Category Archives: family

Should I be there for people who HAVEN’T been there for me?

I got an email from a relative, telling me that my aunt, who has cancer, is in very bad shape and is now in a hospice.

I should call my uncle. I really should. Except, I can’t let go of the fact that I haven’t spoken to him in more than a year. In fact, the last time he called me, I happened to be in a hospital–a mental hospital. He wasn’t calling out of concern. He didn’t even know I was in the hospital. He called my cell, and I happened to be a in program that allows patients to keep their cell phones. That’s how he found out I had been suicidal. I don’t remember what I told him. But I do remember his promise to keep in touch with me and check in on me.

I haven’t heard from him–or my aunt–since then. And I’m angry about that. This isn’t the first time they’ve failed me as far as being there for me is concerned. It was the same thing after my first suicide attempt 20 years ago. They knew about my attempt, but never bothered to visit me in the hospital. My uncle did go to one therapy session after I was released, but he couldn’t handle it and never went to another one after that.

And now, I hear that my aunt is dying. And I struggle about what to do. If I don’t call my uncle, it will be out of spite. I probably won’t feel right about that. If I do call him, I will know I’m doing “the right thing.” But I’ll still resent the fact that he isn’t there for me when it comes to my depression and anxiety–and honestly, the rest of my family isn’t much better. A few weeks ago, when I was really confused and hurting, I called my cousin. His response: “I’m in New York on business ’til the end of next week. But when I get back, let’s have lunch and catch up.” That was a few weeks ago. I’m still waiting for that lunch invite. I’m not surprised–and I’m not holding my breath.

And yet, when THEY are in crisis, I’m expected to be there. I thought love was supposed to go TWO ways.

Where did my fears come from?

Like many people with mental illness, I often wonder how I got this way. There are times when that matters to me more than others. But I know that mental illness often runs in families, and I’m pretty sure that mental illness is in my gene pool.

My mother was never diagnosed with mental illness. She lived during a time when just talking about such a thing could get you locked in an institution. Still, she exhibited just about every symptom imaginable. To this day, I’ve never met anyone who could go from happy to sad as quickly as my mother could. She could be smiling one minute, then crying the next, for reasons that she either could not explain, or would not explain to her little boy (me.)

She had peculiar fears, too. She could not stand to be around mustard. She always told me she was allergic, but this went far beyond that. I was not allowed to eat mustard when I was around her, even though I am not allergic to it. We couldn’t even keep it in the house, even if I promised that I would be the only one who ate it. She was also afraid of highways. Whenever we traveled distances, it would take us forever to get to our destination, because she would completely avoid them. This changed only slightly when I learned to drive. Then, sometimes, she would venture on to highways–but only if I was sitting next to her, and promised to take the wheel if she got too nervous. I took the wheel quite often.

My mother also self-harmed. She and I would be sitting together at home, and suddenly, she would start picking at the skin of her feet until it chafed. I never knew why she did this, and I don’t remember asking. When you’re a little kid, you really don’t know what’s normal and what’s not. I never even gave this a second thought until recently–when I self-harmed. Thankfully, I have not continued to self-harm. But maybe my mother got the same odd feeling of elation as I did when I thought it would be a good idea to scar myself. Even now, I will look at my scar and smile. That’s how seductive that the urge to self-harm can be. Maybe my mother was happy with her feet, even with their patches of  loose skin.

I don’t blame my mother for all this. I know she loved me, and she did the best she could with the shitty cards she was given. Her own mother died giving birth to her. Her father was cold and distant and never loved her. Her husband (my father) died of a heart attack when he was 33. She had all that–plus whatever was going on in her head.

If I did indeed get the mental illness gene from my mother, I am at least thankful that I live in a time where I can be treated without being locked up permanently. And, although I deal with stigma and misunderstanding almost daily, I at least live during a time when it’s slowly becoming more acceptable to talk about things like this.

My mother didn’t have these advantages. Recently, I experienced the joy of going with one of my best friends to see one of my favorite singers, Rosanne Cash, in concert. In her new song A Feather’s Not a Bird, Rosanne wrote lyrics that make me think of my mother.

There’s never any highway when you’re looking for the past.

The land becomes a memory and it happens way too fast.

Ironically, it’s the vision of a highway that triggers my mother’s memory. I could see how scared she would be, driving on this metaphorical highway. And I can see myself having to take the wheel. Even if I don’t want to. And even if I’m not sure where the hell I’m going.

A woman wonders how to explain her sister’s suicide to her daughter


I just read this very moving piece in the New York Times, written by Mary Grant, a woman who still doesn’t know how to explain her sister’s suicide to her daughter. As hard as that conversation will be, it seems like this woman is on the right track. She writes:

I will simply start by teaching her the symptoms of depression for her own protection. I will tell her that her family has a history of vulnerability to depression just like I’d tell her about a genetic predisposition to heart disease or breast cancer. I will explain that depression doesn’t always manifest itself as sadness. Sometimes it’s anger. Sometimes it’s abnormal sleepiness. Often it’s numbness, a lack of interest in things that used to energize you and lift your spirits. Depression is easier to beat when it’s treated quickly, so I’ll encourage her not to hesitate if she ever feels the black dog coming. Don’t walk, run. You might be running for your life.

This, I would say, is very wise advice for anyone. Mary, wherever you are, good luck to you.

Read Mary’s story here.

Thanksgiving 2014: a success!

I just got back from Thanksgiving dinner with my cousins. And I’m happy to report that I had a very good time.

As I’ve said before, I have social anxiety disorder, and it often creeps up even when I’m around people I know and love. I planned ahead of time in the sense that I waited to leave my apartment until after it was time to take my anxiety meds. It made me a little late for dinner. But honestly, I didn’t care. I wanted to make sure my meds kicked in and gave me a little “cushion.”

Well, everyone was warm and welcoming. Dinner was delicious, and the table conversation steered mercifully clear of anything that could be remotely controversial. Cousin Alec told colorful stories about his new job on a Texas oil rig. (It seems like, of all his co-workers, he’s the only one who hasn’t spent time in prison.) Another guest who grew up on a 1922310_10152878137069570_424167287687083505_nfarm told us of what it was like to grow up castrating male cows. (She said it’s necessary because male cows often become “real mean” otherwise. I felt bad for the cows — all the while digging in to my turkey.) The whole time, I felt
“in the moment” and engaged in conversation. When I’m in the moment, I can notice things like the place mat that my Cousin Michelle created especially for this dinner, which even included a funny poem.

My mental state came up only once. When we were alone in the kitchen, Cousin Ira asked how I was feeling. I told him I had good days and bad days. He quickly changed the subject, but a) at least me asked me, and b) at least I was honest with my answer.

As I was about to leave, Michelle reminded me of our next family tradition. Next month, we’re going to see “It’s A Wonderful Life” when the Brattle theater here in Cambridge plays it on the big screen. Michelle said, “I can’t wait to do this again this year with you — and EVERY YEAR.” She ended that sentence with maximum urgency. Without anything else being said, I knew why. Even though they have a hard time talking about it, my family knows what I’ve been through this year. I told Michelle, “Yes, we WILL see “It’s a Wonderful Life” every year.”

With hope and prayers — not to mention a lot of work on my part — we will look forward to Jimmy Stewart running like a maniac through Bedford Falls for many years to come.

Hang in there this Thanskgiving

You know you’re in a depression/anxiety support group when, at the end, someone shouts:

“Hey, everyone, HANG IN THERE this Thanksgiving.”

Here’s someone who knows that dealing with all the friends and family can be, putting it diplomatically, a little trying. The doctor who leads our group said, “Wow. That’s actually a very accurate thing to say to a lot of people before Thanksgiving.”

We all agreed to hang in there. And we left knowing that we’ll all probably have a lot to say at our next session after Thanksgiving.

So, to my friends out there in the blogosphere — HANG IN THERE this Thanksgiving!

Being thankful is not always easy — even on Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. Any day that involves lots of food and football is okay in my book. (Although, the more you learn about the Thanksgiving story, what we actually did to the Indians was pretty damn awful.)

History notwithstanding, it’s nice to have a day that celebrates being thankful. But just because it’s nice, that doesn’t mean it’s easy — especially for many people like myself, who manage mental illness. Sometimes, we have to force ourselves to be thankful, and it’s not just because someone is BOUND to say something stupid or insensitive to us at the dinner table. For us, the “good” neurons just don’t fire up as quickly as they do for others. Thus, being grateful often takes a lot of work.

Of course, it’s worth the effort. And right here, I’m making the effort myself. This Thanksgiving, here are 5 things I’m grateful for.

My family and friends — especially those who take me as I am, and not necessarily who they want me to be.

My doctors — I actually like them, even the one or two who are tough on me. They tell me what I need to hear, even if I don’t want to hear it.

This blog — almost more than anything, my decision to start this blog has helped me come to terms with my depression and anxiety. I hope it helps you, too.

Books — I’m a writer. How could I not be thankful for my books? I’ve read some great ones this year, including Michael Chabon’s “Telegraph Avenue” and Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers.”

ALL of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes are FINALLY out — Dylan + The Band = pure bliss.

I’m sure I could think of others, but I’m also thankful for the general knowledge that blog posts really shouldn’t be too long.

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving? Let me know. And Happy Turkey Day!


5 things NOT to say to someone with a mental illness — and one thing to remember

I know how you feel. — No, you don’t, unless you have a mental illness, too. Trust me.

Just think good thoughts. — If only it was that simple. Peter Pan could say this, but only because he had fairy dust.

Snap out of it! – With severe mental illness, that’s not really possible. You’re not Cher in “Moonstruck,” and we’re not Nicholas Cage.

You don’t get enough exercise. — It is true that exercise creates endorphins, which helps with mental health. But this sounds very judgmental. Try a softer approach like, “I’m going for a walk and I’d love some company. Would you like to join me?”

Just eat this – or do that. While diet and daily activities do factor into anyone’s well-being, this sounds like a simple cure-all. At best, most of us can only hope to manage our mental illnesses. In most cases, cures of any kind are a long way off. Suggestions are fine, but don’t make them sound like simple solutions. They aren’t.

And finally, one thing to remember:

Sometimes, the best thing to say is — nothing at all. Just let your friend or loved one know you are there for them. Ask them how they are, and let them do the talking. This helps more than you’ll ever know.


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