My Story and the Connection to Fair Warning

My Story and the Connection to Fair Warning

cuteydave1Fifth grade is typically not a deep, insightful time for 10-year-old boys. Baseball, buddies and maybe that new Farrah Fawcett poster were supposed to be the only items top of mind, but for me fifth grade and childhood were very different. I always had the sense that something was unusual about my Dad at times; his disappearing act during stretches of the day, and then re-surfacing with slurred speech and ”out of it” appearance was odd. My mother would call it his “tired mood” when we were little, but she knew better, and a few years later so would I; it was called alcoholism.
But an autumn Sunday morning in fifth grade would be the day when things would never be the same for me. My Father hadn’t been much for outings or activities, preferring solitude and his alcohol “stash” wherever he hid it, but he agreed to go into the city to the Museum of Natural History that morning. I was very excited at the opportunity to spend time with my Dad. I think part of that excitement was that spending time with him didn’t happen that often. However as we got ready to leave, my Mother called to my Dad from their bedroom, crying for us not to go. My father came downstairs and told me we wouldn’t be going to the Museum because my Mom was “sick”. She’d been in bed the past few days with what I thought was a cold or the flu, but looking back I remember she hadn’t gotten out of bed for several days. This was the first time I recall thinking that something was very wrong with my Mother. Her “cold” would turn out to be the onset of bipolar disorder.
Fast-forward thirty-five years later and I’m at lunch with a colleague who has asked me to tell “my story”. In a quick response that surprised even myself, I started by saying: “I am the son of an alcoholic father and a bipolar mother”. Now there is much more to my story than that, but I started with the part of my life that had been hard to open up about for so long. I now realize that I’m long overdue in telling my story. For over thirty-five years most people, many of whom I’ve known for years, have never heard of my upbringing. I was ashamed and scared to talk about that part of my life, but Dr. Brene Brown, a researcher who has written and spoken extensively about shame, tells us “…you’ve got to reach out and tell your story. You’ve got to speak your shame”.
So there I was for the next two hours telling my story; my upbringing with a father who never owned up to his drinking and truly unplugged from everyone around him, and a mother who struggled with bipolar disorder, worsened by seeing an incompetent psychiatrist who mis-diagnosed and mis-treated her disease for several years. Over time, I’ve come to understand the impact that my parents diseases had on me, and it’s part of my story. My fear used to be that I’d turn out to be like one of them; alcoholic, bipolar, or worse – both (fortunately, I’m pleased to say that neither happened). To make matters worse as a kid, my father ordered me to never discuss my mother’s problems with anyone; not family, friends, or neighbors. Looking back, I realize how much the direct support of family and friends would have helped me, how unhelpful my father’s orders were, and how those orders stayed with me for years whether I knew it or not.
My mother’s bipolar episodes would often begin with her talking gibberish or speaking in tongue in the middle of otherwise routine sentences. Then there would be hysterical crying for no apparent reason, often followed by stretches in which she wouldn’t leave her bed for days on end. But all that would wind up into a horrible onset of wild behavior such as:
• screaming at the top of her lungs
• writing notes that provided her own funeral instructions, but digging in the pen so hard that her words were engraved into the kitchen table (I always hated that table)
• standing over my bed in the middle of the night while I was sleeping, to be awakened by my father trying to get her out of my room. As my mom was leaving, she would tell me that she was saying goodbye, as she would be dying soon.
• my mother being taken away by police in a straightjacket, or her attempted suicide by trying to overdose on her medication.
These images aren’t easily forgotten, and after a while you realize that you can’t run from the past or hide from it, but rather use it to make sense of your present and future. Despite being terribly scared about what was unfolding around me, even as a ten-year old kid I could see my Mom’s episodes coming on before she unraveled into a full-blown bipolar event. I’d implore my father to do something; anything to get my mom some help before things got ugly. Take her to a doctor, take her to a hospital, make sure she was taking her medication. “Please Dad – do something!” But my father ignored the warning signs, held hostage by his alcoholism and his apparent inability not only to see the warning signs, but also to act on them. More often than not he stumbled about the house after drinking, passed out in a living room chair after wetting himself, or squeezing into his old World War II uniform one evening and stalking my mother around the house (the uniform didn’t fit him as well as it did during the war).
And so was born my connection to the Fair Warning theme; my own journey to better connect the dots in my personal life, and my fascination with how certain tragedies occur in our world despite fair warning that could have prevented the disaster. The list of news stories and world events that serve as fair warning examples is long:
• the Madoff scheme
• the BP Gulf oil rig explosion
• the space shuttle disasters…
…to name just a few. What is the common theme in those stories? It was the person or persons who tried to warn of the disaster that was about to unfold, but were ignored. However, this is often a common theme that runs through so many of our personal lives:
• the relationship that wasn’t working, with one or both of the individuals saying “I knew the problems were there from the start.”
• the individual who ignored the medical symptoms or family health history and put off getting an important check-up or test that could have helped
• staying in a job you know you don’t enjoy
• smoking or getting too much sun
While the unfortunate events that we read about in the news fascinated me, my own connection to fair warning was taking place in my adult personal life. Growing up in a household with an alcoholic father and a bipolar mother meant little to no direction or guidance from my parents. I learned to cook for myself, wash my own clothes and fend for myself at a very young age. But while those are not necessarily bad things to learn early on in life, I also learned to eat dinner by myself, get myself to sporting events, drive myself to college visits…to name just a few examples. My mother and father were checked out due to their respective diseases and incapable of plugging into my world as parents. In short, I felt like I grew up alone, and for lack of a better description, I hated it. I was actually jealous of friends who had a curfew on weekend nights. The way I looked at it, they may have rules, but there was structure and guidance in their households and lives.
As an adult, I set out to create my perfect household; my perfect environment. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was moving far too quickly to ensure that my world had people in it. And because I was determined not to be alone in my adult life, I didn’t heed my own warnings about taking the time to meet the right person. They weren’t bad people, but they were relationships that didn’t work, and the warning signs were there for me.
I also set out to build the perfect me, and it’s really not something I would recommend trying. My parents were tremendously flawed characters, and I was, at least in my mind, going to have no flaws. I was convinced that I would excel at any job someone sent my way, regardless of whether that occupation interested me or not. I’d be the perfect Dad, perfect husband, perfect friend and please everyone. This approach to life got me further away from being myself, and eventually I realized that no matter how hard I tried, it was impossible to be all things to all people. Over time, through understanding myself far better, I’ve learned what I’m guessing many of you already know; there is no such thing as the perfect person. We grow, we make mistakes, we learn from failure and become stronger for it and move forward, getting better along the way with spotting the warning signs that prevent future failure. But we realize that nobody is perfect, nor should we try to be, and nor should anyone expect us to be. We’re not built or made to be liked and loved by everyone…and that’s ok. But one of life’s greatest rewards is to find the people who love you as you are, and expect the same from them as they expect from you; to be nothing more than yourself, with moments of both greatness and imperfection. Author Louisa May Alcott of Little Women fame had a wonderful saying: “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship”. I can honestly say that there has been no greater feeling in my life than to know that I now have my hand firmly on the “rudder” of my life, able to steer around or out of choppy waters, and into smooth seas, able to see the navigational charts and weather forecasts ahead. This is the power of Fair Warning that can be used to improve both our personal and professional lives.
My story is simultaneously one of fear and courage; the resiliency to raise myself, graduate from my surroundings and live a great life, but also getting over the fear of being alone as I was in my childhood. Most importantly, it’s the story of finding the ability to connect the dots and pay attention, rather than ignore my own fair warnings, and understand the connection that I have when warnings appear in the news or in my personal life. It’s a story of learning how to deal with and overcome life’s challenges; challenges that all of us, particularly successful people, have dealt with at one time or another.
When my mom passed away from ALS in 2004, my three closest friends that I’ve known since age four came to my house to pay their respects. Over lunch, for the very first time I shared my story with them; the story that I’ve now shared with you. They sat with their mouths open to the floor; not about what I had told them, but that we had been friends for close to 40 years and I had never said a word about my parents and upbringing to them until then. That astonished them, and for the first time in my life the silence on my part astonished me as well.
It started a process of re-examining much about my life; not just what scared me, but why. It made me far better at connecting the dots – back to my childhood, and understanding them in my current and future life. It’s not an easy process, but if you can start by asking the right questions, you’ll come up with much better answers, and an improved ability to make better life decisions. You’ll understand yourself much better, and feel far more comfortable in your own skin.
I hope that there are children and young adults who read this and learn that they don’t necessarily become their parents or inherit their challenges when they grow up. Millions of children are raised in households where either alcoholism or mental disease exists, or perhaps both as in my childhood. But the good news is that these kids can find and chart their own path, and they don’t need to be ashamed of something that’s not their fault. Instead, take Dr. Brown’s advice and tell your story. Trust me – everyone has a story. Everyone! Just find the right people to tell it to so you can let family or friends help you.
The last years of my mother’s life were calmer thanks to a better doctor and improved medications. My father lived to the grand old age of 87, having passed away in March of 2013 from congestive heart failure. Somewhere in the 1990s he got too old or too tired of drinking and as best as we could tell, just stopped. The latest chapter in my life is all very happy. I have two incredible kids who have taught me more about life and myself than I could ever imagine. My lovely wife couldn’t make me happier, and she accepts me as I am – story and all; good career, family and friends who’ve supported me through the toughest times, and not coincidentally who I’ve become closer to when I learned to tell my story. And along the way, I’ve learned to listen to myself and heed the information within; the fair warning signs that can help us personally and professionally.

Dave Yarin
Written by Dave Yarin

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