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.”