When I was in college I got a very brief history of my family's mental health as my mom was hurriedly preparing to drive my sister to the hospital for yet another inpatient stay. "It runs in our family," she said as she rifled through her purse. "Grandma, Great-grandma...even Grandpa on Dad's side. They think he was alcoholic because he was depressed."
"Oh," I said. I didn't know what else to say.
"It's just...something that happens," she said. She looked almost apologetic, as if she felt personally responsible for my genetic inheritance.
I nodded silently. She gave me an awkward hug...she wouldn't hug me again until my wedding years later, and then not again until my grandparents died.
After I got married I got pregnant within a year, a side-effect of Catholicism. I had mixed feelings about having biological children after watching what my genes did to my sister, but my husband's desire for biological kids and a surprise pregnancy erased any possibility of building a family through adoption. Many times when I was pregnant with my son, and later with my daughters, I would run a hand over my belly and think, I can deal with just about anything. But please, please don't let it be mental illness.
So when I was standing in the grocery store watching my daughter sob because she wasn't sure that she was allowed to buy the pickles, because she was so afraid she was somehow doing something incorrectly, I felt a gulf open up in my stomach. Is this a phase? Or is this the beginning?
While my sister is definitely the generational winner for mental illness severity, I didn't come through untouched. A doctor could flip my medical chart open and see the diagnosis of anxiety disorder. I did about four years of medication and therapy and now I'm coping on my own. However, I do remember one thing that I talked about repeatedly with my therapist was whether anxiety was part of my personality or not. He insisted that it wasn't, and I remember shaking my head and saying, "No, no, this is who I am. It's part of me. I'm just an anxious person." I didn't understand how he could possibly think that it wasn't.
I didn't understand, that is, until I watched my happy, confident, intelligent girl sobbing because she was certain she bought something that wasn't really for sale in the grocery store, even though I explained again and again that everything in the grocery store is for sale. Or lying awake, unable to sleep because she kept thinking about "all the mistakes" she had made.
Today, a few weeks after that incident, we were at Starbucks. I told her to pick out a bottle of juice to drink. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her reach out for a bottle of purple juice, pull back hesitantly, and then reach out and grab it again. As we walked out to the car she told me, "I bought this juice. I'm not afraid of it anymore. Even though I didn't see anyone else buying this juice, I know it's okay for me to get. I'm not afraid of that."
"That's right! I'm so glad!" I said. Maybe being prone to anxiety doesn't mean that you'll be consumed by it. Maybe that was just a phase. But as she gets older and moves out into the world, I'm going to make sure my daughter knows that she can do whatever she wants and be whatever she wants despite how her unfortunate genes may make her feel.