Today’s guest, Rachel Steinman, is someone that I wish to emulate. I feel that she personifies hope. Rachel comes from a family that for generations has had members struggling with different mental health issues and four of her relatives died by suicide. These include her great grandfather, grandmother, grandfather and great uncle. Her mother is bipolar and her brother dealt with the demons of drug addiction.
Despite this heavy background, Rachel is optimistic, happy, has a loving marriage, two wonderfully adjusted and successful daughters and a caring, warm relationship with both her parents, who divorced when she was just eleven years old! To crown all this Rachel has a podcast called Dear Family, in which she unlocks the doors of secrecy that many families with members grappling with mental health, hide behind. Her motto: We are only as sick as our secrets.
Rachel’s childhood had been filled with great challenges. Her mother’s erratic behavior due to her undiagnosed bipolar caused Rachel to be embarrassed of her mother and not know what to expect at any given time. Her father and mother separated when she was ten due to her mother’s affairs with other men and non-stable behavior.
“My father stayed in our nice home and my mother and I moved in with her boyfriend across the tracks to the wrong side of town. He wasn’t the best role model for myself or my brother.”
“When I was one year old my grandfather, Robert, married for the third time, Susie, a Holocaust survivor who had not been blessed with any of her own children. She wanted to save me from my mother’s bipolar manic ways and took me under her wing. I was the daughter she never had. She bought me party dresses and took me out for tea.”
“My Mom never got therapy or got over the trauma of losing her mother and finding her dead by suicide. She got addicted to drugs that would numb the pain of her trauma and she just spiraled downward. Sadly, I started to do the same thing. Susie saved me by sending me to a European summer camp in Switzerland where I saw that there was another way in life.”
When she was 16, Rachel’s grandfather, Robert, a successful businessman, with a beautiful life- family, friends, and his physical health- jumped to his death from the top of his high rise home. For years she could not fathom the reason behind his suicide.
“Susie blamed my Mom and my Mom’s brother who both lived on the West Coast for my grandfather’s depression and she stopped talking to them. We lost touch for a number of years and then I realized that I was an adult and could have my own relationship with her. I contacted Susie and asked if my grandfather had left a manuscript. She said no.”
“Twenty-four years after my grandfather’s suicide, Susie passed away. I was given the key to my grandparent’s home and I found 2 manuscripts. One was a business manuscript written by a ghost writer. The second was an unfinished one which was personal. It had the family history and it was scandalous. There were a lot of missing pages in his personal manuscript but there was enough to make me work to fill in what was missing. No one else in my family was interested in reading it. Not my mother, cousins, or uncles. I was the only one.”
“While I was researching, I was digging up my own past and digging up ghosts. It was very disruptive, but when the dust settled, I was able to see clearly and it was my own incredible therapy.”
Rachel discovered there had been four deaths in the family by suicide.
Her great grandfather, Felix, who had become very wealthy canning mushrooms. He lived on Park Avenue and had a chauffeur. Then the Great Depression came and he lost his wealth.
Felix’s son was put into a mental institution and swallowed rat poison.
Her grandfather’s wife, when her mom was just 14. Her mom thinks that is when she began to suffer from mental illness, when she found her own mother dead from suicide.
Her grandfather, Robert. He had witnessed his father go from great wealth to be just ordinary and Robert committed himself to become very rich to once again attain that status. He thought it would bring them happiness.
“What was so important in this research was to understand what mental illness was all about. How it gets passed down and how I could stop it. I wanted this for the sake of my daughters.”
I shared with Rachel what I had learned from a neuro- scientist who deals in neuroplasticity: the brain is capable of being retrained even if it is programmed to suffer from a mental disease.
We both share the strong belief that in order to heal one needs to shed the stigma and be open about one’s challenges.
“All the years my mother went undiagnosed it was from a fear that she would be told that she too, like her parents, suffered from mental illness. She was afraid that she too would be put in a psych ward and get electric shock.”
“My brother, Adam, was handsome, smart athletic and had lots of friends. He also had undiagnosed ADHD. He was introduced to marijuana at a very tender age by my mother’s boyfriend. He went through college drinking the way college kids do. But when he went to law school he was introduced to crystal-meth and then he became addicted. He lived out of his car until that was repossessed.”
“I knew he was going to hit rock bottom before he would change. Then one day he reached out to me and my Mom. He got into a program called Beit Teshuva, which is a 12 step program of the Jewish faith and that saved him. He began with Shabbat services and now he does volunteering and wants to give back”
“He is 46 years old and runs AA meetings in his shop for men. These men have this community to come to whether it is their first day or tenth year of being dry. My brother was never an alcoholic but he considers himself at risk because he has an addictive personality. At times I fear that he will go back, but I don’t think he will. He has so much to live for. Giving back feels so good, it is its own drug.”
“When I was growing up I knew something was different about my mother, but as I matured, I realized that something was actually wrong. After my mother was diagnosed with bipolar she had a prolonged attack of mania. When someone is in the mania they feel great about themselves and are on all the time. She didn’t want to take her medicine, so she kept on going without sleep until she crashed. It was then that she was facing being hospitalized in a psych ward that she knew that she had to take hold of her life and be serious about taking her medication.”
“In the years before she was medicated, if my Mom visited and she was manic I would dream up excuses to go out for a bit, because she was too much to take. A constant stream of very fast talking. Today it is a pleasure to be with her and I only want to spend time with her.”
“There was never a time that I did not feel loved by my Mom. She and my Dad are very non-judgmental and I guess I inherited that from them. I am able to look at a person and see the unsavory behavior and not take it personally. I view it as their issue, not mine. I realize that if I am angry that the person who suffers from that anger is myself, not the other person.”
“My Dad is a criminal defense lawyer and he too sees the good in people. My Dad also remarried to a woman named Sonia and they have two boys, my half-siblings. Today my dad is divorced from his third wife. We get together as a large family and enjoy each other’s company.”
“If you live in the past you are depressed if you live in the future you are anxious. If you are in the moment, you are at peace.”
I myself struggle with forgiveness. I know intellectually that it hinders me to hold on to the hurt. My husband suffered a great deal while he was growing up and he learned to exercise the forgiving muscle and he is teaching me. My own childhood was rather normal and I didn’t learn to exercise the forgiving muscle. There were hurts, small ones, that I didn’t work through. Instead I just shoved them down. I believe that it was the accumulation of those undealt with hurts that caused my breakdown and panic attacks and depression.
Rachel’s vision of hope is optimism that everything will be fine and will work out. Abundance, light. Tomorrow is going to be better than today and today is great.