Doctor used the power of friendship to heal

Special to The Times

It was March 1997 and I was leaving the USC psychiatric ward.

I had been suicidal and had driven around the streets of Marina del Rey, stopping at two hotels, inquiring about a vacancy. I had intended to jump out of a window, but no rooms were available.

That psychotic break was my first. I would later have a relapse in 1999. My doctor, Michael McGrail, would see me through both.

“Do you think I’ll recover?” I asked him.

He smiled and said he was “99% certain” that I would.

I left L.A. for a few months and, when I came back in late May, Dr. McGrail suggested that I join a community of writers. (A previous psychiatrist had suggested I work for a bank.)


Dr. McGrail also revealed some of his own history to me, telling me that he had spent five or six years unemployed, living abroad and in New York, sleeping until noon, eating lunch, sleeping until dinner, then reading through the night. He wanted me to know that I was not the only one who had lived an unconventional life, as I had in 1996 when I quit my job to write a novel.

In my early months back in L.A. in 1997, he also gave me suggestions on what to do with my day -- all designed to further my writing goals.

By the end of June 1997, I had found a like-minded community, obtaining a job at LA Weekly as a proofreader. The following month, I began dating Barbara Tracy, whom I married six years ago.

As I began to recover, my conversations with Dr. McGrail became lively chats between two friends, mentor and pupil. He kidded me, and I kidded him.

On May 22, when I sat on the couch in his office, the first thing he said was, “You look good, better than I do.”

Dr. Michael McGrail, 56, a staff psychiatrist at Cedars-Sinai and UCLA and a private practitioner who treated me for 11 years, died May 27 at his West Hollywood home.


I am reminded of that line in “Our Town” when the deceased Emily Gibbs asks the stage manager if anyone appreciates all the quotidian moments in life. “Poets, maybe,” he says.

Maybe no one could have appreciate all of Dr. McGrail’s banter, intended to leaven my mood, but I won’t forget his sage advice, particularly about the need to have a routine and to share it with Barbara.

That I have continued my routines, my jogging and writing, since his death may be the highest tribute I can pay to Dr. McGrail. He left me equipped to handle his loss.


Robert David Jaffee is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.