What money can't buy

Craig Kay believes his family's wealth and privilege fueled denial of rampant mental illness.

Editor’s Note: Some members of the extended Kay family deeply disagree with Craig Kay’s characterization and interpretation of family events and interactions. The following story represents his perspective only.

Craig Kay grew up in the proverbial lap of luxury. The youngest of three children born to Washington D.C. area real estate developer Marvin Kay and his socialite wife, Dolly, he and his siblings – Steve, 10 years older and the family  “golden boy” and Karen, seven years older and the “black sheep”– had all the privileges and material abundance great wealth can convey.

But unlike his siblings or his parents – all outspoken, with big personalities and few filters – Kay was painfully shy, riddled with anxiety, overshadowed and intimidated.

“I was so afraid to say or do anything because everyone just overpowered me,” says Kay, now 53 and living in Rockville, Maryland with Stephanie, his wife of 23 years and two young adult daughters. “I was petrified of what might happen and the rejection I might feel if I raised my voice. So I became wallpaper. I liked being invisible.”

Though he can recite a long list of all the mental illnesses (predominantly undiagnosed) within his family members – “Trying to avoid mental illness in my family is like trying to avoid raindrops” – Kay learned from an early age that mental health wasn’t something to be openly discussed, and certainly not with any degree of empathy.  

His first example was overhearing his father’s angry arguments over the phone with his brother, “Uncle Phillip,” who suffered from depression and lived in seclusion with Kay’s grandmother. Uncle Phillip was never mentioned in family conversations or included in family gatherings. But no one ever explained why to his young nephew.

“I didn’t get a good grip on why he was banished and I never inquired,” Kay recalls. “I just remember and seeing him through the glass window in the door when we dropped Grandma off on Sunday nights. Everyone just gave the family line that he was crazy and lived with Grandma.”

Years later, months after Kay’s grandmother passed away, Uncle Phillip took his own life, allegedly by swallowing drain cleaner. His death and the method of it were acknowledged by Marvin Kay, but just barely.

“It was like, ‘Uncle Phillip died. What’s for dinner?” Kay recalls. “They banished him with absolutely no compassion and complete intolerance and his illness became worse as a result of being banished from the family he probably loved and adored. So, much like the situation I’m in now.”

Whether or not this was a harbinger of his own future with the family, his first inkling of their indifference to mental suffering came when he was turning 13 and preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. Because his parents were casual rather than “spiritual” Jews — they rarely saw the inside of a synagogue — the occasion was defined less as a rite of passage and more as “an excuse for a great big party.” They rented both ballrooms of the elite Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. and invited more than 400 guests.

Meanwhile, Kay, pressured to learn and “perform” in Hebrew. began suffering panic attacks. His abdominal pain became so severe his mother decided it must be appendicitis rather than what it actually was – a physical manifestation of suicidal ideation.

“I was there, but I really wasn’t there, I was just a prop,” Kay remembers of the occasion. “They bought me three outfits to dress me up and all I wanted to do was go to the bathroom and hide. That was my first example of them throwing money at something rather than looking beneath the surface.”

He began to notice the same use of money as a superficial salve with both his brother and his sister. Karen, who had “a lot of anxiety, but no filter” was constantly getting into trouble, probably to gain attention. When she couldn’t get into college, her parents instead sent her, with a healthy allowance, to Europe to party with their wealthy friends, rather than insisting on the intensive therapeutic attention Kay believes she needed.

Likewise, when Kay was 14, his brother — juggling the pressures of entering the family business, living up to his father’s expectations and getting married — experienced the first of what would be four severe bouts of suicidal depression. During his hospitalization, the family came together to discuss Steve’s situation with his doctors.

Kay remembers everyone giving “canned answers” until the doctor said it was his turn, with which he burst into uncontrollable sobbing. The doctor whisked him away and spoke to him alone. After he had calmed down, the session concluded with the doctor pointing to Kay and, addressing his parents, saying, “You need to worry about this one because he is already exhibiting symptoms of depression.”

“But from that point on, there was no more discussion about it — none,” Kay says. “It was shoved under whatever was going on at the moment – my parents trip to Europe, my mom throwing a party, school starting, or whatever was going on that had nothing to do with whatever real was going on. It was all just shoved under the carpet because money had a great way of kicking the can down the road.

“Instead of stopping everything and putting everything on hold, they just threw three or four hundred thousand dollars into my brother’s account, bought him a house and paid for the doctors. It was all soothed over with a little money. And that was great…until the next time.”

 At 16, Kay was introduced to marijuana. It numbed his pain enough for him to be able to “talk without feeling like I was going to be embarrassed or rejected.” He discovered that not only did he have a voice, most people found him amusing and entertaining. As he began to be recognized as someone who was fun, funny and witty, he came alive as an individual for the first time in his life. His parents responded not by trying to understand “why I needed this to be able to come out of my shell” but by sending him to a therapist to “get off the pot.” The message was clear: Appearances were important; feelings were not.

Like his brother and sister, Kay also eventually found his way into the family business. But his status remained at the bottom of the totem pole, always seeking acceptance and confirmation of his worth.

“Whenever my brother would go down with depression, everything was always focused on him and making sure he’d be OK to carry the family flag,” he says. “And as long as my sister wasn’t getting into trouble, she just disappeared, no one paid attention to her. My role, I just wanted to be accepted, so I did whatever I could to please everyone, just so I could get a gold star. I wasn’t paying attention to my own mental health needs. I was just there to help the others.”

When his brother suffered another serious bout of depression after the birth of his first child, the family relied on Kay to “play interference.” He set himself up in his brother’s office and served as an intermediary between Steve and other employees. Kay says he was happy to have the opportunity to help and that “everyone seemed to think it was great and I felt good about that as well.”

But a downturn in the real estate industry in the ‘90s that took a toll on the family holdings was followed by Marvin Kay being diagnosed with Alzheimers in 2004. In his mid-30s, with a wife and two young daughters, Kay stepped in to care not only for his father, but for his mother, whose codependency on her husband left her feeling helpless, her own moods becoming increasingly irrational and self-focused.

Due to his own undiagnosed mania and “feeling like Superman,” Kay made some disastrous decisions that caused his own business enterprises to fail and he was eventually banished from the family enterprises. Meanwhile, his mental health continued to deteriorate; because he had never received a diagnosis or treatment, his self-destructive moods and behaviors grew unchecked.

Marvin Kay died in 2015 and thereafter Kay’s resentment toward his older sibling “metastasized.” In 2017 he reached the point where “I felt like I was a big failure and the only way I could take care of my family was to cash in on an insurance policy and just check out.” A suicide attempt landed him in the hospital, where he at last received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder 1 and was put on a cocktail of medications.

“Nothing tells you you’ve hit rock bottom like being in a psych ward for a couple weeks,” he says. “It’s humbling and you’re not happy you’re there initially. But after a certain amount of time you feel safe that you’re amongst people who are feeling the same feelings. You start listening to other people rather than just ragging about your own situation and you start to allow yourself to absorb: ‘I don’t have all the answers, my paradigm is incorrect and I have a condition that isn’t going away.”

The treatment and medication he received and remains on has put a “50-pound tube” around his midsection. But it also enabled him “to exist and stop feeling so uncomfortable in my skin.” The reaction from his family was not so favorable. He says he was “written off, just like they’d written off my uncle and other family members with mental illness.”

“You’re written off not because you’re mentally ill, but because you couldn’t contain it and you dared to asked for help,” he says. “My brother was never banished because he bottled it up inside. But I finally got to learn who I was after 49 years, and to understand it’s not all about money…The uber-rich manufacture problems and think money is going to take care of it all, but money is the worst thing that can occur with mental illness. It’s a never ending excuse for bad behavior.”

In 2018, Kay says Steve, who “knew I was sick, knew what triggered me because it was the same things that triggered him,” cut him off saying he’d “had enough.” Kay began to hear rumors, from within and outside the family, that he was guilty of stealing his parents assets. Conversely, Kay felt his brother had abused his parents’ largesse for financial gain. In 2019, the brothers engaged in an epic email battle over the impending sale of their mother’s Chevy Chase condominium, each accusing the other of stealing their parents’ money.

On an early morning in August of 2019, while Craig Kay was miles away reporting for jury duty, his brother Steve jumped to his death from the balcony of his mother’s condominium while she was asleep. When the police arrive at her door and asked for a photograph to identify the body, she gave them a picture of her youngest son. When they returned to report that it wasn’t the correct identification, she became hysterical and said, according to Kay, “The wrong son jumped.”

Instead of coming together over the loss of their loved one, the family further fractured. Not only did Kay continue to be accused of having stolen family assets, he was now also blamed for having precipitated his brother’s death. He is presently estranged from all his family members and involved in pending litigation with some of them.

Though he initially asked – “begged” he says – for a reconciliation, a chance for everyone to sit down and acknowledge the entire tragic history of secrecy and denial, “none of my family wants to acknowledge their own mental illness.” The reckoning has never occurred. He is grateful, however, to have identified, acknowledged and taken responsibility for managing his own disease.

“Had I not gone through that to learn how to cope with what I had and how intolerant people are toward mental illness, I don’t think I would survive what I’m dealing with right now,” he says. “I think I was trained to learn it because I needed it to survive. Why I’m even able to talk to you about this is because of the massive amount of work I’ve put into understanding not only how I got here, but how everybody got to where they are.”

After researching a great deal of family history, Kay is attempting to turn his story into a book, one that examines “not only the tragedy of mental illness ignored, especially when thrown in with money, but involves all the social aspects we’re so obsessed with that seem to take precedence over the main ingredients of life.”

Of one thing he remains certain: All the money in the world can’t save a family from the disharmony and derailment that a denial of mental illness creates.

“It’s like an infection, or a tumor growing inside you,” he says. “If you’re just getting your hair done to make you feel better or putting a little Neosporin on the places that are irritated, that’s not going to get rid of the cancer. It’s just going to grow.

“That’s what happened to my family. All these people, all this history, all Scotch-taped together with dollar bills, fancy houses, cars, trips. Eventually that will run out and mental illness is going to win.”

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