Monday, April 29, 2019

The Family Secret

         My Great Grandmother was born December 2, 1867, and died December 12, 1955. She was my mother’s mother’s mother. I have one vague memory of greeting Grandma (Josephine Day) Saunders and her exuding love toward me.  I knew that she had raised my Grandmother and her five siblings with my Great Grandfather absent most of the time. 
        My Great Grandfather, Franklin Gifford was the Captain of a barge on the Erie Canal.  He routinely traveled from one end of the Great Lakes to the other.  The Canal went right through our hometown of Rochester, NY.  He would visit his family and sometimes leave money for them.  When asked what became of him my Grandmother told me that he got sick on one of his travels and finally died out west. 
        I had no reason not to believe my Grandmother’s story, until one day my uncle told me that it was a family secret.  He told me that when he was a little boy, he visited a hospital with my Grandmother.  He had to wait outside on the lawn, while they went in to visit with Franklin, who was very sick.  My uncle told me that his Grandfather waved at him from his hospital room that day.  He died the next day.
        Evidently, in addition to being the Captain of a barge on the Erie Canal, he was also a two gun totting gambler of some repute.  In Chicago he got in a fight over gambling and shot some guy dead.  My Great Grandfather then went to prison until he was about to die.  He was released to go home to say goodbye to his family. 
        I like the true story better than my Grandmother’s propaganda.  She was raised when it was vitally important what people thought of you.  She was ashamed of the truth so she invented a story.  Her story allowed her to hold her head up.  
        I’m glad my uncle told me the true story.  While my Great Grandfather may have been considered a desperado, I believe the true story adds a certain flair to my ancestry. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Power of Self Disclosure

Brian was a tall, handsome sixteen year old boy.  He had been admitted to the hospital in a semi-catatonic state.  He barely moved and didn’t talk.  He had always isolated himself, but recently he had gone over the edge and regressed far back into his own head. Brian had witnessed his father's murder.  When it happened, he was sitting quietly on the back porch watching his father talking to another man.  Gradually, the talking had become shouting.  Before he could react the man pulled out a knife and shoved it into his father's chest.  By the time he reached him, his father was unconscious and the other man had run away.  His father died on the way to the hospital.  The effect was immediate.  Brian shut down.
Needless to say, he was difficult to connect to.  As a staff, we agreed to let him reconnect at his own speed.  I suppose my wife did the best job of relating to Brian.  As a communications therapist, she encouraged him to relate to people again.  She actually brought him back to reality.  However, I did make my contribution.
It occurred to me that Brian and I had something in common.  We both had lost parents to murder.  One day I came across him alone, sitting on the floor.  I sat down next to him, leaving only a foot or two between us.  We both looked straight ahead.  I wanted to avoid the pressure he would feel if I faced him.  I told him I wanted to tell him about an experience I had.  I proceeded to tell him about my mother's murder and how I drowned for several months and then learned to survive.  I told him I struggled with feeling responsible but finally let that go.  He did not say anything the entire time I talked.  He sat and listened to me for almost ten minutes.  When I was finished, I waited for a response, expecting something back.  Nothing!  After some time, he asked if I was finished.  He didn't look at me.  He never looked at me.  I said yes and he got up and left.  I was disappointed as I had hoped my story would be supportive.   He never said another word about it to me.
Several weeks later, my wife mentioned something to me about Brian. I told her about my experience with him, and how I had failed to make a dent.  She was surprised as she knew differently.  Brian had told her how important my talking to him had been.  He totally related to my story.  It gave him courage that he could overcome his own loss.  According to my wife, it gave him strength in the knowledge that he could recover.   
Prior to his discharge from the hospital, he became involved in a staff/patient talent show.  He was able to get up in front of the crowd by himself and recite.  As he spoke I looked over at his mother.  She had tears running down her face as she watched her son recite from Genesis before a room full of people.  Brian was able to grieve his loss and rejoin reality.

As a therapist, you throw out seeds never knowing if they will grow root.  If my wife hadn’t accidentally mentioned him, I never would have known the impact of my talk to him that day on the floor.  

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Dad's Lesson on Love

While I knew my father loved me, I was much closer to my mother.  My father was afforded limited access to me because my mother kept me very close to her.  I remember him coming home from work and he’d shadow box with me and it was fun.  Then he would get scolded by my mother who was concerned for my asthma.  My father was a strong presence in the house, but nowhere near my mother’s personality.  There were only a handful of times when my father and I talked intimately.  But they are memorable.  
I was 18 years old and I had just been dumped by my first serious girlfriend.  The relationship had started to become rocky, and I was too young and too stupid to know what was coming.  One night, on a hunch, I discovered her in the backseat of another man's car doing it.  I talked to her and matter of factly she told me it was over.   I was crushed.  I was furious and full of rage.  I didn’t know if I should be sad or angry.  The next day I told my parents what had happened. They tried to console me, but didn’t know how.  I think my mother was secretly glad it was over.  
Later that day, my father came up to me and asked me to walk with him.  He put his arm around me and started to talk.  It took me by surprise.  First he asked me if I knew that he was married before.  I did and I acknowledged knowing my half brother Norman, who was much older.  We rarely saw Normy.  My mother didn’t get along with him.  Then he asked me if I knew anything about that relationship.  I knew that she had become pregnant at the end of High School and being a good Catholic boy, they got married.  
“What you don’t know is how that relationship ended.  I came home early from work one night, and I found my wife in bed with another man.  I was furious.  I did what I thought I should do and went up to the farm to get the shotgun.  It was a double barreled shot gun and I figured one barrel for each of them.  I was loading it up, when my father walked in, your Grandfather.  He looked at me and asked me what I thought I was doing, and I told him.  He got this stern look on his face, was really quiet looking at me for a few seconds.  Then he told me to put the gun away, I was worth more than either of them.”   
I was shocked to hear his story.  Then he looked me in the eye and said, "The same goes for you, your worth more than both of them combined.  Don’t you forget it."  He said no more and walked away.  This was my father's lesson on revenge.  

He never knew how important and ironic it was that this was one of the few lessons he gave me.  Six years later, when my mother was murdered, my soul cried for justice.  However, my father’s words kept coming back to me.  Eventually, I found peace.  I turned my desire for revenge over to the universe, believing in Karma and knowing that the Gods punish much better than I ever would.  Besides, I was worth more than that.  

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Becoming a Father

There was one moment in my childhood when I knew without any doubt that my father loved me.  I was very young, perhaps 3 or 4.  I was experiencing a terrible asthma attack, which later that night resulted in my landing in an oxygen tent in the hospital.  I couldn’t catch my breath.  My mother was holding me, trying to sooth me.  I remember the pain on her face.  But I looked over at my father and he was crying.  I have a vague memory of our interchange.
“Daddy, why are you crying?”  
“I hate watching you go through this.”
From that moment on, for my entire life, I have known that my father loved me.  
I have had the opportunity to observe many men become fathers.  We tend to focus on the changes in a woman as she becomes a mother.  However, watching a young man grow into a father is amazing.  Fatherhood is a task that lasts for your entire life.  Yet, there is a transition that happens in men when they first become fathers.  It’s different for every man, but there are some common experiences.  
The first experience is an overwhelming sense of responsibility.  Becoming a parent forces you into the next generation.  The immense importance of parenting a child is frightening.  Most men welcome the opportunity and take pride in this obligation.  Unfortunately, I have known many men that run away from the role.  
As a little boy, I remember when our farmer died.  My mother put a notice in the paper about his passing.  We knew very little about him, other than that he was a bad alcoholic and a good farmer.  We didn’t think he had anybody in his life.  However, at the his service his wife and 13 children showed up.  They only lived  30 or more miles down the road from us.  
Men learn how to be fathers.  They may copy their father’s style of parenting.  Other men from a less nurturing environment may choose to do the opposite of what their father did.  Boys without fathers readily in their life will have to learn how to be a man from other role models: teachers, uncles, other adolescent boys.  Without a positive role model these men often experience difficulty with the father role.  
The most significant experience in becoming a father is the love you receive from your child.  Children multiply the love in the home (and they multiply the chaos).  Their love is infinitely valuable on a multitude of levels.  Just as it changes women into becoming mothers; men are transformed by love.  Children are masters of love, they teach love.  Letting love in is an experience that grows and develops as we mature.  A smile from your child is one of the most coveted experiences in life.  It blesses you and heals you.  It allows you to recognize that the heart is infinite.  A child’s love is healing and empowering.  Perhaps because of the purity of a child’s love, we finally accept that we ourselves are loved.  
Furthermore, a father also has to set boundaries in accordance with mom.  He has to be her teammate in parenting.  Fathers need to learn how to say “no.”   However, they then risk losing all that love from their children.  A grown up father can love the child enough that saying no comes from a loving place and saying no can be said proudly.  I was once told that until you have heard your child say, with all the passion they can muster, “I hate you,” you haven’t earned your stripes as a parent.  

My father showed love by supporting me, putting a roof over my head and showing me what it means to be a man.  But the moment that he had tears for me was the most powerful way he showed me love.  Knowing he loved me has often sustained me during the times in my life when I didn’t love me.  

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Modeling an Error

Suzanne’s pout covered her pretty face.  She was attractive and she knew it.  But her plan to become a model had been thwarted.   At this moment, she was being admitted to a psychiatric hospital.  Her career goals had been disrupted when she had a seizure and was diagnosed as epileptic.  She no longer saw herself as perfect.  She totally crashed and made a feeble attempt to kill herself. 
We started meeting and developing a treatment plan.  She told me about her suicide attempt, which she admitted was lame.  We talked about what she had to do to get her life back.  We reviewed the potential therapies she could receive.  She immediately asked to be in the “Models” group.  
She was angry and petulant.  She hated her disease and we encouraged her to hate it.  The more she put her anger on the disease, rather than herself, the sooner she’d be over this setback in her life.  She really wasn’t interested in suicide.  She wanted to live but was angry at her body and at her family.  As we dug deeper we discovered that much of her behavior was dictated by the hurt from her parent’s divorce.  
During our meetings we talked about the epilepsy; how it changed her life and all the ways that it wouldn’t change her life.  We encouraged her to educate herself regarding epilepsy and she did.  She knew her life would change but came to accept the challenge.  She saw the connection between her extreme behavior and her parent’s divorce.  Once again she nurtured the idea of becoming a model.  
One day I asked her how the groups were going.   Her face fell.  She was disappointed in the models group.  The group focused on several hyperactive adolescent boys, each with the assignment of assembling a plastic model.  She had her choice of putting together an airplane or a car.  She chose the car.  She added that the boys were obnoxious.  This was not helping her learn how to model.  I had stupidly not thought about the goals of the group.  
I was slightly embarrassed that she thought she would learn how to be a super model in a therapy group in a psychiatric hospital.  It was clear that she knew nothing about what it meant to be a model or be in a psychiatric hospital.   Following our success with her educating herself about epilepsy we decided she should learn more about modeling.  
Long before google was available, I believed in going right to the source to discover more information.  During one of our talks I stumbled on the idea of calling a modeling agency and asking them questions about the life of a model.  We came up with a list of questions she would ask.  The yellow pages in our area only offered a couple of options for modeling agencies and I called the first one on the page and handed her the phone. 
She was all excited to talk to them and pulled herself up to her full height to put on her most mature self.  She started asking questions and then you could tell that they were asking her questions.  As she listened and responded to the agency, her face changed; it became darker and you could see the discomfort in her eyes.  Briefly, she was done and put down the phone.  
“How was that?  Did you find out what you wanted to know?”  
“Not exactly” she answered.  
“What do you mean?”  
“It wasn’t the kind of modeling I am looking for.”
“What was it?”  
“They were looking for erotic dancers.  I’m not interested in that kind of modeling.”

OMG!  I was embarrassed.  She was embarrassed.  I know my intentions were to be helpful.  I didn’t plan to put her in a compromising position.  But I felt terrible.  Soon, she left the hospital and never returned.  I’ll never know what she ended up doing with her life.  But we both got a little more educated that morning.  I rarely put my clients on the phone any more.  I let them do that on their own time.  It was a simple mistake and I can now see the humor in it; but at the time I was horrified that I put her in that position.  

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Benefit of Piano Lessons

One of my most memorable students was from an Eastern culture.  She was very conservative.  Dating was controlled by her family.  I would tease her about the strict rules she lived by.  One morning she announced that she had become engaged to her boyfriend.  He had asked her family and they had consented to the union.  I asked how being engaged would change their relationship.  She seemed to respond in wonder.  “William, we are now allowed to be alone together.”  Almost conspiratorially she went on, “When we were alone for the first time, we held hands.  William, it was incredible!  I felt this warm surge of energy coming through his hand into my hand.  It was magnificent.”  
I was stunned and fascinated by her confession.  There was a reverence in her voice.  This had been an incredibly powerful experience for her.  She was mature enough to appreciate this very special moment in her life.  I felt a touch of jealousy.  Her recounting the experience had an impact on me.    
That night I remembered the first time I held hands with a girl.  I was in 6th grade.  Thursdays at 5 PM I had a piano lesson with Miss Gilbert at the Eastman School of Music.  For the most part, it was tortuous.  Miss Gilbert couldn’t stand me.  The one redeeming quality about Thursdays was Nina.  Nina took violin lessons at the same time as my piano lesson.  Nina had this exotic gorgeous beauty.  Her long brown hair was captivating.  She wore a school uniform, but rolled up the waist of her skirt.   She had big brown eyes and these knee high boots that I will never forget.  And she liked me!  Or maybe she was just taking pity on me.  I’ll never know.    
On one occasion, she and I walked into downtown Rochester together.  While we walked we held hands.  It was my left hand and I can remember the energy I felt coming from her hand.   I don’t know how else to describe it.  It was one of the high points of my adolescence.  Holding Nina’s hand while we walked downtown made me feel euphoric.  While I remember feeling it, I didn’t appreciate what was happening at the time.  Having remembered the experience, it now stays with me.   
When I transferred to the private high school, I didn’t fit in with the other students.  In order to make myself seem bigger, I told them that Nina was my girlfriend.  Within the day, she had denied it, which made me look like an even bigger fool.  
She may have never been my girlfriend, but on that day, on that walk, when we held hands, she was everything I could ever dream of at the age of twelve.  

Thursday, November 2, 2017


How do you figure out your identity when it keeps changing?  Who I am today is different then who I was yesterday.  Each day I have experiences that continue to shape my personality and attitudes.  Some people seem to know who they are from childhood.  Others never figure out who they are.     
Professionally, when people first meet me, they tend too refer to me as doctor.  They do it out of respect for the work I did to earn a Ph.D.  But I always ask them to call me William.  When they question me, I explain that the doctor title was the result of a few years of study and an extensive research paper.  “William” was the result of a lifetime of looking inside and figuring out who I am.  I worked a lot harder on becoming William than I did becoming doctor.  
Repeatedly in season six of Game of Thrones, they ask the question, “Who are you?”   It started me thinking about my own identity.   Who I am is the most important thing I bring to my clients in my office.  If I don’t know who I am, its difficult to help others figure out who they are.  Then again, knowing who you are is important in intimate relationships.  
Growing up I didn’t know who I was.  I was probably as lost as the next person, but that doesn’t make it any easier.  I didn’t have an identity.  I was whatever my parents, teachers and friends said I was.  This didn’t get any better in adolescence.  When I would begin a new relationship, I would immediately lose myself into the “us.”  I didn’t know how to hold on to me, because I was so poorly defined.  
I know what this looked like.  It would be Friday night and we would be deciding what we would eat and I would keep repeating, “What ever you want.”  I didn’t have enough substance to say, “I want Chinese, or Italian,” or anything specific.  I wanted whatever she wanted.  The person that they were initially attracted to got lost.  
It was all about my insecurity.  I wasn’t valuable enough to myself to think that someone would stay with me if I really let them see me.  So I would hide behind, “You choose.  I’m good with whatever you want tonight.”  
Successful relationships are usually found through each person growing and finding out who they are and then being themselves with the other person.  It took me a long time to figure out who I was.  But I know one major contribution.  
I was a Freshman at Monroe Community College.  I don’t remember which class it was, but the professor was taking role.  I responded when he called out my name, “Bill Boylin.”  I had been “Billy” all my life.  I never really thought much about my name.  The girl behind me tapped me on the shoulder.  She was very pretty with jet black hair and beautiful brown eyes.  She looked me square in the face and confidently informed me that I was not a Bill, I was a William.  The name stuck like glue.  It was as if it was tattooed on my forehead.  From then on, I was William.  She was right, that was a significant part of my identity.  To this day I only have a couple of friends who call me “Billy.”  Predominately they are friends from my childhood who knew me when I was Billy.  

That girl and I almost got married.  We were deeply in love.  We did get engaged after we finished college.  But I wasn’t ready.  It would have been a disaster, because I didn’t know who I was and I was still too immature to maintain a relationship.  Another step in figuring out who I was happened when I realized I wasn’t ready to get married.  We talked and ended the engagement, but not without fighting and tears.  She helped me in figuring out who I was.  All those wonderful relationships I had as a young man each contributed to my discovering my identity.  
                 Today I have a pretty good idea who I am.  I'm just not sure who I will be tomorrow.