When I was growing up, there was a magnet on my family’s refrigerator that said, “Our family puts the FUN back in dysFUNctional”. As the saying goes, no truer words…
As a young child, I didn’t realize that what my family was abnormal. Mental illness was just a part of the landscape. It wasn’t until a friend asked why we screened our calls – “Oh, just in case one of my crazy brothers calls. My mom doesn’t want to talk to them right now.” – and her mother forbade her to come over to my house that I became aware that other people think my people are different. Strange. Other. It was like being part of the Munsters, except there’s no laugh track.
Growing up in that kind of environment, you’re bound to have some crazy rub off on you, even if you have no genetic predisposition to madness. Such was the case with me as garden variety adolescent disasters (divorce, bullying, low self-esteem) complicated increasingly idiosyncratic behaviors (nail biting, tongue biting, picking, cutting).
I had always been a worry-wart and as a teenager, my anxiety blossomed to include depression and risk-taking behaviors. Bouncing between two parents, I was largely a latch-key child, rarely held accountable for what I did or where I was. At sixteen, one would hope that their daughter intuitively understands that a car full of strange boys that follows you home in the wee hours of the morning is bad news – not an opportunity to flirt and make new friends.
In retrospect, knowing now about what kind of world we live in, I feel genuinely fortunate to have survived that period of time in my life.
At eighteen, I followed my mother and step-father to Hawaii where they had relocated for work. Their invitation was too tempting to turn down: come live in paradise, be supported through college, then move back home or do whatever you like. So I left home and came to the island, only to watch both of my parents die within three years of touching down. I was certainly an anxious person before then, and I had experienced some depression, surely. But it was nothing compared to the emotionally desolate plains I would traverse once my parents were gone.
Losing my step-dad was hard, but losing my mother was devastating. I became a stranger unto myself. I lost friends because I was no longer the kind of person who had anything to give to a friendship. I was still in college, going from a 4.0 student to a, “so long as I’m passing” student. I harmed myself with abandon, owing to the sheer gravity of my grief. Losing her altered everything.
I’ve been in therapy and on medication on-and-off over the years. It seemed like the thing to do: go talk to somebody, take Prozac, feel better. No big deal – it didn’t mean I was crazy. After Mom died, I wasn’t compelled seek treatment or counseling of any kind. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to deal with it. So for years, I allowed myself to ruminate in my grief and in my depression, and I watched from the outside as the person I was began to shift into something dark and twisted, consumed with hatred and bitterness.
I graduated college. I joined the workforce. I attempted to move on and experienced several devastating failures. Finally, I sat on my sofa one day with a friend and cried, finally admitting what I had been resisting for so long: “I think I’m sick.” I didn’t want to be mentally ill – I didn’t want to be crazy. My brothers were crazy, talking about aliens shooting them with lasers and how the universe could fit inside a roll of quarters. I am not crazy. But I was sick. I finally came to terms with my need for help.
Later, after the preliminary appointments, discussions on treatment options, group therapy sessions, it appeared to come down to the Big Three: General Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder. A smorgasbord of mental illness to encompass my various quirks, behaviors, thought patterns, and irrational beliefs.
My doctor would come to describe my descent into madness as a “bloom”. I had, from the very beginning of my life, been at a slight disadvantage for developing some form of mental illness, from my genes to my environment to my circumstances, and here I was: years after a traumatic event, fully bloomed. I find that I really like the idea that, despite the stigma that surrounds mental illness, embracing it has helped me develop and become more of myself.
These days life is a little easier. I don’t write myself a blank check to be a miserable cuss, but on my bad days, instead of relying on self-flagellation to enact change, I exercise a little compassion for myself. Living through so many peaks and valleys, I have learned that I always find a way back out of my hole, even if that means simply waiting it out. That isn’t exactly hope, but it’s effective as far as lessening the hopelessness. Becoming a mother has been the best thing so far that I have ever done, though it brings with it specific challenges to my health maintenance.
I discovered, for instance, that while I might have dodged the PPD bullet, there is such a thing as PPOCD, which will cause you to obsess over the idea of your child coming to harm, or worse, that you might be able to harm your child. I have days when I feel clueless as to how to be a mother, and wish desperately to speak to my own. On those days, my grief springs anew. Still, I find myself trying to put the FUN back into my dysFUNctional life: writing a blog, using Twitter, keeping up with my delightful daughter, and reaching out for the hands of those who know my struggle as their own.
Sarah C is a sign language interpreter and counselor for Deaf adults living in the Honolulu area. When she is not working in the community, she lives the life of a Gamer Widow with her husband, young daughter, and assorted menagerie of pets. She blogs for the Gamer Widow’s High Tea Society and chronicles her adventures in life and new motherhood at http://therealsarahc.wordpress.com and @realsarahc on Twitter.