“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.”
– William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Growing up we didn’t talk much about my grandfather. He was estranged from us, this I knew, and I remember being confused that he was still alive but had no interest in knowing his grandchildren. Even more perplexing to me was that he had no contact with my father. As a child, so viciously in love with her dad, it was hard to understand how every father and child relationship wasn’t so innately connected.
Every question we had about my grandfather was returned with nonresponsive answers. When I pressed my mother to explain my grandfather and his absence, she said little. I was lead to believe that he had contracted malaria during the war and was never quite the same person. To a child, it made all illness somehow scary.
When my grandfather died, I was fourteen. It was a dark and cold winter day and I remember my dad sitting in a dark room, alone, and quiet. Oddly, I was devastated. My childlike dreams of heroically tracking down this man and reconnecting him with our family, getting him to acknowledge our worth, and having him rejoin the family with fanfare were shattered.
Legacy of Illness
I didn’t hear my grandfather mentioned again until one of my siblings started showing signs of extreme anxiety and engaging in reckless behavior in his early 20s. He was sure to be the success of our family. More than just unmatched in his academic achievements, he had always been unbelievably popular and self-assured. These changes in personality were drastic. Because he was living away from home at the time, the stories we heard of his hijinks were easily dismissed. He had always been a spirited child. But when his roommate contacted us to say it had been weeks since he had showered or left his room, my dad drove hours in the middle of the night on a rescue mission to bring him home. The person I encountered that day was unrecognizable to me. Not only was he physically wasting away, his depression was so severe that his eyes were vacant.
At this point, our generational history of mental illness could no longer be ignored. Bit by bit, stories were revealed about my grandfather’s long battle with bipolar disorder. He had suffered a breakdown in college when his father, my great-grandfather, had tragically died. Although never confirmed, my great-grandfather’s untimely and tragic death was likely suicide. That suicide, as we now can most-assuredly guess, was a result of mental illness.
Initially, uncovering the reality of mental illness in my family was almost paralyzing. It felt like a cruel game of Russian roulette among my siblings. Were their actions and reactions to things normal? Were mine? Would we ever be able to tell?
My family circled the wagons became advocates for my brother immediately. My mom immersed herself in books and classes about depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. She attended support groups at the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) and guided us through an understanding of my brother’s issues for what they were: an illness, and not something he initiated or needed to be blamed for.
The true gift of this revelation came to my aid a few short years later. While in my first year of law school I started to experience extreme anxiety. I would picture myself standing up in the middle of a full classroom and screaming at the top of my lungs. There were moments where I wrapped my fingers under my chair to keep me from bolting upwards. I couldn’t sit through an entire Mass, my heart would race as I felt trapped within the confines of the expansive steep Church walls. And at the very worst moments, my skin felt so confining I would fantasize about running through full glass window pane so that maybe it would tear it off.
This is when the truth of my family became liberating. I understood that these days of darkness, angst, and depression came from something and had a name. They were something that was a part of me but didn’t define me or my future. Transparency to me meant that I didn’t need to suffer in silence, that I was free to disclose these demons to my family, a family that could now offer me the support and understanding that I desperately needed to overcome and thrive.
Most importantly, hope replaced fear.
Hope for the Future
I still look at my children and wonder what each of their futures holds. I ask God every day, in his kindness and mercy, to spare them of the cross that mental illness inevitably brings. I hate that even armed with knowledge and compassion, I won’t be able to shield them of their suffering should mental illness be their affliction. But I am also comforted by the fact that the revelation of our generational struggles shattered the darkness and provided a venue for open communication about mental illness, which I believe will lead to early signs of detection, and give my children hope for the journey.