As I detailed in my post “Avoidance and Acceptance”, one of the reasons I failed to get any real assistance for my mental health over the years was because of my parents. I didn’t want to be like them. However, in learning about my bipolar disorder, I’ve discovered that it very likely has a genetic component, and as such, I probably wouldn’t have been able to escape being bipolar, even if I led the most perfect and balanced of lives.
I was also led to curiosity by reading An Unquiet Mind, the bipolar memoir by Kay Redfield Jamison. At one point she is sitting with a friend and colleague, putting together a mental health pedigree. Circles for women, squares for men, and each blackened for those with bipolar disorder or some other kind of mental issue. Suicides and attempts were also noted: asterisks and slashes. In my head, I began to fill in my own pedigree.
My mother had mental troubles my entire life. She was in and out of mental wards constantly, her worst episodes typically triggered by the holidays, by remembering old family hurts, and by her husband, my adoptive father. Each time she would go on medication and try to get stable, my “father” would ruin it. I’ve learned that it’s common for relationships to suffer a lot of misery when someone is diagnosed with bipolar disorder or any other mental trouble. They’re formed under unhealthy circumstances, so once someone decides to get healthy, the entire dynamic is disrupted. Often, the newly healthy person sees the other’s unhealthy behaviors more clearly and is unable to put up with them any longer. Unless the other person gets on board, bad things happen. Over time, he would wear her down back to the weakened state that served him better, and it would all begin again.
She was set up for failure nearly from birth, though. Her own father was abusive. Her mother divorced him after a few years for “cruelty”, and later when she would visit him or stay with him during visitation, he would beat her. Her mother’s second husband wasn’t any better. They divorced after only a few years when discovered that he was “getting after” my mother. Which is 1950s parlance for discovering that he was molesting her.
Mom spent her entire adult life in a series of abusive relationships. The last, her sixth, killed her, for all intents and purposes. After finding herself in yet another abusive marriage and with no way to support herself should she choose to leave, she chose the final exit in the backyard with a gun. She told me she wouldn’t come to stay with me. Our relationship was too volatile. One of the most horrifying things about mental illness is that it really isn’t the ill person’s fault, but their behavior is unacceptable to “normal” people, and compassion and understanding only go so far. After a while, you just have to distance yourself from someone who is abusive and mean, even if it isn’t their fault. So you feel guilty and the other person feels angry but you both know perfectly well there isn’t anything to be done except maintain the distance. This is one of my biggest fears about having bipolar as it relates to my own family. I think I would die on the spot if my daughter decided she didn’t want to have anything to do with me.
Then there’s my father. Dad was the last of seven children, and the only child from his particular parental combination. I have no idea what life was like for him growing up, although I know he grew up in River Rouge, probably THE poorest, and certainly the dirtiest, part of Detroit. River Rouge is where the steel mills are. They turned the sky a devilish orange-red at night when they were firing the steel. A drive through River Rouge is a drive through despair. It’s no wonder that Dad’s first move upon turning 18 was to join the Marines. He was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California until he was shipped to Southeast Asia for a year from 1963-64. He returned with a case of PTSD so bad that, once married, Mom only woke him up by shaking his foot at the end of the bed. Standard methods of awakening resulted in his launching out of bed prepared to choke the Viet Cong. Not a good way to start the day.
In an effort to deal with his shellshock, he started drinking. After a while he joined a rehab cult called Synanon, which is where he met my mother, who had her own substance abuse problems. They left after a couple of years, got married, and had me. Things were great for a while but then he began to drink again and abuse my mother. Things grew worse after my brother was born in July of 1974. After a particularly bad beating in October, Mom packed up us kids and left. Two days later, during a fireworks show at the nearby high school, Dad shot himself with his service rifle, two weeks before my third birthday. I sometimes wish he had at the very least waited a few years so that I could have some memories of him. As it is, the only thing of my father’s that I possess, is my name.
I wish I could say it was just them, but there don’t appear to be any healthy people in the family, whether current or past. Of them, I seem to be the healthiest, which makes me break out in great guffaws of laughter. My grandmother’s father was extraordinarily physically abusive. After beating all of his children with the cord of an iron (mind you, this is the 1920s, electrical cords were big and thick) for a few years, he left in 1929. He left a legacy of sadness and gave his descendants a forehead crease that you can see in my brother and I when we’re focused or angry.
Gram lived longer than anyone in her family, mostly because she did not commit suicide. She hardened her heart, though. She and my mother did not speak, ever. I think that was her way of not succumbing to the mental demons that plagued both of her siblings, apparently, and certainly her daughter. It was her opinion that they had both killed themselves; her sister in a “traffic accident” involving a tree and no other cars, and her brother by “accidentally” overdosing on his heart medication.
I know little else about the family history other than what I’ve been able to glean from Ancestry.com. There is so much hurt and fracture in my family’s history that I am occasionally amazed that people managed to have children together. I’ve counted two definite (four possible) suicides, literally dozens of suicide attempts between my mother and brother, several cases of physical abuse, at least two of sexual abuse (bet there’s more), not to mention rampant drug abuse and alcoholism going back at least a century.
I think it’s a fucking miracle I’ve reached the age of 39 and don’t seem to have some of the worst problems in the family history. I’ve never been a drug addict or an alcoholic, I’ve never been beaten by a man (by Mom though, that’s another story), I’ve been in the same healthy relationship for 15 years, and I don’t have any of the health problems that have plagued the family due to their inability to take care of themselves (bad teeth, bad joints, bad hearts). I should probably get my cholesterol checked, but that’s about it. Yes, I’m bipolar, but I seem to be a more pastel shade of crazy, while others in the family have been brightly technicolor crazy. Brightly technicolor drunk crazy wielding dishes and flying fists.
Of course, there is the long-standing psychiatric question of nature vs. nurture. Are people born mentally ill, or are they made that way? I think it’s both. I think our genetics make us more likely to be certain ways, and if our environments growing up push us in those directions, then we wind up with some headmeat issues. Even if we grow up in environments that push us in healthy directions, we may wind up with headmeat issues, but perhaps not as severely. Or it’s easier to work on them because you don’t have to worry about all the extraneous bullshit of life.
It must be horrifying to be diagnosed with a disease that alters your thinking and then realize, once you’re healthier, that you’ve built your life on things that are unhealthy. My mother made this realization several times but was too damaged to try to live on her own, so she always wound up sabotaging her health for the sake of her husband and marriage. Kind of like an alcoholic who’s trying to stop who has people tell them, “You know, I liked you better when you drank.” Wow, what a confidence booster. In fact, I believe my “father” told her that a few times. I won’t lie: I rejoiced when he died last year.
I have had a very long-standing goal to act as the chain breaker in the family. For whatever reason, I’ve been given the life-long ability to look at other people’s behavior and say to myself, “That’s fucked up, I’m not going to do things that way.” I’m not always successful, because like it or not, I was raised in a fucked up place, and it left its marks here and there. But I have awareness, and I am able to identify those places in myself and say, “You need to work on that.” In that way, I’m my own Buddha, because that’s what Buddha’s all about: being aware. When a passerby saw the Buddha sitting beneath the Bodhi tree, he asked him a series of questions trying to figure out who and what he was. After a series of “no”s, he finally asked, “Well what are you?” To which the Buddha replied, “I am awake.”
And so that is my job, my dharma, in my family, what little of it is left. To be awake. To be aware. To not be so wrapped in my ego that I cannot see my own mistakes, particularly if I am repeating any of the big, old ones. To begin the family threads anew with my own family. To dismantle and rebuild the foundation from which my own daughter will build her own life. I pray that she escapes this illness, but if she doesn’t, she will have a much softer landing pad than I did, and she will have someone to gently point out, “Hey, have you considered things this way?” without making her feel bad about herself. And hopefully in a couple of generations when my great-grandchildren, should I have any, are thinking of their own pedigrees, hopefully there will be fewer blackened squares and circles, and few if any asterisks and slashes.