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One Version of a Family Story

Special thanks to Judy Ball who helped me edit this version.


It is unusual for me to write something about my family on this web site. But I think this is a family story that may be useful to those with a serious illness in someone they love.

One of the first things I admired about Dr. Bowen was that he wrote about how he managed himself in his own family. No one had ever written about the family as an emotional unit. The Anonymous paper (1967) ( Family Therapy in Clinical Practice by Murray Bowen,) detailed the story of his exploring complex emotional forces by breaking up old patters of communication, and eventually being in better contact with important people in his family.

The key was to lower anxiety in himself. Read and see for yourself the complex strategy he followed to be more separate but in better contact with his family. Bowen did not give us three steps to follow, but rather told a story of understanding the forces in the family as a sailor reads the winds and understands the sea.

The first time I met Dr. Bowen (1976) I was working in a psychiatric hospital,hoping to understand Manic Depressive illness in my brother, who was two years younger. The psychiatrists that I saw were not hopeful. In stark contrast I listened to Dr. Bowen give an un-convention talk to the world of conventional psychiatry. He presented a new world view where the problem was no longer in the patient but in the relationship system as a whole.

Bowen talked about detwitching rats and rebuilding family relationships to overcome serious problems. Any problem created in a relationship could be solved in one. His talk was hopeful. I took him seriously, and signed up for the special post graduate program. Eventually I found that working on my own anxiety, and detwitching anxiety in others could be fun, even if I was not great at it. Great means people do not get mad at you for your attempt to get outside the emotional system. Two factors anyone can work on are lowering the level of anxiety in the system and making an effort to increase one’s level of maturity. The only reasoned thing I can do is work on me.

July one year ago, my uncle died. I was not expecting serious symptoms but I noticed a few problems scattered around in the family. Then in April my youngest brother popped a manic episode. As noted I have been working on Bowen’s principle finding – breaking up old patters of communication and eventually being in better contact with important people in the family, for thirty years, nevertheless a bipolar episode in a family member is not an easy matter for anyone.

As I reflect back on the initial origins of his problems, its easy to focus on Drew not having a good start in life. His parents were drinking, as a way to handle what we now call post traumatic stress disorder. One factor is that my brother was very affected by the psychological cost of WW II.

Coincidently one of the events that motivated Bowen to get into psychiatry was his experience during the war. He saw that the biggest problem was the psychological cost of war and not just the physical causalities.

As a reminder of the impersonal continuing cost of war today we have the new Clint Eastwood film, “Flags of Our Fathers.” The three main characters who participated in raising the flag in Iwo Jima were taken out of the conflict, and put on a bond tour. Although these men left the war they never escaped it. The movie demonstrates one of the problems, flash backs, that distorts many families lives. During the bond drive, the pop of a camera bulb, a flash of lightning and the bang of a backfiring car engine instantly return the three to the island and its horrors, a blurring between past and present that occurs, with seamless, ruthless efficiency.

The toll of war is one factor out of at least seven, in a family becoming weaker over the generations. Wars often must be fought, and the toll will be extracted, but people can know the cost ahead of time. I think this can make some difference in lowering the tendency to blame people if symptoms arise.

In April I was busy not noticing the building storm in the life of Drew. Eventually the phone calls came telling of the funny/scary ways my brother was behaving. The long arm of the law often captures those unable to keep a job or have insurance, as there is no treatment available unless it is court mediated. Fortunately Drew has a cousin who cared enough to get very involved in guiding Drew through the mental health system. The following is a summery letter written to the director of the state hospital where my brother stayed. I hope it raises as many questions as it answers.