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Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Good, The Bad, and the Mental Health Shuffle

The Gene Pool
Is mental illness inherited?  According to the Mayo Clinic,

"Mental illness is more common in people whose biological (blood) relatives also have a mental illness. Certain genes may increase your risk of developing a mental illness, and your life situation may trigger it."

Citation HERE.

Now that's a heck of a way to start a posting, but it has, as I often times say, the benefit of being true.

I come from what I would kindly describe as difficult stock in the area of mental health.  At the risk of disrespecting the deceased, my father had extensive mental health issues, perhaps born out of extreme poverty as a child, chilling military service and questionable parenting that he received growing up.  All of this manifest itself in the form of substance abuse and a complete an utter inability to function as an adult human being, let alone as a husband or a father.  For all of my childhood I had no tangible relationship with my father.  He was simply a smelly (as in always stinking of beer and unfiltered cigarettes...which is one of the reasons why, to this day, I have an almost rabid reaction to smoking) guy who I saw a few times a year, usually at some cheap boarding house where he would be staying, for the sole purpose of giving me a few bucks.  Mr Brady?  Not a chance.  I lacked a father or even the ability to understand what a father was or was supposed to do.  I had no model, only the vagaries that come from watching television families in the 1970's.

I can no claim no respite from the my Mom's side of the genetic fence either.  Now saying that my Mom also had a "difficult life" would be like saying "there's a good chance there will be a Tuesday next week"; in point of fact she had an incredibly tough life.  Growing up the youngest of many, many children, she related more to her nieces and nephews than she did many of her actual brothers and sisters, such were the age differences with a large group of children.  Clearly, starting off she was at a disadvantage.  She plugged away at life, making a few bad choices and suffering incredibly difficult health challenges, but yet she was always working hard at trying to move ahead.  I owe much to my Mom in terms of having a physically healthy upbringing.  Yes, I said physically.  I still recall, as a young boy of about 5, my mother carrying me to the hospital after (we learned later) my appendix had ruptured.  To this very date though, most of the the memories I have of my Mom are those of an incredibly bitter, angry human being who was unable to form functionally healthy relationships with anyone, including her own children.  I have no memories of my mother ever, not even once, telling me (or my brothers) that she loved me/us (while growing up; as an adult I made a point of saying it to her myself), telling me that she was proud of anything I accomplished or even for that matter remembering the birthdays of her own granddaughters.  I know, "boo hoo", but I'm not writing this as an exercise in expressing popular opinions.

Now for the record, I do know my Mom did love me, I do know she was very proud of me and I do know she was genuinely interested in all of her grandchildren, but yet there was always a disconnect between her ability to feel these things inside and be able to tangibly express them on the outside.  To others less close to her, my mother could be kind, friendly, engaging and witty.  But then you got home, and no one was spared.  Her series of brain tumors, starting in 1985, made all of this much, much worse.

When my Mom passed away it wasn't grief I felt, rather it was relief.  How very sad that I just had to write that!  Sadly, it is also true.  For nearly a quarter century I took my mother shopping every weekend, I helped her with financial matters and generally assisted her with anything that needed to be done.  Surely, for the most part my Mom was grateful for the help I provided, and she would even thank me from time to time, but I didn't do it for the gratitude...I did it because she was my Mom and it was simply the right thing to do.  What made it all the more difficult though was the fact that every interaction with my Mom was roll of the mental health dice; when I arrived at her house she could be relatively pleasant or bitter, engaging or angry.  We would talk intelligently about current events or I would bit my lip as she bad-mouthed my brothers or someone else who just happened to be on her "crap list" at the moment.  No doubt I was on that very same list many times myself.  There was no rhyme or reason to my Mom's moods, there was just her.  God rest her soul, as I hope that at this very moment she is in a place where all of that anger has gone away.  As I said at the beginning of this paragraph, "relief".

The Gifts
I did receive two, all be it somewhat unwitting, gifts from my parents.

From my father I receive a genuine suspicion of alcohol and other forms of substance abuse.  Now to be sure I have had alcohol and there have been times when I had too much to drink.  However (and this is a big however), there have also been stretches of time, measured in years, when I have not have any alcohol to drink.  Not a single drop.  One of my fears, I think, is that I am only a degree or two of indiscretion away from becoming a hopeless drunk.  It's as if I see the allure and yet I'm incredibly determined to not fall prey to it.  It's not just me though:  between my myself and my brothers, three of us basically don't drink at all.  I'll leave my remaining brother out of the equation (but suffice to say that very point proves my supposition).

I'll also add that I received a parenting lesson from my father in a way, as in the lesson of "don't be like him".  My Mom would make that point in a far more crass manner by the way.  Repeatedly.  As a parent myself though, I've tried very, very hard to set a good example, not the "anti-example" that my father set.  Time will tell as to how successful I have been in this quest.

Speaking of my Mom, from her I receive the gift of calm and patience...not by her example, but rather by my need to react to her example....and I'll qualify the notion of calm and patience with a hearty "at least as far as the world can see".  This was a well earned skill, born out of the fear of a child that he would be screamed at by his only the drop of a hat...for some minor infraction and practiced throughout adulthood whereby arguing with my Mom over anything was a pointless exercise (and with one exception I always did avoid the argument; that one exception occurred when a line was crossed by my Mom relating to my daughters).

There were other parental gifts as well, to be sure, such as a genuine desire to work hard from my Mom, but when it's boiled down to the mental health arena, what remains is an in-grained fear of substance abuse and fear of conflict so strong that, when I actually do have to engage in conflict of the righteous sort, it basically sucks the life-force out of me for days afterwards.

The Aftermath
I know that, in the grand scheme of life, I am lucky to have been born, let alone to have at least one parent who was able to physically provide for me.  Yet, anyone taking an objective look at me would have no clue as to the mental machinations that occur in my skull on a regular basis.

I have three wonderful, highly educated, hard-working and successful daughters.

I have a great job with a wonderful company.  People come to me to learn things.

I am well paid, earning more than I ever imagined as a kid growing up in a housing project.

I am healthy, alert and inquisitive.

I have the ability to express myself creatively.

I have the real, tangible benefit of a partner who is incredibly loving and supportive of me and what I do.

And yet with all of the above, I do struggle from time to time maintaining a healthy mental balance in my life.  I've used the word "struggle", but that's not entirely accurate.

There are also times when I am barely conscious of any stress.  These are the times when there really is no struggle.

There are times when the struggle is an easy one; these are the moments when I see the stressors in my life building up and, out of sheer determination, I lift a figurative middle finger to it all and scream inward "nope, not me, not this time...I will win".

There are times when the struggle is mighty.  When I started school again I lost sleep for days before hand.  I remember feeling a genuine panic as I drove to work the morning before my first class was to begin.  Panic I tell you, sheer panic.  It was as if there was something inside of me, this irrational beast, consuming me from within.  I felt pretty hopeless, and my only recourse was to just get through the day, start experiencing school again, and then get over whatever fears resided inside.  Thank God for an engaging job.

Then there are the minor peaks and valleys of my everyday life.  These are the basically good vs mildly annoying days.  These are the days when I can kinda/sorta just pinch myself if I feel a bit too negative, with the hope being for some kind of minor mental re-boot.

Is any of the above even normal?  Well I don't rightly know, as I have no yardstick by which to measure such things.  So...

Where Do I Go?
Where do I go from here?  Well a good place to start is where I know I will not be going, and that's an easy one:  I am not now, nor will I ever, going to look to some kind of pharmacological augment for my brain chemistry.  Mind you I have nothing against those who need this kind of intervention to help them balance out their mental state.  If it works for them, well then I say a hearty "Great and God Bless!".  However, it's just not for me, and I can't really articulate why other than what I've already noted in terms of an in-grained fear of conscience altering substances.

Maybe, instead, this is part of where I go from here.

Maybe my therapy is simply a long road of asking questions, stopping every once in a while to pick something up, examine it, and then continuing on my journey.  Timing is everything in life, and I am a firm believer that sometimes just the right things are left for you to examine precisely when you need them the most on life's journey.

Maybe everyone struggles like this or has their own similar story to tell; I just happen to be the one bold or stupid enough to type it out for some sliver of the world to see.  Where the "world" is the few hundred people that open up this page every day.

Maybe there is a kind of freedom associated with admitting my fallibility, something my Mom was never quite capable of doing and my father was likely never capable of even understanding.

Catharsis?  Perhaps.

So where do I go?  Forward, I suspect, wherever that takes me.  I really shall "not cease from exploration", as I think that's who I am, it's what I do.

* * * * * * * * * *

Post Script
This was a tough posting to write; in fact, I've been at this one for months.  I think I've easily invested more time writing this than I've invested in any other piece of content on this site, ever.  Thank you for reading it by the way.

If at the end of reading this you are compelled to feel bad for me, well then please save your energy, don't, and instead use it for something far more constructive, like making pizza or reading a good book.  I am, in fact, more than fine; in fact I am wonderful.  Besides, it's not the people who admit to being a bit off kilter every now and then that we all need to worry about.

If at the end of reading this you are bothered at how I've described my parents, for example, well then you'll just have to be bothered I suspect.  I was there, you weren't.  Trust me, if anything, I've provided the kinder, gentler version in this posting, as there was much that ended up on the literal blog editing floor.  Oh, and there will be no "director's cut" in the future.  This is just about the only time this will ever come up.

If at the end of reading this you can somehow relate, well, that's kind of what I wanted in the first place.  Again, I have no yardstick, so the notion that someone could relate to what I've written is both helpful and hopeful.  I have learned in life that we are all equally dysfunctional, but that learning for me took a very long time to come about, and I suspect that "equally" is a very relative term.  Maybe this will shorten that lesson time for someone else, which is a very good thing.


Michelle HD said...

Thank you for sharing this. It helped more than you know.

Stephen Albert said...

Michelle - thanks for reading it!

- Steve