In my first book A Bird and the Dragon: Their Love Story: a Memoir there are two basic themes: the love as it developed between my second husband, Sy and me, and how to take children from two dysfunctional homes and shape them into a true blended family. For all that this is a story, not for children but for adults, the book is filled with suggestions of ways to smooth the path to a happy ongoing family life. We didn’t turn into a perfect family—who has that?—but rather a family of adult women who in their forties and fifties turn to each other for help or support when they need a sounding board. And this phenomenon crosses the first family boundaries.
Okay, how did we get there? With much soul searching, discussing and arguing between Sy and me, and my going back to school to become a therapist. In that school environment it became much easier to see that if we didn’t do something we were going to have a household in utter chaos. It also became easier to accept that the children would also need therapy not just myself because I was a training student. In the beginning, the children from each family-set spent their time trying to point out to the other family-set what wonderful times they had before they all became one family. This sets up a divide with ‘my family’ against ‘your family’. We had to build new common history and we did that with trips to museums, family picnics, swimming parties, birthday celebrations and the family supper table every night. I know families today say they can’t possibly have a family supper table, but it is incredibly important to try to have some regular mealtimes together. That is where you find out what is going on with your children and where the rubs are between them. For it to work, you have to set an environment of listening with interest, no parental buttinsky telling someone they are wrong.
The ‘who can help’ part refers to which types of therapists will work best for each child. Cora, the oldest daughter, responded well to a conventional behavior therapist who took the events of the day and helped Cora reformulate the meaning of events and how she could change those events or her behavior to create better outcomes. Cora has gone on to find a therapist whenever she is in need of emotional support. She did not display her Bipolar Disorder until she was out of our home and at that time she received medication and therapeutic support.
May, the next daughter down, was with her adopted father for the time just as Sy and I were putting our families together and then spent only a short time in our mutual family, the details of which you can read about in the book chapter entitled “May”. She was the one daughter who presented Bipolar Disorder from childhood but none of us understood at the time that this was why she was such a difficult child to raise. May did work with a very good behavioral psychologist when she was in Devereux in Pennsylvania. She also worked for a short time with a psychiatrist in near-by Whaling City. He was responsible for getting her into Devereux. As a mature adult, May took herself to a mental health clinic and there gained her diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder. She also uses medications but is not as faithful with taking it as are Cora and Annie.
Elizabeth worked with a woman for several years until at fifteen she announced that her therapist wanted her to go and live with her father, Harvard Lesser. I emphatically shut that down and finally cancelled her sessions. Elizabeth had no idea what she was going to be walking into when she went to live with her father but since May had spent a year with him I had a much better idea of how much neglect she would likely suffer. She has gone on now, as a well-seasoned adult, to move in with her father to help take care of him in his senior years and I believe she now understands why I did not let her go. After she had cooled from that encounter at fifteen, we put her with two different male therapists, a psychologist and a psychiatrist, and she made progress with both of them.
Felicia went to work with a young woman who used a Jungian-oriented child’s play along with discussion therapy and gained a lot from that experience. She worked until she was too old to be considered a child and didn’t do any more with anyone else as I remember it. On about the third session Felicia’s therapist greeted her with a loving, “Hello, and which would you like for a snack: cookies and milk or cake and punch?” Felicia hid a bit behind me and shrugged her shoulders. Mary tried again, “Felicia, which would you like, cookies and milk or cake and punch?” Felicia shrugged her shoulders. Mary tried a third time with the same result. Then she knelt down so she was on eye level with Felicia and said, “One of the first things you need to understand is that when you are here with me you can say whatever you want to say and you can have whatever you want to eat.” I walked away thinking this woman can really help Felicia who was the third or fourth child down in the family, depending on which family you are referring to, and had long since learned to defer to what the others wanted.
Annie, the youngest, tried one or two child therapists but she was not about to share much and didn’t make much progress. I found a woman who did a Jungian sand tray therapy and Annie started regular appointments with that woman. In sand tray therapy the child or adult has a sandbox raised up on legs and a multitude of figurines; animals, trees, plants, cars and trucks, or any sort of characters that might inhabit one’s fantasies. The child or adult is encouraged to build pictures in the sand and then this therapist took Polaroid pictures, which Annie would bring to me at the end of the
session. Because of my training, I could see that she was beginning to heal; but she also turned fourteen that summer. The woman didn’t usually work with children older than fourteen and so gave Annie the summer off. Annie never chose to go back and I was so disappointed because I could see the progress they were making. Annie’s Bipolar Disorder didn’t become debilitating until she was also a young adult, which you will read about in The Bird and the Dragon. It took some time for her to accept the diagnosis but since she has accepted it she has been faithful with her medications.
I think the thing that we all learned is that mental health is a fact of life, not a branding, and all the girls are advocates for getting the mental help you need when you need it. The biggest problem at the moment is the cost of mental health to the individual.