Category Archives: my family

My Seriously Messed Up History, In an Nutshell

Preface 

The other day, I told 3 Million people that my fucked up family history made me a better entrepreneur. I’m paraphrasing a bit. I was in a recording booth in a San Francisco sound studio being interviewed by the publisher of Success Magazine for a CD insert that goes into every one of the millions of copies of that publication. We were talking about failure, which I’ve (unfortunately?) become known for, in part because I’m not afraid to talk about it.

Like, really not afraid.

And he wanted to know why — why would I do it. Why would I talk about failure? Why would I keep going as an entrepreneur if failure sucks so much? And the answer is that I’m resilient. And I became resilient because I come from a seriously fucked up family.

I’ve been prompted to tell my family story several times this year. I usually tell a short, sketchy version, because I’m afraid that it will embarrass the person hearing it, or cause them heartache. Since it’s out there, it may as well be out, Here, too.

The Story
(Warning: Might be upsetting.)

My father had bipolar disorder. He died of complications due to obesity, which is basically saying that he died from his untreated mood disorder. My mother is a now-recovering alcoholic who was profoundly depressed when I was born.

My middle sister had her first schizophrenic break when I was a freshman in high school. She drove off from our Ohio home one night, abandoned the car hundreds of miles away and caught a bus to Binghamton, NY. She found her way into a judge’s chambers there, claiming to have “FBI buzzwords” and that she had to get to Washington, D.C.. The judge had her committed to a state mental hospital, where she stayed, drugged up on Haldol, for 3 months.

She has lived the worst life an American can, more on the streets than off. During her bouts with homelessness her abuser/boyfriend/pimp/dealer’s name was Dax. I’ve heard that he had (has?) a wife and children. She once tried to light my mother’s hair on fire. She secretly moved into my college dorm, and loudly (in the dorm hallway) accused my father of raping me (not true). One of the several times she was institutionalized, my family found kitchen knives under the mattress in her apartment. She has had five pregnancies: three abortions and two children who grew up in foster care. She loved those kids and was her most stable during the few years they were with her. The state of Florida had her involuntarily “sterilized” after the last pregnancy.

My brother had narcissistic personality disorder and killed himself in 2008, the same week his older son was to graduate from high school. My brother always felt guilty for not rescuing my sister from Dax. He sincerely believed that he could have made her get better. But that’s not why he killed himself.

My mother (who was invited to join Mensa when she was at Purdue University, on a full scholarship, in the 1950s) left me (the youngest child) when I was a freshman in high school (only a few months before my sister had her mental break). It was 1980 when she quit her job as a computer programmer to be with her (literally) toothless boyfriend on a small, remote island off the coast of Florida, where she lived on a boat with no job or telephone (I lived in Ohio). She is surprised that this upsets me. That boyfriend eventually died of cirrhosis, homeless. Her next long-term boyfriend, (the then-ex-boyfriend of my healthy sister) died when he wrapped his car around a telephone pole as he was driving home (drunk) from the American Legion Hall. It was also 1980 when my father re-married, to another alcoholic, this one supposedly recovering. Her name is Janis. Though we lived as family for many years, we no longer talk.

Writing this down with the intention of publishing it makes me feel somewhat ill. I need you to know that there was good stuff too. Lots of it. But this is what has made me resilient. The specific day-to-day life of a child in such an environment has such extremes of emotion that there’s not much about regular life that can knock me over. It has left me with a profound drive to have a rich and meaningful life. I am intolerant of mediocre numbness.

I do have one healthy, beautiful, determined sister, whom I treasure. She teaches junior-high social studies (so you know she’s resilient, too!). She has two wonderful children who are becoming very interesting adults. My son, their cousin, will hopefully join them in a rich and meaningful life as he, too, grows toward an interesting and healthy adulthood.

Everyone else is kind of on their own. This pile of humanity, plus my absolutely cherished husband, is all I can handle for now.

Pavlov explains *everything*

I made this early in the year, when I was working to figure out why I do things that mess up relationships — why I didn’t want to see my dad at the end of his life, why I don’t call mom & friends enough, why my first marriage ended, why I sometimes recoil from certain kinds of commitment and need. If I can make my rational brain understand, perhaps I can override the poor conditioning.

[Update, 9/15/9: I considered calling this diagram "how crazy people fucked me up", or "okay, bitches, you owe me for all of that therapy, cuz it's your goddam fault!" but thought those might be a little too on-point.]

intermittent_reinforcement_sml

God’s not actually dead

God is dead, but he’s a man about 16 or 20 years old or maybe 77, I think. I can send him a message and he comes alive and reads the message. He’s a special person. No one sees him. He’s not actually dead. Before bed I say, “God, I really want this war to end because people are blowing up a place, and if they blow it up, I ‘ll never get to see it.”

—Evan, 2008 (early)

On the Anniversary of Jim’s Suicide

My big brother at my wedding.

My big brother at my wedding.

Today is the first anniversary of my brother’s suicide. He planned it well: On the coffee table were copies of his will, life insurance policy, and house keys. He changed the greeting on his cell phone (“by the time you hear this message I’ll be dead”), put a plastic bag over his head, lay down on his bed, and died.

His death gutted me, just as his prior threats of suicide had in the years leading up to it.

He was a complicated figure. His best self was fantastic — alive and brilliant, curious, adventuresome, generous, thoughtful. People wanted to be around him and themselves became more alive and aware when they were with him.

I remember Jimmy as so intelligent, fun, sweet, and kind, basically the coolest cousin you could have wished for. He was such a great friend to us in the years we lived in Bedford. I will always cherish those times and will remember him forever.

Diagnosis Helps

Such is the seductiveness of narcissistic personality disorder. Despite the joy and wonder with which he engaged the world, he cared about other people — parents, friends, siblings, children, partners — only as if they were participants in his eponymous movie. We were cast in roles that he created, and if we deviated from his script, we were wrong. Because he was charismatic and persuasive, we often felt foolish if we didn’t see things as he did. When we ceased to have value to him, we were written out of the story.

To this day, a year after he proved his beyond doubt that he was ill — after meeting his psychiatrist, who diagnosed the disorder — I catch myself wondering if we’re not just exaggerating.

His memorial service helped. I hold on to it as evidence that the complexity isn’t imagined.

On one side of the room sat his colleagues from the university, where he was under-employed an assistant in a biology lab. (He was 47 and had three degrees and more than 10 years’ work history with the EPA.) Evidently Jim showed up in a professor’s office one day out of the blue, and asked to audit a PhD-level seminar. The professor scoffed, handed Jim a textbook, and told him to come back when he had finished it. A few weeks later Jim returned and and they had a long and deep conversation about biology. They became fast friends, and Jim was offered work in the lab. Everyone at the school saw him as special, a bright light, not someone who could have deeply rooted instability.

On the other side of the memorial service, our mom, his ex-wife, teenage sons, sisters, and a few high school friends knew much more complex man. My sister had lived with his life-long ridicule and contempt. I had been accosted by repeated suicide threats (always sent by email), and viciously attacked when I tried to intervene. His ex-wife had begged him to get help six months before he killed himself. I can’t imagine what his kids have been through.

Living with a person like this is slippery. He sees life from such a strange and interesting, point of view, that when he lays out his philosophy (for instance, that humans are just corrosion on the planet), you actually sort of believe him, even when you know it’s ridiculous. He’s so sure that he’s right that you learn to doubt your own judgment.

I met Jim only once. But the impression he left is as if I had spoken to him many many times…I left the meeting laughing heartily and amazed by this talented and pleasant person. I’m sure Jim has touched countless people. I am glad I’m one of them.

I’m glad I’m one of them, too…but then he pulled a bag over his head.

How could I maintain clarity when faced with a super-smart, exceptional-seeming crazy big brother? It’s the most infuriating, frustrating, doubt-inducing situation. Especially when you’re nine and the crazy person is 14 and the most popular boy in school.

(Cue the Suicidal Tendencies’ 1983 hit “I’m not crazy…you’re the one who’s crazy…you’re driving me crazy”.)

I should be angry with him for killing himself, but I’m not really. It’s what he wanted. He had been planning it for years: He had his will notarized monthly. He took out a life insurance policy with a multi-year suicide clause and patiently waited until it matured, so that his boys would have resources. It should be just enough to pay for their inevitable decades of therapy.

Precipitating Events

His choice of timing is not surprising. My father — from whom he was astranged — died just a few months prior, after a 10-year illness. A few weeks later Jim asked his ex-girlfriend to marry him; she declined (“not until you get help”). He bought a ring, became depressed.

She and a friend successfully staged an intervention, had his gun impounded, and got him admitted to a locked ward for 72 hours of observation. She says it was the most calm she had ever seen him. Upon release, he began seeing a psychiatrist. He wanted to go every day, to prove that he was doing as she wished. He was convinced that a perfect love, a new wife, would make his life meaningful. A few weeks after the intervention, he acted on his long-held plan.

His girlfriend thinks he finally accepted his illness and couldn’t face the future as a crazy man (he had already watched schizophrenia take our sister and bipolar disorder take our

Goofing during photos. We both loved dancing.

Goofing during photos. We both loved dancing.

father). I believe that his inability to connect deeply, to love, ultimately killed him.

The last thing I said to him was “If you ever decide to get help, I’ll do anything I can. But until then, I can’t have a relationship with you.” At the memorial, I came to realize how many of us have said some version of those words to him.

I miss him. I loved him so much. It makes my heart ache. A light went out when he died, and my life feels diminished. But it’s also more stable, less fearful. He caused of a lot of emotional trauma; he inspired so many to look with fresh eyes.

I hope to find in my life that which he never did — love, peace, and a settled acceptance of my self.