more focused on my brother.

Meanwhile it was the 1960's in New York City and my brother rapidly became a hippy kid. My parents were too old or set in their ways to become hippies but they were politically active as liberal democrats on the neighborhood level and so had some affinity with it. My brother began experimenting with drugs with his friends when he was nine and he soaked up the music scene through the radio, records and some music performances. Music became a lifelong passion of his (along with soccer and politics). My parents were very straight and clueless about my brother's drug use and I was too young to understand. So my brother appeared "moody" when he was really just buzzed on something. He kept his secret and this isolated him from within the family.

From the beginning he was not happy that I arrived on the scene, but, though he could be quite mean to me at times, at other times he was tolerant, even playful. He and his friends had so much fun reading MAD magazine aloud and fooling around with a tape recorder and playing outside on the street that I would often tag along wanting to be part of the fun. My brother wouldn't allow it and after that I kept my distance from him and his friends.

I was also a bit of a hippy kid wearing bell bottom pants and garish tops, walking barefoot with friends in the neighborhood. I listened to my brother's records and fell in love with John Lennon. The Beatles probably marked the beginning of my tendency towards romantic fixations even at the tender age of seven. I went on to have crushes on different boys in my class but was still too shy to make any advances, though some of the boys did chase me (and my friends) in the school yard during recess.

To be continued...

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