Overcoming Distress, Building My Capacity for Happiness

Thanksgiving, 2011

2011 has been the happiest year of my life.  2010 was the second happiest.  I have more friends, more close friends, more and better activities, and stronger connections to the community than ever before. I’ve been aware of that for some time.  But this Thanksgiving, I began to feel something new: I am successfully building my capacity for happiness.

Ken Braiterman

Sitting in temple a week before Thanksgiving, I had the feeling that I belong here. I’m connected to the people in this congregation.  Until now, I was like the old Groucho Marx joke: “I would never belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.”  In every group I was ever in, including the Jewish people, all social and political movements I’ve been part of, the newspaper I worked at, even the various mental health advocacy and reform movements, I always had one foot in and one foot out.

This new feeling of connection meant something had changed inside me, more basic than making more friends or finding new things to do.  I’d built a my capacity for happiness.

The change began in the second half of 2008.  2009 was devoted to physical illness, and I became aware of being happy in 2010. Here are the highlights:

Adding by Subtracting

  1.  In Spring, 2008, I ended my 9-year, isolating relationship, and quit my job at NAMI NH.  I was so stressed that winter that I thought my mental illness was coming back. I changed medication twice, but got worse each time because my problem was severe stress, not a “chemical imbalance in the brain.”  When I left the relationship and the job in the same month, I got well in a week.
  2. That summer, Eisner Camp-Institute, which I directed for four traumatic years in the early 1970’s, had a 50th anniversary.  I was hired to turn around a program that was bankrupt financially, educationally, and spiritually.  The rabbi/bureaucrats and volunteer board abused me daily. I saw it through for four years, gave them their turnaround, and was ready to move on.  Instead of saying thank you, they spent a year attacking my integrity and self-esteem, and dumped me from a job I would have left anyway.  For 30 years, I carried post-traumatic rage and shame from the daily abuse by people I’d been brought up to admire.

The Roots of Happiness

I went to the camp reunion because Rabbi Dan Freelander, vice-president of

Rabbi Dan Freelander

the Union for Reform Judaism, one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever known, said all the people who hurt me were gone, and a lot of people would love to see me.  Dan had directed a program for me at Eisner, and I gave him his first job at URJ headquarters.

The reunion was a giant healing experience.  Former staffers and campers, who were now camp parents, remembered me as the guy who turned the camp around, put it on the right path, and presided over a “golden age.”  I had always known I turned Eisner around, but thought no one else did.  People finally said thank you, and the camp years became a pleasant memory of success, not a trauma that came back whenever I had to go to a synagogue, even for a happy family occasion.

In the fall, 2008, I met Corinna West at a conference, and we became

Corinna West, my favorite living poet

very close very fast. I saw her perform her best spoken word poem, “Because I Can,” about her career as a 3-time national judo champ, and member of the 1996 US Olympic Judo team.  When I saw her in the hotel lobby the next day, I said, “I can’t write like that. I hate you.”

I was writing a history of the mental health recovery movement, and wanted to compare my first experience as a patient in 1977 with someone 25 years younger. “Ken the writer” could approach a very attractive stranger and start a conversation.  Just plain Ken could not have done that.  But asking for an interview was not a pick-up line.  I really was writing something, and really did want to interview her.

We had the interview over the phone after the conference, and then started talking as friends.  Talking on the phone two or three times a week, we embraced “radical” ideas about the mental health system. There is no chemical imbalance or “mental illness gene.” The public mental health system keeps people sick and dependent, addicted to medication and disability benefits. We need to get people out of the system, not into it, and create alternatives because, in addition to being bad for people, government can no longer sustain it financially unless people start getting well and “graduating.”  Corinna now sells a tee-shirt at that is very popular at conferences, “Please cut our budget; we’ll show you how.”

(My mentor in the consumer movement, David Hilton, who took his life in 2007, was an “extremist” who believed all this. We used to fight about it.  I now think he was right all along, but I manage to believe it without being as angry as he was. I was never a victim of forced treatment and confinement; he was and never got over the trauma the mental health system inflicted on him.)

CW and I also formed the most equal, mutual peer support relationship I’ve ever seen. We taught each other wellness tools and picked each other up when one of us was down.  Any time my self-esteem slipped, I’d say, “If a brilliant, creative class act like Corinna says you’re her best friend, you must be pretty good.”

In October, ’08, I gave myself a “testimonial dinner” for my 60th birthday.  I invited 30 people and 30 came.  Each one told a story about their relationship with me.  My family, Henniker friends, and mental health movement friends did not know one another, and they saw sides of me they never had.  After that, I had proof that I was a guy whose life made a difference to people, someone people liked and respected.

In 2009, doctors removed a small growth on my kidney.  Then I went to rehab for my back.  I was in constant pain, walked with a distinct shuffle, and fell down in the street several times when my back and hips could not hold my weight.  All that work was completely successful, and I started 2010 healthier than I had been in years.


Rabbi Robin Nafshi

In July, 2010, Rabbi Robin Nafshi and her partner Cantor Shira Nafshi came to Temple Beth Jacob. “My” Danny Freelander had convinced Robin to become a rabbi.  He said she was a rare find, who could bring me back to Judaism.  I met her in her office in July, 2010, and we hit it off.  I started going to services. In December, I formally joined the congregation.

Megan Wood Heldman

In September, 2010, I met Megan Wood Heldman at a meeting.  She struck up a conversation afterward, and said God was giving her the older, wiser friend she needed.  I was flattered that such a beautiful intuitive young woman, 35, wanted to hang out with an old guy like me. That got her invited to lunch, where I found out she was as beautiful inside as outside. Her belief in God, and disbelief in coincidence,  was consistent with who she was, a spiritual Christian, not a fundamentalist who thought Christians had the only key to Heaven, and a responsibility to bring the Good News to everybody else.

Ken Braiterman (left) and Megan Wood Heldman

We started hanging out a few hours a week. I turned her on to my music, we talked about religion, and I made her feel capable and appreciated.  We did not speak about her marriage to a guy who drank more than she could tolerate.  Her marriage was over before she met me, but in the course of knowing me, she became empowered enough to leave him and start divorce proceedings.

Megan got married and had kids too young because she thought she was supposed to get married and have kids. At 35, she was restless, thinking there was more to life than being a soccer mom.  No one had ever told her she was capable and smart until I did.  I treated her the way she wanted to be treated, saw her the way she wanted to see herself. I did not change her; she changed herself because she had to and was ready. Megan also changed me.  She’s intuitive, and has a beautiful soul. Her regard for me is unconditional.  Now, two terrific women called me their best friend.  Neither relationship is sexual, and I’m fine with that. Both add so much to my life.

Building My Capacity for Happiness

I built on each element of that foundation in 2011, which has become my happiest year so far.

Winter, 2011, was long and isolating. Passover, the start of Spring for me, was in late April, and I was depressed by the time I went to my sister’s for the holiday, and on to KC to visit Corinna.  I figured the trip would make me feel better.  I sent e-mails to Megan from Corinna’s about having an “existential crisis.”

“How long does it take to get over an existential crisis?” she asked.

“I’ll let you know,” I answered.

Instead of improving, my feelings got locked in a closet, and festered. They poured out much worse on the bus ride to New Hampshire from Logan Airport.

I arrived home seriously suicidal, and made a suicide plan for the first time in a lifetime of surviving suicidal feelings without ever attempting.  These feelings were different from other suicidal feelings I survived.  I decided I would not call for help as I always had before.  For the first time, I did not care about the effect it would have on my mother. That had always stopped me from attempting when nothing else did.

I had no purpose. My accomplishments were great, but behind me. There was nothing left I needed to accomplish to feel my life was complete. I decided to “drink the Kool-Aid” in a week or two if I could last that long in such pain, and my mood, which I could no longer control, did not improve on its own.

Corinna, the chiseled athlete

One night, I was on Facebook at 3 a.m., and wrote some self-hating comments on some photos of me Corinna had taken on my visit. The phone rang a few minutes later.  “You’ve given up,” Corinna said. “I lost a friend last year, and I’m not going to lose another one.”

We talked about 30 minutes about how I was too isolated, and needed more activities to get me out among people.  A volunteer activity I’d been working hard on since September, where I made several new friends, had imploded in March, and had not been replaced.

CW and I brainstormed:  the rabbi teaches a Bible class every Wednesday.  I decided to take another look at college courses for seniors, which I had always felt too young and too good for.  I would go outside and take pictures

Megan’s front yard

with the digital camera CW gave me when she got a new one.  I would talk to people at temple on Friday nights.

Temple is all married couples, usually with children. They do not include mature single men, I believed.  They always formed closed circles and talked to each other.

I started taking picures outside that afternoon, and attending weekly Torah study with the rabbi that Wednesday.

CW is great at talking to strangers (networking), who stop being strangers right away. I was terrible because I did not believe anyone wanted to talk to me, despite plenty of evidence that a lot of people thought I was pretty interesting – past traumas controlling my life in the present.

“When you see a group of people talking,” she said, “go join them, and they’ll start talking to you.”

I tried it.  She was right.  CW can always put her finger on what’s troubling me (isolation this time), and always has an idea for something to do about it.  She says I do the same for her, and she always feels better after she talks to me.  Considering the source, knowing that does wonders for me.

One night at my house, I mentioned my washtub bass to Megan, and she insisted I get it out of the closet, where it had been since 1997, except for a cameo appearance at my 60thbirthday party.  I was terribly rusty, but with her encouragement, I kept it out of the closet and started practicing.

Ken and Becky Wetherill Mercier

So, in 2010, I reconnected with Judaism, my music, and Becky Wetherill Mercier, things that were once the cornerstones of my life that I’d been separated from for 35, 14, and 10 years respectively.

The ex who isolated me did not like Becky, the first person I met the first night I moved to NH in 1977.  My ex did not like any of my friends, or being reminded that there was anything good about my life before I met her.  There’s something wrong with you if you don’t like Becky. Becky was also my music partner, a professional-quality folk musician who wanted to be a wife and mother instead.

All that reconnection added up to reconnection with myself.

In the summer of 2011, the temple gave Cantor Shira a contract to be our first ordained cantor.  Before that, we had vocal soloists, classically-trained singers with far less education in Judaism and Jewish sacred music than a cantor.  Shira was a camp song leader before she was anything else.  Her first music was the sacred music revolution pioneered in the late ‘60’s and

‘70’s by Danny Freelander, Debbie Friedman, and Jeff Klepper at Reform Jewish camps and youth retreats.  I had worked with Debbie when she was a teen-ager just starting to write songs; Jeff and Danny worked for me at Eisner.  Jeff was the first camp song leader to become an ordained cantor.

Cantor Shira Nafshi

Shira was part of what became a movement of song leaders and composers that changed Jewish music from operatic soloists to something people could sing.  She also has a gorgeous lyric soprano voice and can sing anything.  I joined Shira’s High Holy Day choir.  Robin put out a call for volunteers to chant Torah or Haftorah during the Holy Days.  I chanted a few verses from my favorite Bible story, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac.

I’ve had Rabbi Robin and Cantor Shira to my house for dinner twice.

Katy Gibney (left)

Temple Beth Jacob has another, much less formal music group called the TBJ Jammers, led by Katy Gibney.  I like the group’s sound, repertoire, and Katy’s assertive piano playing, so I asked her if I could sing with them.  “Sure, but do you play an instrument? That would be even better,” she said.

“I play washtub bass.”  When I mention washtub bass to a “real” musician, I’m never sure if they’ll laugh at me and kick me out of the group.

“Great,” she said, “but can you play it on pitch.”  I’m one of the few players who can.  When Becky and I played in the campground at the Philadelphia Folk Festival for several years, I learned how unusual playing a washtub on pitch was.  Thank you, Becky.

Katy and the Jammers love my playing, and Katy has become my first good friend at temple who was not friends with my brother or mother first.  Nancy Jo Chabot, who studied song leading at a Reform camp when she was a teen-ager (and looks back on meeting “celebrities” Jeff and Danny as a formative experience in her life), also plays guitar with the Jammers.  She is my second “friend in my own right” at the temple.

Megan made these connections possible when she made me take the bass out of the closet.

I also joined a temple committee, the Religious Practices Committee, not the social action committee.  A year ago, joining a temple committee would have been unthinkable. My father practically invented temple social action committees in the 1950’s, and served as Reform Judaism’s Washington representative for nearly 10 years before he became a college professor in New Hampshire.  I did not want to do social action with this temple.

Shabbos Lech L’cha, which fell on November 5, 2011, was the 50th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah. I chanted my Torah portion.

I attended my first committee meeting right after a Jammers rehearsal on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  The committee adjourned to attend a memorial service for a congregant’s mother.  I knew the congregant and her husband, not the mother, but I learned at the memorial service that many people in temple knew and loved her.  This temple has great competence at being a community.   At this memorial service, I had this brand new feeling of belonging.

Saturday, Dec. 10, the temple is having a talent show.  I’ll be singing and playing bass with the Jammers, and also doing a song with Becky, “Pinball Wizard,” from our old act.  People have heard “Pinball Wizard” before, but never on a 5-string banjo and washtub bass.  Hearing something you’ve always known in a completely new way is often more striking than something you’ve never heard.

Megan continues to grow, become empowered, and (mistakenly) give me credit.  I modeled empowerment for her, but she is doing all the heavy lifting, changing herself in ways few people can.  Watching and being part of her growth is a big part of what her friendship gives me, but her natural optimism, positivity, and love of life inspire, enhance, and change me.

After a few years of growing dissatisfaction working within the system, Corinna got fired from her job at Mental Health America of the Heartland, and started her own social change enterprise called “Wellness Wordworks.” She turned out to be a very effective program developer and grant writer.  She creates programs using the arts and sports for people who experience emotional distress.

She made me her board chair.  Helping her with her work is now my only organized mental health activity.  After 14 years of being “Mister Consumer Advocate” in NH, I withdrew from all mental health activism in the state simply because it made me too angry – a textbook example of adding to my life by subtracting. Helping her with her work fills what would have been a serious void in my life.

Becky and I picked up our friendship as if the 10-year separation never happened.  Like before, I’m part of her family on Thanksgiving, Christmas, 4th of July, Memorial Day – and now I’m going to make an effort to continue making music with her.

Katy Gibney leads a grant-funded singing group at the Concord Music School for people with developmental disabilities, who come with their caregivers. I’ve been playing bass there every week for  month, and people are starting to talk to me.  Unfortunately, it’s at the same time as the rabbi’s Wednesday Bible class.  She teaches another one on Sunday mornings that I attended for a while, but not for a few weeks.  I’ll go back.

Robin also teaches an ethics class Tuesday nights, but that conflicts with my “laughter yoga” group.  I went to a laughter yoga group at a conference, and immediately wanted to start one in Concord.  I knew Megan would love it and be the perfect person to start it with.  But she discovered an existing Concord group, and there was no reason to start another one.

It’s a great activity and another community connection for me.  Laughter yoga was invented by a physician in India in the 1990’s, and has spread all over the world.  Laughter is good for the mind, body, and spirit.  You start each group with fake laughter, and pretty soon everyone is really laughing.  I feel so good when I finish that group.

I’ve always been so “left-brained” (intellectual) that, when forced to choose, I always choose a “right brain” activity, music, or laughter yoga or digital photography. I start every day reading and writing Facebook comments. I have over 500 Facebook friends (personal friends, consumer movement friends, or friends of friends) who like my comments, and give me enough feedback and support to constitute a virtual community connection.

Not many 63-year-old men are as happy as I am with who they are, and the quality and balance of their relationships and community connections.  It’s payback for decades of starving and suffering with “mental illness” and low self-esteem.  (With what we’re learning now, I doubt I ever had a mental illness, just trauma, invalidation, and stress.) I am grateful beyond measure.

In October, 2012, I’m going to give myself another birthday party, a “Will You Still Need Me When I’m Sixty-Four” party.  Instead of presents, I’ll ask the guests to bring an anecdote about how I met a need for them in the past, and how I can be useful to them in the future.








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