The word “antidepressants” was part of my vocabulary before I was 10. A number of adults in my family, including my mum, were long-term takers. From a young age, I knew what Prozac was and remember playing with the boxes of St John’s Wort tablets that were stacked by the telephone. An elderly aunt had been sectioned in Ireland decades earlier – and remained incarcerated until her death – for what, these days, would probably be diagnosed as bipolar disorder and treated far more sensitively.
“All the females in our family are crazy,” my father has always tenderly joked, even telling my serious boyfriends when I brought them home. It would have been funnier if there wasn’t a lot of truth in the statement. It’s an interesting situation when you grow up with the knowledge that mental illness runs in your family – especially the women. Wondering if every down day, every rough patch could be something else entirely – the beginning of your psychological inheritance.
Research shows that a range of contributing factors can lead to mental health problems, such as clinical depression. Genetics is partly to blame, alongside biochemical factors, illness, personality style, long-term pressures, such as workplace stress, and stressful or traumatic events.
We know that bipolar disorder seems to run in families and researchers in the US, Australia, Sweden, and Denmark are investigating the specific genes that might lead to an individual inheriting anorexia.
Whether it’s through nature or nurture, it is widely acknowledged that an anxious parent can lead to an anxious baby who may grow into an anxious toddler. Babies of women with anxiety disorders are more likely to cry excessively, according to a German study.
It’s not great news for anyone – such as me – who was raised with a “black dog”lurking in their back garden.
I’m sure that’s why, as a writer, I’ve gravitated towards the topic of mental health, eager to uncover the “magic” formula to a glass-half-full mentality and discover how some people can look on the bright side while others spend their lives in the shadows.
And yet I count myself as lucky. Despite the dark cloud that has hovered over my childhood home at times, I view myself as a very happy person, and I come from a very happy family. Much like someone raised with an inherited physical illness, I’ve never taken my mental health for granted – and now, as an adult, I’m reaping the benefits.
Looking back, I was incredibly young when I first began to consciously work on my emotional resilience. As a schoolgirl, I had a secret “memory cleansing” exercise that I would do whenever something bad happened during my day. If a kid teased me or I fell over in the canteen and embarrassed myself, I would blink my eyes hard, just once, and whisper “gone”. From that moment, that particular memory would be “wiped” and I wouldn’t be able to dwell on it, even if I wanted to.
This wasn’t the only secret technique I had to self-soothe. I slept with a comfort blanket until I was a teenager (I still have a piece pinned into my hiking backpack for when I’m outside my comfort zone). As a child, I loved the ritual of making a “proper” cup of tea – warming the pot, mixing the tea-leaves and waiting patiently for them to brew. You could say it was my version of a mindfulness meditation.
None of this made me immune to mental unrest. I must have been eight or nine when I remember first becoming obsessed with certain repetitive habits – spending hours rearranging the cushions on the couch so they lined up perfectly; chewing all my food 15 times; an odd impulse to check if I could put my chin on my chest, because I’d read somewhere that a sore neck was a sign of meningitis.
These obsessive compulsive tendencies preempted an eating disorder that began around my 17th birthday. At its worst, I survived on one slice of toast a week (Sunday was my “eating” day) supplemented with handfuls of raisins and energy drinks. Yet, in an odd way, I felt like I had “prepared” for both of these experiences. I had known, on some level, that an emotional challenge was coming and, even while I was attempting to hide my problems from my parents – not very successfully – I began working on ways to help and heal myself.
As a schoolgirl, I would repeat the mantra, “I am safe, I am whole.” I have no idea where I heard it, but I still use it to this day.
I always knew that, if I stood any chance of leading a contented life, I had to take responsibility for my emotional circumstances. Today, in my early 30s, despite being in full remission from my eating disorder, having a happy marriage and a wonderful baby daughter, I still invest an incredible amount of time and effort into my mental wellbeing.
My “emotional entourage” includes a psychotherapist, a life coach and a hypnotherapist. I’ve also seen a break-up coach and a divorce mentor, who helped me through when my previous marriage ended. In my family, because of our history, there has never been a stigma about seeking help from an expert.
While many of my friends in their 30s are only just encountering their first real emotional tests – the stress of buying a first home, marriage breakdowns or the death of a parent – I feel like I’m 10 steps ahead of them. I have spent decades building a toolkit of rituals, strategies and coping mechanisms that arm me against the challenges of adulthood.
Today, I still wouldn’t call myself a naturally happy person. But I am a strategically happy person, with the power to reframe any negative situation and see the positives. In an odd way, I’m grateful that I grew up aware of my emotional fragility because, if anything, it made me more determined to find ways to harness hope, peace and optimism. I also know the warning signs if my mental health is beginning to slide and I can take action early, whether it’s slowing down, spending more time in nature or booking an appointment with one of my therapists.
Now that I’m pregnant with my second child, I recently had to disclose my family history during a hospital appointment. “Do you know the symptoms of postnatal depression?” asked the midwife. I laughed, because I could quote the symptoms of most mental illnesses off by heart – along with their best form of treatment.
I may never be able to take my mental health for granted but, to me, that’s not a bad legacy. From my family tree I grew resilience, empathy, curiosity and a deep gratitude for every good day.
How to break the cycle of mental illness
Never own someone else’s story. If your parent, partner or offspring is in the grips of mental turmoil, be sympathetic and supportive without letting it consume you. It’s easier said than done, but repeat the sentence, “This is not my experience.” Adopting someone else’s sadness will only drag you both down.
One bad day isn’t a bad life. If mental illness runs in your family, it can be easy to panic every time you wake up feeling anxious. But everyone has natural ups and downs. Do you have a reason to feel this way? Are your feelings circumstantial? Sometimes, just identifying the cause of negative emotions can reduce them.
Don’t wait until you need resilience to be resilient. Create your emotional toolkit before you need it. Find a type of meditation that works for you, explore journaling and build your support network. The best time to explore self-care is when life is easy, and you have the energy, strength and time to do the leg-work.
Self-soothe. Discover your own (healthy) coping mechanisms – think about the sights, sounds and hobbies that bring you peace and seek them out.
Trust experts will appear at the right time. Always remain open to the ones who might be able to help you. If a friend recommends a support group, you’re tagged in a workshop or keep hearing about a new form of therapy, just say yes. You never know where it might lead you.