Where did my fears come from?

Like many people with mental illness, I often wonder how I got this way. There are times when that matters to me more than others. But I know that mental illness often runs in families, and I’m pretty sure that mental illness is in my gene pool.

My mother was never diagnosed with mental illness. She lived during a time when just talking about such a thing could get you locked in an institution. Still, she exhibited just about every symptom imaginable. To this day, I’ve never met anyone who could go from happy to sad as quickly as my mother could. She could be smiling one minute, then crying the next, for reasons that she either could not explain, or would not explain to her little boy (me.)

She had peculiar fears, too. She could not stand to be around mustard. She always told me she was allergic, but this went far beyond that. I was not allowed to eat mustard when I was around her, even though I am not allergic to it. We couldn’t even keep it in the house, even if I promised that I would be the only one who ate it. She was also afraid of highways. Whenever we traveled distances, it would take us forever to get to our destination, because she would completely avoid them. This changed only slightly when I learned to drive. Then, sometimes, she would venture on to highways–but only if I was sitting next to her, and promised to take the wheel if she got too nervous. I took the wheel quite often.

My mother also self-harmed. She and I would be sitting together at home, and suddenly, she would start picking at the skin of her feet until it chafed. I never knew why she did this, and I don’t remember asking. When you’re a little kid, you really don’t know what’s normal and what’s not. I never even gave this a second thought until recently–when I self-harmed. Thankfully, I have not continued to self-harm. But maybe my mother got the same odd feeling of elation as I did when I thought it would be a good idea to scar myself. Even now, I will look at my scar and smile. That’s how seductive that the urge to self-harm can be. Maybe my mother was happy with her feet, even with their patches of  loose skin.

I don’t blame my mother for all this. I know she loved me, and she did the best she could with the shitty cards she was given. Her own mother died giving birth to her. Her father was cold and distant and never loved her. Her husband (my father) died of a heart attack when he was 33. She had all that–plus whatever was going on in her head.

If I did indeed get the mental illness gene from my mother, I am at least thankful that I live in a time where I can be treated without being locked up permanently. And, although I deal with stigma and misunderstanding almost daily, I at least live during a time when it’s slowly becoming more acceptable to talk about things like this.

My mother didn’t have these advantages. Recently, I experienced the joy of going with one of my best friends to see one of my favorite singers, Rosanne Cash, in concert. In her new song A Feather’s Not a Bird, Rosanne wrote lyrics that make me think of my mother.

There’s never any highway when you’re looking for the past.

The land becomes a memory and it happens way too fast.

Ironically, it’s the vision of a highway that triggers my mother’s memory. I could see how scared she would be, driving on this metaphorical highway. And I can see myself having to take the wheel. Even if I don’t want to. And even if I’m not sure where the hell I’m going.


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