My dad once wrote an article whose title stayed with me: "We never know when we are happy."
Well, as Jim Morrison sang, the opposite is also true: "I've been down so goddamn long that it looks like up to me."
On a couple of recent family visits I've reflected on a period of just a few years—1984 to 1988—when an incredible number of things went down in our family. Things that at the very least explain why we're not big Ronald Reagan fans.
A sister went into Alcoholics Anonymous.
My mother went into Alcoholics Anonymous.
A sister got a divorce, from a man we didn't care much for.
Another sister got a divorce, from a man we all loved.
A sister suffered from an eating disorder.
(I only have three sisters.)
In the middle of my junior year of high school, I was sent to drug addiction treatment for four months—one month in a locked ward in Cleveland and three months in a ward that might as well have been locked, because where was I going to go in the winter in Sioux City, Iowa? Besides, I actually loved it there.
My mother went into a nuthouse.
We should have all gone into nuthouses. But we didn't. And honestly, I don't remember feeling at the time like our family was exploding, even though it obviously was. (There was more. I'm being discreet. And forgetful. "You didn't even mention Mom and Dad’s divorce," a sister reminds me, "or Dad retiring and losing 30 lbs., along with any reason to get out of bed in the morning.")
But the family didn't explode. My mother didn't survive for long after that, but the rest of us did, with a few scars on our arms and legs. Meanwhile, during that time, I became a better tennis player, a better brother and probably a character. I got my driver's license, discovered sex (without actually having it of course), saw every James Bond movie, read The Great Gatsby and a few other good books and decided I would be a writer.
I'm 47 years old, and I think a part of my mind is continuously occupied worrying at stoplights and in my sleep, about What Could Go Wrong, and Whether I Would Be Able to Handle It.
I find it useful to look back on a time when so much went wrong, and being astonished at how I—with the flexibility of youth on my side, but also suffering from a total lack of experience—didn't only handle it, but didn't even think of it as a bad time. My adult sisters remember it a little more acutely. Says one: "When I think about those years right now, I actually flashed on the Second World War." But I never saw her in a helmet.
John Steinbeck wrote of his friend Ed Ricketts, who would give anyone his last dollar, but did not worry about psychic pain:
His feeling for psychic pain in normal people also was philosophic. He would say that nearly everything that can happen to people not only does happen to them but has happened for a million years. "Therefore," he would say, "for everything that can happen there is a channel or a mechanism in the human to take care of it—a channel worn down in prehistory and transmitted in the genes."
My oldest sister just returned from a trip to see some high school friends: "Their life stories (and the stories of their kids, other friends' lives, etc) are equally complicated. By the time you are approaching 70 everyone has a crazy period or multiple crazy periods and these people had all survived to tell their stories. We're a resilient species."
That's a comfort to know.