6. Do you have a family history of mental illness or mental health issues?
Yup. I mentioned already in #5 that I have a strong family history of mental illness and addiction.
It is no coincidence that I have immediate family with depression, schizophrenia, self-harm & alcoholism. On the next level I have depression & heroin addiction. I firmly believe there is a genetic “weakness” or “pre-disposition” in my family…a tendency towards mental health issues and/or addiction.
Instead of answering the same question again, I’ve been thinking about my exposure to these illnesses and how it impacted me.
One of the most influential biographical facts about me is that I have a depressed parent. This parent dictated the tone of each day. On waking in the morning I would plod down to the kitchen to discover the verdict – was today going to be bearable or not. Within moments, without a word uttered, simply from the angle of their head or the movements made in preparing a cup of tea, I knew. The rest of the day was determined in those 10 seconds. Would I greet the parent and ask how they slept or silently prepare my cereal while trying to blend into the kitchen cabinets? Would we have a chat about a piece of family news or would I endure a lecture about my not coming home to visit enough/not having any problems so how could I understand their life/favouring my other parent (delete as applicable)?
I live with an underlying, vague, uncomfortable sort of guilt. Many things were (apparently!) my fault, and so I learnt from an early age that it was safest to assume the default position of guilt, all of the time. It’s been hard to shake.
What’s odd is that even as an adult, the irrational guilt stays with me. I work from time to time in an office building that has a temperamental receptionist. It is often joked in the tea room that she is “mad” or “mental” but I don’t find her presence in my life quite so easy to laugh off. As soon as I encounter this person I revert straight back to the silent-cereal-ninja of my youth. I sense her mood the moment I step into the building and I adjust my behaviour accordingly. Printing goes un-requested and I search the cupboards for supplies instead of asking for help. Though it is physically impossible that I could be the cause of her mood, the guilt surfaces. I overcompensate – “oh what a nice bracelet”, “can I help you with that pile of boxes” – the words slide out of my mouth as I choke over their insincerity, a shameful vocal acknowledgement of my inner demons. I resent this person for reducing me to this self. I resent her for reminding me of the guilt I carry within me and of the lasting legacy my parent has gifted me.
It is often joked that you can’t choose your family. Well you can’t choose a lot of the other people you spend your time with either. Which is why the ones you do choose become all the more important. And when it becomes unbearable…well you can always work from home!
What’s this all about then eh?
I found a pretty cool challenge on a blog from last year – 30 days of mental health posts. I’ve decided to give it a go, despite being a year late to the party! You can also see the other participating posts. This is my sixth entry. If you prefer, you can read from the start.
This afternoon I read a very real piece from Sista over at Phoenix Fights about anger. She writes very well about hiding her internal anger from her (annoyingly chirpy) therapy group and pretty much all of her friends, resigning herself to the fact that a recent outburst has probably led to the end of one such friendship. It was a post that really made me stop and think today.
How much time do we spend convincing others (and maybe also ourselves?) that we are experiencing socially acceptable emotions? How many “how are you’s” do we answer dishonestly with “oh great” or “much better thanks”. We may go as far as a little “getting there” or even a “one day at a time” but even these will be followed with a cheery smile. And then there’s the shoulder shrug or head bob that always follows such a statement, designed to relieve the other person of any awkward duty to reply, implying that it’s fine to leave it at that.
Why do I not admit that I’m not always okay? Why do I not answer a “how are you” with “not great actually, see that corner over there…well I’d really like to lie down in it, curled up in a ball, for about 14 straight hours”. Who I am I lying to? Who am I lying for? I’m not sure any more. Am I trying to protect my partner from the reality that I’m always going to be a little bit not-okay? Am I trying to pretend due to some unconscious fear that he would leave me if he suspected this was me, forever? Am I trying to convince myself that this slightly-less-than-okay existence is enough for me?
I’m not really sure why I do it, but today I realised that I’m not the only one who does. And I’m guessing Sista and I aren’t the only two! Which makes me wonder…what would happen if we all told the truth?
5. Do you believe nature (biology/physiology), nurture (environment), a mix, or something else has an impact on mental health?
In my last 30 Days entry I mentioned my belief that my depression is borne from a difficult childhood and a life of attempting to counter it by being strong. Therefore, it will probably come as no surprise that I give much credence to the “nurture” side of the debate.
However, I also believe that there is a strong genetic element. It is no coincidence that I have immediate family with depression, schizophrenia, self-harm & alcoholism. On the next level I have depression & heroin addiction. I firmly believe there is a genetic “weakness” or “pre-disposition” in my family…a tendency towards mental health issues and/or addiction. I inherited many traits, some positive (academic ability, strong moral values, honesty) and some neutral (thick hair, big feet)…it would be idiotic to believe that the negatives, including my sub-optimum mental health, does not have genetic origins too.
But I do believe that nature and nurture interact and are not mutually exclusive factors. Perhaps, had I grown up in a different environment, I would not have developed this mental illness. Perhaps the genetic potential would have simple faded away had my parents not exposed me to their ugly relationship, had I not been conditioned that approval was dependent on perfection, had I not expected abandonment by those I loved….the list is endless. It’s all a pointless game of “what ifs” that I generally try not to engage in. I can no more change my history than I can predict my future. I can only live in the now.
My nature-nurture opinions no doubt form part of the reason I sit firmly in the medical intervention camp. The general trend towards anti-medication superiority angers me and I have written previously about this topic. My genetic pre-disposition to gynaecological problems, for example, led me to my GP to seek medical assistance. Why should my pre-disposition for mental issues not be the same?
What’s this all about then eh?
I found a pretty cool challenge on a blog from last year – 30 days of mental health posts. I’ve decided to give it a go, despite being a year late to the party! You can also see the other participating posts. This is my fifth entry. If you prefer, you can read from the start.
4. What are the pros and cons of having a mental illness(es) or your specific illness(es), i.e. dysthymia?
In his book “The Curse of the Strong” Dr. Tim Cantopher suggests that a lot of sufferers stress themselves into depression after walking a path of over-achievement and perfectionism….Type A personalities to be exact. I personally chalk a large percentage of my issues up to a childhood of unrelenting academic expectations and behavioural standards. I have carried this baggage into adulthood in two major ways: firstly, I have an inability to fail which makes me reluctant to try anything that I pre-suppose myself to be bad at; secondly, I live with a vague sense of disappointment that I am decidedly “average”…just like everybody else!
Thinking about the pros and cons of depression, I am struck by the ying and yang of it all. The negatives can indeed have positives, but without that negative the positive may not exist. For me, a good example of this symbiosis is emotional sensitivity. I search for hidden meaning in people. I search their tone for dislike or judgement. I read between the lines of emails or texts. I often sense misfortune coming my way. I am incapable of being surprised…I always “know” when something is about to happen. On the flip side, I am sensitive to emotions and attuned to unspoken needs. I can tell a thousand things from the tone of my sister’s “hello” and I can spot a cry for help in a chatty email or a Facebook picture. I am often called on in times of need and thanked post-crisis for providing a non-judgemental ear and a logical perspective. My sensitivity to my own emotional state tunes me into the same information in others. Is it a curse or a gift? I don’t quite know!
The cons of this illness are all too well known: unhappiness, self-hatred, loss of relationships, failure to reach ones full potential, etc, etc. Is it ridiculous to consider that there may also be pros? Is it just another attempt to be “good at” depression? Perhaps! However, if I accept the premise that depression is indeed the curse of the strong then by bearing that curse, I must also accept that I am strong. And so maybe, just maybe, I’m not such a lost cause after all!
What’s this all about then eh?
I found a pretty cool challenge on a blog from last year – 30 days of mental health posts. I’ve decided to give it a go, despite being a year late to the party! You can also see the other participating posts. This is my fourth entry. If you prefer, you can read from the start.