On sense, sensibility & living with an anxious family -Jo’s story

The ever 'sensible' Jo M as slummysinglemummy

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?

Photo wolfiewolf

This entry was posted in Mental health and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to On sense, sensibility & living with an anxious family -Jo’s story

  1. jomiddleton says:

    Hi Suzie – thanks for having me today 🙂

  2. Rin says:

    A really interesting post Jo, thank you for sharing. It’s not easy living in a family with mental health issues and having experienced both sides of the coin it’s interesting to hear the perspective of the “normal one” in the family.

    I particularly identify with the feeling of terror when a moment of “feeling low” threatens something more serious and long term. Whether you’ve experienced depression for yourself or observed it close hand, it’s a dreadful prospect. The good news is that it’s something that can not only be survived but beaten!

  3. Pingback: Mental health and family roles « Slummy single mummy

  4. EmmaK says:

    Yeah I can relate. Like you I had to look after my mum from an early age as she was always stressed/strung out about everything and very detached from reality. I think it affects people very badly. I don’t know if it’s true to say you don’t resent the role of being organised/responsible that was thrust upon you – it was just a role you accepted because you had no other choice – but the effects of having to grow up too early leads to becoming emotionally detached, and going into survial mode. It’s only in adulthood that we really become who we were meant to be if we’d had good mothering…also for me I think thinking about the past has released a great deal of anger which is a good thing!

    • jomiddleton says:

      It’s interesting to think about – I certainly don’t resent the caring role I had for my sister, I just feel like that is what being a sister is about. Plus I really enjoyed playing estate agents 🙂

  5. New Mummy says:

    Great post, I suffer with depression and often worry how that will impact on BG.

    • keatsbabe says:

      It has been great to have Jo’s perspective on this. I assume my kids aren’t affected as they seem happy and confident, but sometimes you can’t tell wht they are thinking, especially as teenagers.

  6. Claire says:

    This post struck a chord with me because I’m one of the sensible ones too. My dad committed suicide when I was 11 and the eldest of four children, and I think from that day I have striven to be a ‘coper’. My husband’s family has a history of depression and I find myself getting frustrated with them at times, wondering why they can’t just ‘suck it up’ and get on with life. I also get accused of being ‘cold-hearted’ but I suppose I know that however bad life seems, it could always be 100 times worse and so I don’t see the point in wallowing. Stuff happens, you deal with it and you move on, otherwise it will destroy your life – and if you’re like my dad, the lives of those around you. You don’t have to be over-emotional in order to deal with your feelings, sometimes being self-aware is enough to safeguard your mental health.

    • jomiddleton says:

      Thanks for your comment Claire.

      I think you’re right about the cold-hearted thing. The same ex called me pessimistic too, but I’m really not that, it’s just that I very quickly think about the very worst that could happen in any situation, and decide it’s probably not that bad!

  7. Thank you, a very interesting post and one that has a lot of resonance for me. Something I’ve realised over the years has been that the effort to stay sane and have a positive life can end up having the opposite effect. I also found that I took (and still am learning not to) responsibility for everything, including how other people feel. The challenge, I think, is to find positive and stable role models.

    • jomiddleton says:

      It’s a good point – I wrote a post on my own blog a while back about just how much emotion you should show in front of your own children. It’s a difficult balance isn’t it between wanting to appear human, and not being afraid to show emotion, yet the same time being a consistent and reliable parent.

  8. guerrillamum says:

    A very insightful blog post! It’s amazing how people just ‘got on with things’ in the past.

    Ellen P

    • jomiddleton says:

      I know! My Gran was amazing – bringing up two children, working full-time, cycling everywhere, cooking wholesome meals every day. It’s a wonder she had any time to feel depressed!

  9. Beth says:

    Thank you, Jo. I really do believe that the impact of mental health within families needs to be talked about a lot more. It’s like the final taboo, a stigma no one likes to have associated with their families. I’d be interested to hear how people talk to their children about mental health issues as it is something I reall struggle with.

    • jomiddleton says:

      I guess the only way to talk about them is in the same way that you would talk about any other kind of illness – yes you have to be sensitive, but you can still be honest, and children need to understand that a mental health issue isn’t something you can control. Like any other illness it is something you have to manage, to learn to live with.

  10. prymface says:

    Jo, Just wanted to say thanks for this post. I like how you portray happy memories of being the ‘cheerer upper’! Because ultimately, even though the alternative isn’t worth thinking about, cheering people up is a positive experience. Even though at times it seems fake, sometimes being forced to be fun isn’t so bad, and you can soon forget why you’re doing it.

    Coping with stuff is a pretty good quality to have too-it gets you through all sorts. But the stigma often means that it can be hard to confront the fear of ‘turning into your mother’.

    As the eldest sibling, I can totally relate to all of this!

  11. Lis Sheppard says:

    Well done Jo for sharing your family experiences. It is fascinating how mental health problems cascade down the generations, like you my Grandmother suffered with depression and anxiety (though never acknowledged) which manifested itself in a very critical attitude to her children (particularly the girls). My Mother grew up feeling confined by duty and circumstances, on the one hand anxious to please her mother, on the other desperate to escape. She did, physically at least, escape (we emigrated to New Zealand) but mentally her mother’s hold was never broken. I grew up with an extremely emotionally needy, yet strangely detached, woman who would ‘offload’ on a daily basis to me as she had no friends (my Dad had died when I was 11). I found it extremely difficult to share my experiences with others and it is really only since having depression myself that I can open up more – its an ongoing process!! What an complex bunch we humans are, but isn’t it brilliant how much more open we are than previous generations. Our kids are able to express emotions so much more thoroughly than we could ever have dreamed of – wonderful.

    • jomiddleton says:

      Thanks Lis – that sounds pretty similar to my family really. My mother certainly felt that my Gran was very critical of her, and there was definitely a pressure to conform, or somehow ‘be normal’. I’m sure that having a relatively emotionally cold parent led my mum to go the other way.

      You can definitely see the changes in just a few generations though, which is brilliant.

  12. Brian Meeks says:

    I can’t say that I have any experience with this issue, but I really enjoyed the post. As always, it was well written, interesting, and informative.

    I tend to be laid back too. Life is too short to be stressed about life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s