Behind Closed Doors

I recently returned from my beach vacation where I own a place on the very same beach where I grew up, 1600 miles away from my home in Houston. It is worth traveling a distance to get to this beach though; the scenery is spectacular, and the people there are even better than that. Since it was our local beach growing up, so many of my classmates and old neighborhood people are there, and it is a grand reunion each summer for me as I am a bit removed from it all living in Houston.

Where else in the world could I be walking down the street and hear, “Hey Arlene Nisson!!!???” Of course that is who I am down to my soul, my original name. Still, it is a thrill to hear that called out as it would never happen in Houston.

During these vacations, I am privileged to take long walks and have long talks with my bestie from the long ago days, and with whom I have stayed close despite our distance. She now has a condo just a block away from me and it is so wonderful to be able to spend so much time with her. She is so precious to me as she is a link to my past, and such a relevant and wonderful friend to have in the present time.

We sometimes analyze the very unique area of our upbringing – a city-locked area of row homes and semi-detached homes belonging to upwardly mobile, middle-class mostly Jewish residents. One of my other friends from that era now looks back and calls it a ghetto of sorts, but most of us look back with very sweet nostalgia for the special place it was for all of us. This past time we discussed being grown up enough to shop on our own at very young ages; she to Bells Corner and me to Castor Avenue – both places that hold so much sentimental regard for us even with so many years passed.

One thing that I have discussed with my bestie during our long walks, several times now, is that no one really shared their personal business, family dysfunction, or pain while growing up. Everything that took place behind closed doors was a great secret, and so many of us were struggling with lives disrupted by various demons that held our parents captive. We were all expected to fit into a cookie-cutter mold, and if we didn’t, we were an outcast.

In our era back in the sixties and early seventies, there was secrecy and repression. Some rebelled greatly at this repression, either through drugs, or by moving far away and perhaps even changing religion- I know of at least two people who did this.

I remember a friend who lived a block away who had a sick mother. Perhaps it was depression, perhaps it was cancer (the word cancer was not allowed to be verbalized at all back then) but it was never discussed why her mother never appeared at school, and why she had to rush home each day to watch her little sisters and brothers and prepare dinner. It was her big secret to keep.

I will never forget in High School, one of the most popular well-liked girls came home one day to find her mother hanged in her home. It was so horrible, we could not even talk about it. There were no counselors to help her cope, or help us understand why a person would do such a thing. (Side note: Our college counselor, who is infamous for discouraging so many from pursuing higher education, damaged so many’s self-esteem that she is still ridiculed on a Facebook page to this day.)

There was another friend who had a bipolar father who was viciously abusive, particularly in the middle of the night or in the wee hours of the morning. This friend stayed sleep deprived and in fear during her entire childhood through graduation. We did not know then why she never invited people to her home, and it was only as adults that we learned the truth of what this dear sweet person had to deal with while growing up.

Even divorce back then was a “shanda” (Yiddish for shame) and it was held against children who came from “broken homes.” Many kept the divorce secret from friends for that reason.

There was mental illness, abuse, alcoholism, divorce, and so much more going on in our world, but again, it was all contained behind the doors of our homes.

We couldn’t truly be friends in the sense of being there for another friend because we just never knew what anyone was dealing with at home. Whether it was an overly critical mother causing an eating disorder, or whether it was a Holocaust survivor parent who was understandably hopeless and morose, we could never console, listen, or be there for one another because we did not discuss these things. In fact, we did not have counselors to help us with these serious issues or even with self esteem issues, because no one was allowed to talk about such things. There was a forced silence.

Now in the days of social media and during my own children’s era, there is a frankness and honesty. Sure, kids still want to blend in, but for my own children, occasional instances such as a gay parent, or a parent’s illness warranted discussion and it was out in the open. When my divorce was happening more than 20 years ago, my children knew the reasons and details and were allowed to discuss it with friends who lent support. My friends rallied around us too. That is so important and that is why openness and honesty are so crucial. It takes a village just as the saying goes.

Of course there are still family secrets: there are still insidious issues such as abuse happening behind closed doors even today, even with a more open acceptance of differences in family type. But those cases generally speaking are darker, and more criminal and sinister.

And this brings me to a favorite rant of mine: even though we are more open now and even though life for most isn’t shrouded in secrecy behind closed doors, we have to do so much more to take away the stigma of depression and mental illness. It is pervasive, rampant and affects all of us.

I plan to do a series of blogs on mental illness – including suicide (we are having an epidemic) and eating disorders – and guest blogs to educate. We need to address mental health and mental illness and bring it out in the open.

19 comments

  • Had to go back and. catch up with the blogs I missed, while I was vacationing in July! Very good blog about our very private lives when we were children in the 50s and 60s.
    I know for myself, I continued to in that tradition until 1979. I had been very unhappy in my marriage, but shared it with no one, and kept up appearances. I remember, that year, I finally told my best friend ( who was single). Then I sat down with my mother ( excluding my stepfather and sister-in-laws), and brothers in a meeting type of forum and told them I planned on getting a divorce. Everyone was shocked, as I expected them to be. I had been so good at acting like everything was fine because of how I was raised to be a private person. Only now, my mother, in particular, didn’t appreciate not having known that I was unhappy. Because I had lived a lie around her and so many others, people couldn’t understand why I was leaving this wonderful relationship. That was the end of my holding everything in period. The friends I made during my single life we’re all about sharing, and it was a much healthier emotional environment for me to flourish. However, I must admit, I still consider myself a private person. While I do share, I am very particular about to whom I share, and what information I share.

  • I’m so glad you shared these observations. It is striking how much things have changed for the better in this regard. I look forward to reading your future blogs on mental illness! Can’t wait to continue the dialogue with my bestie

  • You have captured an interesting dynamic of the child of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s versus the children of those children. I remember my mother used to close the blinds around the house and turn on the kitchen exhaust fan, due to the noise it made, if she was going to talk about someone with Cancer, depression or having an affair (Peyton Place came to Philly). I hated that fan. I knew if I was coming home and the blinds were drawn and fan was on, there was some big social meltdown.

    • Thanks for this interesting tidbit which really adds to this piece Danny. Actually was in the middle of writing a blog that mentions you and the old Dance Club days, but published this one first because it is more important.

  • Thanks for writing this Arlene. I grew up across the street from you, as you know. Behind my door were two mentally ill parents. My father was bipolar and had OCD and Tourette Syndrome. He terrorized my mother and me. But the whole neighborhood knew about it because he used to chase me around the block with the belt on a regular basis.
    My mom was a hoarder and had agoraphobia and dementia later in life. She also had severe anxiety.
    Back then, it was no one’s business if children or spouses were abused. My father regularly did it in public and no one, not neighbors or family, cared at all.
    I am working on a memoir about all of this.

    • Wow Robbie, thank you for your powerful addition. I am stunned as we have discussed it before, and maybe I have blocked it from my memory, but I never remember seeing you chased. As we have discussed, I knew there were mental health issues, but I wasn’t smart enough to process it at the time. I think it was every man for himself mentality on those streets. Now, of course, I am a different person and would never be able to sleep at night thinking of someone suffering right in front of me. I cannot wait for your memoir. I will be your first sale. Sending hugs to you.

  • Great post, Arlene. The silence cemented the loneliness felt by so many of the kids in our generation. We have a moral obligation to break the silence and model healthy family life by expressing our stories.

    When my father died in 1966, most of my friends in Bell’s Corner didn’t know what to say. All of the families had two parents, male and female. My mother was widowed at age 34 with three kids under age 12. Our families didn’t talk about how to process grief at the time. Perhaps some healthy family discussions back then would have better prepared a whole generation to deal with loss.

    • There were no counselors available to help with grief or to guide anyone on how to show compassion. A very different time. Thanks for your touching story.

  • Excellent representation of everything being kept quiet within each household. Mental health issues were looked at with shame and embarassment. Great article.

  • After my trip to Israel this Spring I’ve rebranded my whole experience growing up in the northeast – I had no idea I was living in little Tel Aviv on so many levels. that’s what it was, especially the Jersey shore and Chelsea beach!!

  • You touched my soul

  • Great articlel. Thank you

  • Jerry Schwartz

    Nicely written and a topic of great importance.
    Thanks

  • Awesome Article !!

  • Great article! I am thinking about a corollary that captures the experience of kids like me who came truly from the ghetto. It was like interplanetary travel every day. Thanks again for being you!

    • Wow, Archie, yes, and you probably thought that WE had it all. I admire you so much for how hard you worked to become the success you are in life. Please feel free to share here or via email – I would gladly publish it.

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