Three generations ago. My mother’s father’s father. A man whom I know almost nothing about, not even his first name, except that he was probably an undiagnosed borderline bipolar. And he is most likely the cause of my mother’s, both my aunts’, and my clinical depression. I was never officially diagnosed, but I know it’s there. I know, because I tried for so long to pretend like it wasn’t. Looking back, I’m not sure why I tried. Did I feel some obligation to my parents not to have inherited the gene? Was I hoping that something that I had no control over would slip away during the night, and I would never have to accept that it, quite literally, was a part of me? Because my depression is mild, I was only forced to accept that I had it recently. I do not experience many of the things that my mother used to. I do not require medication, and I have never considered suicide. I have never told any of my friends, and unless you look closely, you would be hard-pressed to find my symptoms, but they are there. Unreasonable irritability and sudden bursts of anger. Anxiety far beyond what my fellow classmates experience. Tension, loneliness, feeling like I don’t fit in, feeling simply…empty on the inside, like I somehow misplaced my soul. My symptoms come and go, sometimes, I feel the way I imagine my big sister does: absolutely fine. I’m animated, engaged with life, bubbling over with noise and color and sounds. The life of the party. But sometimes, the sparks within me fade out, and the trappings of life that I wear slide quietly away, so softly I don’t notice the change. This is not something I have control over. This is an actual, chemical thing that is wrong with my brain, where too much of the chemicals that make people feel happy get absorbed and not enough are cycled back around. This was NOT my choice, and although I currently do not take medication, I am lucky to live in a time where it is possible for me to get help. I know all of these things, and I know that it was never my fault. If anything, it was my great-grandfather’s. So why am I afraid to talk about it? I often lash out at my friends during times of anxiety and irritability, and I know that if they knew the cause behind it, they would feel less personally hurt. They would understand that it really is me, not them. But I am also afraid that they are not the liberal-minded people they seem to be, that they would not understand, that they would not believe me when I say that I cannot help it. Every time I play out telling my best friend in my head, it ends with her staring blankly at me for some long moments before intoning, “Sweetie, brain chemistry doesn’t exist. Depression is like being gay, it’s a decision you must have made.” A nightmare of medieval proportions; a flashback to a time when acceptance of anything out of the ordinary was unheard of. A time much like the one my great-grandfather lived in. Undiagnosed but prone to mood swings and occasionally violence, I have grown up painting a portrait of a bad man. But I realize now what it must have been like for him. He tried to hide it like I did, except the ramifications for him accepting it were so much worse. When I told my mother of my depression, a gateway to medication, therapy, and informed sympathy was opened. For my great-grandfather, admitting he had a mental disorder was like signing his own social death warrant. I did not know him. I never met him. I do not even know his first name. But I know that my great-grandfather was sick, and that he had no choice, and that the things that he experienced were terrible and painful for him, and that I will not judge him for it. Even though he passed down his pain and frustration to me, it was never his choice, and with it, he passed down a way for me to understand and accept a man who was never accepted by his time. And that changed my life.
The Family Inheritance
January 23, 2011