The Family Guilt (30 Days Challenge)

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.

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The Family Guilt (30 Days Challenge)

Instant Depression…Just Add Water (30 Days Challenge)

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.

Instant Depression…Just Add Water (30 Days Challenge)

The Black Dog: Man’s Best Friend? (30 Days Challenge)

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.

The Black Dog: Man’s Best Friend? (30 Days Challenge)

Coping with the Moping (30 Days Challenge)

3. What treatment or coping skills are most effective for you?

“Coping”…what an interesting word! It implies a lot more than it states. It implies a sub-par life, one spent in struggle or adversity, one that’s never quite 100%. When somebody suffers a bereavement people ask them “how are you coping?” in hushed tones. Tones that imply the asker fully believes the person is suffering, barely living, just about getting by.

Am I getting by? Am I suffering? Hell no! I may not always be living life to the fullest and I may have times when all seems hopeless and lost. But I am living. Living, not “coping”. I am not stuck in some suspended state of reality. I am not someone to be pitied. I am not different from the next ten people I pass on the street.

Instead of “how are you coping?” I’d like to be asked “how do you kick depression’s ass?” or “how are you kind to yourself on the days that depression is winning?”. Because yes, I have those days. Days when I’m not living life. Days when life is happening to me, or around me. On those days I have strategies and methods. Or not. I may sink into it and let myself be consumed. Whatever. But the rest of the time…well I simply refuse to divide my life into good and bad like that. Instead, I live a life occasionally marked out with depression days. I have me days and not-so-me days. But who doesn’t?

Perhaps it’s no more than semantics. Perhaps I’m just being stubborn and wasting my energy in a futile rebellion against a word, a definition. But it’s important to me. It’s important that my entire existence is not defined as something less than whole.

I wear this label. I wear it willingly. But I refuse to let it define me.

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 third entry. If you prefer, you can read from the start.

Coping with the Moping (30 Days Challenge)

Labels…Not just for Fashion (30 Days Challenge)

2. How do you feel about your diagnosis?

Relieved.

I find it a little odd when people react badly to a mental health diagnosis. With physical health a diagnosis can be a devastating. You sought help for a headache & ended up with a brain tumour. You complained about a little tiredness & came away with MS. Your life changes and you have to make all kinds of adjustments – medications, hospital visits and so on. Life is about to get a whole lot worse before it can ever get better.

Not so much with mental health. For the most part, by the time you get to the diagnosis stage you have already been sucked down into the depths of the illness. Your life has already changed and you have already been through a whole host of adjustments – withdrawal of social contact, substance dependency and a host of other possible coping mechanisms that now seem normal. For these people, what lies ahead is hope, recovery and (dare I say it) better than what’s gone before.

The day I sat in a GP’s office and said out loud the words I had been struggling with internally for years…well, it’s no exaggeration to say a weight lifted from me and I felt a lightness. “I think I might be depressed”. Six little words that took me uncountable years to utter to another human being. Instead of feeling weak, I felt stronger than I had in years. I felt relief. I willingly abdicated responsibility for myself to another person. I uttered six words out loud, but inside my mind was screaming “Take my burden, take it from me and please, please, tell me that I’m right”.

Yes, you read that correctly. No typos there. On that day I wanted the label. I longed to have the GP take out an ancient, grey office stamp and ink a big red “DEPRESSED” on my file. I wanted my emotional fragility validated. I wanted permission to give in to it. No, not to give in…to accept the truth. To own my reality. To admit I needed help. To stop being strong.

One of the sneaky features of depression is your guilty suspicion that you might be making it all up. That there’s nothing really wrong with you is perversely both the dream and secret fear of an undiagnosed depressive. That day I shuffled out of the GP office, clutching my prescription, with eyes raw from crying. I looked a sorry, sorry state. But inside….inside I was dancing. “I KNEW IT!” my inner voice sang, as she proudly smoothed her “depressed” label on her sweater and skipped down the street.

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 second entry. If you prefer, you can read from the start.

Labels…Not just for Fashion (30 Days Challenge)