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!

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.

FIGHTING FOR YOUR FAMILY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

There was a first grade teacher at my elementary school, Mrs. Houk, who was widely feared and hated by both students and parents. She yelled and bullied and called kids stupid. But she had tenure so the school couldn’t fire her. She was also considered to be ‘good’ for certain boys with behavior problems.

I was severely traumatized by her. My father yelled a lot at home and I was afraid of him. Mrs. Houk did not help. I was terrified of her. I was so afraid to raise my hand to go to the bathroom, that one day I wet myself. Very humiliating.

Me around first grade

Every night before I went to bed, I’d sit on my mother’s lap and cry. I would plead with her “Please don’t make me go to school tomorrow!” I was very bright but I developed learning problems. My already existing anxiety issues were exacerbated. I was put into therapy. I was six.

My parents went to the school and requested that I be transferred out of Mrs. Houk’s class. As therapists, they explained the psychological damage that Mrs. Houk was doing to me. The school said that if they moved me out, they’d have to transfer out half of the rest of the class, who also wanted reprieves. My parents accepted their position and dropped the issue. It wasn’t until fourth grade that I began to overcome my school fears.

Mom and me (a few years younger)

Several years later, a friend of my mother’s, Helen Cooper, had a son who got stuck with Mrs. Houk. Mrs. Houk constantly yelled at him, made fun of him and called him dumb because his writing looked like hieroglyphics. One day, Helen taped something her son had written for her on the mirror. Lo and behold! In the mirror, the sentence was clear as day and perfectly written. Her son was dyslexic!

Helen marched into the principal’s office and read her the riot act. She didn’t request that her son be removed from Mrs. Houk’s class, she DEMANDED it! She threatened that if her son wasn’t transferred immediately, she’d go to the New York Times with the story. Helen’s husband was one of the labor lawyers for the Times, so the school knew that Helen could make good on her threat.

Helen’s son was placed in another first grade class and started to thrive. He was the only child, before or since, that I know of, to be sprung from Mrs. Houk’s grasp.

Helen Cooper

I have tremendous respect for people like Helen, who fight for what they want and usually get it. When her teenage daughter was in the hospital having surgery, Helen demanded the attention and care of the nurses to keep her daughter comfortable. When no one responded to her repeated requests for assistance, Helen threatened to stand in the hallway and scream until her daughter was attended to. And she started to scream! Her daughter got top-notch care and 24/7 attention from the staff from that point on.

I couldn’t do anything like that. I’ve always been proper and polite. But sometimes I wish I could be a badass when the situation called for one. Helen advocated for her kids in any way she could. And she got results. She wasn’t afraid of being called ‘pushy’ or ‘demanding’ or even crazy. Those labels were anathema to my mom and to me.

I certainly wish my parents had some of Helen’s ‘chutzpah’ when they were dealing with my school back when I was in first grade. There are many times when I wish I had shown more guts when fighting for myself or my family. Maybe in my next life …

There was one time that Helen fought for our family – something she often did for friends. My grandfather died on a Thursday before a Jewish Holiday weekend. So if we didn’t get his body to the funeral home by Friday morning, we couldn’t have a funeral for several days. We were so stressed out already, that would have been very difficult for all of us. For legal reasons, Grandpa needed an autopsy. The medical examiner’s office was backed up so we weren’t going to get a speedy funeral.

My mother and Helen towards the end of my Mom’s life

Until Helen stepped in. She knew the medical examiner personally. She woke him up in the middle of the night and told him he had to get my grandfather’s autopsy done by 10 am Friday morning. I don’t know what strings he pulled in the wee hours, but somehow he got it done. I went to the funeral home to make the final arrangements and identify the body at around noon on Friday.

And there was Grandpa. Right on time. We never forgot that Helen went to bat for us in a time of need.

MY WORLD TRAVELING DAYS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I traveled a lot during the 25 years with my first husband, Larry. After we had kids, we frequently took them with us. Larry, who was bipolar, was often manic when it came to traveling. One year, we took twelve trips in twelve months, often with two kids. Many of the trips were just weekend trips, but they all involved planning, packing, and logistics, which I handled. I was exhausted and drained by the end of that year.

Over the years we traveled a lot in the United States, mostly out west. In Europe, we traveled extensively in France and the UK, as well as a bit in Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Israel.

The California coast in the early years of marriage

It took me years and years to figure out how to plan a good trip. It was hard because Larry liked to move around a lot and cover a lot of territory. I liked to stay in a smaller area and cover it more slowly and in more in-depth. So we had to compromise. I learned that you have to be knowledgeable about your travel destinations to be able to tailor a trip. It takes a lot of research, all of which I did, for all of our numerous trips.

Outside of Paris before I had my kids

When we first started traveling in the UK and Europe, we over-scheduled ourselves. In America, you can cover a large geographical area and not find too many places you really want to explore. That’s not the case in Europe and the UK. Towns and sightseeing spots there are more numerous and are crammed more tightly together. The history there covers almost every square inch.

Yosemite, pregnant with my first child

I found that it was hard to cover too much actual territory and feel that you’d seen and done what you wanted to in the area, Plus, whenever we went overseas, we tried to spend a few days in London with our old and dear English friends, the Millers. After 1984, we also had a second set of close friends in London, American ex patriots named the Schiffers. We also saw them regularly on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1984, for example, we took a long trip with our four-year old son, David. We visited London, of course, as well as several counties in the southwest of England. Then we went north to Yorkshire and Wales and over to Holland to visit the Schiffers, who were living there at the time.

When I travel, I always like to stay in charming B&B’s in the picturesque countryside. Some we stayed in were simple and some were manor homes on beautiful grounds that had been turned into B&B’s so that the families could afford to keep their homes. On this particular trip, we also thought that our son would find it fun to stay on a working farm for a few days. We did that — and got to watch a calf being born. Such an amazing experience!

Mother cow and newborn calf, 1984

On this trip I felt that we were running around too much and were missing many of the local attractions wherever we went. So I planned another trip in 1986 that I hoped would be smaller in scale. This time we were traveling with our six-year-old son and our one and a half-year old daughter. This trip covered only Devon in England, plus London and a few towns in Wales.

Unfortunately I didn’t realize how big Devon was, so we still ended up feeling rushed. But we got to do plenty of my favorite things in England — visiting magnificent National Trust estates with manicured gardens and grand manor houses. My idea of heaven.

We had the same learning curve in France. Though it was harder to rein Larry in here because he wanted to hit as many one, two and three Michelin star restaurants as possible. Need I say that our meals in France were always beyond words.

On one trip, in 1994 for our twentieth anniversary, we covered Paris, Burgundy, the Loire Valley and Provence. I fell in love with Provence. In particular, I fell in love with a B&B we stayed in which was run by an English woman. It was called Jas des Eydins. It was beautiful, peaceful and idyllic, but also warm and friendly. I took so many photos there that I ended up making a very large photo montage of photos just from this B&B.

When Larry and I went to France again two years later, in 1996, we had a considerably pared down itinerary. We traveled through Provence again and to the Dordogne region. I insisted that this time we spend an entire week at Jas des Eydins! We got to explore the incredible Luberon Valley in-depth this time. I was happy. That was one of the favorite places I’ve ever stayed in all my extensive travels.

One of the most memorable tourist spots there is a corkscrew museum at a vineyard in the wine country. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen an exhibit of pornographic corkscrews!

Pornographic corkscrews

We also traveled often in the American West. This is a totally different experience. Bear in mind that the entire UK is approximately the size of Wyoming OR Michigan OR Minnesota. So we could comfortably do a 4000 mile drive throughout the western United States and Canada in the same time we took to travel through a few small counties in England. In the summer of 1989, we took our four-year old and our nine-year old on a large loop that started in Salt Lake City Utah. We drove up through Idaho and Washington into Vancouver and across southwestern Canada to Banff. We reentered the U.S. in Montana, getting to the border crossing just minutes before it closed for the night. We then drove south through Wyoming and back to Salt Lake City.

We mostly saw natural sites, like Glacier National Park in Montana. We spent several days at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. We rode horses through the countryside, walked on a glacier, swam in a natural hot spring, and spent several days with friends at a National Bankruptcy Judge’s Conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

In the U.S, there can be long distances between points of interest. So though the distances were huge and we did a lot of driving, we saw most of what we had set out to see.

After 25 years, I burned out on traveling with Larry. Our last summer together, in 1998, I insisted we stay home and train the new puppy we had adopted. My mother was diagnosed with cancer that summer, so it turned out to have been a good decision to stay home.

I travel the world much less these days with Tom. In part, that’s because we spent six months of the year traveling locally on our boat. I’m happy these days puttering around Long Island Sound or up and down the Atlantic coast in New York and New England. It’s a different type of traveling. It takes less planning and it’s more relaxing. So I’m happy to leave by globe-trotting days behind.

FAMILY MEETINGS

Colbert did a piece on family meetings a few nights ago.

I looked at Garry. “We didn’t have family meetings. The closest thing we had were family fights. I bet you didn’t have family meetings, either.”

He looked at me. “You knew my parents. Can you imagine my mother having a ‘family’ meeting? It boggles the mind,” he commented.

I nodded. “I don’t think our generation had family meetings. The closest thing we had were probably large family get-togethers, during which we tried to keep hostilities from turning into violent shouting matches.”

Our parents told us what to do. We either did it, fought about it until we gave up — and then did it anyway — or said we would do it knowing we would really do the other thing. I don’t know about anyone else, but being sneaky was not considered “lying.” It was more like survival. Making it to adulthood with independence intact required a good deal of prevarication. If you only did what you were “allowed” to do, you would become a pathetic shadow of one or both of your parents.

Growing up meant developing individual opinions and direction. Our parents weren’t necessarily interested in our opinions. About anything. Being sneaky meant you could save the inevitable face-to-face confrontation for something really important.

So, no family meetings. No rational group discussions of what the family should do … or even what we personally could do. Instead of meetings, we had arguments, fights, low and high-level hostilities … and plenty of sneaking around.

Family meetings? Like me, mom, dad, Matt and Ann sitting together and logically — and politely with good humor — discussing our collective and individual futures? Not. Really.

THE LONGEST FLIGHT – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My first husband, Larry, me and our two young children, around ages four and nine, were scheduled to fly to Santa Fé, New Mexico for a vacation. We had a connecting flight from New York City to St. Louis, Missouri.

We got to the airport in the early evening and something was wrong with the incoming plane. So our flight to St. Louis had to be canceled. We were put on the next available flight with a connection possible to St. Louis. It was the following morning at an ungodly hour. We decided to take the kids home to get some sleep before schlepping back to the airport before dawn the next day. We were already off to a rocky start.

We got to the airport on time, but our flight was delayed – just enough to make us miss our connection through St. Louis. We got to St. Louis and tried to find another flight to Santa Fé. Apparently this weekend’s Hot Air Balloon Festival was the biggest event of the year in Santa Fé. Every flight was booked. We finally found a flight on another airline — NINE HOURS LATER — around 6:00 PM.

That left us with had nine hours to kill plus two small children and all of our carry-on bags, which when traveling with kids, was a lot.

We decided to do some sightseeing. We took the kids to the famous arch. Walked around. Shopped. We still ended up spending too many long, boring hours in the airport.

Our flight finally boarded and naturally, it was overbooked. The flight attendant offered a free ticket to anyone who volunteered to take the next flight in two and a half hours. My crazy husband raised his hand and volunteered the whole family! He figured that we’d waited this long, we should at least get something out of the lost day!

This part actually worked out well. We had time for a leisurely dinner before we boarded the next flight. The rest of the trip was fun and included a hot air balloon ride.

However, getting there was not half the fun!

BORN FREE OR AT LEAST INDEPENDENT – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My daughter, Sarah, came out of the womb as her own person. Her independent spirit revealed itself before the age of two and a half. Psychologists I’ve talked to say this is unusual. But does it mean that this aspect of personality is inborn?

Here is an example of what I mean. When Sarah was less than two, she got confused because another little boy had the same name as her brother, David. I told her that the other David was Jan’s (the Mom’s) David, like your brother David is mine and you are mine. She was sitting on my lap. She pulled away from me and emphatically stated “NO! I MINE!”

Sarah at 18 months

That apparently shows an advanced level of separation as a distinct individual from the mother. This usually happens much later in a child’s development.

Another example involved bedtime. At eighteen months, my older son had always needed me to stay with him till he fell asleep. So that’s what I did with Sarah at that age. I stood by her crib and sang to her and told her stories. One night, after I had been with her for a few minutes, Sarah said “You can go now Mommy. I want to go to sleep!” I was surprised but thrilled that she could assert herself and tell me what she wanted. And that she could go to sleep on her own. She was always a self-soother. David never was.

A similar incident occurred with her Dad when Sarah was a little over two years old. Her father was tickling her while she played with his watch. She hated being tickled and asked her dad to stop. He kept tickling. She asked him to stop more emphatically. He didn’t. So she hit him in the face with the watch. Her father was stunned. He asked her why she had hit Daddy and hurt him.

Her answer – “I told you to stop”. Wow! That was a “Make my day” moment!

Sarah at two

Her father never tickled her again. He also treated her with much more respect from that day on. Sarah instinctively knew how to set limits and to protect herself and her space. I wish I had that moxie, even as an adult.

My son had a very different temperament. When I would tell my five-year old son that he had upset me by doing something I didn’t like, his response was usually “I’m sorry Mommy! I won’t do it anymore.” Perfect response from a mother’s perspective. When I said the same thing to my five-year old Sarah, her response was “I’m sorry you’re upset. But you’ll just have to deal with it.” Not exactly a mother’s dream child.

So is this deep sense of self genetic? Are we born either with a sense of boundaries or not? That seems to be the case with my kids. I’ve watched these personality differences continue into adulthood. David has always been more like me and Sarah has always been more like her father in this regard.

After having my own children and watching them develop over time, I now believe that nature may have an edge over nurture when it comes to certain basic characteristics and personality traits. I’m sure there are examples of nurture being the dominant force, but in my experience, I vote for nature over nurture on the basics of who were are.