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!

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.

STORYTIME – HOW WE MET

Although I’ve told this story before, I love telling it. It’s one of my best stories. How we met and how we wed.

I was 18 when I first married. It was the summer after my junior year of college. I was working at the radio station. Jeff, my first husband, was Station Manager. Garry, my current and always husband, was Program Director. The two were best friends. We all met in 1963 and thus it begins.

Not the original wedding. This was our third vow renewal. In our backyard, by the unfinished teepee. An evening barbecue. Garry was wearing a tuxedo shirt and shorts.

Thirteen years later, I walked away from my first marriage. It wasn’t terrible, just empty. A good friendship, but not much of a marriage.

Off to Israel I went with my son. I was in Israel for just under 9 years. Got married for all the wrong reason. Suggestion: In a foreign country, do NOT marry the first guy who can speak your language.

For all the years, Garry wrote me letters. Every week, two to three letters, typed in capital letters and mailed special delivery arrived in my mail box. I began to think of them as my fan mail. I lived from letter to letter, carried the most recent one with me until the paper on which it was written fell apart.

Gar and Mar in Dublin 1990

On our honeymoon. Dublin, 1990

No one writes letters anymore. Email has effectively eliminated personal mail, except for cards and the ubiquitous bills and advertising. These letters were exactly what I needed. I carried a couple with me wherever I went. Garry reminded me I was wonderful. He said I was amazing. It was salve for my soul.

I wrote letters too. When I got back home, I found he had saved them, an entire drawer full of letters. Clearly, something was happening. Maybe we’d both known it but had not been ready to deal with it. But it had changed and we were moving forward.

Neither Garry nor I has written a personal letter to anyone else since.

August 1987.

I was back.

With a little help from a friend, I got a job near Boston. Garry and I were an instant item. The previous decade hadn’t dealt kindly with either of us and we saw each other afresh. We’d always been a little in love, but there were reasons why it was the wrong time. I had been married, he was involved and then, there was his career — which was his real involvement and the one to whom he had always been married and she wasn’t going away.

And there we were. Garry was 48, never married. I’d been married twice and wasn’t all that eager to go for number three.

So what happened? He had decided it was time to have a personal life. Work wasn’t the “everything” it had been … and I was back. Unmarried.

I’d gone to California for a couple of weeks on business. I’d come home early because I’d been hit with the flu. Which turned out fine because the earthquake — the one that stopped that year’s World Series — occurred one day after I left. If I’d stayed, I’d have been crushed under a collapsed highway. Those little whispers in your ear …

Garry was really glad to see me … until I coughed. Then he wasn’t so glad.


What is the definition of “mixed emotions?” A man in love who knows the first kiss is going to give him the flu.
What defines true love? He kissed me anyway and got the flu.

After we stopped coughing and sneezing, we went to dinner. Jimmy’s Harborside, was a mile away on the harbor. It took nearly an hour to get there. Garry was kept looping around Leverett Circle, missing the turn. He was telling me how real estate prices were down and maybe we should buy a place. Live together. Forever. As in permanently.

Would that be okay?

So I listened. This was the most unexpected speech I’d ever heard, from the last man from whom I ever expected to hear it. Garry wanted to marry me. I never thought he’d marry anyone. Fool around? Sure, but get married?

Finally, I said: “So you want to buy a house. Move in and live together? As in … get married?”

Mass Broadcasters 12

“All of that,” he said and looped around one more time.

“I definitely need a drink,” I said. (I don’t drink.)

The following morning, I asked Garry if I could tell my friends. He said “Tell them what?”

“That we’re getting married,” I said.

“We are?”

“You said we should buy a house and live together forever.”

“Yes,” he agreed

“So we’re getting married. You proposed.”

“That’s a proposal?” he asked. “I didn’t think it was a proposal.”

“You want to buy a house with me and live together forever. If it’s not a proposal, what is it?”

“Just an idea,” he said. “You know. I thought we could kick it around a bit.”

“It is a proposal,” I assured him. A couple of weeks later, I suggested a ring might be the next order of business. Also, setting a date. He moved through these steps like a deer in headlights. Glazed eyes. When it occurred to him that all he had to do was show up in a tux, he relaxed. He had a tux. He was excited enough to get a new tie, shirt and cummerbund. The rest of it was my show.

We were married six months later after knowing each other just 26 years.

Garry and I celebrate our 26th anniversary a year ago and we’re charging into number 27 in under a month.

The man who was never getting married is a fine husband, even if he can’t cook. Personally, I think he bought a lemon and should have returned men and gotten a new one with a better warranty.

It doesn’t seem like so many years, but it turns out, when you find the right one, time flies by.

I WAS BROUGHT UP ON A LIE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My mother was very clear about the kind of person she wanted me to grow up to be. She wanted me to have all the ‘good’ qualities she felt she possessed. The list is long.

I was to be kind, caring, considerate and giving; compassionate, empathetic and loyal; a good listener and good friend; sensitive to the needs of others, ‘there’ for family and friends and generous with affection, praise and support of any kind. Also honest, trustworthy, down to earth and non-judgmental.

Quite a tall order. But my mother believed she had all those traits so why couldn’t I have them too? A noble goal in life. This is the description of a wonderful person, the person I have always tried to be.

My mother often told me that she would always love me, but she would only want me as a friend as well if I became “her kind of person”. That put fear in my very soul. I wanted nothing more than the love and approbation from and lifelong friendship with this amazing person.

It wasn’t until my late 40’s that I fully realized the sham I had grown up with. My mom was a narcissist, possibly with borderline personality issues. As with most narcissists, she got worse as she got older. She ended up being self-absorbed, controlling and selfish. Everything had to revolve around her but everyone had to think that she was the virtuous person I described above. Her primary goal in relationships, including with me, was self promotion.

Mom gave endless advice to friends (she was a psychologist) but never talked about her own problems because she didn’t want people to know she had any. She was judgmental about everyone and everything but herself. Her life had to be perfect. She had to be perfect. I had to be perfect since I was a reflection of her. (She used to say that I was a clone of her and I was thrilled!)

When it came down to it, she gave very little to anyone that wasn’t comfortable, convenient and self-serving. Here is a graphic example. When I was 40, I had a 5-year-old and a 10-year-old. I needed her help to leave an abusive, bi-polar husband, who was also abusive to the children. Mom had repeatedly encouraged me to leave and had said that she would do anything to help get me out of my destructive marriage. When the time came, she refused to help me. She said she couldn’t help financially because it would put a strain on her cash flow. Alternatively, she couldn’t let me and the kids live with her in her SUMMER HOUSE in CT. because it would inconvenience her cook (we would be using the kitchen) and cramp her social life (we would be using her guest rooms).

She expected me to accept these as totally valid reasons for her ‘inability’ to help me. I stayed with my ex for another eight years.

The literature on narcissism says that most children of narcissists either become narcissists or become subservient enablers to narcissists. I didn’t realize it but I was groomed to be the perfect narcissist’s side kick — in my mom’s shadow and at her service. I became a satellite. A small planet revolving around her sun. Unsurprisingly, my first husband, though bi-polar, was also a narcissist. For 25 years, my mother and husband fought with each other — constantly — over who would control me and get my ultimate loyalty and devotion. Each devoted themselves to trying to get me to push the other out of my life. I was a human wish bone.

The silver lining in all this is that I became the ‘good’ person I was brought up to believe my mother was. On the down side, I’ve had to learn to be less selfless and stand up for myself. I’ve had to develop self-esteem and self-confidence. I’m just learning how to be there for other people while staying true to myself as well.

I can be proud of who I turned out to be, so I guess that’s my happy ending. I just have to learn to forgive my Mother for not being the person she claimed to be and who I grew up admiring and emulating.

HOME ALONE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My husband, Tom, left on a three-day trip this morning. I’ve been dreading his departure. I’ve been dreading being alone.

Why?

Tom and I spend most days ‘doing our own thing’. Even when we’re in the house together, we’re often in different rooms doing different things. Some days, Tom goes to the boat and doesn’t come home until dinner time. In either case, we often don’t actually hang out together until the evening.

So why does the house feel different today? Why do I feel a little bit lonely and out of sorts? Why do I feel something is missing? Because it is. My other half, my soul mate isn’t going to be with me for several days.

I have to confess. I’ve only lived alone for six months in my entire life. That was when I was 23 and in law school. Since then, I’ve been married or living with children in between marriages. I’m not used to being alone.

I think for me, it’s the idea of being alone that freaks me out. It’s not that I go crazy when I’m by myself. I’m actually pretty good at keeping busy. But I’m not confident in my self-sufficiency. It’s similar to my anxiety about having to drive to the airport alone. I know I can do it and have done it many times. But I’ve also gotten lost in the airport on and every time I go, I get nervous and uncomfortable.

Another issue is that I’m technologically challenged. So I worry what will happen if the remote goes on the fritz or my phone goes wonky, or the freezer drawer gets stuck again. Tom is the one who fixes those types of problems for me (as well as a myriad of computer issues I can’t handle on my own!) In that area I am truly helpless. So that actually is a real issue for me.

But other than facing something broken that I can’t fix, I’m fine when I’m on my own. It’s just that I’m used to having someone else around. That is my comfort zone. I am definitely a fish out of water when facing three days alone in my house.

My dogs are great company, as is MSNBC. I’m reading a good mystery. I have our nighttime talk shows to keep me occupied late at night. I’ll be seeing friends, running errands and talking to Tom on the phone.

But through it all, I’ll have an empty feeling just knowing that Tom is not nearby. I think that’s called love. So I guess I’ll have my love to keep me warm until Tom gets home!

YOU HAVE TO BE READY FOR CHANGE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I went to a Divorce Party last night. A friend finalized her divorce after 30 years of marriage and wanted to celebrate. She had a lot to celebrate.

I’ve rarely seen such a dramatic transformation in a person in such a short time. We’ve known her for 14 years and we’ve never seen this relaxed and happy version of her. She has changed physically too. She lost 25 pounds, changed her hair and looks like a different person. She has an inner glow about her. Her inner happiness and self-confidence shows. She’s not depressed, angry, or feeling bad about herself. The marriage was weighing her down.

I tried to get her to see the toxic nature of the marriage three years ago. She admitted that there was little left in her relationship except anger and resentment. They led separate lives with little positive communication and no love. He refused to acknowledge his contribution to the problems. He also refused counseling and showed no interest in changing in any way.

The one thing she had left in the marriage was hope. She still, somehow, believed it could work. She was not ready to pull the plug. Now she looks back and wonders why she couldn’t see the writing on the wall, those giant, black letters screaming “It’s over! Get out!”

She wasn’t ready to see it.

I had the same experience with my son. Tom and I saw that it was time to end his severely dysfunctional and destructive marriage years before he was ready to accept the inevitable. He too had a major transformation when he left the negative relationship. He became more relaxed. He seemed lighter, more positive. He laughed more and looked like he had shed a giant weight off his back and heart.

But he could not end his seven-year marriage – until he was ready.

Something happens inside of us when we are suddenly receptive to change. A light goes on or a switch is turned somewhere in our psyches. Suddenly, things gel. We see things differently. The blinders are gone and so is the hope. People cling to the familiar. We, as a species, hate and fear major changes in our lives. And divorce is one of the biggest and most difficult.

Sometimes with divorce, people can’t see past the pain and hassle of the separation and divorce process. They can’t focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. Many people can’t even see the light. They don’t believe they’ll have a better life on their own. All they see is how they are feeling at that moment — lonely and heartbroken.

It takes people time to prepare for change. It can’t be rushed. I never pushed my son or my friend. I supported them through endless decisions to just give it “a little more time.” I led them to the water to see if they were ready to drink. When they weren’t, I backed off. That’s why I could be part of the divorce celebrations when they finally came.

I have to admit, my life is better now that both my son and my friend are divorced and happy. We wanted these divorces to happen, for personal, selfish reasons as well as for altruistic ones. So even if you desperately see that someone needs to end a relationship – shut up.

They will let you know when they are ready.

THE LIMITS OF LOVE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I love my husband but we have a mixed marriage.

I’m a total Rom Com/Sit Com/Doctor/Lawyer Show kind of girl. Tom is a Super Hero/Sci-Fi/Tolkien kind of guy.

When we were first together, I’d religiously watch all his shows and movies with him. And he’d watch all of mine. After 18 years together and 14 years married, that isn’t going to happen anymore. Our relationship has reached a new level, where it can survive intact, even if we go off separately to watch our favorite guilty pleasures.

Tom won’t watch endless cooking competitions or HGTV house makeover shows anymore. I still love him. I won’t watch every superhero movie or TV show (there are a lot). He still loves me.There are some areas of crossover. I genuinely like some of the early super hero movies, like the original Superman and Spiderman. I even liked the first Transformer movie. I love time travel shows of all kinds.

Tom truly loves “When Harry Met Sally”, my favorite movie, and others of its genre. So he gets a couple of free passes for that. He also likes some of my favorite TV shows, like “Grey’s Anatomy”, “The Good Wife”, “NCIS”, “This is Us”, etc. We both were addicted to the on demand series like, “House of Cards”, “Grace and Frankie”, “Outlander” and “The Crown”.

So there is common ground. But there’s one other thing we’re not going to be doing together any time soon. And that’s video games. I cannot share any of Tom’s enthusiasm for violent video games. Even though I don’t participate, I’m still subjected to the incessant noise of gun battles blaring through the house at all hours. Some of these games go for realism in the form of adding the sounds of dying and wounded humans, animals and mythical creatures. I find it very disconcerting.

I’ve reached my saturation point with the new virtual reality play station games, complete with magic goggles and wands. I appreciate the amazingly advanced technology. But the glasses make me dizzy and disoriented. I like to be able to see my own hands and feet. I like to be sure where I am in my house, not stumbling around in some weird fantasy-scape. I just can’t cross that Rubicon with Tom into the virtual reality hologram world of tomorrow.

DUCK!

I’m not the only one freaked out by the new technology. As soon as Tom put on the headset with the glowing lights, one of our dogs went berserk. She would not stop barking at him as long as he had his gear on. I had to take her out of the room. If howling did anything for me, I’d be right there with her.

At least this newest toy comes with headphones so I don’t have to listen along at top volume. And Tom looks hilarious in his sci-fi get up! That’s worth a few laughs. Maybe watching him play games in an imaginary universe and listening to the dog go nuts could be a new form of entertainment for me too!