It’s difficult to describe my mother’s character. She could be good or bad, both or neither. Every state was equally true of her. Like the illnesses that bedeviled her, the shifting highs, lows, and inbetweens were tempestuous and unpredictable. Only recently have I realized there was a constant beneath the storm, so firm that I took it for granted, one that made all the difference: I never doubted that she loved me.
I’ve been rereading some psychology and came across a passage about attachment theory. Attachment describes what might be called “a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space.” Forming at least one healthy attachment to a caregiver is thought to be critical to a child’s development. The caregiver doesn’t have to be to a parent, just a consistently available and caring person in the child’s life. If attachment goes well, the theory goes, it provides a secure base from which the child can reach out and explore life. If it goes poorly—if the child is somehow unreceptive or receives conditional, abusive, or inadequate attention—it increases the risk of a variety of later miseries including depression, personality disorders, and suicide.
Some children adapt to difficult circumstances in creative but personality-distorting ways. The child of an exacting, demanding caregiver might struggle for achievement in order to win approval. The child of an emotionally unavailable caregiver might stifle emotions and focus on neutral topics to curry favor. Obviously these schemes can have very negative consequences. An ego constructed without an inherent sense of self-worth is a hollow tube that may crumple when tested. Victims may be unaware of the problem and mystified why their self-esteem and relationships with others are so unstable. This fragility may also be heritable, by genetic predisposition and by afflicted parents teaching the truths they suppose they have learned.
There are lots of maybes here. A good or bad childhood doesn’t predestine the outcome. Most of us can think of families with great kids except one who rebels and turns out different (sometimes more interesting). While there is nothing one can do to guarantee the perfect child, there are many ways to ruin one. Hit them, abandon them, manipulate them, unlove them, and the risk of a bad outcome multiplies. The pivot thus often seems to be the relationship with the caregiver.
What if the caregiver is abusive but loving? It is possible. Loving people do strange things for strange reasons. Regardless of intention, after a while a hurt is simply a hurt and attachment is shattered. The child may be left feeling unloved, unwanted, or unworthy. Nevertheless, unconditional love is a powerful antidote. It is the light that reveals better things. It can find its way through the smallest cracks into the childhood darkness.
My mother’s failings as a caregiver were many. There were minor insecurities like her being a terrible cook—my childhood involved a lot of canned soup and boil-in-a-bag corn niblets—or her chronic inability to pay the bills on time—I got used to picking up a dead telephone. The much more serious lapses ranged from the ordinary awful, like those fights where all the things you’ve never supposed to say get said, to the more exotic. Once in an altered state she mistook me for a violent ex-boyfriend and attacked me like I was the devil. I understood immediately that it was an accidental hurt—the last thing she wanted to do was hurt me—but that didn’t comfort me as I fled the house in my pajamas. No, I felt rejected and unprotected. Detached and discarded. It sucked. Nor did it help that she spent several days in psych lockup afterwards. Every misadventure raised the prospect of my being taken away from her to live with my kindly Stepford relatives.
What was important, however, was not the list of grievances but how I interpreted things. A single good example says more than any number of stories.
One afternoon during the summer after fifth grade (I called it the Summer of Hell), my mother was driving me home when she abruptly pulled over at a bar and said she was going to get a drink. This was bizarre behavior, even by her standards. We didn’t yet know, but this was an example of an epileptic fugue that could come on without warning, a departure where she could go for a stroll or have a conversation without letting on anything was wrong until it became apparent she wasn’t making sense. It might seem like she was a bit drunk, but she was simply gone. She would remember nothing when it was over.
She didn’t come back, although I waited in the car for several hours. I was on one of the many fast four-lane roads in Los Angeles that swirl with the sticky brown dust that coats the city. There were many people around, but in my world there were none. No one seemed to notice the eleven year-old stranded in his mother’s car. I was too shy to ask after her in the womb-like bar with blacked-out windows. (I’m still intimidated by those “adults only” signs.) I ventured out of the car and bought a toy gun that fired spinning plastic disks. That helped pass the time until the street got dark and uncomfortable. I debated whether to leave. I had the keys, so if I left she’d be stranded herself. I finally decided to try getting home on the bus. I don’t think I’d ever ridden a bus by myself. Consulting with several nice drivers on which lines went where and how to use a transfer, I made it home. She wasn’t there, so I watched TV, probably ate some soup, and went to bed.
The next morning she appeared, flustered and upset. She apologized profusely and gave a convoluted explanation that she ended up sleeping on a nice man’s couch somewhere and came home as soon as she woke up. She asked if I was all right about thirty times. My attitude was, of course I was all right. (I didn’t spin out in my mind what had really happened. I wasn’t yet aware there are all too many men willing to “help” an inebriated woman. To be mentally ill is to be vulnerable, and her tale of sexual abuse is a long one.) She didn’t want to go back to the mental hospital, and I didn’t want her to either, so we told no one what had happened.
With many such incidents, a lot of children would have grown up feeling very insecure and vulnerable. I’ve long wondered why I didn’t. I’m clear now that her unconditional love was key. Our bond was powerful and mutual. Despite our fights, despite her illness, we were a team against the world. I knew she was always available to me. Her forgiveness was if anything too readily given. She even allowed a sort of amnesty for confession when I’d done something dodgy (“Promise you won’t get mad?”). I knew far too much about her life, but I understood what was about me and what wasn’t. And when we laughed together, we laughed.
The unconditional aspect of her concern for me was critical. Although of necessity and predilection I became extremely independent, I knew I was not alone. I always had at least one stalwart. By the time she died I was almost an adult and the foundation had set.
In reading about attachment, I realized that I have no idea what it would be like to be denied it. It just wouldn’t have occurred to me. She always made me feel like a blessing in her life, never a mistake, and there was no price of admission. Her love was unconditional even when I was not being particularly praiseworthy. I knew it was there even when she was not being particularly praiseworthy either.
I don’t think the bad things that happened are all right. I’ve never dismissed them. They still sting. I am mindful of them. I accept that I can’t change the past. It’s done. To pine after a better childhood is a preoccupation with the impossible. Our lives are lived in the present. The future is where the possibilities lie. I’ve met any number of self-congratulatory people who assume I fantasize about being more like them, but I realize appearances can be deceiving. Over their shoulders, I too often see childhoods of emotional sterility, of benign brutality. No one should go through what I did, but also no one should be denied the unconditional love I enjoyed.
I know my mother worried a lot about whether she had permanently harmed me. I doubt she recognized her successes even though she was delighted to see mine, much owing to her. My mother didn’t read a book on child development. What she got right, she did by just being herself, through love and self-sacrifice. She did so in defiance of a life of suffering that would have broken most of us. It was a tragedy that I was her child, and it was a blessing.
So here is my posthumous Mother’s Day card:
I don’t remember my childhood with resentment. I do not want to rewrite it any more than I would relive it. I wish instead that you were in the present and the future of my life, and of the lives of your grandchildren—whom, thanks to you, I love very much.
Two nice cheat sheets from the Breaking Bipolar Blog of some of the worst and best things to say. Empathy is one of the hardest challenges. Sometimes unhappy people do just need to grow up or suck it up, but there are millions for whom hearing that is just a long thin knife in the back. Well-meaning intelligent people can say the most profoundly foolish things.
I’ve done my share of hurting when I should have been validating. The road to hell is paved with good intentions (and poor insight). But the essential thing is that mental illness is illness. The mental doesn’t invalidate the illness. (The repetitiveness of the bad advice, well-represented by the original list, is so numbing that I inserted some bracketed comments.)
- Snap out of it. [Don't wallow.]
- There are a lot of people worse off than you. [You ungrateful loser or isn't the misery of others uplifting?]
- You have so many things to be thankful for, how can you be depressed? [Pretty much same as #2.]
- You’d feel better if you got off all those pills. [You're a tool of the pharmacomedical complex.]
- What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. [Assuming you don't kill you!]
- Go out and have some fun. [Just think about something else.]
- I know how you feel. [Ah, sweet sanctimony.]
- So you’re depressed, aren’t you always?
- This too shall pass.
- We all have our crosses to bear. [Suck it up.]
- We create our own reality. [You're choosing to be this way.]
- I love you.
- What can I do to help?
- This must be very hard for you.
- I am there for you, I will always be there for you.
- You are amazing, beautiful and strong and you can get through this.
- Have you seen your doctor/therapist?
- You never have to apologize for your illness or for feeling this way.
- I’m not scared of you.
That my father had died was not traumatic news. It was strange. Eight years later it still is. This is a first draft that took many drafts to write of how that relationship ended.
The rakish photo of him at right comes from a full page of the March 1967 Life Magazine. It was published three months before I was born. My mother saved a copy even after he left. The article about “Mr. Brain Drain” describes how this “restless 37-year-old American, … president of a New York firm called Careers Inc, which recruits personnel for big corporations,” was, in his words, “draining the English blind of their most promising talent.” He was a daring and cocksure entrepreneur (“I’ve never had to look for a job myself,” William Douglass explains.) Things went well until they didn’t. A few years later the restless man was idly bankrupt. Thirty-eight years later he was dead.
He was a raider not a builder. As I’ve described, my mother, fifteen years his junior, raised me alone. He left before I was born and they were soon divorced. I knew him less than slightly, not enough to miss him. He contributed nothing.
Such a story of abandonment is depressingly ordinary, and I might have dismissed his death. Yet the death of a parent is unique. I’ve observed others lose theirs and the effect can be surprising. Besides grief I’ve seen guilt for feeling the “wrong” thing or feeling too much or too little. I’ve seen two full-grown men unexpectedly cry over it while simultaneously apologizing for crying. (It’s a guy thing.) They were relieved when I assured them it was a unique loss. By the time my turn came I knew it was something I needed to think through.
His death was certainly a surprise. Cancer corroded his body for months but no one told me. The most recent contact we’d had was the year before when he phoned impromptu to ask my kids’ birthdates. I still have no idea why. We had had no contact in seven years, but he invited no chit chat. When I’d last seen him, shortly after we moved to Virginia, he’d been a healthy 60-something. His mortality wasn’t on my mind. He visited our home during a brief detour through town. It must have been a pleasure to meet his adorable young grandson, with whom he spent about thirty-five seconds. His parents were of the Victorian tradition, and he was not the touchy-feely sort. His brother once said he couldn’t remember their parents ever having hugged them.
I heard a while after the visit that he had concluded I evidently didn’t want further contact. I’m not sure what evidence I gave, considering I didn’t think that. True, I made no overtures. I’ve always been lousy about Christmas cards. It was a difficult time for me, not that he knew. He tucked his inaction within mine. But he carried the laissez-faire too far when he did not tell me was dying. He made the choice for himself. In truth I would have liked to say goodbye to someone who could say it back. I suppose he rationalized that the silence was respectful. I actually hope he didn’t believe his own patter, that he was dishonest rather than clueless, but I don’t know.
I was notified of the death by my Seattle cousin, his nephew, who happens to be a really nice guy. He said he would be flying to Newark for the funeral, and could I give him a ride to the service in Connecticut? I said sure, by corollary deciding whether I would go at all. He saved me a lot of dithering. I wanted to see my cousin, and with him I wouldn’t be going in solo. And then there was his example. “Cool cousin” earned my respect many years earlier when he came to my mother’s funeral as the lone representative of my father’s family. I’ve always considered the gesture principled and brave. My father did nothing.
The next day I was still sifting through my non-feelings about him when I received my half-sister’s email. It was a personal broadcast to most of her address book assuring everyone that “Dad died comfortably with his children at his side.” Ouch. It was a slap to be reminded directly that I wasn’t his child. Perhaps I had rejected or not earned it. I have always realized it takes more than blood to make a family. Becoming a father confirmed that. Family is in the things we do. Blood without sinew moves nothing. A branch without foliage is a naked fork in the family tree.
To be honest—as I would have been had he asked—I was agnostic about the whole thing. The relationship was “in the queue” but never seemed pressing. I did make the initial contact when I was eighteen, and not because I was looking for anything. It was actually a peevish thing: I was tired of people being surprised I’d never met my father. After my mother died, suddenly everyone was asking about him. They wanted a feel-good moment hearing he was stepping up with little orphan Andrew. I disappointed them. There was no one else either. I then found myself trying to reassure them. Very irritating.
There was often incomprehension of my indifference. Surely I must be hurt or angry or wistful or in denial. No, not really. Ironically the only reason I ever felt bad was people telling me I should feel bad—and then because I felt nothing! The doubters, sometimes desperately earnest, were incapable of turning off their emotional projection no matter what it cost me. If I got upset with them it was assumed to confirm I was upset with him. People with unexamined lives say silly things.
Anyway, the contact led to nothing of substance. So it goes. Who’s to blame? Who cares? Blame is pointless when one party is dead. It just didn’t happen. I forgive him even as I don’t think well of him. I also have to remind people that it’s not enough to have a father. You have to get one of the good ones. I don’t think he would have been a good one, though that doesn’t make me grateful for things like having to shoulder taking care of my mother in her illness alone.
As for the funeral, I had no obligation to go. He would have agreed, endorsed it even, and it would have been convenient. I’d rather watch TV than spend a half-dozen hours on the interstate. But I am not him. I did what I thought was right, not diluting my rules to match his. He was my father no matter what he thought of his son. The opportunity to pay my respects would not come again. I had an incidental purpose: I went to claim my name. I am a Douglass, not an afterthought. Others may share my name, but none of the clan can separate me from it.
The following week the big day came and I forgot to go. I completely forgot. I didn’t even have clothes packed. At the time I was often foggy about the day of the week let alone the agenda, but this was a unique oversight. The whole thing simply slipped my mind as if it hadn’t been there in the first place. I was three hours from the airport and completely unprepared. I was working on a roof thinking about shingles or nails or whatever banalities when out of the blue (from my point of view) my cousin called on my cellphone about the pickup.
I think forgetting his funeral was the most damning thing I ever did towards my father. I couldn’t have ever said something so dismissive. It’s not the mistake but the underlying detachment. His funeral rated a zero in my mental planner.
My cousin however is not a zero. By amazing grace or dumb luck, some part of his plane broke at the gate. Their departure was delayed several hours. He apologized and insisted he would not inconvenience me. He would rent a car. I was aghast at what I’d done but admitted nothing. I stared at my phone, still standing on that roof, and struggled to do the math and logistics quickly. “Oh no,” I said, “I insist. No problem, I’ll see you there.” It was oh-so-easy to be a gracious.
I apologized to everyone—no one in my circles had been dwelling on the event either—and sped out of town. I made it to the airport right on time even with a detour into Pennsylvania to pick up a high voltage Jacob’s Ladder (someone’s ex-science fair project) that I bought off eBay for my sideline in science. My cousin was so nice. He apologized again. I told him not to worry about it, and I really meant it. Please let it go. I was very charitable. I was embarrassed as hell. I didn’t confess the truth for years, then earning one of the best double-takes that I can remember.
We arrived late at night at a hotel where the family had taken out rooms. My reception was tepid. I had figured on being something of a black sheep, but not an invisible sheep. There was a half-dressed cousin who gave no greeting. I met my half-brother for the first time. I can’t recall him saying a word to me—but then who knows what about me he’d heard from our father. Perhaps my rampant leprosy. I saw my cousin’s father, an uncle who had been very kind about visiting me over the years; unfortunately his mind had largely failed him and we said nothing. The next day I also met a half-sister who seemed very nice, and saw her sister with whom I’d had a falling out over, appropriately enough, the interpretation of our father’s history. The girls were from his third marriage, the one that stuck.
For me it was all good. I was glad to have made it. I kept the poker face.
The service the next day was quiet. I’m sure people said nice things. I hope he was more memorable than the eulogy. I remember only the recessional of bagpipers skirling out Amazing Grace. It must be conceded that Amazing Grace on the pipes is a triumph. Played especially well or badly it can make a hard man cry, thanks to a quintessentially Scottish instrument that harmonizes a kazoo and an electrocuted cat. Disappointingly, the pipers didn’t wear the Douglas(s) tartan. I’m not picky about these things, but my clan, whose name means dark or perhaps blood river, does have a kickass history not to mention a fine-looking tartan.
As for the service, I saw no tears but perhaps it was the way of the WASP, known for its dissembling and lack of stingers. It might have been his impassive legacy. Certainly he was not a bad man, and rebuttals to eulogies are given in private. Here the intrigue was at the reception.
“So how are you related to Bill?” I was asked. Strangers making polite conversation.
“I’m his son.”
“Why, I never heard he had another son!” they said. Strangers being stupid.
Another son. Yes, the secret spare. I was amused as I watched them swirling their cocktails uncertainly. It was his bad not mine. He hadn’t mentioned me to friends he had known for decades. I can understand why. It would lead to awkward questions, and he was smooth. To him I was a historical footnote. Water under the bridge. Now it was dropped into their laps under the influence of alcohol, the great fogger of the confused.
I wish I’d thought to say, “Sure, he’s around here somewhere,” but it didn’t matter. I was in a pleasant post-libation mood. I’m ethnic enough to enjoy a scotch, the more so if I didn’t pay for it. I talked longer than I wanted to an avuncular older gentleman who had much to share about life, the universe, and everything. He delivered a flood of inebriated insights with great gestures of an ice-rattling highball, the kind where you lean back and wish for a raincoat. Still he was a companionable man and I came away knowing him better than the fellow we’d just planted in the ground.
It took a long time after this event before I figured out what exactly bothered me about the death. It’s the finality. Death is unforgiving. While I might not dwell on the past, the problem is that he and I have no future. That possibility was the only thing I had in him. Almost certainly neither of us would have endeavored for more—two stubborn men plus 38 years is solid precedent. Yet now that the door has been slammed shut, there is also the death of possibility. Once again the choice is no longer mine.
My family recently undertook the Hunger Challenge posed by the local Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC). AFAC asked us to eat for $4.03 a day, the typical benefit allotted Virginians of limited means by the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Since the winter, my sons and I have volunteered with AFAC to pick up surplus produce from a local farmer’s market to supplement, along with milk, bread, meat, etc., what their clients can afford through SNAP.
SNAP is the modern version of the food stamp program. According to the the USDA FAQ it serves one out of eleven Americans each month, more than half of whom are children or the elderly. Most report income far below the poverty level. The average participant stays in the program for nine months.
“I can’t say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.
Driving in France is more exciting than in the States. I anticipated this and arranged to rent a car for a few days. A stick shift too, an essential feature I think for drivers who like to feel what they’re doing. (I also suspect the manual transmission will soon be extinct.)
With my son Julian and his friend we rented the car at the Paris airport and set out for Normandy, but along the way dipped into the northern part of the city to circle the Arc de Triomphe. The roundabout there is six or eight or ten lanes wide—no lanes are marked— with a dozen roads radiating, and it swarms with cars at maniacal cross-purposes. Fun! Read more…
There are two kinds of beauty: what you find and what you make.
That’s a thought that crossed my mind at the coffee shop today. It certainly sounds like something someone said but I can’t figure it out. Cervantes drew a lovely distinction between two beauties, “one of the soul and the other of the body … when we focus our attention upon that beauty [of the soul], not upon the physical, love generally arises with great violence and intensity”—but that’s a different concern. Kant propounded a notion of free versus dependent beauty that I won’t attempt to understand let alone explain.
The bipolar romantic nut Lord Byron penned perhaps the writing of beauty itself.
Much more on account of my quirkiness than erudition I have long liked The Tempest, Shakespeare’s straightforward tale of Prospero, a bitter old wizard, and his grudge match against his brother and the clowns who betrayed him, stole his neglected dukedom, and stranded him with his young daughter on a romantic little hell of an island somewhere in the Mediterranean.