Because I Come from a Crazy Family: The Making of a Psychiatrist

Because I Come from a Crazy Family: The Making of a Psychiatrist

by Edward M. Hallowell


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781632868589
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 06/12/2018
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 416,614
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., is the bestselling author of Driven to Distraction and many other acclaimed books, a leading authority in the field of ADHD, a world-renowned speaker, the host of the podcast Distraction, and the founder of the Hallowell Centers for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Boston MetroWest, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt


I come from an old New England WASP family, characterized by what I call the WASP triad: alcoholism, mental illness, and politeness. You could be tipsy, even quite sloshed; you could be a bit off, even mad as a hatter; but none of that really mattered as long as you were polite.

The point was never to let life rock you overmuch. Be debonair under duress, be cool under attack, be a good egg. No tears. We specialized in a pitiless pragmatism that deplored sentimentality and revered character. You paddled your own canoe, and if you fell out, well, fare thee well. These things happen. No matter what, we carried on. Rather than ever show sadness, we bucked up. Rather than get angry, we practiced the velvet art of courteous cruelty. You could be as nasty as you wanted to be, as long as you did it with wit and a smile. Above all, your job was to be a good sport. Expressing painful feelings was self-indulgent and embarrassing and created an uncomfortable mess no one wanted to be part of or to clean up. We all knew what a raw deal life could be, but our way of making do was to look it in the eye and, with a tip of the hat, walk on by. If we couldn't beat the devil, we could at least refuse to let him shut us down. Happiness lay in never taking anything too seriously. These are my people, and I love them.

But I took a different turn. When I was eleven years old, a voice out of nowhere told me I should become, of all things, a shrink. That was definitely not in the game plan I'd inherited. My people would deem it fine to be a doctor, say a brain surgeon or a cardiologist, but a psychiatrist? Please.

Yet there I was, standing by myself on a hot summer day, when an alien voice popped into my head and stated as clearly as a church bell, "You should become a psychiatrist." Not knowing what on earth to make of it, I did what I did with most things I didn't understand. I put it aside and moved on.

But eighteen years later, here I was, about to do what that voice from God-knows-where had told me to do. It was the final day of my internship in Medicine. Psychiatrists are required to do a year of a medical internship before beginning psychiatric training, both because many medical conditions can cause what appear to be psychiatric problems and also — for me this was far more important — because the year of internship bonds you to the medical profession and makes you feel like a real doctor, the way I am told boot camp bonds recruits to the Corps and makes them feel like real Marines. Only our medical internship was twelve months instead of a measly thirteen weeks.

Minutes short of being done, I'd finished writing the final progress notes on my patients and was staring off into space, drumming my chewed-up Bic pen on the Formica counter in the nurses' station. It had been years since I'd thought about that inexplicable voice from age eleven, but at that moment in the nurses' station I flashed back to it and laughed out loud. Little boy has auditory hallucination telling him he should become a shrink ... and then becomes one. Not jolly likely, as my Gammy Hallowell would have said. But there it was.

One of the nurses nearby asked, "Did someone say something funny that I missed?"

"No, Nan, don't worry, you didn't miss a thing. God forbid you should miss something!"

"Get outta here, Hallowell. You're finished today, right?"

"Yup," I said. "Thanks for the memories. I'll never forget you, that's for sure."

"No doubt you say that to all the girls, but thanks. We'll miss you. You're a good doctor."

Nan had no idea how much her words meant to me. All year I had done my best to keep up with all the brainiac interns who were going into internal medicine. I didn't want to be the weak link headed into psychiatry. Because the nurses were really our best judges, what Nan said capped my year. "Thanks. You guys taught me a lot."

As to why I laughed, that was too much to tell Nan. But here's the story about the voice. I was standing in the shade of some scrawny pines along a dirt road on a sweltering day in July waiting for my cousins to come outside so we could get relief from the heat by going for a swim in the lake below. I can still see my hand resting on the top rail of one of the splintery, weathered split rail fences so common on Cape Cod when a unique voice, unlike anything I'd ever heard before or since, popped into my brain and told me, as if delivering a message from beyond, to become a psychiatrist. Back then, "psychiatrist" was a word I'd never even used and only vaguely understood.

Wearing just my tattered bathing suit, with a threadbare terrycloth towel over my shoulder, I was alone outside my aunt Janet's house in Chatham, the small town where I lived most of my early years, when that weird voice broke in.

To make the moment even more bizarre, I reacted as if it were not bizarre. Instead, not missing a beat, not even doing the logical thing and looking around to see if a real person might be standing nearby, I simply took the message in stride, as if hearing words popping into your brain out of nowhere was a run-of-the-mill occurrence rather than the abnormal event it actually is: a cardinal sign of psychosis.

Even as I took the voice at face value, I didn't get right on it. I actually forgot about it and went swimming. Nor did I determine then and there to become a psychiatrist and pursue that goal the way some kids from an early age single-mindedly work at becoming a professional basketball player or a brain surgeon. The advice the voice gave me got buried.

Still, the voice must have planted some kind of powerful Jack-and-the-Beanstalk seed, because, improbably, here I was, at age twenty-nine, having hoisted my way up the slippery stalk, branch by elusive branch, about to start my psychiatric training.

All kinds of life had happened to me in the interim. I had most definitely not walked the typical path that leads to doctoring — of any kind. There'd been so much chaos in my childhood — insanity, drinking, divorces, violence, sudden uprootings and moves — and there'd been so little planning and guidance until very late that it was, well, "not jolly likely" for me to be standing in the nurses' station at a VA hospital having just finished twelve months of medical internship.

But now I had earned the chance to make good on what that voice had told me to do, and to satisfy my long-standing curiosity about the mind, which had been ignited as a kid talking about people at dinner with my gossipy family.

I knew just from what I'd learned in medical school that psychiatry was nowhere remotely close to having it all figured out, but at least now I could join the search as a certified player. I could learn what others had done and see what I could do myself.

Until now, my main instructors on human nature had been my family and my teachers, as well as Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Samuel Johnson, and all the other writers I'd come to love. But now, with medical training, I could also use science as my source, combined with the lives of real people, to take on the complexity of the mind face-to-face.


Looking back on it now, I see the pitch pines and scrub oaks common on Cape Cod, the dogged, stubby trees that greened the scenes of my early childhood, sucking all that they could out of the spare and sandy soil, unashamed of their short stature compared to grander trees off the Cape. Offering their branches to all comers, chickadees, tree sparrows, bluebirds, tufted titmice, the occasional red-tailed hawk, and crows, these spunky little trees stood above clusters of busy bushes that bustled in the breeze, surrounded by tall beach grasses that bent to the wind as one, interspersed everywhere by a variety of hardy Cape wildflowers: goldenrod and sunburst, chicory, daisies, daylilies, Queen Anne's lace, and, of course, cattails waving like fat Churchill cigars on thin brown stems near the many ponds and swamps dotting the Cape.

I see a stray snapping turtle, maybe a female on a nesting foray, inching her way from a lily pond near the road, and I see swatches of runaway sand seeping out here and there onto the highways looking like spilled café au lait, giving out-of-towners coming down Route 6 an early tease of the beach, ocean, and bay, never far away.

Once I cross the Sagamore Bridge, arching high over the Cape Cod Canal, I invariably smell the brackish ocean air and feel its slight but welcome nip, while a breeze presents the Cape's unique bouquet of honeysuckle, saltwater, roses, dead fish, and dried seaweed.

As you near the shore, whichever shore you seek, you will see a strip of beach grass guarding the way, whose bite on your feet you can feel as soon as you see it if you've ever walked through beach grass barefoot before — as I did thousands of times as a child — set off along the road by a pointillist array of rose hips, huckleberries, purple thistle, beach plums, and blue hydrangeas.

If the shore pulls you in closer, you will see the dry, tufted portion of the beach with sand that's laborious to walk through, especially if you're carrying a picnic basket, spanning out in front of the band of beach grass. Beyond that is a line of greenish-black seaweed blistering in the sun, marking the last high tide, perhaps concealing a lost horseshoe crab or two deep enough still to be damp. Beyond that lies wet, firm sand creating, at low tide, a vast, glassy surface that scores of sandpipers busily scamper across like nature's committed commuters, their trident footprints and the tiny eddies they stir quickly smoothed over by the sheen of water, while scavenging seagulls, the unofficial mascots of Cape Cod, glide gracefully above, pellet-sized eyes searching, orange tweezer beaks waiting for the snatch, when suddenly, abruptly one of them breaks the serenity of the scene and dives straight down for a fish, a crab, periwinkles, or picnickers' forgotten food.

Craggy wooden lobster pots, dried-up barnacles still stuck to them, stacked up in front yards, decked out with multicolored buoys, often next to an old rust-stained boat in serious need of a paint job up on stilts; makeshift roadside stands selling homemade crab apple, beach plum, or honeysuckle jelly in Mason jars with red-bordered handwritten labels gummed onto them, next to flimsy bushel baskets made of sweetgum slats and wire overfilled with ears of corn, silk hanging from them like brownish-yellow bangs in need of a trim; each town's ballfield spiffed up and festooned with pennants and balloons for the Cape League baseball season; bandstands, town greens, bars with "surf," "clam," "stormy," or "tide" in their names; hunky or paunchy cops whose private lives the locals knew all too well and would pick over as if they were blue claw crabs offered up as a succulent snack; and white churches with sloping lawns next to hardware stores and banks, bars next to gas stations behind which dirt roads curl, bump after bump, downward away from the main drag toward a beach or a lake or a pond — all this and more combined to create the colorful backdrop for many story lines, most unknown to me, that wove around my family and childhood: vines of malice and thickets of love.

The Cape in the 1950s was home to many families like mine — not that there were any families quite like mine. Ragtag misfits, stubborn iconoclasts, beach bums, disillusioned dreamers, skeptical believers, and multigenerational natives whose people had never known anything but life on this sea-beaten, bent-arm-shaped peninsula, the year-round Cape population was full of odd lots, people who loved the Cape primarily because it was set apart from the mainland. Most true Cape Codders valued the canal far more than the bridge over it.

Of course, as a kid, I was just a little boy wolfing down life every day as it was fed to me, looking forward to tomorrow, unaware and unconcerned if my life was like anyone else's or not.


Every day I move back and forth in time, memory continually stitching in the myriad bits and scraps from days gone by that knit the past and the present into a single, ever-growing robe.

But even with memory's help, I can't display the garment whole. I have to pick and choose what to put on display, much as I did as a kid when I'd go with my cousin, Jamie — four years older than me and my best friend — to one of the many fields around us in Chatham and select among the array of wildflowers which ones to pluck and bring home to put on the dining room table. My life has been decked with wildflowers of all sorts: uncultivated, lovely outliers, eccentrics, many of whom I loved and learned from.

As I stood in the nurses' station at age twenty-nine, having wrapped up the medical business of the morning, the unlikelihood of my being there enveloped me like a waking dream, as if I were that day entering into a romance come true. That fit; my family was a family of romantics, and we paid the steep price romantics usually do.

Right then I thought of Marnie, one of those wildflowers I grew up with. Perhaps because she was not a romantic at all but rather a practical, opinionated, and brazenly iconoclastic woman, Great-aunt Marnie popped into my mind as I was finishing up my year. "Look at me, Marnie!" I wanted to shout. "It actually happened!"

"Isn't that nice, petty," she would have said, using her peculiar term of affection. "Send me a postal card and tell me all about it." Not a postcard, but a postal card, that was the term she would have used. Certainly do not spend the extra two cents to send a letter when a postal card will do. There's never all that much to say, anyway, now is there? She wasn't cheap, just respectful of every penny because she had to make do on very little.

In our years of boarding schools and college, Jamie, Lyndie — his older sister by two years — and I often visited Marnie at her Boston apartment at 92 Revere Street on Beacon Hill. Marnie's living area was quite bare, as she couldn't afford much, but it felt to us like an enchanted palace, an escape from school and a haven in the big city. We would always bring her a rotisserie chicken from Schrafft's down the street to thank her for having us. She stretched that one chicken to last a week, ending it up in a soup.

She slept on a day bed that doubled as a sofa in her sparse living room. Propped up by remnant store throw pillows, she would lie next to the window listening to the Pops — how she loved Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, which she would conduct in the air with one bony arm as she lay on the bed — and listening to talk shows on the radio late into the night. She loved political talk and controversy, and Jerry Williams supplied both.

She rented out three of the rooms in the apartment, providing what little income she made. She was pretty much a socialist, so the rents she charged were well below market rate. But she wanted to rent to deserving down-and-outers. A hard worker herself, she washed her tenants' sheets in her sink, wrung them out by hand as best she could, then lugged them up several flights to the roof to dry on a line in the open air.

Now and then her brother Eric would appear when he was depressed, taking up temporary residence in one of her rooms. This was long before "depressed" had achieved anything like its current status as a well-recognized medical diagnosis. To most people, including your average doctor, depressed meant at best mentally ill — at worst, weak, lazy, manipulative, parasitic or possessed.

Marnie didn't see it that way. She knew Eric couldn't help how he felt. He deserved no blame. He needed help, so she took him in. Others would call her a born sucker. We young folk saw her as a kind of rooming-house Mary Poppins, and we loved her.

Eric would retreat into his room like a mole into a hole, turn off the lights, pull down the shades, and stay for however many weeks it took until he was ready to emerge. A couple of times a day Marnie would leave a plate of food on the floor. When hungry, he'd open his door a crack, reach one arm out, and snatch the plate back into his room. When asked, Marnie would casually say, "Oh, don't worry about Eric, he's just having one of his spells." When his depression lifted, he'd don his dark blue business suit, white shirt, and tie and walk down the three flights of stairs and back into the world.


Excerpted from "Because I Come From A Crazy Family"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Edward M. Hallowell.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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Because I Come from a Crazy Family: The Making of a Psychiatrist 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
JCL7 More than 1 year ago
I just finished reading Dr. Edward Hallowell's newest book "Because I Come From A Crazy Family - The Making Of A Psychiatrist" and was blown away [and greatly inspired] by his life story. He has a remarkable gift of writing in such a manner that I felt like he was sitting down next to me and tell me his story directly. Though he has written many professional books on a multiple of topics, many connected with ADHD, this publication is an intimate view into his life span starting in early childhood up to the present. It is very unusual - at least in my world - to hear a md/psychiatrist talk so honestly about their own life struggles, including a family history of child maltreatment, mental illness and alcoholism. Throughout this story, by his own examples, he shows us how to frame and reframe those challenges we face in everyday life and learn the critical life lessons around acceptance, humility, spirituality and especially the healing power of our person to person relationships. I laughed. I cried. I was moved. I was astounded, I was most impressed by his willingness to keep it real by sharing "the good, the bad, and not so pretty nor polite" side of being raised by a perfectly human family whose members struggle with grief, loss, trauma and multiple challenges that many of our families also do - yet still show the primary, positive and loving nature of family relationships. Family is what it is all about! Mega-Thanks!