Stigma: A Family Tradition, Part Two

I got so excited writing my last post that I forgot to mention the “family tradition” part!  So here it is, in all its sad gory.  Yes, that’s what I wrote: sad gory.

Let’s start with the unfortunate fact that the first time I heard anything whatsoever about my family’s mental health history was when my mother came to visit me during my first psychiatric hospitalization.  That’s when she chose to open up about the fact that her own mother had been hospitalized countless times for depression, and had hundreds of ECT (Electro-Convulsive Therapy) treatments, many of them AT HOME, where my mother and her sister had to hold their mother down on the bed while the doctor administered the treatments.  Apparently at that time they did not anesthetize the patient, but just let ‘er rip with the voltage.

Then poor Nana got hooked on Miltown, and after that, various barbiturates, which the doctors later switched over to benzodiazepines.  When she was put in a nursing home, her dose of Librium was limited to doctor’s orders, far less than the dose she was used to.  “They didn’t want her to become addicted.”  She already was addicted, the fools. She used to get other people to sneak her a stash, which she always put in the drawer of her bedside table, and the nurses’ aides always confiscated.  Then she would call me (I was a med student at the time) and beg me to prescribe her some more.  I always had to say the same thing: “I’m sorry, Nana, I can’t do that.  I would if I could.”

I felt bad for her, since she was really an addict, and why should they deprive a 90 year old woman of her comfort?  Benzodiazepine withdrawal is a terrible thing.   Luckily Tricyclic Antidepressants came along and saved her some suffering.

And now for my father’s side of the family.  The first to come up was my Great-Uncle Benny, who was my paternal grandmother’s brother.  He was a doctor, and the two siblings had escaped from the Ukraine just before the Bolshevik Revolution, when terrible pogroms were decimating Jewish communities.  Their parents sent them to America to escape the atrocities.  Unfortunately, Benny “had a breakdown” sometime after reaching New York, was put into Rockland State Hospital, and was never heard from again.  The family just shut the door on him and assumed that he had lived there till he died.  That’s what my mother told me, anyway.

But.  On a hunch, I looked him up in and by using all the data that I had about Uncle Benny found a living son, in California.  So it seems that the man the family threw away DID get out of the hospital, and went on to have a life and a family.  But to MY family, Uncle Benny went into the black hole of the hospital and never came out.  And I don’t blame him for not getting back in touch with them!

And then there was my Grandpa on my father’s side, who married Benny’s sister.  Grandpa became overwhelmingly depressed at the age of thirty or so, and never recovered.  His doctor, who was a cousin of my grandmother’s, (and actually a urologist, if the truth be known), advised that he spend winters in Florida instead of upstate New York (where they lived), and knowing what we now know about light and its effects on depression, that was good advice.  But Grandpa was never able to work, never able to do much at all.  He had no treatment whatsoever for his depression.  He lived a miserable life until the age of 91.  I have great pity for him, having to live so long in that hell, even though he was very unpleasant to be around.

Speaking of the doctor who was a cousin of my grandmother, who would have been Uncle Benny’s, um, second cousin once removed, or something like that–anyway, one of his sons committed suicide.

So here I was, in the hospital, having felt terrible literally my entire life, and I do not exaggerate here–I cannot remember a time when I did not feel terrible, as a baseline, with episodes of euphoria that unfailingly got me into some kind of trouble–and only then was I told that the genetic cards had been stacked against me.  And I was forty-five years old.

I felt as if a closet had been opened and a whole family’s worth of skeletons came tumbling out with a crash and a shattering of bones, some of them mine.

Why had I not been told?  The impact on my life was so profound.  If I had known, then I could have sought help as a young adult, after I left home, at least–since my parents believed in psychiatry only for other people, not any of us: that was for crazy people, and they drugged you up and you were a zombie.  Well, that may have been true, for some people, because the medicines they had back then were crude.  But they certainly did have psychotherapists back then, and I sure could have used one.  At the very least I would have had some insight into why I felt terrible all the time, and not have to feel like I was some kind of freak.

But our family history was seen as an embarrassment to be hushed up and stuffed into the closet, skeleton by skeleton, and the door wallpapered over and that part of history as good as erased.  Until I came along and broke up the party.

I will never forget the shock I felt, after I had lost my medical practice and had a serious breakdown as a result, and my first hospitalization–I ran into a bevy of my mother’s friends in a parking lot, and they all started cooing about how my mother had said my practice was flourishing and how well I was doing.  I had a moment of mental white-out and then said, “Well, actually, no.  I’ve lost my practice, and just got out of the mental hospital.”   Then I turned on my heel and walked off, noting with satisfaction their jaws resting on their shoe-tops while flies flew in and out of their big mouths.  But it really wasn’t their fault.  They were just told a pack of lies.

Leave a comment


  1. I still think your wonderful – stigma or no stigma.

  2. That’s quite a story………..and family history. How many of us have mental illness in our families that was hidden? Way too many of us, I’m sure.

    • Yeah, and the problem is, if anyone were to try to interview a family to find the history, either they’d lie or they genuinely don’t know because the previous generation covered it up! Could be good material for a novel though….( laughs sardonically)

  3. Your raw honesty is amazing Laura. What you have had to contend with through previous generations beliefs… It’s enough to make a sane man cry – and I don’t know where to find one of those! I truly think you are an incredible lady.
    Blessings. Susan x

  4. D'Alta

     /  November 25, 2013

    Not telling about skeletons was just how skeletons were handled when you and I were kids, Laura. As I was once told by a “church lady” a few years my senior, “We don’t talk about these things…” You and I know better, because we have learned how therapeutic it can be for ourselves, for our children, for our children’s children, and on down the generations. And while knowledge can be power, it often isn’t enough to battle genetics and environment. You and I are the lucky ones, sorry to say. We received the knowledge and had the ability–however the hell that happened–to make just a little bit of change in our own lives. It has benefited our “common son”, brilliantly, I might add. 🙂 And I pray that it continues to make a difference in the lives of two of my grandchildren…and some day the third one’s life… We all grow differently. Your parents, my parents, my grandparents and yours, and the rest of the extendeds did the best they could with the knowledge and resources they had…because in those days, well, “We didn’t and we don’t talk about these things…” Thank the Gods and Godesses, we know better. We do talk about these things and we work to make these things better and ourselves better, too.

    • That’s exactly what these posts are about, D.–identifying the cultural roots of stigma and rooting them out. Hopefully, our children and children’s children will be able to talk about bipolar as openly as people talk about having had a heart attack (lo aleinu, God forbid) or cancer (also lo aleinu, God forbid). 40 years ago nobody said the word “cancer” out loud. It also carried a stigma, almost as if it was contagious if you talked about it. Even now, some sects of religious Jews will not say “cancer.” They say “ha’machalah,” “the illness.” As a result, people get diagnosed late and have higher mortality. In the same way, if our parents had done us the service of TELLING us about our family history, we might have gotten earlier treatment and had a better outcome. Nowadays, I am hearing 20-somethings talking about their bipolar and getting treatment, getting better and going back to school/work. The young brain can heal itself, as we have seen.

  5. I agree you should have been told as a teenager. Our kids know that depression runs in both sides of their family, as well as addicition on their dad’s side. My husband and I feel so strongly that they know these things! We started when they were in elementary school talking to them about alcohol and other drugs, addiction, and their propensity for it. One of the kids, in a very hard time for our famiy, was drinking for about 4 months. Found out when I found a bottle of Jeigermeister (or however you spell it) in her room when she was all of 13! That was the end of that…didn’t take too long for her to choose sobriety for herself and she’s 20 today. The other two have no desire to drink/drug. Thanking God! Same goes for knowing about mental illness in the family, though. Mental illness can be so tricky…makes you want to think you don’t have it. And, one has to know what to look for if you’re going to identify it. Sheez, I was working as a psychotherapist for several years when it took me about 6 mos. to allow myself to know that I was depressed! Full disclosure, that’s what I say! Peace to your heart ❤

    • Sara, that is so wonderful to hear, that you and your husband are so upfront with your kids. It’s truly a gift to them. I’m glad the Jaegermeister was a passing thing! I tried it once to see how it tasted and concluded that the only reason anybody would drink the stuff was they didn’t know any better :-p Sending love and ((hugs))

  6. I didn’t find out about my family’s mental health history until I was sitting in the psychiatrist office. I remember giving my Mom and angry, disgusted face. I spent the first 3 years thinking I was alone and she actually experienced depression as well. It eventually brought us together.

  7. I have the same problem–bipolar both sides, alcoholics, hospitalizations and very colorful relatives. It would have been a miracle if I HADNT inherited the condition!

  8. Wow, yes I cannot imagine living with a serious mental health condition, and not realising that that was what it was. I was lucky enough to be diagnosed fairly quickly, and prior to that only suffering from mild depressive symptoms. The image of your families accumulated skeletons crashing out of the closet is a great one 🙂 Take care.

    • Thank you! Glad you’ve been so fortunate. Although it’s never easy, at least when you’re not born on a ghost ship named “Denial” you can find support and community.

      Be well!!

      • Lol yes, it’s funny; in some way’s I have been very unfortunate , and in others I’ve been really lucky. If I didn’t have the family and friends I do who knows where I would have ended up. Then again it was bad luck which meant that I developed this disease in the first place.. so, who can decide. You just gotta roll with the punches, and keep trying to move forward. Are you generally ‘better’ now; how often do you still suffer symptoms? Take care.

        • That’s a good attitude. I have ultradian cycling, which means I never know how I’m going to feel from moment to moment. It’s like being locked in a “fun house.” Not good.


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