BAD ADVICE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My mom was a psychologist, so when she gave personal advice, people tended to listen. On one occasion, she gave a neighbor relationship advice that backfired. Things did not turn out the way either of them expected.

The neighbor was in a passionless marriage. Her husband was emotionally distant and uncommunicative. The wife was taking psychology classes as part of a program to become a psychiatric social worker. This made her particularly dissatisfied with her flat relationship. However, she had two young children and no way of earning money, so she didn’t want to end the marriage.

She confided in my mother about her unhappiness. Mom threw fuel on the fire. Mom encouraged her not to settle for an empty marriage. She told her that she deserved more and could get more in her life and her relationships. Mom told her that if she left the marriage, her husband would have to support her and put her through school. She could then have a career, a better relationship and keep her kids in the bargain.

I don’t know how much influence Mom had on the neighbor’s decision to leave her husband. But she did leave and expected a favorable settlement and a rosy future.

I tried to tell my mom that however good her relationship advice was, she was giving the neighbor terrible legal advice. My mom had no idea what she was talking about regarding the state of divorce law at the time. Mom still believed that the law totally favored women. She was sure that women were always awarded custody of the kids and always got good settlements.

But times had changed, and so had divorce law. The neighbor was in for a big surprise. Especially since she couldn’t afford a top-notch lawyer of her own. The neighbor didn’t have a place to live or a means of support. So she lost total custody of the kids to her husband. She didn’t get money to go to school. She barely got enough money to support herself — and that support was only for a short time until she figured out how to make a living on her own.

She ended up living with relatives and getting a dead-end, menial job. The kids didn’t spend much time with her for a while because she had no place for them to stay with her. Her whole world fell apart.

She eventually got a place of her own but I lost touch with her. I know she never got to be a social worker. The kids were never a big part of her life again.

I sometimes wonder if the neighbor had understood the ramifications of leaving her husband, whether she still would have done it. I always thought that if she wanted to leave, she should have waited until she had finished her social work training. Then she would have had a career, an income, a place to live, and would probably have kept her kids. She at least would have gotten joint custody. I know her ex-husband. He’s a nice guy. There was no abuse or unbearable hostility. He was always a good and involved dad. Why was she was in such a rush to leave? She didn’t even take the time to research what Connecticut law would provide for in a divorce.

I worry that my mother filled this woman’s head with unrealistic ideas about her fulfilling and happy future. I regret that I didn’t talk to the woman myself. I’ll never know if I could have changed her future. But I feel guilty for not trying.

PREPARING FOR FALL – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I love summer but I also love fall. I don’t see the signs of the season changing as omens of doom. I like the briskness in the air and the change in the quality of the light. I love to watch the leaves change color in my backyard.

Most of all, I love the change in my wardrobe. I get to swap out the clothes I’ve been wearing for the past six months, for totally different clothes. Over the summer, I forget what I wore before the weather turned warm and the clothes got lighter and skimpier. When I go into my ‘off season closet’, it’s like greeting old friends. “Hi! I remember you!” “I missed you. You were my favorite!”

I really like fall and winter clothes. I particularly love boots. I wear short boots rather than shoes on most days. And I love the look of a high boot over my jeans and pants.

Some of my boots that are now out from storage

I also love sweaters. I feel cozy when I put on a second layer and wrap it around my body. I also love to wear a long shirt over a tank top or a turtleneck. And I adore thick, comfy sweater tops.

Again, it’s mostly the change itself that I love. It feels like I get to be two different people over the course of the year. I’ve always been clothes oriented. I need to wear something that feels right for what I’m doing or feeling that day. Sometimes it’s important that I feel super casual and loungy. Sometimes I need to feel sharp and chic.

My fall/winter sweaters

I even like the process of swapping out one season’s clothes for another. It’s like a new start with new possibilities. It’s also cathartic to rearrange my closet. It gets to start each season so neat and organized. By the end of the season, it needs its biannual facelift.

I hate heat — and this summer was not very hot. So I’m not as desperate as usual for cooler weather. I just look forward to saying hello again to my coats and outer jackets. I have beautiful scarves and I have gloves to go with each coat. So I’m ready for the fall.

Bring on the big chill!

PSYCHIATRY LET ME DOWN – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My father was a well-known psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. My mother was a psychologist. I was like the shoemaker’s kids who goes without shoes. I was not well-served by the psychiatric profession. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I was just born too early, ahead of the scientific curve. Solutions to my problems and my family’s problems were discovered decades after I needed them.

I was a delightful and outgoing child in some ways. But in others, I was anxious, fearful and timid. I developed learning problems in first grade. I had nervous ‘ticks’ and non-diagnosable ‘stomach problems’. In later years, my psychiatrists told me I was the poster child for childhood depression. I was practically jumping up and down and screaming that I was depressed, but in the 1950’s and 1960’s, no one understood children could even be depressed.

Me at around five or six years old

I was put into therapy. My therapist got pregnant and left. That went well.

With my childhood symptoms today, I’d have been on medication from the age of five or six. My life would have been totally different – much easier and certainly much better.

I got ‘sick’ in college. I got symptoms that looked like a hyper-active thyroid, but the tests didn’t confirm that diagnosis. So I was in limbo. For three years during college, I had a rapid pulse, palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness and extreme fatigue. I was barely functional. To meet me you’d never know anything was wrong. I put on a very good front when I was with other people.

Years later my psychiatrists figured out that I was having a severe depression which adversely affected my thyroid (not uncommon), But at the time, no one knew this was a ‘thing’. The medical doctors all said the problem was ‘in my head’. They were right. But the shrinks didn’t know how to deal with it. The medication I would need was not invented for decades.

Me during my difficult college years

So at 19 or 20, I went to another therapist. After a short while she dismissed me. There was very little going on in my life except sleeping, my struggle to get school work done and hanging out with my parents at home. She said I wasn’t bringing her enough ‘material’ from my life for her to work with. Basically, she was telling me that I was too dysfunctional for her to help me! There’s something very wrong here. And my parents accepted this state of affairs.

In the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s, when I was in my late twenties and into my thirties, my therapist told me that I was ‘chronically depressed’. Low grade depression, but depression none the less. At the time, medication was only used for life threatening depressions because the medications had such horrific side effects. The only tool psychiatrists had to deal with ‘chronic depression’, was talk therapy. That only took me so far.

It wasn’t until 1989, when I was 40, that Prozac came onto the market as the first anti-depressant for the general public. I had no overt side effects (the drug may have been responsible for my weight gain over the next few years). I became a different person and my life changed dramatically. All for the better. My anxieties were gone, my confidence and self-esteem were up, my ability to assert myself got a huge boost, my outlook was more positive and upbeat, and on and on. My life would have been totally different if I’d had Prozac — even ten years earlier, let alone twenty or thirty years sooner.

Me in 1989

Then there was my husband, Larry. He would periodically, or more accurately, cyclically, devolve into a less and less rational and more and more volatile, aggressive, paranoid and hostile state. Larry was in therapy. His therapist considered him deeply neurotic. There was still little known about the genetic, physiological mental diseases. Even though Larry’s dad had been diagnosed as bipolar, the therapist didn’t think Larry was bipolar too.

We went into marriage counseling. We spent time discussing what I was doing to bring on Larry’s unpredictable fits of rage and periods of sullenness. I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I also knew I wasn’t the problem. I could do something one day, like leaving dirty dishes in the sink, and he’d be understanding. The next day, the same event proved to him I didn’t care about him and was a terrible, inconsiderate wife. And there would be a major scene. Once he threw a pot at me.

Larry and me a few months before we were married

Thirteen years after we were married, in 1987, Larry was finally diagnosed as bipolar. Years later, psychiatrists told me that Larry’s behavior was then considered classic manic-depressive behavior. He would have been diagnosed immediately, at this later time. A tremendous amount has been learned about Bipolar Disorder in the last twenty or so years.

In reality, Larry’s bipolar diagnosis and medication regimen wasn’t the ‘cure’ for Larry that Prozac had been for me. Like many other manic-depressives, Larry refused to stay on his meds. The behavior problems recurred when he stopped taking Lithium which happened every year or two.

Larry in 1987

Now it’s my son’s turn. He clearly had ADHD from his birth in 1980. Except no one in his New York City private schools seemed to know about the problem — or how to deal with it. David was seen as a ‘behavior problem’. He spent a lot of time sitting in the hallway so he wouldn’t disrupt the class.

David at seven

In 1990, when he was ten, David was diagnosed with ADHD. He was put on Ritalin, the only medication available at the time. It worked very well but had terrible side effects. We had to stop using the drug altogether. There wouldn’t be drugs to help him effectively until he was in his thirties.

The Special Ed departments of his public schools tried to help him deal with his ADHD, but with little success. It was still a new and unchartered illness. It wasn’t till he went to college that he began to learn to control his problems. He went to Landmark College, which is for kids with special needs and disabilities. They actually understood ADHD and helped David.

Landmark gave David tools to cope with his behavior issues. Above all, it gave him confidence and a history of successes instead of endless failures. He learned how to modify his behavior and work around his ADHD. He also learned how to maximize his productivity. This was the beginning of David’s ability to function in school and in life. The medications he has been on for the past four or five years have also helped tremendously.

David in the Landmark years

David is now a successful financial professional. He is in good control of his behavior and is in a wonderful, committed relationship. If he’d had the medication and the skills to deal with his ADHD from kindergarten on, he would have been spared a lot of pain, struggle, failure and ego deflation.

Over all, my family and I were all born decades too soon to be well served by the psychiatric profession. David and I are doing well now, so the story has a happy ending. But it was a tough beginning and middle!

LATE NIGHT DOSES OF SANITY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I can’t stop reading or watching the news. I don’t read as much or watch as obsessively as I used to, but I can’t stay away.

I do have an antidote to the craziness and corruption I read about during the day. The secret to my mental stability is a healthy dose of the late night talk shows. They reaffirm my belief that intelligent and moral life still exist in this country. It also confirms for me that I’m not alone in seeing the Trump Administration as dangerous and erratic, out of touch with reality, and just plain stupid and uninformed.

I’m comforted by the jokes and comments of the liberal late night hosts. They voice my frustrations and fears, horror and exasperation. Lately it even seems that the late night personalities are having an impact on the national discussion of issues.

Jimmy Kimmel recently gave an emotional monologue about his infant son’s heart surgery and his need for health insurance in order to survive. It reached, and touched, a lot of people. A conservative Republican Senator got into a pissing contest with Kimmel and came off badly. Some people think that Kimmel may have humanized the issue of health care and helped prevent the repeal from passing in the Senate.

Kimmel talking about his son and tearing up

Maybe when the ‘Trump is crazy and dangerous’” drumbeat from different sources gets loud enough and broad enough, it may give courage to the timid Republicans who agree, but are afraid to act.

Republican Senator Bob Corker said in an interview that most Republican senators agree that Trump is insane, incompetent, a moron, and temperamentally unfit to be President. They also agree he is a serious danger to the country and the world. So now, all we have to do is get these assholes to speak out. Then something constructive might actually happen in Washington, D.C.

Even Trump’s faithful are beginning to abandon him. Recent polls show significant erosion of support from his ‘base’. So maybe soon, Republican Congressmen can be less afraid of losing electoral support from this ‘base’, and more afraid of a nuclear war being started by a tweet.

Maybe the voices of sanity in the government, the press, the internet and on television, will crescendo to a level where Republicans will have to listen and actually do something about Trump. I don’t know if or when this will happen. But my nightly doses of reality and sanity keep my hope alive.

MY MOTHER, THE PARTY PLANNER – BY ELLIN CURLEY

In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s in New York City, social life revolved around the dinner party. Anywhere from six to twelve people would gather at someone’s home for drinks, appetizers and a sit down dinner. This was in addition to the once or twice a year that you would give a large party, with waiters, bar tenders and a buffet dinner.

Over the years your friends got to know each other. And you got to meet new people when you went to your friends’ dinner parties. Some of these people ended up as regulars at your own parties.

My mother loved giving parties. She did it well and often. Our home was beautiful and beautifully maintained – by the housekeepers. My mother didn’t do cleaning. Or cooking. Her elaborate and delicious meals were made by the cooks she always had during those years. (Not uncommon for professionals in the city in that era).

Mom’s NY dining room set up for a buffet party

However my mom did do all of the menu planning. She spent lots of time reading recipes in magazines and clipping them out. She turned them into a giant cookbook that filled several loose leaf notebooks. I still have them in my basement. I could never part with them.

My dad and I had a great time taste testing new recipes all the time. And I don’t mean meatloaf and brownies. Mom used recipes from American, French, Italian and Asian cuisine. There was also a smattering of Austrian and Eastern European when we had cooks from those areas. The dishes would be considered high-end or gourmet by today’s standards, though some were homier than others (a favorite was home cooked fried chicken, for example).

The desserts were to die for. My father was very thin, so my mother was always trying to fatten him up. She was always trying to entice him with amazing desserts – all kinds of cakes, pies, trifles, custards and puddings, you name it. Dad never gained weight, but we did. I ended up on a diet for most of my late teenage years living at home.

I had a friend who used to joke that at most people’s homes you got Twinkies for dessert, but at Ellin’s house, you got Oeufs A La Neige or Floating Island. That was my favorite dessert as a child.

Oeufs A La Neige, or Floating Island Dessert

My mother planned her parties meticulously. From the guest list and seating arrangements to the menu, from the place settings, the crystal and good china, to the dinner table centerpiece. Fresh flowers always decorated the rest of the house as well.

For summer parties at the CT house, Mom and I filled the house with flowers from our garden, including a big fancy centerpiece for the dining room table. Every week during the summer, company or not, we always did vases and vases of flowers for the house, just for us. These were simpler and less numerous. Those long hours arranging flowers with my mom are some of my favorite memories. My grandmother would often come in to talk with us while we worked. It was a wonderful time.

Summer meant flowers to me. I loved floral arranging so much, I actually got a part-time job in a florist shop for a short while in 2002. I also went on a dried flower binge and filled my entire house with dried flower arrangements of all kinds, in all kinds of exotic containers.

I was involved in every aspect of party planning from the time I was nine or ten years old. I was also allowed to sit with the guests before and after dinner. As a teenager, I usually joined the adults at the table as well. My parents’ friends adored me. I got to know many of them very well and I grew up with them as a part of my life from early childhood, on.

As an only child, I was very comfortable with adults. And I was always respected by them. My opinion was elicited from early on, at least on topics that I could understand and comment on at my current age level. I also knew when to be quiet and just listen.

Mom’s CT dining room

My parents were well-educated, intellectual, New York City professionals. So the conversations were always exciting, animated, interesting and fun. There were always lots of loud disagreements, but never any hostility. I learned to debate someone with differing views in a civil manner.

When I was a young wife and mother in NYC in the mid 1970’s – 1980’s, I followed in my mother’s party planning footsteps. I gave regular dinner parties for four to six guests. However, I had to do all the work MYSELF, including the cooking. I’ll never forget how proud I was to cook my first dinner party for my parents and some of their friends. It wasn’t as fancy or elegant as my mom’s, but I did it all on my own!

My first real dining room in NYC as a young lawyer

What I didn’t realize was that the times were changing and social life was different than in my mother’s heyday. I had party after party and rarely got invited back to anyone’s home for dinner. The trend now was for two couples to get together by going out to dinner at a restaurant. So people would invite us out to dinner with them, but not to their homes.

It was years before I gave up the ghost and stopped slaving over dinner parties, even after I had children. I eventually gave into the ‘let’s go out to dinner’ tradition. I don’t miss the hard work that went into planning formal parties. But there was an excitement and an element of creativity involved in the process that I do miss.

I still have people over for dinner. But it’s usually one or two couples and we usually grill or order pizza. I sometimes miss the good old ‘party’ days – but not enough to go back.

MYSTERY OF THE MISSING REPORT – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Abram Kardiner, my father

The State of Israel was created in 1948. Part of its population lived on rural Kibbutzim scattered throughout the country. At the time, most of the Kibbutzim had all their children housed together, separate from the adults. Parents didn’t live with their children in nuclear families. Parents and their children spent time with each other, but every aspect of live was communal.

My father, Abram Kardiner, was a well-known and well-respected anthropologist and psychoanalyst.

He had created a methodology to study cultures or social groups using psychological testing as well as anthropological analysis.

The Israeli government contacted my father and asked him to do a study on the psychological effects of Kibbutz life, particularly on child development. My father hired psychologists and anthropologists to do in-depth studies of the child rearing practices in the Kibbutzim. They also did psychological tests on children and on adults who had been raised communally.

The results came out a few years later and were not favorable to the Israeli social experiment. The children were technically well cared for, but were always in a group. They had very little one-on-one adult interaction and very little involving consistent adult figures, like parents.

My father found that this type of upbringing created socially responsible individuals, but most of them lacked good self-esteem, were aggressive, and had trouble relating well to others.

The study concluded that breaking up the nuclear family unit was not a good idea long-term. My father recommended parents and children be allowed to live together as the primary child rearing unit, though children could spend the day, when parents were working, in communal day care centers. Everything else in the Kibbutz could stay completely communal.

The study was presented to the Israeli government. I think it was some time in the late 1950’s. Someone from the government met with my father and asked him not to publish his report. The government would take it under advisement, but it didn’t want these negative findings publicized. The mere existence of the State of Israel was under attack. The government didn’t want to give extra ammunition to Israel’s enemies.

My father agreed to keep the report to himself. But he did keep the original copy of the report. Here’s where the mystery comes in. A while later, my dad went to check something in the report – and it was missing! My parents knew where it had been kept and it wasn’t there. They searched my father’s entire office but still didn’t find it.

Dad was convinced that the Israelis wanted to make sure that Dad didn’t change his mind about sharing his report with others. The only logical explanation is that Israeli ‘agents’ took Dad’s only copy of the report. So we may have been part of a top-secret Israeli ‘operation’!

Kibbutz in the Galilee

There is a kind of happy ending to this story. The Israeli’s took Dad’s findings to heart and within a few years, the government had changed the social structure of the Kibbutzim. Most living arrangements on Kibbutzim to single, nuclear family units. Parents and children moved back together, as my father had recommended — and so it remains today.

So, not only was my dad part of a spy operation, he actually influenced the policy of an entire country! Not a bad outcome overall.

THE PRICE OF NARCISSISM – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I found out late in life, in my 50’s, that my mother was a serious narcissist. As with many narcissists, she got worse as she got older. Her illness escalated dramatically after the death of my father, in 1981, and again when she got diagnosed with cancer in 1998.

I have read books and articles about narcissists and their children. My mother was a textbook case. And so was I.

I was brought up to be a satellite planet revolving around and dedicated to her sun. I was an extension of her. I used to think we were totally alike, that I was a clone of her. Until my first husband told me that if I were anything like my mother, he wouldn’t have dated me, let alone married me.

At one point in my life, I really needed her. And she wasn’t there for me – for selfish/narcissistic reasons. I had been in a sporadically abusive marriage to Larry, who was bipolar, for about 18 years. My mother told me she’d do anything to help me leave the marriage. She was there for me. That was apparently only true until it might cost her something.

Mom in around 1991

I had an opportunity to leave in 1991 but I couldn’t afford to. I needed help financially. I asked my rather well-off mother if she would put some money into expanding a one bedroom cottage on her CT property so I could move in with my kids. I couldn’t afford to buy a smaller place of my own because the mortgage on my big house was too high.

My mother had money to spare. But she claimed that she didn’t have the ‘cash flow’ to part with enough money to remodel the cottage. It wasn’t a good time for her. I then asked if my kids and I could move into her summer-house, which she used only part of the year. She said no because it wouldn’t be convenient for her. She wouldn’t be able to have sleepover guests, like she usually did, if we were using both extra bedrooms.

So I stayed with my husband for another seven years – a long time in the life of a child. When I finally could afford to leave, in 1998, my mother wasn’t especially supportive. She told me that she was sure I would go back to Larry, as I had twice before. Thanks, Mom, for the vote of confidence.

She was wrong.

Mom, me and Sarah at her Bat Mitzvah in 1998

Five months after Larry left, I met a wonderful man online, Tom. Tom and I hit it off immediately and quickly became a couple. He is a sweet, easy-going, smart, funny and very supportive person. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was the perfect antidote to Larry. Tom loved me, respected me, treated me like a queen and gave me the space to be me. My kids and all my friends loved him and saw that he was perfect for me.

Everyone saw it — except my mom. She couldn’t be happy for me. From the start, she didn’t think Tom was high-brow enough for me. He didn’t make enough money. She felt he didn’t have an ‘important’ enough job. He was a director at CBS television news. Everyone else thought he was a rock star. He met every politician and celebrity who was interviewed on TV for twenty years. He put the news on TV every night. But he wasn’t a ‘professional,’ so he wasn’t good enough.

His other major shortcoming, in my mother’s eyes, was that he wasn’t that into her. She actually said that he wasn’t right for me because he didn’t make enough effort to get to know her — and ingratiate her! She wanted him to call her. To have a separate relationship with her. She wanted him to praise her effusively and ‘pick her brain’. He was polite to her, but wasn’t all that impressed.

Even if he had been, he’s not an effusive person. My mom wanted him to be devoted to her as well as to me. That wasn’t going to happen.

Tom and me in 2001

My friends and I tried to point out to her how good Tom was for and to me. But she couldn’t see it. She kept comparing his behavior to her with her own close friends’ behavior to her and finding him lacking. But he wasn’t her good friend. She missed the point that he was my boyfriend, not hers. She should have judged him on his behavior to me, not to her.

She started trying to turn my friends against Tom. She’d tell me that someone had agreed with her and didn’t like him either. But when I confronted the friend, they would swear to me that they had defended Tom but that they hadn’t been able to get through to her.

When Mom died, in July of 2002, Tom and I were planning our wedding for that November. We didn’t tell her and hadn’t planned to invite her to the wedding. After she died, we found out that she had asked a friend of hers to say something against Tom at her memorial service – which she provided for, in detail, in her will. I almost canceled the Memorial entirely. However, I talked to the friend in question and everything went fine. He had no intention of saying anything. Everyone understood that Mom was removed from reality.

Toward the end of her life, I avoided talking to her about Tom at all. Right before she died, she wanted to ‘clear the air’ about Tom and explain her position one last time. I didn’t want one of our last conversations to be bitter and antagonistic. She was on heavy drugs. So I told her that we had already had the conversation and that everything was fine between us. She believed me and was relieved.

Mom and me a few months before she died in 2002

I’m so glad I did that. She died at peace and I wasn’t in a fuming rage after her death. However, it took me a long time to get over my anger and resentment over our last few years together. It was more than a year before I could start to mourn the woman I had loved so much in earlier years.

Looking back, Mom’s behavior can easily be explained as classic narcissism. The problem is, putting a label on someone doesn’t help you deal with them. There are no treatments or cures for narcissism, in part because the narcissist will never believe they have a problem. Everyone else is the problem, not them.

I wish I could erase those last three and a half years with Mom from my memory. I can’t. The best I can do, is attempt to put things in perspective. To understand her illness and forgive its victim.