This is a book about life, love, and passionate commitments. Our son/brother Josh Barber, is a treasured member of a loving and supportive family. The unique rhythms and joys of his passions and talents swept us up with his exuberance for life, and we shared both his thrills and his sorrows. In spite of eight months of repeating tailspins, this book is first and foremost a memoir of a popular musician and his family—a typical American kid succeeding through hard work and sheer talent and supported by a photogenic cast of family and friends.
In 2010, crisis after crisis accumulated to fill a dark well of despair that flooded Josh’s senses and challenged his resilience and our family’s strong bulwark of support. Some of his circumstances were the results of his own actions, some were made worse by trends in the culture, some were just plain chance—occasions of what we call good luck turning bad.
During that year, we discovered many things about Josh, about ourselves, about the so-called safety net of emergency and health care services, and about the culture of social media among young people. Since then, we have also given a great deal of thought to additional issues related to depression and the efficacy of counseling and pharmacological treatments. Our hope is that we can identify the gaps in services and support that might transform others’ desperate feelings and help them regain their passion for life. If we can describe and understand Josh’s experiences, perhaps our story can help shape improvements in services and support for others. We are just one family, but even among professionals, many agree with our assessment that the mental health care system is inadequate when it comes to treating the disorder of depression. Our perspective is focused on the experience of those who turn to this support system in abject need—when a situation is extremely dire and even the smallest of healing gestures is welcome respite from panic and imminent devastation.
Josh’s encounters point to a number of significant opportunities for improvement of the essential character of mental health care services. Amidst the painful, and occasionally even harmful, treatment that he received, a number of dedicated individuals shine like beacons of hope that a better system is possible.
We doubt that Josh’s story will have any impact on the swelling tide of social media, but ours is not the only story of lives ruined, in part, by the deluge of personal information available online. There are many stories about others whose lives are harmed by casual access to intimate details about other people. One by one, these cautionary tales must have an effect. In the case of our son, Facebook was a ubiquitous danger; he couldn’t resist the very exposures that were guaranteed to enflame his anguish.
Our goal in writing this book is not only to tell Josh’s story but to help others. We hope that reading this book will help other families realize that they are not alone. Even when you focus all your love and attention wholeheartedly on helping someone, you may have limited success. Through telling our story, we hope to inspire changes that will improve treatment for others who are struggling in similar ways. Or perhaps a spark from this book will light someone else’s path to healing and recovery, or another family will find comfort and release by recognizing that many of the factors that impacted their lives were bigger than they could ever control. A crisis may seem to be about just one family, but it is also always about the policies, institutions, and systems of care our communities have developed over time—the ways we respond to crisis. In our case—and in many others in recent years—social media are also implicated in many potentially tragic outcomes.
All proceeds from sales of this book will be used to create a pilot program to improve transition services between hospital discharge after an inpatient psychiatric admission and the follow-up care needed for a successful re-entry to community life.
Writing a book is always a collaborative effort, and this one is more so than most. In addition to appreciating the emotional support and enhanced memory of our three-way joint authorship, we want to thank Jo Carubia for helping us through the long process of transforming our memories into this book. We also thank all of those who contributed their own anecdotes and memories to create a more complete story of these years. Rob Mushen was generous in his assistance, not just in the writing of the book but in living these experiences. Kristy Arnold, Chad Seelig, and Melissa Ceprano demonstrated their generation’s loyalty and honesty as friends in their willingness to convey their thoughts and recollections. Stevie J. Smith was always there when needed and, like Josh, was always true. Professional musician Tom Ferraro composed a harmonious narrative contribution to the book, based on both musical affinities and personal wisdom. He managed to hit the high notes and the low notes.
Another set of people provided invaluable feedback on drafts of the book, helping us make it better. Without the effective comments and suggestions from these people, our story might not touch hearts in the ways we intended. Each of them read and responded from their own professional and personal skill and understanding. We appreciate these gifts of time and talent from Liz Byrne, Vincent Colapietro, Joanne Green, Susan Kennedy, Joanne Mazzotta, Kate Staley, and Evelyn Wald.
It goes without saying that we are grateful for the love and support of our families and friends over the years. Family members who are no longer alive still sustain us by the words, phrases, and gestures we remember. Even if we have not mentioned all of our siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews by name, we recall all of the phone calls and visits, and we treasure the encouragement and love of each and every one.
The events of this book are recounted from our perspectives and to the best of our knowledge and recollection. In a few cases, names of persons have been changed when we did not have their input in describing a situation(s) involving that person. We do not intend to suggest blame or responsibility of any individual for the actions of others. We recognize that our knowledge of events may be partial and/or inaccurate when we were not present in person. On the larger themes of the book, we offer the viewpoint of one family and hope that it contributes for the benefit of others.
“This is a book, once plain, with blank white pages. Now containing pieces, fragments, statements, times of happiness, joy, pain, sickness, rage, confusion, and every other aspect of my life. Insignificant to most, it’s helped me through infinite times of turmoil. Tears have fallen on these pages.”
—Joshua Adonis Barber
Blessings on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
. . . .
Outward sunshine, inward joy:
Blessings on thee, barefoot boy!
—John Greenleaf Whittier
It was a perfect day in every way. Ten-year-old Josh Barber was not thinking about perfection, he was living it. He had two wheels under him, spinning without conscious effort down a sun-and-shade-dappled lane that seemed to whisper his name as if he owned the road, the sunshine, and all the airy tree limbs flecked with light and swaying with joy. He was full—full of time stretching out ahead of him toward a far horizon and full of the clean satisfaction of a loyal knight who has successfully battled a fiery dragon to save the kingdom. Instead of a dragon’s head, however, he was carrying a huge fish.
Josh had spent the afternoon fishing, as he often did. Today he was fishing in salt water. Just yesterday, he had spent the morning at one of the small fresh-water ponds on the island. Fishing was just one degree removed from breathing and moving, and at least two degrees higher priority than eating. Sometimes it felt to him that he was a kind of water creature who lived just temporarily on land. He knew he had what others called luck with catching fish. In his mind, it was not luck; it was a kind of affinity. The fish seemed to want to get close to him and vice versa. If they weren’t exactly jumping on shore to get to him, they did seem to choose his hook and line over any others and also over living out their lives without him.
As he pedaled with his lopsided cargo—looking and feeling quite as remarkable as a knight carrying a dragon’s severed head—Josh was considering how to tell today’s story. He could approach the house quietly and shush his little sister, Maggie, who was sure to shout if she saw the huge fish before noticing her brother’s signal to be quiet. If he recruited Maggie to be part of a surprise presentation, he would have the double reward of another notch in her adoration plus the astonishment of his parents at the size of his catch. If he were to put his unarticulated feelings into words, Josh would admit that he didn’t find Maggie at all annoying. She was the best audience a ten-year-old could want; she always looked up to him and not just because she was shorter. In Maggie’s eyes, Josh felt like the strongest, smartest, funniest boy who ever lived. He included her in just about everything, except fishing. Maggie didn’t really enjoy fishing.
Maybe Maggie just never had the chance to learn fishing the way he did as the first son and first grandson of two great fishermen, his father John and his father’s father Charlie, or Poppy, as the grandchildren called him. Josh had felt central to the universe with a pole in his hand, casting and reeling in since he was about four years old. Three generations of Barber men would line up along the Yantic River and nearby ponds in Norwich, Connecticut, and with varying levels of skill, angling to catch freshwater fish, trout, catfish, and bass. Little Josh was incredibly focused on developing the skills he observed carefully in his father and grandfather. He couldn’t seem to get enough of it and would ask repeatedly to go fishing, perhaps even more than appealed to the dedicated older fishermen in the family.
When they moved to Rhode Island, Josh’s passion for fishing was smoothly relocated from fresh water to the salt water bays, marshes, and open ocean within constant view of their Jamestown home. The boy was virtually defined by his fishing and the stories about his fishing that became family legends—like the one about the eight-pound bass he caught to win the Memorial Day tournament when he was just five years old.
Every year, both Darla’s and John’s families would gather in Maine for the Memorial Day weekend. John and his dad had been revving up Darla’s family in the fishing department. The family had started a tournament a few years earlier, and by now, there was a whole ritual around the activities, including a plaque with winners’ names and quite a bit of competition among the men, women, and boys. There were probably three or four small groups fishing in separate boats spread out around Kezar Lake in favorite, lucky spots. John and his father had Josh in the boat with them. It was toward the end of the three-day weekend and at the most unfavorable time of day for catching fish. John felt there was nothing happening for them in the spot where they had been for the past hour. “Let’s pull up and move,” he said. Everything about the lake seemed asleep—the fish, the fishermen, and even the bait.
Josh and his Poppy were fishing with rubber worm lures, and John, idly contemplating what strategy to try next, decided to relieve himself in the lake. Not two minutes later, Josh was jerked forward as his pole bent over from a vigorous pull on the line. This was no little tug or nibble; this was a huge fish hooked securely at the opposite end of the pole from a five-year-old! “Dad! Poppy! I got one!”
There was a good bit of shouting and rocking of the boat as the two men resisted the impulse to grab the pole from the little boy, all the while keeping their strong hands on both him and the pole. They coached Josh and kept a close watch to be sure he wasn’t pulled out of the boat in the struggle. He was tough. After what seemed to be forever, he reeled in an eight-pound bass from the lake that had given up, at most, four pounds to every other tournament winner. John’s brothers-in-law claimed that he “chummed in” the big fish with his bio-waste, and that got the biggest laugh of the day.
Mostly, everyone was in complete awe at the unheard-of feat achieved by a boy who hadn’t even started school yet. There was a big buzz of comments:
“You’ve got to keep him! What a trophy!”
“Yeah, don’t release that one. He’s a keeper!”
John’s seemed to be the only voice counseling the opposite. “No, we should let him go.”
Despite his certainty of the right course of action, he wanted his son to make the decision, so he attached a chain to the fish and anchored it to the dock so that it could swim in the water while they debated.
Over the next hour, adults were distracted by cooking chores and embellishing the story over a few beers, while Josh stayed a while to watch his fish, and then went off to play with his cousins. Sometime later, John went out to check on the fish. He pulled on the chain and up came only half a fish! The turtles had enjoyed a free meal! John made sure that the remaining front half of the fish was cleaned and mounted in a very dramatic posture, coming straight out of the mounting board with mouth wide open as if still jumping for the rubber worm. It hung in Josh’s room for his entire childhood and adolescence.
Josh loved to recall the moment when he felt that big fish tug on his line! It made him feel like some kind of superhero, the ordinary kid that everyone was watching to see him transform into a bolt of lightning, stop a speeding train, or land a humongous fish. Every new fish brought it back, and he aimed higher and higher to get the same reaction from his parents. Now, riding home with yet another big fish, he pondered how to make the most of today’s fine catch.
If he didn’t see Maggie as he approached the house, he might just sneak up on his mom and surprise her. Darla was always a good mark for some prank because she loved him so, so much. He could tell that his mother loved Maggie in a way that made her want to keep the little girl right by her side. She loved Josh differently; she encouraged him to be brave in the world and have adventures, but she was also alert to any danger that might come his way, like a mother bear watching over her cubs as they roam the woods. Josh knew that his mother was ferocious and would kill to protect him.
One morning, when Josh was about six years old and still small enough to live within his mother’s protective custody, he set off Darla’s “Mama Bear” alarm. The little boy had awakened in the quiet moment between John leaving for work and Darla rising to start her day with the children. A compelling mental image of some spectacular catch was pulling at him, and he wrote his mother a note, “GON FISIN,” before leaving the house to pursue his goal. When Darla found the note in Josh’s large, tilted letters, she ran outside to look for him. His fishing pole and sneakers were gone from beside the front door.
After calling the neighbors and shouting for Josh up and down the road and along the beach just in front of the house, Darla phoned John at work and contacted the local police. A single-minded, fishing-obsessed, six-year-old boy was at large somewhere on the island or deep in the waters surrounding it.
As a few neighbors arrived and spread out to search the area, Darla was nearly hysterical with anxiety. She knew her son’s spirit. He would follow a fish as far as he could and sometimes a little farther. He didn’t hesitate one instant to think about danger, but danger was all his mother could see. In her mind, every minute meant another jagged rock or surging wave endangering her son. In less than an hour, Josh was discovered ambling over beach rocks and driftwood, pushing north, single-mindedly in search of the very best spot to angle for treasure.
Being “lost” made little impression on Josh. He was quite confident that he knew where he was at all times, and after a million hugs from his mother and the short fuss over his being “missing,” he was just as determined to continue fishing at every possible opportunity. On foot, on his bike, with friends, with Dad or alone, fishing was number one with Josh. At this age, he could spend entire days, accompanied by Darla and little Maggie, at Heads Beach, just down the road from the house, hauling all sorts of things out of the ocean. Fish and quahogs were guaranteed, but there would be occasional blue crabs and lobsters, too. If he got tired of the ocean (almost never) or just wanted a change of scenery, Josh would fish one of the freshwater ponds on the island for the huge largemouth bass that must have been lurking there for decades.
Pedaling home with his perfect specimen, Josh cycled through these and other fishing “legends” that he loved to hear repeated. He never intended to make a legend—they just seemed to happen. What felt ordinary to him, he realized, might have seemed brighter or bigger or louder to others. Josh saw that there were big fish, but he also saw big dragons in the world and when he did, he stood his ground and kept reeling. He sometimes even picked up the sword sticking out of a nearby stone. Maggie, Darla, and John were always there as first and best audience or, when needed, as first responders for any dragons he couldn’t handle alone. On this particular day, Darla saw him coming from a distance and before he could surprise her, she grabbed a camera to capture the boy balanced between the past and the future in one perfect moment.