I’m Afraid of Passing my Mental Illness on to My Children

How childhood traumatized my metaphorical ovaries

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

When I was a kid, he screamed at the top of his lungs for hours at a time. He’d usually start early in the morning, and sometimes wouldn’t stop until midnight or later. I started referring to these outbursts as “episodes” a few years ago. And they were quite frequent episodes. After a watching my father consistently, anyone can predict when they’ll come on.

My father has always been an angry man. A violently angry man, to those who know him the best. To everyone else he was perfectly kind, intelligent, respectable. He was never any of those things to us. By that, I don’t mean he would beat me or anyone else, he wouldn’t. Some people know how to hurt you without ever lifting a finger. My father is one of those people.

When he was upset, his anger rolled off of him in waves like heat, and the heat lasted all day. Sometimes all week. I could tell when it was going to be one of those days. A day when I woke up to my father yelling and went to sleep with his voice still booming in the background. In my parents bedroom, or the spare room he used for his office, going at it with my mother.

Anything could tip my father in the wrong direction. Saying the wrong thing in the wrong tone, asking a question, looking at him in a way he deemed strange.

He insulted, belittled, and screamed at my mother all the time. He called her disgusting, evil, a “pig,” and a plethora of other names. My father fancies himself religious, and one of his favorite things to say was that she was going to hell. It got so bad that after a while my mother just stopped crying about it.

Once, when I was about eleven, he rampaged for half a day about me eating a turkey sandwich on the living room couch. Another time, much more recently, he told me I was crazy, and threatened to send me to a group home after I attempted to talk to him about my college choices, with no success. And oh, he was employed at the college in question. With tenure. And there is a policy at the school that would’ve been granted me free tuition because of it.

We really did need his help. Me and my mother tried for months to figure out a way to get me set without his consultation, but there was no way to do it without him. My mother warned me that it wasn’t a good idea, but I took it upon myself to ask for his help. I figured, regardless of the way he behaved, he deserved to be came to straight. It was Deep down I knew all that was bull shit.

Nothing got done. By the the time I stalked back up the stairs from the basement my father claimed for himself, I was teary eyed and exhausted. My mother watched, unsurprised as I ran to my room.

Last example. When me, my mother and sibling left at the end of last year, my father would take all the money out of his account every month. After the check came in from his job, all the money was removed except about 40 dollars. For four people, the entire month. My mother didn’t work, hadn’t for ten years. She homeschooled us kids, and stayed at home. We had a little money from freelance jobs she did on the side, but it was hardly enough. This time is the only time I remember being hungry, even though I know we’ve been close to it in the past.

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

My mother told me years ago that a psychologist they visited once said it was bipolar disorder. I “diagnosed” him with narcissistic personality disorder when I was fifteen years old. A year later, we started seeing a family psychologist, and he assured me that my suspicions were more than likely.

Narcissists have secret lives. They lie effortlessly. They are two faced-appearing with a perfect public image that most people believe. In the shadows, when no one is looking, they do tremendous damage to family members, including their children. Linda Martinez-Lewi, Ph.D, Clinical Expert on the Narcissistic Personality


“Narcissism is the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egoistic admiration of one’s own attributes.”

My intent is not to slander my father, but to paint a reliable picture of what it was like living with a man like him. I am not trying to make him out to be a monster. My father in many ways is a product of his own childhood, which was far from wonderful. I’m not trying to make my mother, or even my childhood self out to be angels either. I‘m trying to make clear the harm a person like this can do. A person who doesn’t use their fists or feet to traumatize victims, but affect them in other serious ways. Regardless of whether they are redeemable or not. Right now, that isn’t the point.

Lots of people have troublesome childhoods. Emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, none of them are uncommon.
Check out Dr. Nadine Burke Haris’s ted talk “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime,” gain more insight into how experiences like these affect people long afterwards, in ways no one talks about.

In high doses, it affects brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed. Folks who are exposed in very high doses have triple the lifetime risk of heart disease and lung cancer and a 20-year difference in life expectancy. And yet, doctors today are not trained in routine screening or treatment. Now, the exposure I’m talking about is not a pesticide or a packaging chemical. It’s childhood trauma.”

It sounds like science fiction. But it’s not. The state of brains and minds affect the state of bodies. So in a way, emotional abuse is physical.

I am sick. Everyone is sick in some way.

Co-dependent, or emotionally unavailable. Narcissistic, or anxious.

But I’m not talking about common disfunction, the kind everyone possesses in some quantity. I’m talking about a specific type of disfunction, the kind that stems from parents and affects their young children.

I have few positive memories about my father. He’s a walking definition of “misery loves company.” Now that I’m older, and am not forced to be in his presence everyday, I feel sorry for him. I must be hard to know you failed your family so completely while being so obsessed with yourself at the same time.

I don’t want to be a bad parent. It’s one of my greatest fears. I’m far too young to be thinking about the possibility of having kids, but that doesn’t stop my anxiety from kicking in every time I think about it.
I love children. To me, the represent all that is objectively good about human beings. They are untainted by complicated man made problems. Babies and small children only have what is given to them at birth, and that’s beautiful.

If I was responsible for robbing a child of their childhood because of my own personal short comings, I don’t know what I’d do.

When I was about 13, I started saying that I didn’t want to have kids. Looking back, this is alarming, becasue what 13 year old goes around telling people that? Now I know it made perfect sense. At least to a teenager.
It stemmed from the relationship I had with my father.

I’m no Psychologist, but I’ve read enough Psych books and listened to enough ted talks to know what I’m talking about…[Kidding]

But seriously, the way people turn out has a whole lot to do with their parents. The way parents are biologically and chemically wired, as well as the way they treated their kids in childhood. Which of course, are linked factors.

I have depressed family members, social recluse family members, and chronically co-dependent family members. Few of whom have sought appropriate treatment, almost all of whom could not afford it even if they did.

How I felt back then made sense and here’s why. When I was thirteen years old, I started learning more about my families history with mental health. Like most families, mine told stories about the oddities, quirks, and flaws of family members past and present. My grandmothers was bitter, and couldn’t keep peace with a person for longer than a week. My grandfather was an alcoholic who drunk to quiet his mental illness. What exactly it was, I dont know.
I had a cousin who jumped off a bridge when I was 14, and a dead uncle who threw himself of a bridge decades before either of us were born.
I have depressed family members, social recluse family members, and chronically co-dependent family members. Few of whom have sought appropriate treatment, almost all of whom could not afford it even if they did.

I am not exempt from the wrath of my families genetic makeup. Along with having horrible eyesight, I have dealt with severe depression, crippling anxiety, depersonalization/derealization episodes, self harm, and suicidal thoughts. Recently, I was diagnosed with PTSD by a child psychiatrist.

There might be something I’m forgetting, I dont know.

Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

All good parents fear messing their kids up. The only ‘bad’ parents, are the ones who don’t.
Being a ‘good’ parent doesn’t mean never doing anything that hurts your kid’s feelings. It doesn’t mean never getting angry, or never making mistakes. Being a good parent, means paying attention to the terrible things you do, and adjusting accordingly.

All this coming from a childless gen Xer.

Unfortunately, most 13 year old dont have that kind of insight. I didn’t want to screw anybody up the way I was screwed up. Even now, I remember being small and powerless. Surrounded by large, seemingly crazy people. And realizing that just maybe, I was crazy myself.
Why would I want to pass any of that suffering on to the next generation?

I’m not going to lie and say I got over the fear of being a bad mother. Maybe I never will.

Sometimes when my brother throws a temper tantrum, or my sister catches an attitude and storms off, I loose my temper and snap a little bit. In those moments, I remind myself the most of my father. That I’m his daughter, no matter what.

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less. -Marie Curie

It’s useless to fear becoming a bad parent. What helps, is working on becoming a good person. A person who doesn’t allow her past to control her. A person who doesn’t let her long list of tribulations own or define her, and knows her shortcomings.
Taking accountability for the bad thing I do helps. There’s no use in being afraid of screwing someone else up, when I have myself to worry about. It is my job to make sure I become the best parent I can be, whether I end up having kids or not.

Words are the most powerful things I have encountered. That is why I ‘m a writer. My name even means “the ‘right’ way.”

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