This year, 2017, has been one of slow, deep uncovering of old family stories for me, as I collected and came to terms with what I know of the history on both my mother’s and father’s sides, including the mental health history. The surprising thing is, the more I share my stories with friends and acquaintances, the more they too begin to reveal the “skeletons” in their closets, the family shadows and old secrets. It seems we all need to know we are not alone in having dysfunction affect us, and find the courage to learn the truth.
Neuroscience is beginning to help us understand that we are living receptacles of the DNA of our ancestors, in our emotional makeup as well as in the biological cellular structure. Like a river that has been silted up by the chemical by-products of industrial waste and becomes a poisonous bed for the living things that grow there, our children can be damaged by the sins and omissions (secrets) of our fathers and forefathers (and foremothers) before us. It behooves us to shine a light on the darkness.
I am lucky to have been able to discover some of our family stories from other writers in the family.
My mother gave me a copy of a great aunt’s diary, which tells a partial story of the Irish ancestors who emigrated to America after the potato famine, some of the happy times on summer visits to a farm, as well as the tragic death of a beloved great-uncle in WWI at age 19. After I published my first book, “Little Mother” about my own childhood, my becoming a mother and my mother’s alcoholism, another aunt wrote to me about my great-grandmother’s history of depression. She was committed to a sanatorium after her suicide attempt. Being the eldest daughter, I appear to have a similar make-up or role to my maternal grandmother, who stepped up and held the family together as “Big Sister”.
SoulCollage(R) card: running from the Blue Meanies
My father’s genealogy research told a partial story of his pioneer grandfather who left his native French Quebec in 1878 to cross the continental USA all the way to the Wild West of Nevada to supervise the Verdi Box and Planing Mill, only to come back 20 years later with six children (my grandfather amongst them) who spoke mainly English. In the more recent story, my father was once hospitalized for severe depression and received electric shock treatments. He faced a major decision and froze up, with my mother slowly drinking herself to death and headed for a detox center, and his company going bankrupt. My parents both grew up during or just after the Great Depression, lived through a world war, which is challenge enough. But I wonder what other stories of pregnancies out of wedlock, adoptions, miscarriages, family trauma and secrets may influence our genes and our family story?
At the very least, I have found it helpful to uncover the family’s mental health history and bring it to awareness. My goal is to bring some light to the family trauma so that future generations needn’t carry this unawares into the future. Current members of my family do suffer from depression and anxiety, as well as addictions. This is more and more common in our society where a large percentage of the population is on anti-anxiety medication. (Approximately 30 percent of the adult population in North America have anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety Center stats).
The book “It Didn’t Start with You”, written by a therapist working for over 20 years in the field, states the case very clearly: “Depression. Anxiety. Chronic Pain. Phobias. Obsessive thoughts. The evidence is compelling: the roots of these difficulties may not reside in our immediate life experience or in chemical imbalances in our brains—but in the lives of our parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents. The latest scientific research, now making headlines, supports what many have long intuited—that traumatic experience can be passed down through generations.” (www.goodreads.com/book/show/26026054-it-didn-t-start-with-you)
For myself, an interest in writing a memoir got me started looking at the past. In January, I took two online courses with Daily Om: Healing through Writing, and Release Yourself from Family Karma. I wanted to get started writing, but felt frozen with a fear of depression that often hits when I sit down to write stories from my life. Both these courses were practical and helpful. The process of writing or mapping the family tree through the lens of shadow energies and patterns, i.e. patterns of addiction, chronic illness, and mental health issues through the generations, gave me a much “wholer” picture of what I may be carrying forward, and what doesn’t belong to me. In fact, the author begins with that premise – that the shadows and traumas in your ancestors’ past may be at the base of some of your own tics and issues, or your children’s.
As Toko-Pa says so eloquently in a post on Ancestral Healing, quoting Carl Jung, the ‘silent facts in the background’ are impressed on the next generation. And they are not always talked about; in fact they are highly taboo stories. Some brave souls speak up, others stay silent. “Survivors of the Holocaust mostly take one of two ways to cope with the horror they lived through: One is to speak at length about their experiences, and the other is to never speak of it at all. ... The wounds get passed through the generations, metastasizing through our relationships and literally shaping our children’s lives. The sickness will stay in the family tree until someone in the outer branches has enough support and awareness to face and move through that ancient grief.”
Battling Dragons Collage (Art Journal)
While this may seem like heavy work, it has been actually very enlightening and freeing for me – I do recommend getting guidance from a teacher, psychologist or expert in grief if you feel overwhelmed by this work. Another class I took online, by psychologist and grief expert Leanne Chapman, “Dark Gifts”, http://claimyourtreasure.com/shadows/ helped me use my imagination with visualization exercises and storytelling, to enter the dark cave and tame the dragon. Her knowledge and experience revealed that our hidden treasures are buried in those dark shadows. It felt very empowering for me to claim them, to shed some much needed light on my own healing story.
I’m not sure why, but I feel that it is my responsibility, as well as my privilege to do this healing work. It requires the courageous warrior inside to be very brave. Bring your best tools of bravery and wisdom with you – use your intuitive knowing, and your inner guidance system (often expressed in the body as disease or pain in some parts) to guide you as to what needs a light shone on it. Know that lighting a candle removes the darkness.
After a year of unfolding and writing and learning, I now feel ready to unwrap these stories and share the salient ones with my siblings, including notes from the beloved aunts about our grandparents and great-grandparents. So I’ve just sent them off to my siblings and their kids. My ancestors are guiding me, I feel sure. (At Samhain I honoured them with a special altar and ritual, with the family photos of my grandmothers and grandfathers, the SoulCollage(R) cards I had made for them, and for my parents – some long dead, some living. Even something as simple as lighting a candle and praying for healing can be a first step on this Healing Journey.)
As Caroline Myss says in her excellent article, Our Need for Inspiration, “The human spirit is capable of an endless number of extraordinary feats. It is a dragon slayer, animating its presence within our being to challenge images and thoughts that arise from the depths of our darkness, intent upon reshaping how we see the landscape of our life... It is the spirit in you that has the capacity to endure what so easily collapses the mind and ego. And when your spirit partners with the love in your heart, you can endure anything.”
Go gently into that dark night! And shine your light brightly!
SoulCollage(R) Card: Athena battling Darkness