Thursday, December 26, 2013

My Many Grandfathers

   I never knew my biological Grandfathers.  Both were deceased before I came along.  So my knowledge of them is thin.  I know that I grew up on what was my paternal Grandfather’s farm.  When my Grandfather died, my father inherited the farm.  My father wanted to live their and raise children on the homestead.  However, my mother was resistive.  Eventually she agreed, but put two stipulations to moving their.  First, my father was to keep his job at Kodak and never be a farmer.  Second, their children were never allowed to be farmers.  It ended up that my mother became the ‘gentleman farmer.’
   My maternal grandfather died from leukemia soon after World War II.    I have always felt a strong connection to him.   I understand from my Grandmother that he was a grump.  That’s all I know about my Grandfathers.  I also know that I missed knowing them.  
   The result has been that all my life I have captured grandfathers.  I substituted teachers, mentors and friendly advisors for the biological grandparents I never had.  This has been a blessing to me both professionally and personally.  My mentors have taught me about life.  They taught me about people and their motivations.  They taught me how to be a father, husband and a man.  My career has been blessed by having incredible guidance and supervision.  I have had mentors that have loved me and I have had mentors who never knew my name.  
   My most important professional mentor was Carl Whitaker.  Carl Whitaker, M.D. has been called the “grandfather of family therapy.”  He was my teacher, my mentor and my friend.  His style of therapy fit perfectly with my personality.  For ten years we met with Carl via a speaker phone.  Initially, we talked to him strictly about family therapy.  Over time we talked to him about families, babies, marriage and life.  At least once a year, he would come to Connecticut and we’d have lunch.  He once told me that when he did a session with my brother and I after our mother died, I captured him as a foster grandfather.    
   He never minced words.  Sometimes he was loving, sometimes he was tough.  But being yelled at by Carl Whitaker is one experience I never will forget.  Over the course of the decade, it happened twice.  Both times it took me days to recover.  
   The first instance happened when I presented a family with an adolescent schizophrenic boy.  Carl had great reverence for schizophrenic patients.  He understood their pain.  During the presentation, I made the comment that the inappropriate behavior of the schizophrenic son interfered with my therapy.  
   Carl stopped me abruptly.  His voice was filled with anger.  “The schizophrenic never says anything inappropriate.  Just because you’re too stupid to understand it, doesn’t mean that it’s inappropriate.”  He meant to chastize me and he succeeded.  I felt terrible.  It took me a few days to recover from his comment.  
   The second time his comment was even more harsh.  We were talking about a family with an elderly Grandmother.  The grandmother had a huge influence on the family and she seemed to be exercising it negatively.  It is our practice to insist that the family bring in all the relevant pieces of the puzzle.  However, the idea of grandmother attending the session had met with huge resistance by the family.  Their most powerful excuse was that Grandmother had a bad heart, and she might not be able to withstand the emotional turmoil of family therapy.
   This seemed to me to be a good reason to exclude her.  “Carl, shouldn’t we respect the family’s fear of overloading the grandmother’s heart.  There is a risk that if grandmother was to come in and be overwhelmed by the discussion, she could have a heart attack and we’d feel responsible.” It was an innocent enough comment.
   Carl was direct.  His tone was stern.  “Listen William, this is a life and death business, and if you can’t handle it, get the fuck out.”  
   Wow!  I felt as if I had been slapped.  Carl was questioning whether I had what it takes to be a psychotherapist.   It took me days to think this through.  I finally realized that he must have great respect for me that he felt he could be that tough.  I concluded that he trusted my confidence enough that he felt he could push me like this.  
   Psychotherapy is a life and death business.  If you are in this business long enough, you will lose patients.  But that is no excuse to avoid doing the work that is necessary.  The families we work with have a right to expect that we are tough enough to handle these risks.  If I am not strong enough to deal with life and death issues, I should be in another profession.  Yet, you never forget when your grandfather yells at you.  

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Drinking and Crying

One of the lessons I learned about alcohol, I learned at a young age.  On Friday evenings, my parents would occasionally entertain.  In order to maximum their time with guests, I was taught how to make drinks.  Nothing fancy, I assure you.  I will say, I made a great whiskey sour, which was my Dad’s favorite drink.  
In our living room, we had a baby grand piano made by Lester.  It was beautiful, had great tone and deserved better than my brother and I.  I’m afraid our abilites at piano were suspect.  The only reason I can remember the make of the piano is that I spent years sitting there.  I hated practicing.  It was torture practicing scales.  However, we both took lessons at Eastman School of Music in the preparatory department, if that counts for anything.  
My parents had close friends, Bill and June.  June had been a nightclub singer and Bill had been a pianist in a club.  They were both on their second marriage.  I believe Bill had some deep sadness from the loss of his first marriage.  They were both incredibly great people.  I admired them and they were wonderful to me.  
They were frequent guests on Friday nights.  There were always laughs and jokes and great conversation.  I was privy to most of this because I made a great whiskey sour.  Bill would often sit down at the piano and play beautiful music.  It was like he was in a club.  He would drink and play and it was vastly entertaining.  Sometimes June would sing with him.  
As the night rolled on, Bill would get drunker.  This did not inhibit his music; however it did affect his mood.  As time went on, he would start crying.  It happened every week.  He would play and drink and get sadder and sadder.  Every week he would cry.  No matter how much he cried, there were just as many tears the following week.  I realized that crying when your drinking doesn’t count.  Bill’s crying while drinking didn’t decrease his sadness.  
Many of my clients that drink tell me that they cry.  When I inquire, I find that they only cry when they are drinking.  Letting out the hurt is vital to remaining in recovery.  Yet, I am convinced that crying when you are drinking doesn’t count.   

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Condolence Letter

I found this letter in the early 1980's.  I find it incredibly beautiful. I was assured that it is authentic.  

Dear Child:  
I condole with you.  We have lost a most dear and valuable relation.  But it is the will of God and nature that these mortal bodies be layed aside when the soul is to enter into real life.  It is rather an embryo state, a preparation for living.  A man is not completely born until he is dead.  Why then should we grieve that a new child is born then among the immortals, a new member added to their happy society. 
That bodies should be lent us is a kind and benevolent act of God.  When they become unfit for these purposes and afford us pain instead of pleasure, instead of an aid, become an incumberance and answer none of the intentions for which they were given; it is equally kind and benevolent that a way is provided by which we may get rid of them.  Death is that way.  
We ourselves prudently choose a partial death.  In some cases a mangled painful limb which can not be restored, we willingly cut off.  He who plucks out a tooth parts with it freely since the pain goes with it.  And he who quits the whole body, parts at once with all pains and possibility of pains and diseases it was liable to our capable of making him suffer. 
Our friend and we are invited abroad on a party of pleasure that is to last forever.  He has gone before us.  We could not all conveniently start together.  And why should you and I be grieved at this since we are soon to follow and we know where to find him.  
Benjamin Franklin

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Grandmother's Surprise

I can remember as a young graduate student, one of my greatest surprises came from my Grandmother.  She threw me a curve that still makes me smile.  I was studying adult developmental psychology at Syracuse. I was fascinated by a concept called the Life Review.   As elderly people come to the close of their life, they begin to reminise.  Memories from childhood come back.  Recollections of important life events are pictured as clear as if they happened yesterday.  Reminiscing allows us to consider and measure our life.  This in turn allows one to find acceptance with their life (or despair).  Just at the time I was studying this, my grandmother started reminiscing about her life, exactly as described in the textbooks.  I was captivated. 
My Grandmother, Annabelle, was born in 1890.  She was my mother’s mother and a sweet soul who loved me dearly.  She was a modest and very proper old lady.  By the time I got to intermediate school, she was slipping me five dollar bills.  She would always hand it to me with a wink, like we were being sneaky together.  She would take me to downtown Rochester to see a movie and have lunch.  During the summers she would visit us and sleep in the other bed in my room for a couple of weeks.  She would do anything for me. She heartily agreed to be interviewed by me, if it would help me in any way.  It was fascinating to see the life review happen live.  Her history was fascinating to me.  She told me a great deal about my family history, where I came from and who I was. 
Her father was a Barge Captain on the Erie Canal.  He disappeared when she was a child.  She told me that he never came back.  The truth I learned many years later from my uncle.  My Great Grandfather was a two-gun-toting riverboat captain who gambled.  He got in a fight one night, out in the mid-west and killed a guy.  He ended up in prison for years.   He came back as an old man, just before he died.  The family thought it sounded better to just say he disappeared.  
Her mother had to raise 7 children all alone at a time when the world was not very forgiving.  She talked about the suffrogate movement happening in Rochester where she grew up.  She told me about moving to Detroit after she was married.   She and my grandfather, Wesley, moved west because Henry Ford was offering $1 a day.  When they got there, they found a place to stay and he went to work for Chrysler.  She remembered insisting that they find a new apartment and move the very first day he worked.  A beer truck had made a delivery to their building, and she wasn’t going to be seen living in a building where the beer truck visited. 
She told me her life story.    She went on and on for almost two hours.  I was fascinated.  I was learning history, but I was learning my history.   As we started to wind down, I asked her if she had any regrets in life.  This very proper woman thought for a moment.  “Yes, just one.  If I had it to do over again, I  would have never married your Grandfather.  I would have lived with him until I was sick of him then I would have kicked him out.  

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Hostess Cupcake Theory

   One of the key points to addiction recovery is what they call ‘hitting bottom.’  The theory suggests that until you have hit a bottom, you really do not take recovery seriously and will not succeed.  The problem is that ‘the bottom’  is a very personal experience.  Most people hit more than one bottom and are surprised when a new one comes along.  I have given up trying to tell other people what their bottom is, but I remember my lowest point so far.  
   To put this into perspective, chronologically I was 26 when my mother died.  However, in reality I was emotionally still a young teen.  I was totally dependent on her.  Yes, I lived in Connecticut and she was back in Rochester, but my memory is that I didn’t brush my teeth without asking her first.  Financially, I was totally dependent on her.  She was charismatic, intelligent, beautiful and a powerhouse.  This was my mother.  
   By the time I was 14 or 15 years old, I knew that I felt empty inside.  I now know that my dependency contributed to my depression.  I was nothing in comparison to my mother, father or brother.  For the next ten years, I filled that emptiness with stuff from outside me.  I am clear of four things I routinely used to fill me the void.  First, I used toys.  I can remember buying a C.B. radio, new skiis or some other toy and I would feel full for a short time.  Usually within a week or so, the emptines would return.  Men like to use toys to fill ourselves.  Women tend to buy purses or shoes, but really it’s the same thing.  The second thing I used to fill me were girls.   When a new girl would come into my life, I would feel full, worthy, successful and complete.  I knew “what a woman could do for my soul.”  Over time she would grow tired of fixing me, making me feel healthy and adequate.  Then we would have to start talking about our relationship and everything would go to hell.  I would hang on deparately.  She would eventually leave and I would be empty again.  
   The third filler in my life came as a senior in college.  My girlfriend had me try marijuana.  It took me three times before I felt anything.  When it worked, it worked.  The problem with drugs is they work for a while.  For many years I would smoke some pot and feel better for a while.  Then all the problems would be back.   
   The fourth substance I used to fill me was psychology.  I would read a new theory about schizophrenia or depression and I would be excited and enriched and turned on.  I was surprised how much my interest in people excited me.  
   This continued until my mother was killed.  Anyone who has ever experienced something like this knows what happens first.  You became a robot.  You are in shock and go through the motions without being totally there.  During the next week, when we went up to Rochester and made the ‘arrangements’ and had the funeral, I was in shock.  You lose all sense of time and space.  I remember being amazed that the world went on the way it did. 
   I ended up back in my apartment faced with an emptiness that wouldn’t go away.  For the first couple of months I totally drowned.  I had to learn how to cry all over again.  My mother had taught me that mourning was a good thing.  At first, I learned every trick in the book to avoid crying.  But, I couldn’t avoid the grief.  I remember the pain as devestating.  There were times I wondered if I would survive.  While I’m not aware of ever being suicidal, I certainly didn’t take care of myself.  Hence, I hit bottom. 
   It was a Friday morning.  I woke up and the first thing I had to do was go to the bathroom and upchuck.  I had been sick all week.  Drinking, smoking pot and not sleeping had resulted in my feeling terrible.  When I found my way back to bed, I started thinking how this was the fifth day that week I had started it by barfing.  This was becoming my life.  Then it came to me.  All my life, whenever I was sick, my mother would come and take care of me.  Here I was sick, with the unconscious hope that my mother would come take care of me.  Reality hit me.  She wasn’t coming.  Either I could get my act together and take care of myself, or this would be my life.  
   That was my bottom.  After that I started taking better care of myself.  I stopped drinking alcohol.  Some nights I would cry.  Most nights I would avoide it.  But overtime, I mourned.  I allowed myself the thoughts of missing her.  I believe that over the next year I healed the empty space inside of me.  The emptiness shrank as I worked through my grief.  This changed everything. 
   When the dark cloud lifted off of me during the months after the anniversary, I found a new person.  I had considerably matured.  First of all, I now took responsibility for myself.  I no longer could make any excuses for my behavior.  Second, my relationships changed.  I didn’t expect women to complete me or fix me any more.  I had used relationships as the filling to complete me.  After I had mourned, relationships became the icing on the top of the cupcake.  I didn’t need them to complete me.  Hence an intern coined this my hostess cupcake theory. While it is an unfortunate name, it is an accurate metaphor.  
            Several years later, I met my wife.  After our first child was born, I stopped smoking pot.  I couldn’t figure out how to tell my children to not do drugs, if I was doing them.  
   I will always remember the morning I hit bottom.  It has been up hill ever since.  I continue to struggle.  Everytime I mourn, I have to relearn how to cry.  Yet, I now have confidence in knowing that I can tolerate it.    

Friday, October 4, 2013

My First Clinical Supervisor

  There is no question in my mind, that my mother was my first clinical supervisor.  From as far back as I can remember, she taught me about people.  She taught me how to understand their motivations and she taught me how to manipulate them.  She was an expert.  Over and over again, she could orchestrate everyone around her to get what she wanted.  Partly, it was because she was beautiful and she knew it.  But she also had a charisma about her that would charm the horns off of a devil.  
  My earliest memories are of sitting in her lap and we would talk about people.  This goes back as far as I can remember.  Only recently have I recognized how special these memories are to me.  I can remember talking to her about school and the other kids.  She would talk to me about people, relationships and most importantly how to respond to people.  One day I told her about Lettie Edens.  Lettie was in kindergarten with me and I liked her.  I think it was my first crush.  The problem was that Lettie wasn’t giving me the time of day.  My mother listened to my frustration and then asked me if I was sure I wanted this girl’s attention.  Without a doubt I wanted Lettie to spend time with me, but I didn’t have a clue how to pull it off.  
  “Okay, I’ll tell you what you do.  I want you to play hard to get.  What that means, is that you should ignore her totally.  Pretend that you don’t see her or hear her.  You play hard to get with her and you’ll get her attention.”  On the surface it sounded like the opposite of what I wanted.  But, she was right.  Before the week was out, Lettie was asking if she could play with me and spend time with me.  My first lesson in manipulation was immensely effective.  It took me well into adulthood before I learned I could be more successful with people by being direct, rather than manipulative.
  Through the years, she often told me how to handle personal situations.  She also modeled how to handle people.  She ran the family farm and I witnessed her acute ability to get her way.  On more than one occasion I watched her deal with drunk farmhands.  She could be compassionate, logical and firm.  She handled people like a virtuoso violinist.  In the morning, I would sit on her lap and we would talk about people.  We would process the events of the day before.  In addition, she would encourage me to be a friend to people who didn’t have friends.  Subtly, she was training me to talk to people who sometimes don’t have people to talk to.  She taught me many things.  However, there are two memories that stand out over the rest.  I believe they helped save my life.  
  After my father died, we lived alone in the farmhouse for a couple of years.  I was attending community college.  Without my father there was no buffer between us.  We really didn’t know how to be with each other.  I was no longer a child, and she was scared to be all alone.  I was 19 and really didn’t care at all about college.  I wanted to stay out until the middle of the night with my girlfriend.  So, my mother and I would fight.  When we would fight, there were no holds barred.  We both said incredibly mean things to each other.  When scenes happen in our house they are just as ugly as scenes in anybody else’s house.  Finally, one night she broke through this ongoing battle.  
  We were having one of our usual fights.  We were both screaming and not listening to one another.  Finally, she sat down took a deep breath and asked me, “do you know why we have these fights?”  I just starred at her.  I had no idea.  “We are both so sad about losing your father, and we don’t know how to do the sad, so we get angry instead.  It’s a way for us to be close, without being too close and crying all the time.”  I quietly sat down next to her.  In my heart I knew she was right. Once again we cried together.  She taught me about emotions and how anger is a terrific mask for sadness.  
  That was the last time we had one of those fights.  But I knew the potential would always be there.  After my internship in Connecticut, when she asked me to move home, I said no.  I knew we shouldn’t live together again.  I didn’t want to go back to being her baby.  It was my feeble way of asserting some independence.  However, a month later when she was killed, I had to question myself whether I should have moved home.  After much work, I know that I was right.  The time for us to live together had passed.  This leads me to one of the most important things she gave me.  
  When I started school as a child, I remember my father telling me that I had to stop crying all the time.  I just had to stop.  I did as I was told.  I stopped crying and coincidently, by the time I was in 3rd grade, I was wearing glasses.  Although no one will agree with me, I’m convinced holding back the tears, contributed to my decline in vision.  
  For the next 15 years, crying was not a resource for expressing sadness.  However, when my father died, my mother cried openly.  We cried together frequently.  We never showed this in public.  Crying was reserved for being in private.  I think she modeled this after Jackie Kennedy.    Jackie Kennedy had set a standard for how to handle grief in public.  However, in private we cried.  For a while, we turned the sadness into anger and fought, but she brought us back to the sadness.  She taught me to mourn.  She taught me to let the pain pass over me and through me.  I now see this as entirely ironic that she gave me this gift, as six years later when she was killed, allowing myself the tears saved my life.  If I had avoided the pain of losing her, I would not have survived.  I’m convinced that when you shut those kind of feelings off, they come out somewhere else in the body.  We all know people who have died of a broken heart.  But she gave me permission to feel my pain and it made all the difference.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

My Father and the Frog

  The night my dad died, my mother and I sat in the waiting room together.  They cleared out all the other visitors so that the doctor could talk to us alone.  He explained that my dad’s heart kept stopping.  They had restarted it six times.  Finally, they had to call it and let him go.  My mother was totally gracious.  She would hold it together in public, and we would cry together in private.  
  Over the next few months I was furious with the doctors.  I knew the anger was normal, yet it persisted.  At the time, all I could think about was how they had zapped my father six times when he was trying to let go.  I couldn’t think of it as anything less than torture.  This stayed with me. 
  I was in college biology the following semester.  One of the first things that we did was to dissect a frog.  This was not any normal backyard frog.  This frog was a foot long, and it lay in a dish in front of me.  The professor led us along cautiously so that we would get the most out of it.  It really didn’t take long before the insides of the frog were exposed.  I don’t know what made me do it, but I placed the flat side of the scalpel on the frog’s heart.  Immediately, it started beating.  I jumped.  This totally freaked me out.  It must have beat 10-15 times before it stopped again.  I put the scalpel back again.  Again it started beating.  This time it only went 7 or 8 times before it ceased.  I repeated this three or four more times before the heart stopped for good.  I can’t describe the feeling of power it gave me to start that heart.  It was amazing.  
  I was so overwhelmed by the experience I talked to the professor.  He assured me that the frog was not alive, but that the cold scalpel had triggered an autonomic response of the nerves to make the heart beat.  I had not performed a miracle.  
  This experience allowed me to forgive the doctor.  I understood how it felt to bring my father back to life.  If the heart kept responding the doctor wouldn’t have been able to do anything more than keep trying.  Forgiving him was extremely helpful as it brought me one step closer to forgiving myself.  

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

My Father's Cigarettes

I was 16 years old when my Dad had his first heart attack.  Growing up on a farm, I knew about life and death, but I didn’t think it applied to my father.  This was really scarey.  We sat in the hospital room worrying, when a doctor appeared at the door. 
“Hello, I’m Dr. so and so and I’m the chief of cardiology at this hospital.  I’m going to be working with you.”  After the formalities, they started talking.  Then he spied something on my father’s nightstand.  “Are those your cigarettes?”
“Yes, I’ve been smoking camel straights for 42 years.”  No wonder he had a heart attack! 
“Well, if you want me to be your cardiologist, you’ll have to give up smoking.”  
To which my father picked up that pack of cigarettes and tossed them in the garbage.  My father never smoked again.  He later told me that he continued to miss them the rest of his life.  He especially missed the first one in the morning.  Yet, he didn’t smoke again, and I was impressed.  To be able to throw them away after all those years of smoking was incredible.  I was awed by my father’s strength.  I thought he did a great thing for himself.  I had no idea what a gift this was for me. 
This act of my father’s worked on me.  I frequently thought about it.  It took me years to realize what an impact it had on me.  If my father could give up those cigarettes after all those years, just think what I could do.  Smoking is undoubtedly one of the most difficult addictions to quit, but he could do it by making a decision.  This act of my father’s spoke to me about my own capabilities.  When I doubt myself, I just think about my father throwing away those cigarettes.    

Sunday, September 1, 2013


It was April of 1977.  On Saturday morning my brother called inviting me to attend a Carl Whitaker Workshop he was participating in.  The Gestalt Insitute of Connecticut was an elite group of therapists who came together for their mutual education and support.  They invited the noteable gurus of psychotherapy from around the country for workshops each year.  
I jumped in my car and flew down to Madison.  When I entered, they were still on a break.  My brother took me around to meet everyone.  There were a number of clinicians from Elmcrest Psychiatric Hospital that I already knew.  I had met Carl before, but was reintroduced. 
Shortly, everyone set down and the meeting convened.  I found a couple of pillows next to my brother and sat down.  When it was quiet for a minute, one of the men started thanking Carl for his work with his family last year.  The work had resulted in greater connectedness and joy within the family.  I thought that was cool.   
Following another short silence, my brother spoke up.  “Carl, about 6 months ago, our mother was killed.  At the time I was close to Billy, but we’re not close any more and I want to work on that.  Every eye turned to me.  
I was totally taken by surprise.  This I did not expect.  I didn’t know what to do.  Then Carl extended the invitation.  “William would you like to work on this?”  In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have known how to say no.  “Sure.”
When I said this, several things happened at once.  I literally could feel all the people sitting around me very slowly moving away.  The next thing I was aware of was Leo Berman moving over to the video camera and turning it on.  What made this all tolerable was that Carl came over and sat down on a pillow with my brother and I.  It was now a threesome sitting alone in front of the camera and a room full of people.  
Like my brother and I, Carl Whitaker grew up on a farm.  He was a big strong farmboy who had left the farm for a professional career.  He was tall and broad.  His personal stature alone was an intimidating presence.  To describe him accurately would take volumes.  However, I must emphasize his kindliness and his brilliant mind.  I felt safe with him next to me.  
For the next two hours, Carl went up one side of my family tree, and then down the other.  He explored deep family themes.  We talked about the lonliness we each felt.  We talked about the horror of the murder.  We both cried repeatedly.  The funny part was that immediately after the session, I would not have been able to tell you one specific thing we said.  Over the years, I have come to understand this.  Carl talked in such a basic, primitive language, that he kept pushing us into the unconscious side of the brain.  He talked primary process and my brain followed him into the depths of my thinking.  It wasn’t that we talked about the love for our mother that we had when we were three or four; we felt the love for our mother that we had when we were three or four.  Being that we were talking from the deepest part of our memory, my mind wasn’t holding on to what was being said.  
I do remember how it ended.  After lovingly exploring our family for two hours, Carl leaned back and gave a big laugh.  He then held out his two big arms as if he was hugging someone and said, “I feel like I have each of you on a different breast and I can’t get you together.  He then wrapped his hands behind each of our necks and pulled us together.  
As soon as we touched, we started hugging, we experienced a new level of our crying.  We were now two little boys who had lost their mother.  We held onto each other and sobbed.  It went on for a few minutes, before the moment ebbed.  My brother sat back and looked at me.  “You know that now we’re both orphans?”    
Carl spoke,  “I want you both to leave, walk on the beach, hold hands, throw sand at each other.  We’re going to talk about what just happened and I don’t want our talking to alter what you just experienced, so you have to leave.”  We slowly wandered out to the sand and walked and talked.  
What happened over the next few months was extraordinary.  As I went on through my grieving and my attempts to avoid my grief; when I came to a roadblock, I would remember something that we had talked about.  It was as if he had scattered breadcrumbs all through my unconscious.  As I stepped on one, a memory would come back that would be like a new piece of the puzzle, that would help me make sense of who I was and what losing my mother really meant.  
It took me 10 years to get that video tape from Leo Berman.  I don’t know if his excuses were real, or he just did not want to give me a copy.  I finally gave him a blank tape and put it in his hand. 
Carl later told me that it was during this session that I captured him as a foster grandfather.  Up until his stroke, he nurtured me.  He shared with me what he thought psychotherapy was, but he talked much more to me about what it meant to be a person, a husband, a father.  He gave me permission to become who I am and I will forever be appreciative of this gift.  

Monday, August 26, 2013


My Father taught me a lesson about revenge that has lasted me a lifetime.  He never knew how valuable it was going to be.  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.  There was a scene, which only served to make me more angry and depressed.  I was crushed.  I was furious.  My blood was full of rage.  My confusion kept me from knowing whether I was sad or angry.  The next day I was still confused.  I told my parents what had happened.  While they tried to console me, nothing really helped.  
I can only remember a handful of times when my father talked intimately with me.  My mother kept me so close to her, that I don’t think I ever really knew my father.  She didn’t leave room for him to connect with me.  On this day, however, he came up to me and asked me to walk with him.  He put his arm around me and told me a story.  It was one of the three or four occassions in which my father spoke to me one man to another.  I will never forget it.
“You know that I was married before?”
“Sure.”  I knew my half brother Norman was from a previous marriage. 
“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 I came back up to the farm to get the shotgun.  It was a double barrled 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.  I’ll never forget what he said next, put that gun away, you are worth more than either of them.”   
After telling me this, he looked me directly 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 revenge.  However, my father’s words kept coming back to me.  Eventually, I was able to find 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.  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Complaint about the Cookies

     If I live to be a hundred, I doubt that I’ll ever again experience a community meeting like the one we had this afternoon.  It began like all the others: there were announcements; there were challenges to the staff; there were people making complaints. Then, one of the patients from Aquarius complained about the cookies. It seemed inconsequential, but nothing that happens in a community meeting is inconsequential to Sam Papa.  After the complaint about the cookies, Dr. Fox asked if anyone had anything to add; the patients were more than happy to jump in.
     “It’s like this: every evening, every unit is supposed to get two boxes of cookies. The cookies are for our evening snack. But they’re delivered during our rest period. By the time we get them, they’re usually half gone. The staff eat the cookies. We’ve complained on the unit and been told that the cookies were for everyone and that we should be glad there was at least a box left for snacks. We don’t think that’s fair.”
      Dr. Lowe defended his staff: “I would like to clarify something. On occasion, I’ve observed the staff having a few cookies during the patients’ rest period, but I’m sure they’d never eat a whole box.”
The patients from Aquarius, incensed that Lowe had, in effect, accused them of lying, jumped to their feet. They tried to shout him down, but Sam Papa insisted that the meeting continue in an orderly fashion. He warned them that further interruptions would result in negative consequences, but if they continued in a responsible manner, each and every one of them would be heard.
     One after another, eight patients rose to defend their position. One boy reported coming to snacks late one night because of a family session, and finding nothing left in the box left for the kids, but a full box left for the staff in the staff office. He wasn’t allowed to take any cookies from the box in the staff’s inner sanctum.
     Dr. Fox, who always championed the patients, was outraged. He couldn’t wait to take the floor, and kept waving his hand to get Sam to call on him. When Sam finally acknowledged him, he faced off with Lowe.
     “Dr. Lowe, is your staff getting paid so little they can’t afford to buy their own food? Must they take snacks away from our patients in order to sustain themselves?”
     Sam Papa added, “The only nurturing most of our patients receive is from the staff of this hospital, so we’ve developed a consistent, predictive, caring environment for them. Then, the staff we hired to support this consistent, predictive, nurturing environment sabotages it by stealing food out of the patients’ mouths.”
     A staff member from Aquarius braved a response: “I don’t know what the big deal is; we get hungry just like the patients do, so we eat a few cookies. I don’t think the hospital’s going to fall apart over a few cookies.”
     This made Sam furious. He launched into one of his sarcastic monologues. “Now I see what the problem is. The staff get hungry, just like the patients. The staff need nurturing, just like the patients. So aren’t they just as entitled to nurturing as the patients? Perhaps we should send the units extra boxes of cookies for the staff. After all, what are a few extra boxes? If there’s so little difference between the patients and the staff, perhaps we should prescribe treatment plans for the staff as well as the patients, or perhaps we need to provide medication when staff get upset. Patients get upset; the staff get upset, too, right? You get upset, don’t you (Sam pointed to the staff member who had made the comment)? Maybe we should prescribe medication for you. I think that’s a great idea. In fact, we may even have to restrain staff on occasion. If they’re in such poor control of their behavior that they can’t even stay away from some crummy cookies that are for the patients, we could place them in body bags or straightjackets. Yes, I think that’s a good idea.” Sam stopped and glared at the staff person from Aquarius. No one said a word.
     Finally, a little girl stood up. She spoke directly to Sam. “You’re right. We don’t get any nurturing around here. You may think that that’s what you’re doing, but you’re wrong. All we get is punished.” She sat back down. Her statement was damning, and for a moment, no one spoke. Then Sam, who didn’t like being misunderstood, switched gears.
     “Wait just a second, I’m willing to accept that you’re not getting as much nurturing as we’ve envisioned, but don’t tell me that you’re not getting any nurturing. If that’s what you think, you better take another look around you. You may get cheated here and there, but our staff is generally caring, loving, and nurturing. If you don’t feel cared about here at Brockhurst, you must be resisting our con- cern for you.”
     Stanley stood up. “She’s right, we’re locked up in here and we’re not getting any nurturing. All we get is punished for the things we do wrong. We’re only told bad things about ourselves; we’re never told that anything’s right.”
     Standing in the middle of this one-hundred-plus group, Sam pulled himself up to his full height. He looked straight at Stanley, and even before he spoke, you could tell he was going to challenge him. “I’m here, right now, ready to prove you’re wrong. Anybody in this room, at this very moment, who doesn’t feel that he or she is getting any nurturing; I want them to come to the center of this room, right now. Anyone in this room that wants more nurturing can get a hug. I’ll give you a big bear hug right here in front of this entire community. You want to be nurtured? Well, I’m here, ready to nurture you. I’ll give anyone a hug who wants it—if you’ve got the guts to come down here and get it. Sam scanned the whole group as he spoke, trying to include everyone. I assumed he was addressing the patients; then he looked directly at me. I felt just as challenged by his offer as any of the patients. No one moved, certainly not me. I was scared to death. I could never get up and walk into the middle of this room and get a hug from another man. The very idea was appalling.
     Sam stood there, waiting. Then, just as I thought his challenge was to go unanswered, the little girl who’d first spoken about being punished got up out of her seat and started up the aisle toward Sam. When he spotted her, he broke into a big grin, and held out his arms to receive her. She walked right into them. It was wonderful. They hugged for almost a minute. When they stopped, they kept one set of arms wrapped around each other. Now they were both grinning. Sam looked around. “Anyone else? We’re waiting here for you.” Sam let his voice swell as he said “you.”
     From another corner of the room, a girl’s voice responded. “Yeah, me.” She was already on her feet and walking toward them. This time, two people welcomed her. Now there were three in the middle hugging. I saw a tall skinny boy walking up an aisle. When he first reached the group, they didn’t see him because they were so involved in hugging. When they noticed him, they opened their arms and let him in. Now there were four people hugging and laughing.
     At that point, the dam burst: From all over the room, whoever wanted a hug rushed to the center. Mostly, individuals walked alone to join the huggers, but some formed small groups that went together. Around the outside of the circle, some couples hugged before they became absorbed into the larger group. I had never seen anything like it. Now there were 20 or more people holding each other, then 30, laughing and rocking in the middle of the room—and the group kept growing. Gradually, the seats were emptying. I caught Bruce’s eye; he looked at me briefly, gave me a big smile and a thumbs up, then got up out of his seat and headed toward the magic circle. I felt a poke on my shoulder. Ginny walked by me toward the love ball. She motioned for me to join her. That was it for me. My previous aversion dissolved; I now wanted to be part of the big hug. I got up and followed her. Actually, I raced up the aisle and joined the humanity in the center of the room, loving each other. It was wild.
     Two people opened up to let me in. On my left was a middle-aged woman who smiled at me as she put her arm around me. On my right was Dr. Fox. He put his hand on the back of my neck and pulled me close. It was great. We were all there holding each other. Farther away to my left was Christine. She gave me a wink and smiled. On my far right were Ginny and Bruce. Still in the center were Sam Papa and the girl who had first joined him. He looked at me and gave me a smile, as if to say: “glad you could join us.” As long as I live, I’ll never forget this ball of people loving each other. By the time the experience peaked, there were almost 100 of us.
      As spontaneously as the moment had begun, it also had to end. Sam, who has the timing of a vaudeville actor, sensed it immediately. The hug had reached a pinnacle, and was over. He almost had to shout over the pandemonium. “I want to thank everyone who contributed to today’s meeting. This was really special. Now if everyone would return to their escorts, we can all get back to our units safely.”
     Slowly, pieces of our love ball began to break away. Small groups continued the hug as they splintered off. As my subgroup drifted away, I looked around the room. The people who hadn’t joined in the hug were still in their seats. Most of them were staff, and of them, a large majority were clinicians. I had the thought that the healthier members of the community were in the center of the room, and I felt sorry that so many of the clinicians had missed out. I spotted Dr. Lowe standing in the back of the room. Then I spotted Charlie sitting in a chair. Just as I was about to lose the moment, Christine came up to me, gave me a quick hug, and turned and walked away. No sooner did she leave than Ginny came over to give me a hug. She looked up at me. “What do you think of our little hospital now? Can we cook or can we cook?”
     We were all on an emotional high. I wasn’t sure what to say. “This is great. Has it ever happened before?”
     “No, but it happened today. Aren’t you glad you’re here?”
     “That’s an understatement. But I know that I could use more practice at this. Want to give me some private lessons?”
     She gave me a knowing smile. “We’ll see.” Then she was gone.

Excerpt reprinted from Bedlam, 2008

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Great Marriage Advice

When I was engaged to be married, Leo Berman, M.D. a wise old psychiatrist, asked if he could speak to me.  “William, I want to give you a piece of advice that took me 35 years to learn.   I’m giving it to you free of charge.   When my wife is upset, there are an infinite number of ways I can react.  For years I failed her.  I would listen, give advice and be shot down.  After many years I have found the most effective way to respond to my wife when she’s upset.  I sit down next to her.  I put my arm around her.  And I shut the f--k up.”  
At first I thought he was kidding.  Then he went on.
“Anything that I would say, she would hear as condescending.  She would hear me saying that I could come up with a better way to handle things than she could.  I was sending the message that I knew more than she did.  That never worked and it took me all these years to understand.  So when your wife is upset, sit down next to her, put your arm around her and shut the f--k up.”  
I have applied this to my marriage.  I have shared this with many men.  All have found that partners need to feel supported and listened to and specifically not told how to handle a problem.  Being told to sit next to my wife, with my arm around her, shut up and listen was the best marriage advice I ever received.  

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Growth of the Heart

In my office, I have learned not to argue with love.  You can’t win over love.  If someone tells you they are in love, you have to accept it.  So I only ask about it judiciously.  Often when I ask someone what keeps them with another person, I specifically tell them not to use the word ‘love.’  In part I stay away from the word because I don’t know what it means.  
Love changes as a person matures.  The ability to love changes across the life span.  I don’t know how mature the individual is when they enter my office.  Therefore, I don’t know what they mean when they say they love someone.  
When I was a child, I would have told you that I loved my mother with all of my heart.  At the time, that was true.  Looking back at it years later, I know that it was more of a need, a dependency.  Dependency was what I thought love was when I was a child.  I literally needed my mother to live.   
Then there were all those great relationships.  I believed that I loved everyone of the ladies that came through my life.  At that time of my life, it was true.  Again, looking back years later, it was a love that was also a dependency.  It was a different kind of need.  My love at that age was almost a hunger.  With each succeeding relationship, I was more capable of connecting, being unselfish and loving.
When I describe myself in those relationships now, I remember how I held on so tightly to those girls, that they had to break away to breath.  I choked the relationship with my dependency.  Dependency is easily recognized at this age as jealousy, insecurity and controlingness.  At the time I didn’t know what it was. 
Then my mother died.  This had two profound affects which were at opposite ends of the spectrum.  First, it was the devestating tragedy in my life.  I was 26 years old chronologically, but 15 years old emotionally.  It was a pain like I have never experienced.  Some nights I cried a million tears.  Other nights I would learn every trick in the book not to cry.  However, it also freed me up from the strong hold my mother had on me.  It was like getting thrown in the deepend and not knowing how to swim.  As I grieved, I slowly put my life back together.  I began to swim on my own.  Through the process of grieving I let go of the dependency and increased my feeling of responsibility for myself.  When I met my wife I was ready to love in a more mature inter-independence.  It was a new form of love.  It certainly was healthier.  Now, when I look back on it, I experienced it as the ultimate level of love.  I was wrong. 
We had two children.  This was a totally different experience.  I knew down deep in my heart, I would take a bullet for either of them.  It was a new level of unselfishness.  Even with that depth of love, I wanted them to fly.  I wanted them to someday leave me and live their own life.  Their happiness and future is my goal.  
This level of love can then be found with my wife.  What we learned from loving our children, we can apply to our relationship.  I do believe my wife and I have been able to bring this level of love back to our relationship.  
All love changes over time.  I think the best way to explain it is with the bacon.  When my children were growing, the last piece of bacon on the plate was theirs.  No question about it.  Then, as my son began to approach 18 years old, we started negotiating the last piece of bacon.  Sometimes we split it.  Sometimes it was his, sometimes he’d say, “it’s all yours.”  We still do that sometimes.   Now that he’s almost 20 years old, sometimes I just say, “I want it.”  

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"Papa, you can s--k my d--k."

     A door opened across the day room and through it came Sam Papa, followed
by at least a dozen adolescent patients. Sam had been leading group therapy. He 
was scowling, and making a beeline for the exit. They must have given him a tough time. Just as he was about to open the door, this little kid started shouting at him. He couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, and he had blond hair and a big nose. He was obviously continuing a confrontation he’d had with Sam; then he hurled his greatest insult. “Papa, you can suck my dick.”
     Sam stopped in his tracks. He froze, and so did everyone else. Then he turned around, looking furious. Slowly and deliberately, he crossed the room toward the little guy, who was now cowering. Sam was intentionally intimidating the bejesus out of the kid. I thought he was scared that Sam would hit him. I didn’t know what Sam was going to do, but I did know he wouldn’t hit a patient.
     Sam grabbed the boy by the lapels of his shirt and as he did, he went down on one knee. Finally they were nose to nose. He looked him in the eye “If I thought for one moment that it would do anything for your mental health, I would get down on my knees, right here, and suck your little weenie.” With that, Sam let the boy go and walked off the unit.
     After Sam locked the door behind him the silence was deafening. No one moved. Then—I couldn’t hold back any longer—I started laughing. That triggered laughter throughout the day room. The boy who’d been the focus of Sam’s wit first thought that we were laughing at him. Then, realizing that the moment had passed, he started laughing with us. It was probably the best thing that could have happened to him. Laughing at himself was healthy. I looked at Charlie and I caught him looking out of the corner of his eye at me. I was glad I was staying.

Excerpt from Bedlam, 2008.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Disney Dad

         Last year I did a workshop for Father’s of Daughters.  I was explaining the value of saying “no” to children.  I was making a strong case for it, when I was interrupted with a comment. 
“I know what you are saying, but I’m a Disney Dad.  I don’t say “no” to my two daughters.  I don’t think I’m capable of saying “no” to them.” 
This was too important to not confront it:  “First sir, I don’t believe you.  If you saw your child, no matter what age, putting their hand on the hot burner of the stove, I totally believe you would say “no” with some vehemence.  How old are you daughters?”
“I have an 11 year old and a 13 year old.” 
I believe that it is a parent’s responsibility to teach their children the word “no.”  “If you don’t use it with them, they won’t know how to use the word “no.”  I suspect that you want both of your daughters to be familiar and comfortable with the word.  If you know how to use the word “no,” they will be able to use the word “no.”  It won’t be too long from now, when some boy asks your daughter if he can put his hand under her shirt.  When that happens, I believe you want her to know how to say “no.”  
He looked shocked.
“I want you to go home and practice saying “no.”  Say no to her staying up beyond her curfew.  Say no to requests to take her to the mall or get a new cell phone.  Practice saying the word no so that she learns the word and knows how to use it herself.” 
We provide discipline for children so that as they grow, they can discipline themselves.  The purpose of discipline is for our children to learn how to self discipline.   

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Power in the Family

I am writing a statement about power in the family for our book on Parenting.  In the process I came across something Virginia Satir told me in 1985.  "There is a family myth that only one person in a family can have power.  Each individual has their own type of power."  I find this to be a powerful statement.  As a therapist I frequently get lulled into focusing on the power of the father, or the mother, or the identified patient.  When in actuality, I need to recognize that each of them has their own unique type of power.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Whitaker's Advice to Couples in Trouble

A psychiatrist friend of mine, trained with my mentor, Carl Whitaker, M.D.   We shared a bond having both had the privilege of being close to Carl.  We often shared stories about Carl’s more extreme ideas.  One day, my friend took me aside to talk.  He had a very serious tone to his voice.  He told me that his marriage was in trouble.  They had tried, on their own, to work out their differences, but had thus far been unsuccessful.  Both he and his wife wanted the relationship to work and were desperate to save the marriage.  Finally, they both agreed that they would impose on Carl and ask him for his thoughts and recommendations.  
He reminded me that Carl was considered the grandfather of family therapy.  He was internationally recognized as an expert in marital relationships.  This was a great opportunity for my friend to obtain advice on his marriage from the ‘master.’
“And what do you think he said?”  I didn’t have any idea what Carl Whitaker had told him.  I had long since given up trying to second guess Carl.  He always surprised me.  “Do you know what he said, do you know what he said?  He said fight it out.  I waited for a moment to see what else he was going to add, but that was it.  With all the information and wisdom he has, all he could tell me was to fight it out.”  
My friend was very disappointed.  He was obviously expecting a more thorough and extensive response.  I don’t think he took Carl up on his recommendation, because I heard later that the couple had separated.  The more I consider the advise, the more impressed I am.  In its simplicity, Carl had captured the heart of what strengthens couples.  If a committed couple can tolerate the anxiety of fighting out their difficulties (in a fair way), interact on such a passionate and meaningful level, and resolve the conflict, the relationship has to grow in intimacy.  If they can’t tolerate the kind of intimacy that comes with fighting, it will be very difficult for the relationship to grow.   

A version of this was published in the Connecticut Connection.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Thank you Mark Twain

I learned an important lesson about writing when I visited the Mark Twain house in Hartford, Connecticut.  During the tour, they took us to his writing room.  It was a beautiful room with an elegant pool table in the middle of it.  In the left corner was his writing desk and next to the writing desk was what looked like a mail box with a number of cubbies in it.  I asked about the interesting structure.  Mark Twain would generally be working on a number of manuscripts at a time.  Each cubby contained a different project he was working on.  He would work on a particular subject until "the well would run dry."  He would then put it away and work on a different topic.  Later in time, when he came back to the original subject he would find that the well was again filled with more to write.  Knowing this gives the author permission to leave one subject and move onto another.  

I often found that at 2 AM in the morning, I would be empty of things I wanted to write in Bedlam.  I would go to bed feeling drained.  However, the following morning, not only would I know where I wanted to go with my writing, the actual next line would be available in my head.  I have to give permission for my writing to follow the pace of my spirit.  

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Teaching Feminism to Little Boys

Teaching Feminism to Little Boys

Carl Whitaker, M.D. often asked the question, "Of what value is a father?"  Appreciating this question, I have posed it to groups with whom I work.  Over the years, I have been impressed with the inadequacy of the answers I have received.  When you ask this question to single mothers, they will tell you, adamantly, that fathers are totally useless. 

In answering his own question, Carl postulated that the value of a father to a little girl is that this may be the only male in her life that will love her without any sexual complications.  Whether or not you agree, his point is worth considering.  However, Carl's answer was incomplete.  I was left with the question of what value are fathers to their sons.  What can a father teach boys that a mother cannot?

Recently, my wife inadvertently provided me with an answer.  She and another mother were talking about when they first had sons.  They were committed to raising mature men who were not chauvinistic.  Evidently, they had made a pact that they would raise their boys to respect women and treat them as equals.  They agreed that they would make sure that their boys learned to take their own dishes to the sink, to help around the house and to treat women respectfully, etc.  I was impressed with their plan.  As a result I started thinking about how boys learn feminism.  Feminism, in my definition, is recognizing the equality between genders without assigning a role to either gender.  

I remember asking a friend if he had the "sex talk" with his 14-year-old son.  His son is handsome, athletic and intelligent.  As a result, every night he was receiving multiple phone calls from girls.  My friend was becoming concerned about the possible effects of this barrage son his son.  

At first, when I asked him about whether he had talked with the boy, he seemed a bit embarrassed at the question and then he admitted that he had not.  Strengthening his position, he asserted that he did not need to have the talk.  His son learned about the facts of life in school.  Talking with his son would be redundant.  Initially, his explanation seemed adequate.  Then I recognized the fallacy of his thinking.  I reasserted that the talk was not to explain the mechanics of sex, which I was sure the school did an admirable job of communicating.  His job as a father was to communicate his values around sex, women and relationships.  The school, while very useful, could not instruct his son regarding attitudes and values.  Expanding on this, I recognized that his son could learn about sex from the school, from a talk with his father, and most importantly, from watching his father's relationships with women. 

Thus I became aware of one major value of fathers to their sons.  A mother's ability to teach her son how to respect women is limited.  The most powerful lessons come from watching how Dad treats Mom.  These lessons are learned unconsciously and become deeply embedded in the son's psyche. 

If Dad doesn't help around the house, whatever Mom does to make her son contribute will be less effective in the long run.  The son learns that men do not participate in household chores.  If Dad does not help around the house, no matter what Mom does, the likelihood is that when the son is married he will not help around the house.  When the father helps with cleaning, dishes or laundry, the son is more likely to become a man that shares in the household chores. 

How Mom responds to Dad shapes the interaction and influences the lesson learned.  If Dad is abusive, but Mom refuses to tolerate this behavior, watching Dad change or leave or grow is a great opportunity for the son to identify the kind of man he will become.  Conversely, if Dad and Mom can disagree, have a healthy fight and conclude with a mutually agreeable outcome, the son learns that it is okay to hold his own and stand up for what he believes in within marriage.  Frequently, families will assure me that although the father was absent, this had little or no impact on the children.  If Dad leaves, life's lessons carry on.  Dad still provides a message for his son.  The child learns that it is okay to leave.  Without Dad at home, boys will often seek out a male role model in the form of a grandfather, teacher, coach, or in the peer group. 

It is important not to underestimate the huge influence fathers have on their children.  Verbal directions can reinforce or discourage behaviors, but it is the actual behavior of the father that is the primary education.  Ultimately, the most effective education is two parents working together.  

Reprinted from the Connecticut Connection, Summer 2005