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Ostrich parenting and when mental illness and addiction are in your gene pool

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I recently received a few emails from some people who took issue with my birthday post to my daughter. I believe their point was that I was, oh, full of myself and a wretched excuse for a human being who doesn’t deserve her children, or something like that.

Why? Because I stated that I wasn’t too sure about having a girl when I got one.

Now, I could take issue with that and be all defensive, or I could just realize that most of you have better things to do with your time than read through 3 1/2 years of archives to figure out what the hell I’m talking about, and in all fairness, I can almost see their point. Starting the Happy Birthday post with “Yeah, not so excited at first” could come off as the slightest bit horrendous, I guess, if you don’t know the history (and you don’t bother to read the rest of the post. Bygones.)

So maybe I should cover that history for a second. Just a second, I swear.

See, here’s the thing. My family has dark, dusty storage lockers rented out all over the East Coast full of skeletons. Everything is hidden. I didn’t even know my mother’s actual, legal maiden name until I tried to get a Social Security Card when I was 17 and the girl at the counter felt badly enough for me for clearly knowing none of my family history that she told me.

Growing up, I knew that my mom’s mom was abusive and the slightest bit nuts, I knew that my father’s mom and sister had some issues with substances and sanity, but I never knew details. No one knew details. No one talked about anything. My whole family tripped through life with a bag over their head, hoping that if they just didn’t acknowledge anything at all, it would all magically go away.

No one ever sat me down and explained that mental illness, severe mental illness, is swarming in my gene pool. No one ever told me what drugs were, let alone that we’re all freakishly predisposed to addiction. No one utter the words “child abuse” or “substance abuse.” The word “sex” was never spoken in my house. All we knew is that private parts were dirty, that god wants parents to beat their kids, and that those kids need to shut up and pray.

So when it all fell apart, none of us knew why or what to do about it. I used to have teachers come up to me and ask direct questions about my home life, and it never even occurred to me to talk about any of it, because I just thought no one talked about those things. I just thought that was everyone’s life. I didn’t get it that normal people do talk about these things, and that my life wasn’t normal.

It took me a long time and a long series of breakdowns and some self-mutilation to work through everything once I left home. It took hours in darkness, mulling over blurry memories, piecing stories together, writing about it and talking through it before I realized that I was at the bottom of a long, twisted spiral of DNA gone haywire. I thank the flying spaghetti monster every day that I was at least given the intelligence to be able to see these things and make sense of them in the end.

What if I hadn’t been able to sort it all out? What if I had just once cut deep enough, when that was the only coping tool I had at my disposal, and I’d never figured it out? What if I’d never really learned that nothing that happened to me had anything to do with me, just with my situation and with the brain chemistry of my relatives? I probably wouldn’t still be here, that’s what.

Now, I got really lucky in that my family’s particular brand of nutsosity has seemed to lay off me for the time being. Usually, it hits hard right after you have your first girl. I’m three years in and still don’t think I can see the molecules coming out of the thermostat. I’ve never once called a priest to inquire about and exorcism for my daughter. (Though, honestly, I can almost see the reasoning behind that one.) (Kidding.) (Maybe.) I’ve never wanted to beat her until she bled, I’ve never once felt like all my problems are her fault, when her father and I split up, it never occurred to me to try to beat her father out of her.

I think I’m in the clear, here.

But what if she’s not.

What if she grows up, has a baby, and all of this starts for her? What if I screw up royally sometime in the next 10 years and she can’t understand why? What happens if she grows up thinking that her mom had it so easy, and that all women naturally take to parenting, and then she has her own children and struggles like I did eight years before she came, when she couldn’t have seen it or known about it?

What good is keeping my past a secret going to do for her? None. But it might really help her to know someday. She might need that information. She might need to know that it’s okay to be afraid to be a mother, to be so humbled by the awesome responsibility of bringing up a child that you are terrified of doing it poorly. She might need to realize that her mother is so very fallible, but fighting every day to be better than she thinks she can be.

I just want all of my kids to participate in their childhoods. I want them to know that alcoholism and drug addiction runs rampant on both sides of their family, that mental illness is right there in the corner watching them, and that I KNOW those things. I think it’s important that they know about the limitations they may possess; that maybe drinking isn’t a hot idea for them, and that taking uppers is WAY OUT, and that the second they feel like they’re slipping, mom is going to be there to catch them. I don’t want big, dark secrets. I want my children to know me, to know where I came from, to trust me and come to me when they need to. I want them to know I won’t pacify them, that I will believe them and can probably relate to them when and if the time comes. I want them to know that I love them so much, I’ll tell them things I don’t like to talk about anymore, because it’s important that they know.

So, if that means that I have to tell them that I was scared crapless every time I saw that + on the stick, then so be it. Because maybe they’ll be scared crapless, too, when they see their first +, and at least they’ll know they’re not alone.

-“Mr. Lady”


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  • comment avatar Amber October 17, 2008

    The raw honestly of this post totally struck me. Your children are blessed to have a mother who has fought back and who will be there every step of the way. Thank you for sharing your story!

  • comment avatar Karla October 17, 2008

    I’m so moved by your writing. You are brave and your children are fortunate. I wish my mother would be this brave. Wishing only the best for you and your family, always.

  • comment avatar Brillig October 17, 2008

    Mr. Lady, this is so awesome. I, too, am struck my the raw honesty here.

    My mom grew up in a similar way to what you describe here. Abuse, addiction, depression, etc. And yes, at some point she had to be honest with us about all of it. But she also did what you’re doing– she broke the cycle. I am in complete awe of her, and you, for having the courage and the sense of reason and LOVE to do that for her kids. Sure, we know that we are highly predisposed to addiction and depression, and it’s probably helpful to know that. But by breaking the cycle, she also taught us that predisposition does NOT mean “destined.” Love, kindness, hope– they all go such a long way!

    Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I’m standing up and applauding this post. Your kids, like me, will be eternally blessed thanks to the efforts of a mother who had all the cards stacked against her, but broke free anyway!

  • comment avatar Kagey October 17, 2008

    If most parents dug deep inside themselves, I think they would have to admit that they are scared a lot of the time, too. That what appear to be simple decisions to outsiders seem fraught with lifelong consequences for our kids, and we have to make those kinds of decisions daily.
    I have learned that even the women I believe are great moms (including my own) feel they failed their children from time to time, and wonder what they could have done better.
    More power to you, Mr Lady. You are doing the right things, planning to tell your kids the dark secrets of your family, and help them avoid those pitfalls themselves.

  • comment avatar Marge October 17, 2008

    AHEM, native?!
    Yeah ok, I’ll let you get away with it, but just this once because it helps me believe that I’ll get to see you again soon,

  • comment avatar Lori October 17, 2008

    May the flying spaghetti monster and your intuitive powers of self-preservation be with your children as well.

  • comment avatar so grateful to be mormon October 17, 2008

    amber — this got to me. thanks for pointing me to this on twitter.

    guest writer — my heart went out to you as i read this. thanks for sharing. i bet your story will help others.

    and i especially like how you said, “I just want all of my kids to participate in their childhoods.”

    i carried hatred around toward a family member for almost 30 years (until 3 yrs ago) when i decided to confront him and forgive him. took a weight off my shoulders that had, up to that point, kept me from fully engaging in some of the joy in life … because i was a walking fist of anger.

    been doing better since.

    not done.

    always will be a work in progress.

    blessings to you and your loved ones.
    greetings from kathleen in anchorage alaska

  • comment avatar Mr Lady October 17, 2008

    Thank you, Amber, for sharing this post, and thank you all for your kind comments.

    And Marge, I lived there before Interlocken OR the Tech Center. That qualifies me as a native, right?

    RIGHT???? 🙂

  • comment avatar alex October 17, 2008

    Wow, this could have been written by my mother.

    Being a 28 year old version of a daughter that seemed to have a mother treat her the way you are treating yours, I can say a few things:
    1.) that my mom telling me (over and over) that consequences of drugs/alchohol esp. with our alcholism-family-tree made me wait till I was 21 to drink. I drink now but if I have ever felt “the need” to drink, I have stopped drinking for weeks to months just to know I have control not liquor
    2.) learning what my mom went through as a child taught me why she did the things she did, esp. the things I didn’t like as a kid (over protective, worried about things at times, etc.)
    AND it taught me to respect the hell out of her.

    I esp. have learned that my mother has done infinitely better with me and my brothers than her parents did with her…and all she hopes is that I do better than her.

    Thank you for helping me take a minute today to remember how awsome my mom is.–not that she lets me forget too often 🙂

  • comment avatar cheri October 17, 2008

    What an insightful look at yourself and your family history. This brings tears to my eyes because I spent 6 years as a therapist for families involved with social services. If one of the young girls I worked with ever has the ability to express themselves so clearly and the courage to change family patterns, I will be incredibly proud of them.

  • comment avatar polly October 17, 2008

    Mr. Lady~
    I applaud you. Wow. Not everyone can fully and honestly tell their story. That there is a big step by its self.
    I am proud of you.
    just to let you know-you are not alone in this thing we call life. HE is right there with you.
    When things get rough and hard to function-just remember-to lean on HIM.
    HE is the greatest. and Mr. Lady HE will help you through anything.
    Trust me. I know.

    and Mr. Lady. You are a good mom! Be proud of your self.
    You are human. everyday is a new one.

    and all of GOD people said.


  • comment avatar Kari October 17, 2008

    Unspeakably moved by this. THANK YOU for your honesty. I come from a similar background and it is amazing to hear of someone who lives through it.

  • comment avatar Kari October 17, 2008

    P.S. Priceless picture of you and your daughter.

  • comment avatar Momma, The Casual Perfectionist October 17, 2008

    What a great post! Thank you for sharing this personal part of yourself. I’m a lurker over at your blog, and it’s good to see you here, too!

    aka The Casual Perfectionist

  • comment avatar A mom in the burbs October 17, 2008

    As I have crept out of my own dark shadows from my childhood, I have to say that becoming a mother to GIRLS, is indeed, frightening for me. Because I understand the particular impact that being a girl has on my relationship with them, just as my mother had on me.

    I REFUSE to be my mother. I will cherish my children. I will be a voice for them in this world. They MATTER and are IMPORTANT.

    I think that the fact that you are AWARE of your past and sensitive to the ramifications, you (and your daughter(s)) will be just fine.

    You are a brave mama. Your children are blessed.

  • comment avatar Aimee Greeblemonkey October 17, 2008

    You always have my heart and hugs, babes.

  • comment avatar Sheri October 18, 2008

    I come from depression on both sides as well, and although I don’t really think I was abused per se, I know there were times when things were not good. The best part is that I realized I had a problem when I was about 15, and I didn’t keep it to myself. Now, 4 of my 5 siblings have experienced depression or/and bipolar. Once we started talking about it openly (after my sister tried to kill herself) my cousins confessed in droves, and it was helpful for a cousin who was suffering from post partem at the time. If we don’t acknowledge and speak up- how will anyone ever get help? Congrats on your openess and awareness- it will make all the difference.

  • comment avatar One Mom's Opinion October 19, 2008

    Mr. Lady as usual you threw caution to the wind and put it all out there. It’s one of the many things that I love about you, your family and your writing.

    You’ve shown me so much since my hubby found your blog and told me it was right up my alley.

    Most of us struggle and have issues, I don’t know of any parent that doesn’t. We push through it and do the best that we can for ourselves and our families.

    You have endured a massive pile of obstacles that would have condemned far too many to a life of pain and suffering. Instead, you have embraced your past and shown us a great deal about who you are and who you’ve become.

  • comment avatar in broomfld October 20, 2008

    Ever been to an Al-Anon meeting? Support for Families and Friends of Alcoholics/Addicts.

  • comment avatar Mara January 17, 2014

    So so beautifully written. Thank you.

  • comment avatar Ashley January 17, 2014

    We do our children a great disservice by keeping health information from them. That includes mental illness! This really hit home for me because like this guest blogger, my family is full of CRAZY on both sides of the family. Nobody can ever have a legitimate conversation. Plenty of talking ABOUT each other…but TO each other? FORGET IT. Any time I’ve tried I’ve been told I’m insane, there’s nothing wrong with ANYONE except me. It always turns into a screaming fight, guilt trips, cold silences until the younger person apologizes. You are told that you are not being respectful of your elders, no matter what age you are and how valid your point is. That’s abuse. That’s mental illness. And it NEEDS to be addressed.

  • comment avatar Thrift Store Mama January 18, 2014

    Thank you for the raw honesty of this post. I Second a recommendation for Al-Anon Family Group. I’ve started going to support a family member in recovery but it has been eye opening and life changing in so many other ways.

  • comment avatar Thrift Store Mama January 18, 2014

    Guest blogger, I can’t see a link to your regular blog. Would you please share?

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