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.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Painful Legacy And Beyond

My father had a nervous breakdown in his mid thirties; I’m not sure exactly when, whether it was soon after my brother was born, or around the time that I was born several years later. I don’t know because my father doesn’t like talking about it and I’m uncomfortable prodding him. He said to me that his breakdown had nothing to do with my schizophrenia, but I disagree. Mental illness is mental illness and is part of both of our histories, like it or not. He spent two months in a hospital and two years in therapy, all talk, no drugs. Luckily for him, and the rest of us, that was enough to keep him stable and allow him to find a measure of success as a corporate advertising lawyer.

My brother showed signs of mental illness in his early childhood. As he got older he voiced his resentment at being forced to go to therapists; he thought, and probably rightly so, that his parents were the ones who should be in therapy. The truth is we all should have been in therapy because we were a moderately dysfunctional nuclear family. I say moderately dysfunctional because my parents were not physically or sexually abusive, though on more than one occasion my mother could be verbally abusive, in a knee-jerk unthinking way. Of course, she had her reasons. It was the 1960’s and she and my father were, in many ways, still ruled by the attitudes of the 1950’s. She stayed at home with the kids while he went out into the world and worked to provide for his family. It became clear to my brother and me that she pointedly resented being the primary caretaker. She wanted him to take on more of the responsibility.

My father’s breakdown must have set the stage early on. My mother was left to take care of my brother while my father stayed in the hospital. This was not what she had bargained for, but being dutiful and stubborn was part of her nature and she stood by her child and waited for the return of her husband. What did she think and feel during those two months he was away, knowing that their future was so uncertain? Once I broached the subject of my father’s breakdown (many years later when I was finally informed of it), but she stayed loyal to his privacy and chose to remain silent. But I know my mother well enough to say that she might have been more angry than sympathetic to his plight.

I was an accident (again something I found out later), which makes sense because why would my parents even consider having another child so soon after my father’s breakdown? This was over ten years before Roe Vs. Wade made early abortions legal and my parents were nothing if not law abiding. Where my brother was hyperactive, I was affectionate. Where my brother was deemed “emotionally disturbed” and sent quickly from public school into a progressive private school, I was crowned “normal” and sent to public school. Other than the fact that I had the annoying tendency to whine, I was, on the whole, a “good” child; I did well in school and was part of a small group of friends and I didn’t get into trouble. This allowed my parents to focus more of their energies on trying to cater to my brother and treat whatever was ailing him.

What was ailing my brother was that he had an emotionally withdrawn father and a sometimes overbearing mother and a whiney sister. He felt like he was some sort of scapegoat for our personal faults, both hidden and obvious. And, in some ways, he was, which is why he turned away from his family and towards his grade school friends. By nine years old he was hanging out and getting stoned. Later he would graduate to harder drugs: downers, speed, cocaine. He was a child of the 60’s, immersed in the music and politics of the times. And he was very bright despite his spotty academic record. He learned to overcompensate for that by becoming verbally assertive/aggressive. His room invariably looked as if a tornado had struck it, but his mind had order and he prided himself on having a good memory.

What he wanted was an athletic, outgoing father. Someone ballsy and engaged. But our father was intellectual rather than athletic and more controlling than brave. But he was also smart, knowledgeable and interested in history and politics. This was the tentative bridge between them.

I was bright, but not knowledgeable, artistic rather than verbal. My brother chose to verbally compete with our parents, sucking up knowledge, but I didn’t even try to compete with any of them. I was the youngest in the family and intellectually the least confident, but I was perceptive. I was detached enough to see the family dynamic; sometimes I was the peacekeeper and other times a lay therapist for my mother and brother who had a kind of love/hate relationship. I also was the one who defended my father when my mother and brother jointly attacked him.


A few weeks ago I was talking with my father on the phone about his family and he mentioned that a first cousin of his probably suffered from schizophrenia. This cousin had threatened to harm his mother and then was hospitalized for most of his adult life. But that’s all the information that I got about him. My father then went on to paint a sensitive picture of his own Irish Catholic family where he had been, for the most part, the only child in a house full of adults. He even went so far as to talk about his father, who was both an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler. He said there was no liquor in the house, so his father would go out to drink and come home very depressed. The next day he would sleep a lot. My father and his parents lived in his father’s sister’s house along with other relatives and so there was a built in support system to take care of his father when he drank or gambled away money. My father said his family was warm and social but not overly intellectual. Still, despite my father’s obvious fondness for his family, he did not follow his Irish Catholic roots. Instead, he became anti-Catholic, intellectual and somewhat emotionally aloof. Instead of marrying a not overly intellectual woman and having a brood of kids, he chose an intellectually bright woman and had just two children. And instead of inheriting his father’s addictions, he had a temporary nervous breakdown and unwittingly may have passed on the traits that led to his children’s struggle with mental illness.

This is a lopsided portrayal. My father had his burdens to bear and he did bear them; he also did take care of his family and does to this day. My mother and brother might still argue with him over the way he takes care of us, but they can never say the his intentions were meant unkindly or that he’s a lazy, good for nothing bum. My father is a good man, just as my mother (who I have yet to discuss more fully) is a good woman. The mental illness in the family never interfered with them handing down to my brother and me a desire for honesty, intellectual curiosity and kindness. The drawbacks that we have inherited or acquired have not stopped us from being good people, thanks in a large part to our parents.

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