Understanding a Dysfunctional Childhood
Let’s discuss the nuances of dysfunctional parenting. In today’s Not Crazy podcast, Gabe recalls the relationship he had with his parents when he was young. As a teen, he thought his parents were being overly harsh, but now he sees they were trying to punish symptoms of his undiagnosed bipolar disorder — and were doing the best they could.
Join us for a great discussion on how the parent-child dynamic can go wrong when undiagnosed mental illness is involved.
(Transcript Available Below)
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About The Not Crazy podcast Hosts
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from Gabe Howard. To learn more, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Lisa is the producer of the Psych Central podcast, Not Crazy. She is the recipient of The National Alliance on Mental Illness’s “Above and Beyond” award, has worked extensively with the Ohio Peer Supporter Certification program, and is a workplace suicide prevention trainer. Lisa has battled depression her entire life and has worked alongside Gabe in mental health advocacy for over a decade. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband; enjoys international travel; and orders 12 pairs of shoes online, picks the best one, and sends the other 11 back.
Computer Generated Transcript for “Dysfunctional Childhood” Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Lisa: You’re listening to Not Crazy, a Psych Central podcast hosted by my ex-husband, who has bipolar disorder. Together, we created the mental health podcast for people who hate mental health podcasts.
Gabe: Hey, everyone, and welcome to this episode of the Not Crazy podcast, I’m your host Gabe Howard. And with me, as always, is the sparkling Lisa Kiner.
Lisa: Thank you, Gabe. Hey, all, today’s quote is by C.S. Lewis, you can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.
Gabe: But is that true?
Lisa: Yeah, of course that’s true, it’s never too late until you’re dead.
Gabe: That goes along with my quote, It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
Lisa: No, that’s not similar at all.
Gabe: Are you sure? Because I think that memory is one of those weird things. The way that we remember things changes dramatically as additional information pops into our brain and now it should be no surprise that we’re going to be talking about Gabe’s childhood, specifically how toxic my parents were.
Lisa: Ok, but, yes, your memories are constantly being re-evaluated by your brain, but the actual truth of what happened is not. If you had a video camera that wouldn’t change, you could just go back and watch the video. What actually happened is the same. It’s just how you interpret it or feel about it has changed.
Gabe: But that’s a very esoteric concept and have you ever watched.
Lisa: You don’t use the word esoteric correctly. No, it’s not an esoteric concept. You mean to say nebulous,
Gabe: Fine, it’s a nebulous concept, I
Gabe: Think it’s esoteric, you think it’s nebulous, let’s call the whole thing off. The
Lisa: No, the words have actual meaning.
Gabe: Do they?
Lisa: Yes, that is the purpose of words.
Gabe: Do they?
Lisa: Oh, for God’s sakes. Ok.
Gabe: The point that I’m making is, is that the way that we see things change as additional information becomes available, for example, the whole world, literally, the whole world believes that there is a line in the movie Casablanca that says, play it again, Sam, that
Gabe: Line doesn’t exist. And we all remember it. We all believe that it’s true. Now applying this to our own lives, I very much remember my childhood in a certain way, but it evolves as I put myself in the shoes of my parents. For example, when I was 15, my parents were idiot morons that were just trying to keep me from living my best life. And when I was 25, they were horrible abusers that were trying to kill me. And now that I’m 43, they’re boring and they just bicker a lot. But I’m remembering the same.
Lisa: We need to go back to that twenty-five-year-old thing, oh, my God, really?
Gabe: Well, I knew you at twenty-five, that’s.
Lisa: And that convinced you that your parents had been trying to kill you?
Gabe: Somebody had to be trying to kill me. It was either that.
Gabe: Or made up stuff. If it wasn’t them, who was it?
Lisa: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, back up. You thought your parents were trying to kill you when you were 25?
Lisa: Like, wait, wait, wait. Were they trying to kill you when you were 25? Or looking back on it, you thought to yourself, gee, they were trying to kill me 10 years ago?
Gabe: I, probably all of it. Remember back then, I thought that demons were hiding under my bed, I was paranoid. I thought that something was trying to kill me and I very much blamed them for all of my problems because I had to blame somebody and my world was very small. In fairness, I also blamed my ex-wife, society and probably several celebrities. It was a hectic time. But remember, those who are closest to you take the brunt of the blame. It’s no surprise that when you and I got married, it transitioned over to you.
Lisa: There is so much there.
Gabe: There is. There’s an incredible amount there.
Lisa: And all of this is coming up because we received an email with a question and the question is, Gabe, how old were you when your bipolar symptoms appeared and when were you diagnosed? Did you have a relationship with your immediate family members then? And how did they help or hurt your recovery?
Gabe: Obviously, we’re going to discuss this a lot more because, you know, we need to fill a longer show, but the speed round answers were the symptoms were kind of always with me. Nobody just recognized them. Right? I thought about suicide as far back as I can remember. Like literally from birth. Yeah. It was just always part of me. I showed symptoms of bipolar disorder in my teen years. Yeah, it was always there. I was 25 when I was finally diagnosed and my relationship with my immediate family was strained when I was diagnosed, I.
Lisa: Before the diagnosis or because of the diagnosis?
Gabe: Oh, no, before. It was strained because of the
Lisa: So at the time of diagnosis, your relationship was strained?
Gabe: Yeah, it was strained, it was, it was problematic, I don’t want to say bad because we were still in touch. I consider bad like I haven’t talked to my mom for five years. Like, that’s bad or like extreme abuse. Like your family is stealing from you or,
Gabe: You know, I don’t know that.
Lisa: So, it wasn’t as good as it is now. So, strained.
Gabe: Oh, no, no, no, now, now it’s fine.
Lisa: Now, do you think that was strained because of your behavior and your symptoms?
Gabe: Oh, yes, yes, without a doubt, my behavior was very problematic, both in the way that I treated them and in the way that I perceived they treated me, that’s like the real bitch about bipolar disorder, right? It sort of warps what you see. And that’s very hard to get over. Even after treatment, it took years to reflect back and realize, oh, what a weird reason to be angry.
Lisa: You say that you had symptoms of bipolar disorder in your teens. What types of symptoms are we talking about?
Gabe: When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, my mother said to me, after she learned what bipolar disorder was, she said, oh my God, I always described you as my Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde child. And I said, Mom, that’s literally what bipolar disorder is. How did you not think that something was wrong? And she was like, well, I just I thought it was hormones. I thought it was boys will be boys. I thought it was the teenage years. I. In my parents’ defense, I’m the oldest. This was their first teenager. They didn’t know what the hell was going on. And teenage boys are ridiculous. We’re. Watch any coming of age movie, and I don’t know that my behavior was all that atypical. If you get your mental health education from pop culture, they just thought that I just needed direction.
Lisa: I’ve often thought that, especially about parents of teenagers, you know, like if you have a kid who’s crippled by anxiety. Well, the point of a parent is to say, no, no, no, you can do it. Go out there, try the thing. Well, at a certain point, they can’t. Your parents specifically, like you said, you’re the oldest. Teenagers are moody. You were moody. Teenagers are dramatic. You were dramatic.
Gabe: See, here’s where I think it’s a good idea to talk about the hidden symptom of bipolar disorder, and I’m trying to be like, really dramatic, like dun dun dunn. See, everybody thinks of bipolar disorder as the two poles, right? Suicidal depression and God-like mania. And those are absolutely symptoms of bipolar disorder. But what people get wrong is that it’s a spectrum illness, meaning suicidal depression is the lowest you can hit and God-like mania is the highest that you can hit. But you’re going back and forth on this spectrum. That’s what gets me to my quote unquote, hidden symptom. It is reasonable and probable and likely and possible that through doing nothing, you will end up in the middle. You will end up quote unquote, normal, just fine. And in my teenage years, that’s when I would excel in my after-school activities. That’s when I would excel in school. That’s when I would be the charismatic, intelligent, charming Gabe that my parents were trying to raise. And when that middle ground fell in the vicinity of a punishment, we now know that that was just luck. That was just random. But at the time, my parents were like, well, Gabe acted up. We grounded him. And now look. Now look, he’s doing great. He joined a club. Look at all his friends. He’s mowing the lawn like we asked. That was just luck. I was just asymptomatic, but I wasn’t actually asymptomatic. I was just in the middle of that spectrum.
Lisa: That is asymptomatic.
Gabe: Well, sure, but this further drove home to my parents that what they were doing was working, but it was actually just the disease process randomly linking up in the vicinity of my parents’ discipline.
Lisa: I’m confused. You keep calling it a hidden symptom, but that’s not a symptom, that’s a period of normality. You’re saying that at times you had a normal mood state because you were in between the two extremes. That’s actually the lack of symptoms. That’s not a hidden symptom. That is a period of normal mood state. That’s not a symptom.
Gabe: I understand what you’re saying, and I don’t mean to be confusing, but the reason that I call it a hidden symptom is because it still has negative consequences. So, you’re describing it as being symptom free, but you’re still on the bipolar spectrum. It’s not like because I am asymptomatic, I am not having symptoms.
Lisa: Yes, actually, that’s what the word asymptomatic means.
Gabe: Ok, you’re right. Let me, let me, let me clarify further, I’m trying to spin an analogy, and it’s clearly not working well. Let’s take an example. So, I get suspended from school because I’m dancing in the front of the room and I’m being the class clown because that’s what mania looks like. Right? So, I get suspended from school. I come home, mom and dad sit me down and they say, OK, Gabe, OK, well, we have to curb this behavior. This is bad behavior. So, my parents ground me, they ground me. And for the three days that I’m suspended, I have to work in the garden. And then I go back to school a week later and suddenly I’m good, I’m perfect. I’m respectful to my parents. Everything is fine. In my parents’ mind, the punishment worked, grounding me worked. That is a reasonable thing to think. But in reality, had my parents done absolutely nothing, the next week when I went back to school, I wouldn’t have been manic. The disease process would have shifted and I would have been perfectly fine.
Gabe: But they didn’t realize that. And here’s why that’s a problem, because the next time that I was the class clown, they thought, OK, no problem, we’ll ground him for a week and we’ll make him work in the garden. But that didn’t work the next time and that only gave them the option to be like, OK, we have to push harder. We have to ground him for two weeks and make him work in the neighbor’s garden. I don’t know. And they thought I was being obstinate.
Lisa: What you’re saying is that your mood would cycle in and out of a period of normalcy, as is the way with bipolar disorder, but your parents would attribute it to something they did
Gabe: Correct, yes.
Lisa: Like he was acting all out of control. We grounded him. He stopped doing it. Therefore, the grounding worked. Therefore, next time he acts all out of control, we will ground him again. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll just escalate and escalate and escalate.
Lisa: But in reality, this was just the ups and downs of bipolar disorder. It actually wasn’t related.
Gabe: Yes, exactly, but there’s another little insidious piece there, and that’s what I really want people to focus on, my parents believed that I could do it. You’re asking why would they try to ground the symptoms of an illness out of their child? How sick is that? Could you imagine if I came home with a broken arm and they’re like, well, you’re grounded until your arm is not broken? We’d call Children’s Services. That’s sadistic. You grounded your son for having a broken arm? But remove broken arm and put in mania, depression, rage. That’s what they tried to do. They literally tried to punish the symptoms out of me. And you’re asking why on earth would they do that? Because it worked. At least they thought they saw it work. They knew that I could be good. They’ve seen it. It’s like an intermittent problem with their son. It’s like when you take the car to the mechanic. What’s that saying?
Lisa: Oh, every time you take the car to the mechanic, the problem is gone.
Gabe: Yeah, their son just happened to have an intermittent problem, so every time they took me to the mechanic, I ran fine.
Lisa: Their thinking was that because there were times where you did behave normally, where you were asymptomatic, they thought, OK, clearly, he can control it. If he’s capable of doing it sometimes, he’s capable of doing it all the time.
Gabe: Exactly, exactly. But here’s the thing that sucks. I thought that, too. I wanted to be a good kid. I think that’s important to understand. My parents pictured me as intentionally malicious, intentionally acting up. That’s what they saw. I was not trying to do that. Well, I thought that my parents were boring and, well, stupid. And I didn’t want their life in any way because of the aforementioned boring and stupid thing. I did respect my parents. They worked hard. They paid their bills. They were active in their community. And make no mistake, even in my angriest moments, if I got in trouble, I called them. There was never a time, never a time, that I got in trouble that I thought, well, I can’t call my parents. I always knew that I could call them. But yeah, yeah, I yeah, I don’t even know what to say. I just I. I felt.
Lisa: I always knew I could count on them.
Gabe: So to summarize, did I have a relationship with my immediate family members? Yes, but it was incredibly strained because of, well, all the things that we just talked about.
Lisa: We’re talking about did you have a relationship with your immediate family at the time of diagnosis, that was when you were 25. You must have left home at 18 or 19. What happened in those intervening years?
Gabe: I moved out when I was 18 and still in high school because I just had to get away from them, I just, I couldn’t stand them.
Lisa: But you moved in with your grandparents, right?
Gabe: Yeah, I could stand them, I like them.
Lisa: It’s not like you moved out on your own, you just went to stay with other family.
Gabe: Yeah, I was willing to go out on my own, I, I just.
Lisa: But your parents thought that was a terrible idea.
Gabe: This is where memories change, right? Here’s what 18-year-old Gabe thought happened. My parents were assholes. I can’t take them anymore. I’m not dealing with this shit. I’m out of here. Grandma saved me. Right? That’s what Gabe thought was happening. Here’s what actually happened. Gabe was ready to run away from home and do whatever it took to be away from them. And my parents called my grandparents and said, OK, we need to work together to make sure that he graduates high school and save him from himself because he’s getting ready to run face first into fire. And he’s too stupid to realize it. And they all work together for the next two years to make sure that I got a high school diploma, to make sure that I matured, to make sure that I made friends, that I was in mock trial, that I had something to fall back, that I learned computers. My parents still paid all my bills, even though, you know, under my breath, I called them assholes all the time and they knew that I call them assholes. They’re not stupid, but I ran away from them. That’s what actually happened. That’s a really big difference. So, it’s hard to be mad at them now that I see the full picture. But I was so mad at them when I left, Lisa. So mad.
Lisa: But why were you so mad, what were they doing wrong?
Gabe: They were punishing the symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Lisa: But none of you knew that. You thought it was bad behavior and so did they. Why would you be angry about that?
Gabe: Because I just felt so strongly that I was trying and that they didn’t recognize it. I don’t think my parents realized how desperate I was to make them happy. Who wants to be a bad kid? I did want my parents’ respect. Hell, I still want my parents’ respect. I never thought my parents were bad people. I thought they were boring. I’m not trying to rewrite history to where I suddenly thought might, no. I thought my, hell, I still think they’re boring. If I have to hear about one more episode of Ice Road Truckers, I may scream, but who cares?
Lisa: Your father has regaled me with many stories of the cinematic masterpiece that is Ice Road Truckers. Yeah.
Gabe: Oh, that’s awesome.
Lisa: It never gets more interesting. Never. But your parents weren’t completely oblivious that there was more than normal teenage angst going on here, because they did take you to a psychologist.
Gabe: That’s true.
Lisa: This would have been in the early 90s, the idea of how you treated children and mental illness in children was just completely different. It would have been extremely unusual to take your kid to a child psychologist.
Gabe: You’re right, in the early 90s, it was completely unusual to take your kid to any sort of therapy. But wait, there’s more. My father is a truck driver. He’s blue collar. He believes that all problems can be resolved by rubbing mud on it. And he took his child to a child psychologist. In the early 90s there were white collar professionals with MBAs that wouldn’t take their kids to child psychologists. My parents were actually just so ahead of the curve. My parents admitted that they weren’t able to handle this and took me to a therapist. We got family counseling. Are you kidding me? There are families that struggle with that in 2020. They were progressive.
Lisa: Well, it couldn’t have been easy, there weren’t very many child psychologists running around, it was probably quite a lot of effort to even find someone.
Gabe: I have no idea how they found my child psychologist, but yes, we went to family counseling.
Lisa: What made them decide to do this, what was the breaking point?
Gabe: I honestly don’t know what the breaking point was, but, yeah, like what a question that would be, you know what I mean? I’m.
Lisa: We should call your mother and ask. That might be the next episode.
Gabe: Maybe I don’t want the answer.
Lisa: Well, I want the answer.
Gabe: It just when it comes to like rewriting history or retconning, as the kids like to say today. My parents did not fit the mold of people that utilized psychological services, therapy, child psychologists, we were very stereotypically blue collar. My father drives the 18-wheeler semi, honks the horn for kids. He says things like, we’re going back to the house. He couldn’t be more of a stereotype if they tried. My mom, a housewife with a part time job when the kids got older. I mean, it’s like Americana. You just want to vomit. It’s so stereotypical. We eat dinner together as a family, just like.
Lisa: It’s Leave it to Beaver without the white-collar income.
Gabe: Yeah, basically, how on earth did these people be so progressive that they admitted that they needed help with their kid? Like, is that how messed up I was that I was able to break that mold? Like, that’s messed up, right?
Lisa: Was your dad gone for long periods of time as a truck driver?
Gabe: No, no, no. Not long periods of time, he left one day and came back the next day. So, he would be gone like every other night.
Lisa: So, he was gone every other night, he was absent from home quite a bit.
Gabe: Yeah, yeah, three nights a week he was not home. He had a very varying schedule, especially when I was younger and he was newer.
Lisa: Yeah, not high up in the union yet. Meaning that it was even more of a burden for him to go to the therapy appointment.
Gabe: Yeah, yes.
Lisa: Because it’s not like he could just send you with your mom, you all had to go.
Gabe: Huh, you’re kind of blowing my mind because I didn’t even think of that.
Lisa: Well, yeah, it couldn’t have been easy to schedule around him.
Gabe: I. Do you want me to give them a medal? I just look, when I was diagnosed at 25, I was positive that they screwed me up.
Lisa: Because you thought that bipolar disorder was the fault of poor parenting?
Gabe: Yes, I also thought that I could have been violent at any moment and that I was going to die and that I needed to live in a group home, remember. . .
Lisa: So we’re doing myths of bipolar here.
Gabe: But they weren’t myths at the time, but.
Lisa: Well, they were always myths you just didn’t know that.
Gabe: Ok, yes, yes, but perception becomes reality.
Gabe: When I was in the psychiatric hospital, I was locked behind the doors. I was staring at a doctor. They diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And all I could think of was, thank God I didn’t kill my family and I need to live in a group home and I’m going to die soon because everybody with bipolar disorder was violent, lived in a group home and eventually killed themselves. That’s all I understood. And then, of course, I learned more and more and more and my memories changed. Things shifted.
Lisa: Gabe, you’re skipping back and forth a lot, it’s kind of confusing.
Gabe: What do you need clarified? This is just my life, it’s all jumbled in my brain as
Lisa: Well, let’s go back to the part where your parents are taking you to the child psychologist, so clearly, they’ve discovered something is wrong. This is more than just being a normal teenager. We can’t handle this. We need to reach outside for professional help. What happened? Did it work?
Gabe: I don’t know.
Lisa: Did you get better?
Gabe: I don’t know.
Lisa: Didn’t you go there for, like, years? I mean, it’s not like they took you once and stopped.
Gabe: I honestly don’t know if it helped me understand them, but in some ways, I think that it helped my parents understand me. My family believes in paddling. My dad had a paddle, it had a handle and he whacked me on the butt with it. And I was terrified of this thing and it was demeaning and degrading. And plus, it’s violence. I see it very much as violence. And I, I said all of the things that I just said in the therapist’s office, and he said, you know, Gabe’s really old. Why are you still threatening him with violence? And my dad’s like, well, it’s just paddling. And he’s like, well, but, but it’s violence. You’re saying that the way to work out problems, if you don’t like how your son is behaving, is not to talk to him, but to threaten him with violence. And this made my parents get rid of not only the actual paddle, but the threats of it. And it forced them, whenever there was behavior that they didn’t like, to discuss it with me. There’s this little piece of me that still pissed off that I had to endure this shit for 13, 14 years. But my brother and sister, who are younger, it disappeared immediately for them, too. So, you’re welcome.
Lisa: Hang on, we’ll be right back after these messages.
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Gabe: And we’re back, talking about my teenage years.
Lisa: Your parents had a specific way of disciplining their kids that they probably learned from their own parents and this is what they did because this is what they knew. But what you’re saying is that as soon as someone else, a professional, a child psychologist, said to them, yeah, that’s a terrible idea, don’t do that, they stopped immediately. They didn’t argue. They didn’t try to equivocate. They were like, huh? All right. Well, now that we have better information, we’re going to not do that anymore.
Gabe: I don’t think that it had ever occurred to them how it looked from my perspective, because from my perspective, what you were saying is I’m not interested in your ridiculous little opinion. Do as I say. Do as I say. And the therapist was able to point out, your son is a few years from being out in the world and he’s not going to be able to threaten people with violence when he doesn’t get his way. And if he is unable to articulate his needs, wants, desires and unable to argue with people, then you are stunting his development. I don’t think my parents realized that. I think they were taking the path of least resistance. We told you to do it. You said no, we’re going to threaten to whack you on the ass and now problem solved. But it never occurred to my parents that this debate had value. They only saw the debate as disrespect. And the therapist was able to say, look, discussing something with your children is not back talking and it’s not them being disrespectful. It’s them learning to use their voice and articulate their wants and needs. I think that was a big game changer for my dad. Again, I’m sure that their experiences are going to be much different from mine. But I really felt like in those sessions was the first time that my parents actually heard me, heard my words, rather than just saw it as a behavioral problem, that I had the audacity to question them.
Lisa: You’ve told me in the past that your parents’ style of parenting changed dramatically once they took you to a child psychologist
Gabe: Yeah, yes.
Lisa: In part because the psychologist gave them all sorts of new advice and, frankly, told them that a lot of what they were doing was either wrong or at least not working. That they started taking parenting classes, that they just made these huge changes in how they treated you and your siblings once they had this information.
Gabe: One of the things that my parents learned, and it’s really one of the only examples that I have that my mom told me when I was an actual teenager because she told everybody that she could find. It was don’t trick your kids, the don’t set your kids up to fail concept. And the example that she always used is if you know that your child didn’t go to Molly’s house, even though they said to go to Molly’s house, when they come home, don’t say where have you been and set them up to lie. When they come home, say, I know you didn’t go to Molly’s house, get it right out of the way, and that this setting up your children to lie is just exacerbating the problem. Your kids are going to mess up. They’ve already messed up. You’ve already got a problem. Just address the problem that you have. Don’t create new ones. This made a profound impact on my mother. So much so that she just told everybody that she could find. And again, I learned that when I was a teenager, that’s how big of a deal it made to her, that she talked about it openly in front of her kid.
Lisa: Because most of the things that changed for them, they did not discuss with you until many, many years later when you were an adult. There was a lot going on behind the scenes that you didn’t know about.
Gabe: Yes, one of the things that I learned as an adult is that my parents actually asked the therapist if they were bad parents. I was not in the room, obviously. It was, for those who have not been to family counseling, they talk to the child alone. They talk to the parents alone. Then they talk to you all together. And one of the things that my parents just flat out asked is, are we bad parents? And do you know what kind of humility?
Lisa: Yeah, that must have been difficult for them.
Gabe: It takes to be able to sit in a room with a doctor or a therapist and ask honestly, are we bad parents? And then sit quietly and wait for the answer? If you would have asked me at 15 if my parents had any doubt that they were awesome, I would have been like, no, they’re awful. They don’t give a shit. But they actually had this self-doubt, this care and concern. I did not know at the time that they were capable of that because after all, I just saw them as this overarching force that got to make all the rules and had all the power. When in actuality they were struggling.
Lisa: And they did not let you know how much they were struggling and how much they changed in response to this,
Gabe: Yeah, yeah, I had no idea.
Lisa: When you’ve talked to me about this in the past, you’ve always described things as getting a lot a lot better after you started going to family therapy. But of course, things certainly were not perfect and it didn’t really work in that you continued to struggle. You continued to be extremely symptomatic and got in all sorts of trouble, dropped out of high school, just on and on and on. Does that mean it didn’t work or does that mean that just, hey, you were still bipolar?
Gabe: This is where my dad is very angry, my dad believes very strongly that the child psychologist should have realized that I had bipolar disorder and diagnosed me with it and got me help before I really got into a lot of trouble. We have spent a lot of time, my family and I, my father and I, debating and discussing this point. For what it’s worth, I understand why my dad wishes that I would have gotten help sooner. He’s not wrong. And I understand his frustration because he’s like, look, I did everything I could.
Lisa: Right, what more was I supposed to do?
Gabe: Right, but 15-year olds just weren’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder back then, they’re not really diagnosed with bipolar disorder now. I don’t blame the child psychologist for not diagnosing me. I’ve thought about this a lot. I’ve gone back and forth a lot. And I am 100% confident that diagnosing me with the information that he had with what he heard from my parents and what he saw would have been wholly irresponsible and would lead to way more false positives than it would actual positives. So, I want to say that very, very clearly. But yeah, my dad is still frankly, he’s pissed about it. It comes up pretty much once a holiday.
Lisa: Well, but again, that just isn’t how it was done at the time.
Gabe: Yes. But to your question, yes, things got a lot better. But of course, the underlying issue of bipolar disorder was not actually resolved. The grandiose thinking, the demons under the bed, the anger, the mania, the depression. My parents started doing things better and having more patience and more understanding and moving forward in a much healthier way. But ultimately, if you don’t rectify the core problem, you’re sort of handcuffed on how much better you can do.
Lisa: So things got better, but obviously were not fixed or completely cured because certainly your parents’ behavior towards you might have made things worse, but you weren’t behaving like this because of their parenting, you were behaving like this because you were bipolar.
Gabe: Yeah, I was still an untreated bipolar. That’s probably an oversimplification, but it’s more correct than it’s incorrect.
Lisa: But at the time, you were very angry with your parents and thought that they were doing a terrible job, and you continued to think that for a long, long time, right? When did that stop?
Gabe: When I reached recovery with bipolar disorder, I started to see life very differently and I started to see the world very differently. And when I was on my second divorce, Lisa, which was ours, the world looked really differently, too. Like it was it was much more difficult to be an egotistical, arrogant person facing my second divorce and facing rebuilding my life from the bipolar diagnosis. And I had messed up so many things that some of the arrogance of, oh, I’m better than you went away. I realized that a lot of what happened to my parents wasn’t an example of them being idiots. It was an example of circumstance and them being idiots. I, I.
Lisa: There were mitigating circumstances.
Gabe: I did not see any of those mitigating circumstances when I was a kid. Some of the things that really gave me a great amount of pause was spending more time with young children. You know, young children are difficult. I’m going to go with difficult. I started mentoring a teenager. And the stuff that would come out of his mouth in the four or five hours that we would spend together were frankly, just like, what is wrong with you? What are you? What? And then I would reflect back on me doing the exact same thing to my parents. And then the more I understood about my illness and it occurred to me once I reached recovery that my perspective was skewed by symptomology, my perspective was skewed by bipolar disorder. The way that I was remembering the story is incorrect. I would always say me and my dad got in an argument, but in reality, that’s not what happened. What happened was, is my dad got in an argument with a person with untreated bipolar disorder experiencing grandiose thinking, bipolar rage, who was actively delusional. That’s a very different memory. And what, of course, was even worse is that neither one of us knew. I thought that I was perfectly fine and had 100% complete control of my faculties. And my dad thought that he was in an argument with his teenage son who was being a brat. The situation that we thought that it was was not the situation that it actually was. That changes things, changes things dramatically.
Lisa: In the spirit of the original question, though, that’s how you felt once you were in recovery or that’s how you feel now. How did you feel at the time you were diagnosed?
Gabe: That they did it, it was their fault.
Lisa: Ok, so you had a lot of anger still
Lisa: By the time you were diagnosed
Lisa: And it was this process of reaching recovery that helped you get rid of a lot of that.
Gabe: And here’s the sick part, right? I was so angry at them. I was so angry at them for letting me languish and not getting me help, they’re my parents. It’s their job. But I called them five times a day from the hospital.
Gabe: I still wanted my mommy. That’s all I can say. I, it was both my mother’s fault and I wanted her so desperately. And my parents, as you know, they came later after I got out of the hospital and they helped me move. There was a lot going on in my life, etc. And they like swooped in and solved all of these problems for me while I largely sat in the corner crying. And I was still pissed at them as I was watching them carry my stuff.
Lisa: As they were fixing your life, you were still angry.
Gabe: Yeah, because they messed me up.
Lisa: And at this point you were an adult with your own home, etc.
Gabe: I was twenty-five. Yeah, I was going through my first divorce. Isn’t it great that we can, you know, chop up Gabe’s life into wives?
Lisa: Yeah, yeah.
Gabe: Like those were during the Megan years. Those were during the Lisa years. Now we’re in the Kendall years.
Lisa: But those are the years that will never end.
Gabe: I know. I mean, I know.
Lisa: So, your parents at the time you were diagnosed, they’re falling over themselves to help you, you needed a lot of help because you were a wreck, but you were still extremely angry and your relationship was difficult.
Gabe: It was, but there was. There was some moments and I didn’t realize how amazing they were at the time.
Lisa: Even adult children are selfish when it comes to their parents. You just feel like they kind of owe you.
Gabe: I was a jackass, I was moving out of the house, it was the house that my first wife and I lived in and I was moving into an apartment. That has a whole long back story. But let’s just describe it as a shithole.
Lisa: It wasn’t that bad.
Gabe: It was pretty bad, especially moving out of a real nice house.
Lisa: It was a nice house,
Gabe: Come on.
Lisa: It was a very nice house.
Gabe: And they had got me all moved in and I was at the corner of the apartment building just kind of trying to stand out of the way and hide.
Lisa: As they did all the manual labor.
Gabe: As they did all the manual labor, while I did nothing. I should probably point out, you know, at this point, my dad is like 60, and my grandfather, who was like 70 at the time.
Lisa: So the healthy 25-year-old stands off to the side so that he can watch his elderly relatives assist him with manual labor.
Gabe: I think they would both object to being called elderly, but, yes, that is that is correct. But there’s, there’s moments in this mess. One, nobody ever yelled at me for this. They just did it. So, I just want to put you in the mindset of my father, who has literally worked all day on this stuff. And I’m standing at the corner of the apartment building because I you know, I don’t want them to see me cry or be upset. I don’t even know why I was hiding. And my dad comes over and asked me if I’m OK. And I’m like, you know, yeah, I’m fine. And, you know, he’s kind of standing there. It’s kind of awkward. And I said, you know, I don’t, I don’t like it here. It’s not nice. And my dad looks at me and he said, Well, but this is just a footnote in your story. It’s not the end. You’ll be out of here before you know it. And then he just walked away.
Lisa: He’s just dropping wisdom and then leaves you in the dust.
Gabe: Yeah, like, literally, and I just, he, it was kind of a powerful moment because all I could think of was this is where I’m stuck. This is where I’m stuck. And my dad’s point was, no, this is just where you are. That’s a big difference. I do remember little things like this, but I didn’t know them at the time. I don’t want anybody to think that my life got dramatically better after my father said that or I didn’t spend the next, you know, four years fighting mental illness and I didn’t suffer a great deal. Or I still thought, you know, my parents are idiots, and they did this to me on and off. And we still struggled and had problems. But looking back now, they knew damn well I was pissed at them. They knew damn well that their son was an idiot. They knew and they were scared of bipolar disorder because it’s a terrifying illness. They didn’t know what to do and they had to drive 700 miles with old people to carry my shit. And yet here they are. Here they are. And I didn’t carry anything. I carried nothing.
Lisa: Well, also, they both had responsibilities at home, they both still had jobs, your mother was caring for grandchildren and they dropped everything and drove to another state
Gabe: They did.
Lisa: To try to rescue you.
Gabe: I mean, when you say it that way.
Lisa: Yeah, well, to be fair, I did not see it that way at the time either. At that point, every story you’d ever told about your childhood was more horrifying than the last.
Lisa: It was just constant horrifying. You told me this horrible story about how your mother actually knocked you unconscious once.
Gabe: Ah, the softball story.
Lisa: The way I heard this story is, Gabe was a teenager and was being difficult, as teenagers are wont to do, when his mother couldn’t take it anymore and threw a softball at his face, knocking him unconscious. And then you’re like, oh, Lisa, meet my mom. What? Oh, this will be great.
Gabe: You know what a fish story is.
Lisa: Ok, fair, fair.
Gabe: A fish story, of course, is true in that the person was fishing and the person did catch a fish, but the six-inch fish becomes a two-foot-long fish. The story is true. My mother did, in fact, throw a softball. And it did hit me and it knocked me down. Don’t I didn’t lose consciousness. I don’t and I don’t remember saying that, to be honest. I think that might have been inferred. But it doesn’t matter.
Lisa: You told me that you got fuzzy and that you had a terrible headache for the next couple of days, and I thought to myself, well, that’s a concussion.
Gabe: That’s, that could be true. But the devil’s in the details, right? Let’s get a little more of the scene. At this point, I would have been almost 17 years old. I weighed 400 pounds. I was six foot three. And I was screaming at my mother. I was just screaming at her, yelling every word that I could think of because, frankly, I was enraged. Now, remember, not only am I twice as big as my mother, a foot taller, I am also an untreated bipolar who is clearly symptomatic. And upon the yelling back and forth, my mother picked up a softball and threw it over my head. I want to be clear. I knew she threw it over my head at the time because I didn’t even duck.
Lisa: So she wasn’t throwing it at you.
Gabe: No, she wasn’t throwing it at me at all, of course not, but it hit the wall behind me and bounced off and hit me in the back of the head and it knocked me over. And at that point, I became even angrier and just left. I just got in the car and drove off.
Lisa: What did your mom do?
Gabe: I don’t remember. I don’t think she did anything at that point. Obviously, when you tell the story, hey, mom and son got in an argument. Mom lost her temper, threw softball. Yeah, my mom comes off really bad in that story. And I come off looking like the innocent child. When you tell the story, giant enraged man screams at woman. Woman defends herself by throwing softball above head that happens to make contact. Well, that starts to move the needle a little bit on culpability. I’m not defending my mother. She never should have thrown the softball. She doesn’t think she should have thrown the softball. Nobody thinks that she should have thrown the softball. What my mother should have done was walk away. And we know that now. But it’s a little bit unfair to hold my mom 100% accountable for the aftermath of dealing with somebody with untreated bipolar disorder. It’s a chaotic scene. Again, do not throw anything at your mentally ill loved ones. My mother was 100% wrong.
Lisa: Or any of your loved ones.
Gabe: Yeah, that’s, that’s a good point. Lisa.
Gabe: I am not advocating for throwing softballs at your children, but I am saying that.
Lisa: Or anyone outside the context of a softball game. I can’t believe I need to clarify this for you.
Gabe: Also, good advice. Can I make my point now?
Lisa: I just, whoa.
Gabe: Yes, this was obviously not my family’s finest moment, it was not my mother’s finest moment. But when you start to dig into the details a little bit, it’s a little more tragic from my mother’s perspective than I realized. I don’t know what she was thinking. I don’t know why she did it. I don’t know why she lost her temper. I don’t know what was going through her head. It’s really easy to Monday morning quarterback now and say that that was a mistake, but
Lisa: Well, it was a mistake,
Gabe: It was.
Lisa: It’s just.
Gabe: But in the moment, hell, maybe that was her only move. It did, in fact, end the issue. I left. So, who knows? Maybe if she hadn’t thrown that thing. I can’t even speculate. I’m just. You know, sometimes things just happen that don’t turn out the best. And it’s not because your parents are bad. It’s because of a momentary lapse of reason or a mistake. I mean, Lisa, you got in a car accident. You don’t consider yourself a driver that needs to turn in your license or you would not drive for fear of killing yourself or others.
Lisa: I had heard this story about your mother. I heard it before I met her, and it definitely shaped my impression of your mother for a very long time. And it does not leave a positive impression of your mother. And it actually wasn’t until we were discussing this show last night and you started giving all of these other details, all of this further information, that I started thinking, huh, maybe that isn’t quite the situation I had initially thought, especially as you started saying, look, she was dealing with an untreated bipolar who was much bigger than her in a full on rage. Do you think she was scared? I mean, was she physically scared of you? Was she afraid that you would become violent?
Gabe: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think my mom thought that way at all. I do think that there was an element of her losing her temper. I think there was an element of her wanting to shake things up. I think there was an element of her wanting to break my thought pattern. You know, I was, I was just in this cycle. You’ve argued with me when I’ve been in this, it’s everything leads back to the same thing. No matter what you say, it’s
Lisa: You get on a loop and you can’t break out of it.
Gabe: And she broke that loop by throwing the softball.
Lisa: So you’re thinking that she just got so desperate and also who knows how long this had been going on?
Lisa: That she just thought, oh, God, we got to do something here?
Gabe: And of course, in the moment, I was extraordinarily symptomatic, I was enraged. I was a person with untreated bipolar disorder. So, you’re asking me what happened? But the only memories that I have are heavily influenced by untreated bipolar disorder. So, you know, there’s got to be so much more that we are not taking into account here. But you’re right. When I was angry at my mother, I spun the story.
Lisa: But you didn’t realize you were doing it.
Gabe: I didn’t. I spun the story even for myself so that I could maintain my anger at my mother.
Lisa: There were a lot of extenuating circumstances to the problems you had when you were a teenager and looking back on it now, especially from a position of recovery, you’re willing to give your parents a lot more slack than you were when you were a teenager or even when you were diagnosed.
Gabe: A watershed moment for me, Lisa, was when I was in a support group and I started complaining about my parents and a couple of the people in the support group started talking about theirs. Their families had abandoned them, like literally one woman talked about how she hadn’t talked to her father in a decade and her mother was not allowed to talk to her, but opened up a private email account so that they could email a little bit. But her mother made it perfectly clear that your father is not on board with this and I will never meet you in public and I will not provide any help for you in any way. And other people talked about just horrific abandonment and name calling and.
Lisa: And abuse.
Gabe: Yeah, and I’m sitting there thinking, oh, I’m mad at my parents because they didn’t move me into my new place fast enough and of course, my parents made a ton of mistakes. And I want everybody to listening to this to know, ton of mistakes. I could write a book on all the mistakes that my parents made. But you know how you make mistakes. You’re there. You’ve got to be there. These other people, their parents made one mistake. They abandoned their kids. That’s it. That’s all they had. They abandoned their kids. Whereas my parents, they just kept trying shit. And the stuff that they tried was awful because they didn’t have, you know, guidance or understanding. And they thought that the myths of mental illness were real and on and on and on and on and on and on and on. But you have to be there in order to screw up. It never even occurred to me that my parents would leave. I like, I didn’t know that was possible, Lisa. I just, I did not know it was possible. I just. And you know what’s messed up about that? My biological father abandoned me when I was a baby, and it still didn’t occur to me that my mom and dad could abandon me. Like, what’s up with that?
Lisa: If you haven’t listened to other episodes or know Gabe’s back story, your mother got pregnant with you in high school, she and your biological father had a shotgun wedding,
Lisa: And within a year
Lisa: Of your birth, he’d taken off never to be heard from again.
Lisa: And eventually she met and married your father
Gabe: Who adopted me,
Lisa: Who adopted you.
Gabe: She met and married another man who adopted me as his own and is the only person I’ve ever known as Dad. But he is not my biological father, he’s just the man who raised me as if I were his own, which is hilarious because I’m six foot three, giant and have bright red hair and he’s like five foot three, tiny and has black hair. So, yeah, anybody that thinks that he’s my biological father is a moron.
Lisa: Your dad has some fun with that, too,
Gabe: He does.
Lisa: Because people will ask you all the time, where did you get that red hair? And he’ll go, Oh, he got it from his dad.
Gabe: My dad’s a dick.
Lisa: He just stares at them. Like, what?
Gabe: It is funny, it is funny to think about, but but yeah, it didn’t occur to me that people could lose their parents. I just, I thought that I was abandoning my parents because they were bad and I was punishing them. But I always knew that as soon as I forgave them, they’d come back. Like, you recognize that I keep saying that my parents did all of these things so horribly wrong, but the foundation that they built was that I knew that I could count on them 100%.
Lisa: To come and do the wrong things.
Gabe: Well, right, yes, yes,
Gabe: I would judge them implicitly. This is why mental illness is so messed up. My parents are good people. I want to be very, very clear. But they believed all of the myths of mental illness. That really is the take away here. They believed the pop culture representation of mental illness. Mentally ill people aren’t smart. Mentally ill people don’t own houses. Mentally ill people don’t get married. Mentally ill people have bad parents, specifically bad mothers. It was a moral value. And why wouldn’t they? That’s all they were taught. That’s what they were taught growing up in their lives. That’s what I believed. That’s what pop culture, television shows, movies, that’s what it all showed. Mentally ill people were in a corner, rocking back and forth, drooling and violent and came from broken homes. I’m not mad at them anymore for not realizing that I was sick because society kind of set them up to fail in this way. It’s one of the reasons I became an advocate because I thought, you know, my parents love me. They desperately tried to do the right thing at every single turn and they missed this glaring thing.
Lisa: Well, everybody missed it, including the professionals they took you to.
Gabe: Right, I want to talk to all of the people with mental health issues and mental illnesses who are mad at their families. Listen, I don’t know your families. There’s certainly toxic families. There are certain families that have done unforgivable things and on and on and on. I’m not pretending that every single family is my family. That is complete and utter nonsense. But I am saying that I realized along the way that my family was in the same impossible situation that I was in. So, it’s, I want people to forgive me for the things that I did when I was symptomatic. Why would I not forgive the people around me for the things that they did while I was symptomatic? I should be extending the same forgiveness to them that I want society and my family to extend to me. And I think that’s a very powerful message. Your circumstances pending. But then there’s sort of a shit or get off the pot mentality here. Look, you got to decide. If you’re not going to forgive your family, then cut them off and never talk to them again. Call it a day. Just, just don’t torture yourself. And if you want your family in your life, constantly reminding them of all the mistakes that they made five, 10, 15, 20 years ago is not the way to build a positive relationship moving forward. And that all ties back to your perfect quote, Lisa.
Lisa: You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending?
Gabe: Exactly, so with your family, you can’t go back and change the beginning, you can’t fix all of the things that your parents, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents have done. But if you make the decision right now to forgive them, radical acceptance, radical forgiveness, you can change the end. The reality is, is that my parents messed up. That’s fine. I messed up. That’s fine. I’d much rather talk about what we’re doing this Christmas than worry about what they did 20 Christmases ago.
Lisa: Well, and speaking of apologies or messing up, your parents have apologized to you.
Gabe: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, on video.
Lisa: Yeah, good point, your father especially was like, well, yeah, we just tried to punish the symptoms of bipolar disorder out of him and he feels very badly about that now, even though he couldn’t possibly have known.
Gabe: Yeah, and we did not get there overnight, my family and I didn’t have some Hallmark movie moment where music played and it started to snow and we all hugged each other and the camera panned away, showing the half a million-dollar house that we can afford on the kindergarten teacher’s salary. No, it didn’t work that way. We just started building new memories and that’s what we did. And as we started building new memories, the older memories sort of either faded away or became more in focus.
Lisa: But, Gabe, you do have happy memories from childhood.
Gabe: Aat the time that I first met you, Lisa, the answer to that question would have been no. I would have said no. I have no happy memories of childhood. But now, yes, because once I started looking at the entire picture, I realized that my parents can both have made a lot of mistakes and have done a lot of things right. I was very much in black and white thinking. Either my parents have to be all good or my parents have to be all bad. And at the time I met you all bad, all bad, 100% bad. They sucked.
Lisa: Yeah, it made it difficult. You have a much better relationship with your family and your parents now than you ever did when we were together, and it’s made a big difference for you. It’s brought you a lot of happiness.
Gabe: True that.
Lisa: And here you are changing the ending.
Gabe: Hey, next week, we should do you and your family.
Lisa: Oh, I would like that. I have a lot to say, and they’ll love it, too. So everybody wins.
Gabe: Yay! Thank you, everybody, for listening to this episode of the Not Crazy podcast. My name is Gabe Howard and I wrote the book, Mental Illness Is an Asshole, available on Amazon. But if you head over to gabehoward.com and buy the book there, not only will I sign it, but we’ll send you a bunch of Not Crazy podcast stickers. And that’s really awesome. You can put them on your car, your laptop, give them to your friends. And remember, wherever you downloaded this podcast, please subscribe. Also, use your words and rate it. Write a review, give us as many stars as possible and tell all your friends.
Lisa: Don’t forget the outtake after the credits and we’ll be back next Tuesday.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to the Not Crazy Podcast from Psych Central. For free mental health resources and online support groups, visit PsychCentral.com. Not Crazy’s official website is PsychCentral.com/NotCrazy. To work with Gabe, go to gabehoward.com. Want to see Gabe and me in person? Not Crazy travels well. Have us record an episode live at your next event. E-mail [email protected] for details.
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