According to an old quip, “Insanity is hereditary—you get it from your children.”
The first problem with that saying is that insanity is a legal term, not a medical term. It describes a lack of responsibility or accountability due to mental illness, but a medical professional word not use the word outside of a courtroom.
Moreover, mental and emotional illnesses are not communicable diseases. You cannot catch it from another person the way you catch a cold or flu virus. The behavior of one’s children can create stress that acerbates one’s illness, but stress alone does not make a person mentally ill.
If my daughter did not make me ill, at least her condition helped me to discover my own problems and to seek help. Her struggle with depression became noticeable while she was in college. When she sought help from the school’s professional counselor, he told her that she was merely homesick. Years later, after two rounds of hospital stays along with medication and counseling, she is doing better. Of course she has good days and bad days, as do we all.
To be a supportive father, I took the time to learn more about depression and anxiety. I was aware that I have occasional spells of depression. My usual response was to push my way through the bout stoically. At that time I believed that virtue is doing the right thing in spite of one’s feelings. For example, courage is not lack of fear; courage is doing the right thing in spite of fear. I reasoned that, so long as I forced myself out of bed and met my responsibilities, how I felt was unimportant. Thanks to my daughter’s situation, I became educated about what a bad approach that was.
As I read about anxiety and the way it manifests itself, I realized that I battle anxiety far more often than I face depression. Being chronically short-tempered, responding to annoyances with over-the-top rage, slamming doors, kicking furniture—these were not bad habits proving that I’m a bad person; these were symptoms of a treatable problem called anxiety. Men, I learned, are more likely to feel angry rather than frightened when hit by a panic attack. No doubt that has something to do with male and female roles in society, but I’ve done no research on that aspect of anxiety. (This is why I republished my Basil Fawlty post yesterday.)
I see my other daughters acting the same way. Twice this spring when they have been together, they have been short-tempered with one another, quick to take offense, bursting into tears because of something a sister said, fleeing the conversation rather than getting over it. I am looking for ways to encourage them to get help, not to delay seeking help until they reach a crisis, as happened to one of them already.
The daughter who survived a crisis and is receiving appropriate care had a troubling episode Monday night. Her car broke down just before Christmas; she could not afford to repair it, so she sold it “as is” with plans to buy another car. So far, she has not been able to find one she can afford, aside from those likely to last only a short time. This situation led to an emotional melt-down that had her curled up in a chair, sobbing uncontrollably. I tried to offer what help I could, but then I backed off to give her the space she needed.
At this point, her crying pushed me into a panic attack. At first I just tried to close myself in another room, but I could still feel the attack at work. My fists were clenched, and I wanted to strike myself with the book I was unable to read. I wanted to shout at my daughter, to tell her, “You are obsessing over money and property. These things are not supposed to be so important to you.”
Instead I went for a walk. You can’t outrun a panic attack, but that’s no reason not to try. Working off nervous energy with moderate exercise is always a good idea. Actually, it was a very brisk walk with a lot of hostility still boiling inside me. When cars came toward me I held my ground and forced them to change their path. None of them came close to hitting me—and at that time, I followed that observation with the words, “I’m not that lucky.” I don’t doubt that people in the neighborhood wondered about the man stalking past their houses, but I needed that walk at that time.
As I walked down one street, I saw two people on the other side of the road with flashlights. At first I assumed that they were looking for something one of them had dropped in the dark—car keys, perhaps. As I got closer, I saw that they were bagging leaves. One of them was wearing a helmet with a lantern, the kind of gear associated with miners. This oddity helped turn my thinking away from my own problems. Who in the world is so obsessed with bagging leaves that they carry (and wear) lights to do it during the night?
I was going to share that anecdote with my daughter, but by the time I got home she had gone to bed. The car situation is unchanged, but she somehow worked through her attack as I worked through mine. J.