Long before I was conscious of them, shadows of mental illness waxed and waned at the edges of my life. Unbeknownst to me, the two greatest influences of my most formative era – my mother and my maternal grandmother – had constructed families with bulwarks against extremely unstable people to whom they’d been linked. They kept most of the details secret, at least to me, until I was well into adulthood.
While unaware of my DNA inheritance, I would nevertheless be drawn to people with what manic-depressive author Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., calls “an unquiet mind.” As if the “crazy genes” call on frequencies only those with similar genetic markers can detect. No discussion necessary.
I was grown before my mother would detail what she now labels my alcoholic, estranged father’s undiagnosed bipolar disorder and legacy alcoholism. She’d kept him at a distance most of my childhood, and when he died driving into an embankment just after my seventh birthday, I was told he “fell asleep at the wheel.” When I was a teen, Mom offered that he was drunk; when I was in my twenties, that maybe he’d committed suicide.
I began to unravel my family’s classified mental-health history. By this time, I’d already visited two friends in the Bellevue psych ward. One had made a scene while I was bartending at happy hour. Talking of angels and such, she’d tried to climb on the bar to dance. I’d thought she was tripping, but she was in the throes of a manic episode. Later, at Bellevue, I would see bruises where she’d been restrained by orderlies. Rather than take lithium, she’d opted to medicate with weed, which had not worked out. We’d been friends for a couple of years, and this was all new to me, yet oddly familiar.
I’d also long since found myself in romantic entanglements with unstable people, and been the recipient of wildly paranoid ire, all mostly before age 25. I can’t count how many times I’d shrugged and said, “Why me?” I see now I was in much more control than I knew. Crazy was my copilot, my puppeteer.
My maternal grandmother’s furtively held story was even more dramatic than my father’s. It was mostly unknown to me until I was a parent myself, and my grandmother, then in her nineties, started talking. The first detail she let slip – while drunk on Harvey’s Bristol Cream – was her alcoholic father’s suicide by gunshot when she was a young mother. This led to further disclosures of her harrowing early life.
All the time I’d spent in her home, it had never occurred to me to ask why the walls featured no photographs of her sister Imogene and brother Joe. Also, only one colorized photo of her mother, taken in the early twentieth century. No photographs of her father, lawyer and newspaperman Josephus Camp, Jr.
Turns out all were legit mentally ill, and my grandmother, following her father’s suicide, and possessed of an iron will, had assiduously shut out her fellow survivors. Out of shame, I’m sure, but also to protect. She would marry a stable man, and raise three daughters who learned to keep private family stories rife with shame and pain.
I’d been led to believe my great-uncle Joe spent most of his life institutionalized because he was intellectually disabled, but he’d actually been diagnosed with what they called “dementia praecox.” The received wisdom now is he was schizophrenic. Great-aunt Imogene was also schizophrenic, but apparently “high functioning.”
Perhaps parenthood, which occurred not long after my own mental-health struggles emerged, was actually the best time to learn most of this stuff. Accepting my own issues and bringing a child into the world both sharpened vigilance in me, not just for my family, but also for myself. My tendency to attract, and to be drawn to mentally ill people continues, but due to this vigilance I am much more awake to the red flags, much better at boundaries. When the aberrant DNA bequeathed me receives a message that “one of my own” is drawing near, the newly formed circuit between my subconscious and my conscious mind lights up, and tingles. Most of the time.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.