Around 2005, I found my biological mother’s side of the family, and with that came a narrative about my family’s mental health. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services sent me a thick packet of information sealed in a manila envelope.
My mother had been diagnosed as having acute schizophrenia, undifferentiated type. According to the report she would oftentimes “walk around with an empty stroller” and could be found “lying on the couch, laughing hysterically.” Although she was an avid swimmer, in 1978, she drowned in Lake Michigan.
These images are not only vivid, but also profound. I immediately related to my mother’s psychosis. Finally, I understood part of myself.
I’d felt slightly off growing up. For example, in elementary school, it was difficult for me to walk in front of a class or across the cafeteria. Oftentimes, I thought everyone stared and talked about me. I had little reason to believe these imaginings, but in my mind they were true. However, I learned to cope. I’d pretend I was a horse with blinders on. I’d walk directly to my destination, ignoring anything in my peripheral vision, internally praising myself when I made it back to my seat without ridicule.
I never told anyone.
Learning about my biological mother introduced me to one of her sisters, Aunt Catherine. She outlined the remainder of our family’s mental health history. She suffered from depression. Her father, my grandfather had, too. Her mother, my grandmother had a nervous breakdown. Her two brothers were in prison; one murdered someone.
When I shared my relief that I’d finally found solace in understanding my off-centeredness, she rebuked it.
“Don’t try to be like us,” she said, “you’re not like us. You don’t have to be like us. Depression feels like you’re in a deep hole that you can’t get out of. You want to get out, but you can’t.”
I’d never experienced depression. In fact, my set point is joyful. So, I dismissed my newfound knowledge. Plus, who wants to identify as “crazy” anyway? I focused on other family similarities, like the tremors she, my daughters and I shared; all of our hands shake uncontrollably.
Still I knew something about me wasn’t normal.
When I was younger, I cried frequently for all reasons. One time I remember swelling up with tears because my paternal cousins had visited from North Carolina. They planned to drive to Bolingbrook, a Chicago suburb to visit another cousin. I thought I wasn’t invited, so I cried, until they consoled me and assured me I’d be right there with them. I was ten.
When my parents told me my father had diabetes, I cried because I thought he was going to die. My mother came to my room and asked me to stop. “Crying for hours is excessive for a diabetes diagnosis,” she said. I was twelve.
It was the 70s and 80s, so I was deemed sensitive. Anxiety wasn’t a household term, and therapy in black homes was unheard of. Instead, I received the proverbial, “Whatchu crying for now?” question, especially from my grandmother, who seemed to want me to be tougher, something I never fully achieved.
I researched schizophrenia and clinical depression. Aunt Catherine was right. I was neither of those; but, dots were connected. However, I dismissed them because they didn’t form complete pictures. They weren’t direct links. I ignored the idea that mental health is genetic; however, like brown eyes and curly hair, traces of mental health can linger in one’s DNA. Curl patterns may be a little looser and eyes a little darker, but characteristics are there.
So, while it’s no easy feat, I’ve taken some time to accept this trait. Subsequently, because I believe the only person I can change is myself, I’ll be publicly exploring it in more detail this year on this blog as a way to de-stigmatize mental health issues and to bring truth to light. What better way to do both than to begin with me?
Oh, and those tremors? They’re more than just biological markers; They are a physical manifestation of social anxiety disorder.