Some of my first memories of my mother include her being sad, in some capacity. That is a very sad thing to say, I realize this now. Likely, on some level, I realized it then too. Growing up, I couldn’t understand her sadness, couldn’t access the dark places she must have dwelled. As far as I knew, I came from a family of sound minded people who scoffed at the idea of therapy in any form.
And then, at the home of my grandfather, my mother (by this point, an alcoholic) revealed to me that my great grandmother, a woman I’d never met, had committed suicide when she was a fairly young woman, around thirty. She left behind a few children, and a legacy of secrecy. My mother’s depression had happened around the time that she was thirty and as I grew closer to that age myself, I realized that my feelings of sadness were more than that. They told of a history of women and mental illness and social stigma. They told a story about the ways mental illness can destroy most of the women in a family before they even realize it.
I could say that it was therapy and puppies and yoga that saved me from impending depression—it was, and I’ve written about it. I could say that I’m free of it, that I feel great all of the time, that I never question those darker parts of the self that are dormant, usually—but I’d be lying. The truth is that I still get depressed, that I have to actively seek out ways to make myself feel better on a weekly basis. That writing, ultimately, is my thing, that special outlet that keeps me away from depression, and drugs and alcohol and rehab, which I’m also prone to.
While mental illness is more, as my father points out, of “my mother’s thing”, drug addiction is more of his. He began as a pot head (on the way to the hospital to give birth to me, my mother had to stop to make a delivery), he’s dabbled, however briefly, in cocaine, crack, pills—ending, most recently, with meth production and consumption, for which he spent time in jail. He’s never been to rehab, though I know (in my professional experience) that it would benefit him. Instead, he’s still an alcoholic, something I’m willing to begrudgingly accept because it is better than the alternative. He’s turned to grandfather-hood and God as part of what he identifies as a nontraditional, non twelve step recovery program. His path is not mine, his story not mine either.
Lydia Yuknavitch writes, in The Chronology of Water, “Language is metaphor for experience. It’s as arbitrary as the mass of chaotic images we call memory—but we can put it into lines to narrativize over fear.” For me, this remains true. By writing about my experience (and the experience of my family, though I struggle in that it is not my story to tell) in as honest a way as I find possible, I am able to work toward a future that does not include taking the path of my relatives—addiction or depression or a punch of pills in a cave in the Wyoming woods.
Photo by Justin See