My Seriously Messed Up History, In an Nutshell


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.

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