Ostrich parenting and when mental illness and addiction are in your gene pool
posted by: Guest Blogger
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.