Editors note: This is the second in a monthly series of guest posts on the subject of mental health. For November we are lucky to have award-winning blogger Jo Middleton of slummysinglemummy writing for us of her experiences. She looks at mental health issues from the perspective of someone living with and caring for family members with anxiety and depression.
When I first talked to Suzie about writing a guest post, she asked me to come up with ‘something hysterical’. Well, obviously my natural tendency is to strive to be witty and amusing at all times, but that can get rather tiring. I wondered instead if I would take the opportunity to write something a little more thoughtful. I’m always so impressed by how interesting and inspiring Suzie’s posts are – much more so than my usual flippant, sarcastic style. I wanted to try to fit in.
Suzie has written a fair bit about mental health, and I know she often feels like the ‘mad’ one in a family of down to earth, sport obsessed, straightforward people, so I thought it might be interesting to turn that around, and write about how I sometimes feel being the ‘sensible’ one in a family of less emotionally stable people.
Mental ill-health has always been a defining part of my family. Perhaps not in an extreme way, more as background music. My Gran experienced depression and anxiety, but of course you didn’t call it that then, you just got on with things, and suppressed any difficult feelings with plenty of strict routines and good honest hard work.
My mother inherited her mother’s depressive tendencies, and was quite profoundly affected by an incident with a bee when she was about 15. My Gran was stung, had a reaction, and I think had to be taken to hospital. My mother became terrified of the same thing happening to her, of her throat closing up and of not being able to breathe, and began to have panic attacks.
Unable to talk about her feelings with a mother whose answer to everything was to produce a large meal with a high fat content, she has struggled with her anxiety ever since. The panic attacks continued, and many a night as a child I was woken up by my mum pleading with me to call her an ambulance as she couldn’t breathe, and was sure she was dying.
My sister, who is four years younger than me, also has the family anxiety gene, and spent much of her early childhood at home with my mum, unwilling or unable to go to school, certain that the local nuclear power station was about to explode at any moment.
From quite a young age then, I became the sensible, organised, happy one in the family, often tasked with ‘cheering up my sister’. I never resented this, and was always happy to come up with some kind of interesting activity for us both. I use the word ‘interesting’ in the loosest possible sense – one of our favourite games was ‘Estate Agents’. Always looking to get out of the house, my mum would quite often pretend to be wealthy, and spend afternoons looking around large properties for sale. In the process, my sister and I would collect house details, tippex out the company headers, and replace them with our own. We’d then set up our bedroom as an office, and pass the time taking imaginary phone calls and making appointments for viewings. Happy days.
The idea I’m interested in though is to what extent the roles we are assigned as children shape our personalities as adults. I don’t doubt that my experiences as a child, and the experiences I continue to have as an adult, have a profound effect on how I see myself, and my place in the world.
This of course can be both positive and negative. Living with people who tend to worry, and who see the first signs of meningitis in every stiff neck or headache, has forced me to look on the bright side of life, to try to see the positive in things. My way of rebelling against my parents is to be eternally cheerful and optimistic. This means I’m normally pretty laid back, take things in my stride, and like to live in the moment. I don’t really do long term planning and I tend not to worry too much about the consequences of my actions. I like to have fun, but it can be messy, and results in a lot of hangovers.
On the down side, I do sometimes feel an exaggerated sense of responsibility to other people, a desire to live up to my role as ‘the sensible one’. An ex-boyfriend once described me as ‘cold-hearted’ and although it stung at the time, I think there is an element of truth. It’s not that I don’t care; it’s just that years of caring have forced me to toughen up, to take a step back from my emotions. To me, being over-emotional is a weakness and I don’t like to be seen as weak. I don’t like to feel things too deeply. Begin positive has become a reflex – feeling anxious or worried about something? Don’t! Just think of something happy, quick!
What this also means, is that if I ever experience instances of depression or anxiety, it terrifies me. The prospect of long term depression or anxiety is far scarier than the reality of it. No one wants to turn into their mother after all.
So what do you think? How do our experiences of mental ill-health as a child shape us as adults and to what extent do we find ourselves defined by the roles we are assigned when we are young?