Essay: Mental Illness Was in My Family, but They Didn’t Have to Be in Me
My mother is mentally ill. My 15-year-old cousin committed suicide. Many of my relatives struggle with depression, although few use the word.
By all accounts, I should be mentally ill, right? It’s inherited — or contagious — isn’t it?
For years, I subscribed to that thinking. I lived in fear that one day a chemically imbalanced sleeper cell would wake up and make me “crazy.”
In high school, I was terrified that my friends would stop hanging out with me if they discovered my mom had lost touch with reality. I didn’t tell anyone that she would fly into violent rages, pummeling me for stretching out the collars of my T-shirts so I could breathe easier, or that she would punish me by refusing me food.
Few knew that when I was 14 my big sister slipped out her bedroom window to escape my mother’s sickness and never came back. Or that two years later, my mom, a respected teacher, had spent the weekend in jail for stalking me after I ran away to live with my father, a man I hardly knew because they divorced when I was 3 months old. I figured my friends wouldn’t want the “crazy” to rub off on them.
I was ashamed of the crazy. I thought the best way to make it go away was to pretend it wasn’t happening. As I grew up, I polished my public persona: Straight-A student! Varsity tennis! Managing editor of the school newspaper! College scholarship! Foreign correspondent! Good job in a Washington newsroom!
I wasn’t crazy. But the effects of pretending nothing was wrong all those years were not healthy. In high school, I flirted with bulimia and cut myself once with a Gillette razor, not because I wanted to die but because pain was more familiar than peace. As soon as I got to college, I found myself a mentally unstable boyfriend. I thought I could fix him. Wrong. He grew up to die in a fiery car crash.
I craved adrenaline and conflict. I moved to Cambodia after college, stopped talking to my dad and sister, and picked fights with friends. I tested my gravity, riding the roofs of moving trains and praying my buddies weren’t too drunk to race their motorcycles with me on the back.
I was terrified that if I stopped doing, running, pushing against someone or something, the pain would swallow me. So I lived in a high-functioning state of chaos.
A therapist later would give me a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. I was numb, detached from the war that raised me yet vibrating with anxiety, and I had no idea it didn’t have to be that way.
Turns out this is pretty common. The advocacy group Mental Health America explains it this way: A family is a unit, so even if a mental health condition isn’t passed on genetically to a child, the environmental stress can traumatize the child’s nervous system, triggering unhealthy defense mechanisms. Toxic stress leads to toxic behaviors.
You can argue that we all self-medicate in one way or another because life can be hard at times and, really, who wants to suffer? Solace comes from food, alcohol, sex, shopping, cellphones. But the root problem doesn’t go away.
I could easily have kept sleepwalking, avoiding pain by avoiding intimacy. But 10 years ago I fell in love with a Cambodian political activist born during the 1970s Khmer Rouge genocide, who would become my husband. His resilience and warmth, despite the brutality he had lived through, woke me up and inspired me. The strength of his love gave me the strength to love myself, even if “crazy” was coursing through my veins. I felt I was finally safe. I didn’t have to fight anymore.
We eloped in Brooklyn during a visit to the United States when I was just 25. In the next four years, we moved from Cambodia to Hong Kong to Washington. I was nervous moving back home, without an ocean between me and my mother. But I decided I had to face my fears. I dived into therapy with a psychologist I called my “mental midwife” because she helped me give birth to a new me. The labor pains were horrific, but as I explored the mental illness that had shaped my childhood, I stopped thinking something was wrong with me. I stopped believing I was unlovable just because my mom hadn’t loved me right, because my family was different than my friends’.
As I made peace with myself, I realized my marriage was for a time but not forever. A bridge to carry me from dark to light. I hope one day he thinks the same of me. Parting ways with the person who taught me to love, and how to be loved, was another trauma, yet one I could bear because it signaled true mental health.
I created change, not chaos. I didn’t run. I didn’t fill the void. I sat and grieved. For my marriage. But also for my dad and sister and the nightmare we had lived.
And for my mom, who boasts about me on Twitter yet has rejected the one condition I made when she contacted me a few years ago. I asked that we talk about what happened. She refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong.
One in four people is affected by mental illness, yet only 43 percent of Americans think it’s appropriate to tell their friends about a mental illness diagnosis, according to a study commissioned by a chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Just 61 percent are willing to tell family members.
It took me more than 30 years, but I’m finally willing to talk about it. And it turns out that telling my friends what I went through hasn’t chased them way. It’s brought us closer.
We never got a diagnosis for my mom, but it would be unfair to both me and my sister to pretend she wasn’t mentally ill. People are afraid that if you name it, your life is over. The truth is, once you name it, your life can finally begin.
Woodsome is a journalist living in Washington, where she works with Al Jazeera English and is learning to be still.