I have found that success in life can be expressed as having two components: (1) making good choices and (2) being lucky to have those choices work out.
I come from your run-of-the-mill dysfunctional family. My father was an alcoholic and my mother was socially inept. (my father is the only person I know who was arrested for driving drunk on a bicycle.) my mother, having skipped three grades and landing in college at age fifteen, never developed the skills to relate well to other people. Anyway, I spent the first 12 years of my life growing up with my mother, father and my older brother.
From the time I was three or four years of age, my mother called me “water works” because I could easily go from giggly smiles to a thunderstorm of tears. This was likely the result of a mild bipolar illness. Early on I recognized that I had less control over my emotions than other kids. At various times in my life I’ve been diagnosed with “depression”, mild “bi-polar disorder”, “ocd”, “anxiety disorder”, “seasonal-affective-disorder”, “a.D.D.”, and ptsd. I did realize that something was wrong from an early age and I kept on looking for solutions until I found them.
At a lunch with my father and grandfather when I was 9 years old, I completed my meal and heard my grandfather proclaim,” Alan, I’ve never seen you completely finish a meal!” a moment later it dawned on me that I enjoyed my meal because my mother wasn’t there to nag me incessantly. The notion that I hated my mother was quite apparent from the age of nine. Fortunately for me, I also lived with my father and my brother.
Just two years later, my mother announced that she’d been having an affair with a man and was divorcing my father to go to live with her boyfriend in san francisco. (my father would say for many years after, that the best gift my mother ever gave him during their 19-year marriage was the divorce.) unfortunately, my brother was graduating high school and moving out on his own, and my mother intended to take me with her and leave my father one hundred miles behind. My father and I had had a very close relationship early on, riding bikes, camping, hiking, going to baseball and football games, etc. But I was to miss spending time with him through the next six years of junior high and high school. My brother taught me to play guitar and we enjoyed collecting baseball cards together, but that relationship was also ending with the family break-up.
San Francisco was rainy and foggy. Entering adolescence in a city I did not know and without any friends and not even a family member I felt I could rely on, I often slept 14 hours a day and cried myself to sleep. The clinical depression that began then would last fifteen years. It was obvious that I was nothing more than an annoyance to my mother and her boyfriend. I had nothing in common with my mother, she having said—after sleeping through the entire drive through redwood national park—“you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all”. Years later I would lead groups of children to the top of half-dome and El Capitan in Yosemite national park.
The relationship with my step-father was no better. His black belt in judo was intimidating as he would shove his fist in my face as we walked pass one another in the hallway of the house. I took great delight when a lit match fell to the kitchen floor and his thickly calloused foot (from self-defense training) caught fire and it took him a while to figure from where the smoke was coming.
I was smart enough to get through school doing a minimum of work and eventually found friends who served as “counselors” for my needs. It’s important to note how valuable my friends were to my sanity. They “listened” to me and provided models of healthy behavior from which I could learn. Years later, both my brother and my step-sister, who never lived together with my mother and step-father in the same house, wondered how I “survived” the situation I was in.
My depression and irritable mood followed me when I went away to college, negatively affecting most social interactions.
At the age of 28, after fifteen years of counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, etc., I was finally connected with a doctor that offered medication. Up to that time I could not keep a job nor a relationship for very long. After a few months I was put on an antidepressant that made me feel like the clouds over my head had been blown away and that I could see the blue sky above for the first time since childhood! How wonderful it was to receive an effective medication at that time! My marriage and my job would remain intact for the next thirty years.
Let me be clear: the medication for my depression does not make me “high”. The medication corrects a chemical imbalance just like insulin treats diabetes. The option to pull myself up by my bootstraps was never an adequate remedy. My emotions were now tolerable.
Professionally, in the early 1990’s I served as the manager of Fairytale Town in Sacramento. I also worked for the Sacramento public library for 28.5 years, serving as a branch supervisor for the last thirteen years before retiring in 2013. After retirement, my wife and I set up a non-profit organization called mindful media management. Through mindful media, I learned that teen suicide has increased in the past twenty years just as the use of the internet and, in particular, social media, has increased. Humans are social animals and, as such, must be engaged with others. The pandemic of 2020 has put more people at risk for mental illness than what would otherwise have been the case.
My wife, Nancy, and I have two incredible children. Our son received his degree in astro-physics from UC Santa Cruz and currently works as an engineer for the Sacramento county water department. And our daughter is the most capable human being I know and serves as a manager with the California department of rehabilitation.
My father, my uncle and grandfather all suffered from alcoholism. My brother, my son, and I have all successfully battled with our own alcohol demons. No one can say for sure how much of my mood disorders or alcoholic tendencies are genetic and how much are a result of the environment in which I grew up. In my case it’s probably both. Making the best of choices available and determined to find help, I eventually received the treatment I needed.
When you break your arm and it’s bandaged with a cast, it’s obvious what ails you. But when it comes to mental illness, friends and family don’t always know that something’s wrong. This is why we need to talk about mental illness and stop the stigma—so people can more easily get the help they need.
Along the way and years before medication was prescribed, I took to jogging to help minimize the effects of depression. Like others with mental illness, I have a toolbox that I rely on to keep my mood balanced. Exercise, adequate rest, exposure to sunshine, alone time, playing music, hiking, and bicycling all help to keep my mood even. I must also recognize times when my mood warrants changing plans because I’m not at my best (many people suffering from depression get “winter blues” or what’s referred to as “seasonal affective disorder”). A toolbox of personal “remedies” can help most anyone with or without a mental illness diagnosis. In the end I am fortunate that the right choices, determination, coworkers and supervisors in my working career, and my friends and family have all contributed to the satisfied life I now lead.
And those six years of junior high and high school during which I was denied contact with my dad? When our first child was born in 1985, I asked my father to buy the house next door to us. He did so and I enjoyed the next six years with my dad as our next door neighbor. It took 29 years but I finally got those six lost years back with my dad!
I’ve always tried to make good choices. In addition, I’ve been lucky. I suppose I could have wished for a deity to intervene on my behalf like waiting for a winning lottery ticket, but that was, in my opinion, unrealistic.
This year, Nancy and I celebrate thirty-seven years of marriage as we provide daycare for Casey, our three-year-old grandson. As a proud member of the “grandparents club”, I am obliged to carry pictures which I am only too happy to share!