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21 October, 2007

FATHER AND SON: BERNARD M. TIMBERG, PH.D. and MR. ELI SEVCIK-TIMBERG

BERNARD M. TIMBERG has an interdisciplinary Ph.D from the University of Texas-Austin. He has been a college professor of Media Studies for over twenty years. He is presently a freelance writer, speaker, media consultant, and organizer of a public film series in Charlotte, North Carolina. His interests include film, bluegrass and old time music, shaping narratives and recording “turning points” in peoples’ lives, and, most recently, mental health education. ELI SEVCIK-TIMBERG is 19 years old, a rising sophomore at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut and Dr. Timberg’s son. Eli’s interests include rugby and soccer, debate, politics, economics, drawing and art, math, Russian history, and avante garde comic books.

Bernard M. Timberg, Ph.D. and Mr. Eli Sevcik-Timberg are our first Father-and-son team of Contributing Editors. They are powerfully profound voices in the “Global Dialogue on Fatherhood”. Their words will move you to tears . . . to laughter . . . and will cause you to do some serious soul-searching. Dr. Timberg and his son Eli have a story to tell . . . a message to deliver. Their story is about the special relationship that exists between Father and son. Their message is one of hope, love, overcoming obstacles and transcending boundaries.

. . . So, here they are -- Father and Son . . .


A SINGLE FATHER SPEAKS
BY: BERNARD M. TIMBERG, PH.D.
[PUBLISHED WITH AUTHOR’S PERMISSION]

You have battled for the right to see him, raise him, pay for his college education, but on the forms they send you from the college Financial Aid Office, you are called “a non-custodial parent.” Well, it’s not as bad as “deadbeat dad,” but somehow it doesn’t sound right. As far as you’re concerned, you’re a “full,” no-qualifications-necessary “parent.” It might seem small to others, and others might say, who don’t understand this response: “What put the chip on his shoulder”? But this is just this kind of “little” thing, under our present tax-code and legal system, that can begin to make you feel “powerless,” and feelings of powerlessness are both cause and symptom of depression. Fortunately, journals like In Search of Fatherhood® and activists like Journal Editor Diane Sears give us the chance to express ourselves, often for the first time, in our own voices in print. And we begin to sense the power we have in the “nurturing,” support roles we have played as parents.

I can’t say I agree with everything I have heard and read in the “father’s movement.” I have been repelled at times by the anger, hurt and violence in the voices of displaced fathers -- parents who have felt compelled, as I have, to battle within the legal system for a purchase on time with our children. I also identify with many of these voices.

To the others who are in my place now, a divorced, single father, I would like to hold out some hope to you in that long, often lonely battle to win time with our kids. There is a definite light at the end of the tunnel. It didn’t seem so at first. I can remember days when the single thing that sustained me was picking up my son and driving him to soccer practice. It was only a half hour ride, and he slept through most of it, but it kept me going.

What made it worthwhile in the end—those dark and murky days that slip like fog through my memory now, too painful to grasp—was watching my son emerge as a stronger person. They have to become strong, those children who have to be adults when their parents aren’t. They see marriages that seemed at first so natural and reliable, fall apart. And it is rarely a neat, civil process. These kids have had to come to terms with the idea that they can be loved by two people who, for a long time, have bitterly divided views of the world. And they are in the midst of anger and angst and self-pity—on both sides--for years. Though no parent wills it, and the best parents actively fight it, the children become a conduit for bitterness, for indirect cries for help, for the kind of regression that causes grown people to throw temper tantrums like babies. How can this possibly not damage the children of separation and divorce? How can they maintain themselves, their own integrity and sense of self, in the mist of turmoil, outward and inward, that even the parents don’t understand?

My son had a crucial ally in this--his sister, my ex-wife’s daughter by a previous marriage. She was six years older than him and was away at college most of the time. But through late night calls and advice (and the miracle of email) my son’s older sister was absolutely indispensable to him in maintaining his sense of self and navigating the roiling waters of the divorce. “It’s their problem, not yours,” she told him. Don’t fall into any of those traps. Don’t let them guilt-you. Don’t take sides. Let them work it out.”

He did get through it. You’ll get a glimpse of him, and some clues to how he came out of it, in what follows. I think you’ll see that my son can be something of a wise guy. It’s a protective layer of humor that has served him well over time. But I think you’ll also see through that Teflon layer of humor, the person that lies beneath the quips, a person who figures things out as he goes along but claims his own view of the world from solid ground.

* * *

MY TRIP TO THE DEPRESSION BIPOLAR SUPPORT ALLIANCE (DBSA) WITH MY DAD
BY: MR. ELI SEVCIK-TIMBERG
[PUBLISHED WITH AUTHOR’S PERMISSION]

So the question I was secretly asking everyone in the room was: “Why are you wasting your time here? It’s a gorgeous Tuesday evening why not go to your favorite hangout, or stay home with the family, or simply chat it up with your friends.” All questions were eventually answered as the night progressed.

I was attending the DBSA, the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance with my dad. He was diagnosed or at least self-diagnosed bipolar some two to three years ago. His story, from my point of view goes something like this.

For most of my childhood, my father was a very hard worker—to the point of insanity in my opinion. He and I would go to soccer tournaments together and while the other grown-ups socialized in the motel bar, my dad was up in the room grading papers and plotting his next film series. Not that he isn’t social, nope, far from it, as any acquaintance who has the bad luck of bumping into him in the street can attest, and not that I was a neglected child, he almost always made time in his work for me, but my point is, that he worked at his different teaching jobs unlike most grown-ups I had ever known. Then, about four years ago, a series of dramatic events that happen to most grown-ups over the course of a lifetime happened to my father in the space of two months. He separated from my mom, he lost his job, and his mother died. My pops seemed to be coping alright, but one day during the spring of my sophomore year, a couple months after all this had happened, my dad informed me that he was checking himself into a psychiatric out-patient program.

The next three years went by without much talk of my dad’s mental health, and without my inquiring. It seemed those years spent in his bachelor pad were intermittently very busy (usually with a poorly thought-out business venture) and, well, not busy. I caught glimpses of his life when I would spend Friday nights with him and when he drove me home from school. On some days he would say something like, “I couldn’t bring myself to do much today,” but on others I would fall asleep in the car while he was still rambling excitedly about a project. These glimpses were all I got; never did we directly discuss my dad’s mental health. I guess he thought I had enough going on between high school politics, sports and keeping up with schoolwork; and the fact is, I didn’t want to know. I could handle the fact that my dad’s fashion sense was terrible, and I could acknowledge that he was way too talkative, but having psychiatric problems was too much. I guess in my mind it made him seem weak and I hated to think about him that way.

So the next time my father talked directly to me about his mental health, it was during my freshman year of college. Once in a while he’d mention that lately he had been feeling depressed, but more often he would be telling me about this new group he joined that helped him deal with his depression/bipolar behavior. This group, it seemed, had become a big part of his life. Not only did he attend the two-hour session on Tuesday nights but he would also spend a couple of hours afterward in a local diner with these other depressed folks gabbing the night away, go away on weekends to workshops, and spend hours thinking up new activities (the latest being a film series) for the group.

When I came home from school on a spring break, my dad invited me to go with him to a DBSA meeting. I was a little hesitant. After all, hanging around with a group full of depressed people on a precious spring break night was not my idea of fun. I ended up being wrong. When I stepped into the cramped meeting room in the St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, the loud din of people talking and joking greeted me. There were barely any chairs available so my dad and I sat in different locations. Upon sitting down, a woman in her mid-fifties looked at me quizzically for a couple of seconds and then asked with a grandmotherly smile if I was Bernard Timberg’s son—she had seen us walk in together. We began to chat about college, the state of my dad’s apartment (in perennial disarray), which she was helping to organize, and her thoughts about the DBSA group (all positive, a highlight of her week).

The meeting was then called to order. A social worker gave a forgettable talk about something or other, and then a member of the group spoke for a while about the new resources available for depression, which was quite a bit better. The meeting became much more interesting when we split up into smaller groups and headed to different rooms in the church.

My group of about ten headed for a room with five, big, comfy couches arranged in circle and sat down, relieved for the respite from the hard metal folding ones in the main meeting room. Here in this circle of couches we went around in a circle and explained why we attended this meeting. On this night, there were three new people counting me. As each person took their turn, I noticed the diversity of the group. The members represented a wide range of racial, economic and social backgrounds, though older, white females were the strong majority. The somber tales of battling depression were interlaced with jokes and references to even older jokes that this group shared.

Probably the scariest thing about depression and other culturally taboo afflictions is the loneliness of it. I have felt down and out of it, but never longer than a couple of days, and it was often curable with some strenuous exercise. Being clinically depressed is something that lasts “over two weeks,” I learned from the DBSA and my dad. But in the back of my mind I know that at some point these bouts might not go away so easily, and that thought scares me. However, I am a little less scared knowing there is an increasingly organized and tight knit community of bipolar and depressed persons that I can come to.

Unlike having the pneumonia, depressed and bipolar people cannot broach the subject at the company water-cooler. As I see it, the DBSA and other such groups provide a community to those afflicted with depression. And hopefully, through the work of these groups and the spreading awareness, this disease will lose the stigma that makes it so much worse for the people who suffer from it.

* * *

WHAT’S SO FUNNY ABOUT BEING BIPOLAR? THE DEPRESSION BIPOLAR SUPPORT ALLIANCE OF CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA
BY: BERNARD M. TIMBERG, PH.D.
[PUBLISHED WITH AUTHOR’S PERMISSION]

Come into a certain 24-hour diner on Central Avenue in Charlotte, North Carolina on any Tuesday evening and you will see a group of about 25 people grouped around a long table. They seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. Jokes and repartee fly, but there are intense, serious conversations as well.

This may not be your idea of a group of depressed people. Yet each of these people has been hospitalized, sometimes repeatedly. They have also experienced the “highs” of bi-polar disorder, and have come, usually slowly and painfully, to understand the consequences.

The people at the diner having such a rollicking good time are members of the Depression Bi-Polar Support Alliance (DBSA), a national nonprofit peer support group dedicated to spreading awareness, information and support for those who suffer from depression and bi-polar conditions, and to exchange information on medicine, therapy, tips and clues on how to control the disease.

Some in the group play a special role. There are twelve facilitators, indicated by bold face on the phone list of some 140 members who have come to meetings over the past year. One of them was a nurse for many years and now is the co-secretary of the group. Another works full-time for the Billy Graham organization in Charlotte. Another, born and raised in Charlotte, worked as a counselor and therapist for many years in the prison system of North Carolina. One is the full-time manager of a store in the fast food industry. Yet another teaches college full-time in addition to a new career as a stand-up comic. Some are working full time, some working part-time, some are on disability. But they are all sharing information, food, and fellowship here and they are part of a national movement.

DBSA has a grassroots network of more than 1,000 patient-run support groups across the country. More than 55,000 people attend peer-led support groups every year. Support groups play an important role in recovery with 86 percent of members reporting that their group helped with treatment adherence. [Information from http://www.dbsalliance.org/info/aboutdbsa.html.] And many in the Charlotte group say the support group—in a time of rising costs for medication and counseling and cuts in public psychological services—has done more for them than medication and counseling combined.

The local chapter of DBSA has been expanding rapidly under the dynamic leadership of Mike Weaver and the twelve facilitators, who receive special training along with others from the Greensboro Mental Health Association. The facilitators share the responsibilities in running the Tuesday night and Saturday morning meetings, with three other groups currently being set up to meet rising demand. One of these “signature” groups focuses on the family members and support people, another focuses on anxiety, and a third on looking for or maintaining a job. Having all suffered from the illness themselves, Mike and the other facilitators bring a special “peer” understanding to these sessions. No one is talking down to the people in the group. The group is based on self-sustained dialogue, with careful rules about listening, attending, not interrupting or “cross-talking.” Each brings his or her talents, ideas, and sense of humor to the table.

And there is plenty to do in a DBSA support group. Leading or participating in discussions, writing by-laws, organizing minutes, negotiating with local churches for rooms for the new chapters, making phone calls, and—most important of all—simply being there to support others in the group. If someone is so down that they are thinking about suicide, facilitators in the group have received special training on what to do. If nothing else, the group and the community that is formed by it break down the walls of isolation that many in the group have suffered from. With no outside funds or “sponsors”, it is all done democratically and from within.

The whole idea that people with various forms of mental illness are not freaks, not the stereotypes that spring to mind from all those the scary “asylum” films, is important to breaking down the barriers within the group. Members learn that people can become ill and can recover, just as people with physical illnesses do. And evidence is mounting to support what group members say--that they do so quicker and better by getting together and supporting each other.

In many ways, the people in this group are better off than those who have the condition and “cover” it. Others are still going to work, coming home, and maintaining themselves, no matter how unhappy they become or how much pain and trouble they inflict on their family. It is easier to “self-medicate” with alcohol and drugs than face the issue. The group operates on the premise that you can’t fix something until you know what it is, and that you should use all available resources to do so. Although there are many complaints about the bureaucracy and frustrations of psychological services, the group has a good cooperative relationship with therapists and psychiatrists in the area, who attend and speak to the group once or twice a month with current information and thinking about depression and bipolar disorders in the medical and therapeutic professions.

The people around the table at the diner share stories about their flights of mania or “hypomania,” flying “high” as they put it, a constant level of energy and productivity that makes them feel good, more than good, for long periods of time--until the inevitable crash. People use humor and jokes to deal with their periods in their life and some of the things they have done--gambling away the family money; getting into a series of car accidents or wrecks or crashes and remaining blithely intact each time, hardly noticing them; going full steam ahead in grand business deals despite cautionary advice or warnings. This can go that way for days, weeks, years. The longer it goes the greater the damage, the deeper the crash, the harder it is to get off the floor. There is more subtle form of mania (“hypomania”) that is harder to detect, but it follows the same pattern. And group members, and partners or family members who come to support them, share these stories.

Here’s an example of how members of the group help each other from mid-March of 2005. One of the members of the Saturday morning group proposed that people exchange or barter skills. He—like many other depressed people--had been having a horrible time doing the basic organizing in his apartment. He had bogged down in a minefield of boxes, books, pieces of projects begun and left undone. Answering the mail or even basic email had proved such a struggle that he simply didn’t do it for weeks, even months at time. Now, he told the group, he was coming out of his depression and wanted to get things back in order. But he really didn’t know where to start, it was all such a mess. The people in the smaller Saturday group (there were about a dozen there at the time) gave him the encouragement and support he was looking for. He basked in their attention as they quietly applauded his statements about turning the corner in his depression. And he launched a new idea, to simply formalize what had been going on already, a skills exchange for the people in the group. He was looking for someone to help him organize his apartment, and he in turn would exchange a service to that person. People seemed receptive to the idea, but it seemed at that moment as if no one would actually devote the time and energy to make it happen.

Then, quietly, at the end of the meeting, before the group went on to its ritual, convivial lunch at the local Soup and Salad Restaurant, a vivacious woman in her early 50s came over. “You know, I like getting organized,” she said. “Maybe I could help you. Do you want me to take a look?” “What would I barter,” he answered. “We’ll figure that out,” she said. And she came over that very afternoon. She later confided that she had looked at the piles of paper and videotapes and books sliding off shelves, and she had said to herself, yes, this will be a challenge.

They plunged in and for eight hours--with a break for dinner at a local Chinese restaurant—they started to recover a corner of the room. It was hard, dusty work, delving into items that had not been seen for years, but Marie, a facilitator with the group, wouldn’t let the person get too involved with any one item. The reclamation work, and the sometimes backbreaking work lifting and shifting boxes to sort, was complemented by the dry, repetitive and meticulous tasks of sorting through , and testing, scores of pens and mechanical pencils to see which ones worked. They began to clear spaces, transforming the layout of the office as they tossed, threw things away, sorted. After several sessions the apartment office started to become useable!

I will drop the reportorial third person at this point. That person helped was me. The person who helped me was Marie Robertson. The DBSA helped get me out of a depression that had lasted five months. I feel about it, and speak about it to others, the way some who have experienced the “12-Step Program” and “the Book” explain how that support group has helped them get out of their alcoholism (some members of the group have also benefited from AA).

Part education, part social life, part exchange of information on medications and experiences with an often exasperating medical establishment, the group that comes Tuesday nights to St. Martin’s Episcopal Church on Seventh Street in Charlotte--quietly intently drinking in the words each month of guests, therapists, psychiatrists, legal and social workers who comes in to speak to them—are representative of groups that are meeting all over the country.

The number of Americans suffering from depression at any one time has been estimated as from 5-7 %. The number of people suffering from bipolar disorder and depression alone is now estimated to be from 1.2 to 2% of the population. If you don’t have, or haven’t had, a depressed person in your family, you probably know people who do. People who are already dealing with underlying family and personal problems have been put under new, sometimes unbearable pressures by the job losses and restructuring that have accompanied the new “globalized” economy.

Recently, a number of pop culture celebrities have “come out” on this issue. Jane Pauley’s autobiography, published shortly before the launch of her new daytime talk show, candidly describes her own struggle. A Hollywood film is in the works, starring Toby McGuire, that will treat the disease with humor. People who are on medications are now heard at social gatherings openly referring to their “meds” or “cocktails” (combinations of anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and/or mood stablizers). And it is not just at Hollywood parties that the “unspeakable” is now becoming spoken. Artists have long been known to ride the roller coaster of the cycle from high to terrible low. But now psychologists, doctors and scholars like Kay Redfield Jamison have provided more understanding of the mental and psychological conditions that have afflicted artists as diverse as Byron, Tennyson, Melville, William and Henry James, Coleridge, van Gogh, Hemingway, and Virginia Woolf.

As awareness and medical treatments and studies progress, it is possible that bipolar disorder is becoming, as one writer put it, “the illness of the decade,” but the stigma remains. The people at the late night diner in Charlotte, North Carolina are part of a grassroots movement to do something about it.
____________
The full version of Dr. Timberg’s article on the DBSA can be obtained by contacting him directly via e-mail at btimberg@carolina.rr.com. Excerpted from the "Legacy" -- Summer 2005 issue of IN SEARCH OF FATHERHOOD(R) FORUM FOR AND ABOUT THE FATHERS OF THE WORLD exclusively published and distributed by BSI International, Inc. (www.bsi-international.com) -- ALL RIGHTS RESERVED -- (C) 2005.

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