One of the most important life lessons I know is from the early 20th century philosopher George Santayana who said “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Most of us have heard this quote before and it tends to be stated as a warning against political and social ideas that were norms in the past but have resurfaced in a variant form. I believe, this idea should also be the way that we look at our lives, our parent’s lives’, our ancestor’s lives’.
Mental illness while driven by the individual impacts those around them on a very confusing level. This is another part of the key. Recognizing the destructive behavior and taking steps to change it whether within yourself or with someone who impacts your life.
Too much blame gets given to situations, environment, those around us, and on and on. And yes, those things do impact who we are. But the question comes down to personal responsibility. Do you take the initiative to change yourself or do you continue to blame the past? Do you even really know your past?
Those of you that know me or have followed my posts know that I am in the process of trying to remember my past so that I am not condemned to repeat it. I had reached a “safe” bubble in my life that has kept everyone and everything out. This has worked for several years, but as I crossed mid-life, the bubble has begun to breakdown.
I remember one of my first psychiatrist telling me that coping mechanisms are like a pair of jeans. Normal folks find a pair that fits…problem solved. When they out grow those jeans, they get a new pair. I haven’t quite worked my life that way. I wore the same “jeans” until I was 30. They were worn out and tattered, but they fit. The holes and frays made me a sight to see. So, I got a new pair. These new “jeans” gave me so much more room and my life was really good. These were my go-to and fit me until my early to mid-40’s when I decided “why am I even wearing “jeans” anyway.” ”I am unique. I am bi polar. I can just avoid people, so they won’t see my ratty “jeans.” And there was my mistake.
I had forgotten that you cannot close everything out. Life will find you whether you want to participate or not. As my 50’s arrived, I had outgrown my “jeans” that I hadn’t worn for 10 years. I couldn’t even put them on. I was exposed. Raw, naked, and broken to the world with no acceptable way to return. Whether I wanted to or not it was time for a new wardrobe. The quote from Santayana came back to me through internal confession. “Am I repeating the past, have I forgotten?”
So how have I got here?
My family came to Indiana as the working poor. Both sets of grandparents crawled out of the mud to make a better life for their children and grandchildren. The Hicks side were farmers, coal miners and lumbermen from the mountains of Tennessee. My mom’s family was made up of orphans, drug addicts, people damaged by WWII, what you would call “white trash” from the northeast side of Muncie, Indiana. And while both improved, or tried to improve, the standard of living for their families, addictions and mental illness were not something that they had time for. When existence is your priority making it day to day is all you worry about.
Although I was too young to see it, my Grandpa Hicks fought the same battles I do. He struggled with religion, alcohol, and drugs. I believe he was just as lost as I’ve been. But taking care of a family of 4 boys did not provide time to look at the underlying demons that he struggled with. My Grandpa Blankenship, who I called “Willard”, was yet a whole other ball of wax.
I don’t know much about him, but what I do know has left me in fear my whole life. Fear that I would become like him. Willard’s mother died when he was very young. The family he had around him were only family in title. No love. A cold, desolate life. Willard was one of the soldiers during WWII that went in to clean the concentration camps at the end of the war. I can’t even begin to comprehend the horrors he must have seen. PTSD, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and a diagnosis of schizophrenia left Willard in a world in which he was just doing time. I cannot recall ever seeing him in anything but pajamas. He attempted suicide several times. The only image I have in my mind of Willard is of him sitting in a pitch-black room listening to old tear in your beer country music smoking one cigarette after another until his fingers were stained with an ugly yellow/brown. Much the same color I feel he felt inside.
Needless to say, my parents came out of the gate with the odds stacked against them. My father echoed the demons of my Grandpa Hicks’ alcoholism and depression and much like Willard, my mother, well yet again she is a whole different ball of wax.
Dad struggled to provide for a family beginning when he was 17. Still a baby raising babies. But he was on a constant path of becoming a better man. He worked so hard to make sure my sister and I had lives that were better than his. Financially, homelife, religion, education. In every way he did all he could for our betterment….for his betterment. When I turned 13 Dad became sober, stopped smoking, began going to church, going to therapy both from rehab and AA. This changed my life forever. The chain was broken. Life does not have to be misery. There is a reason we think the way we do. We can change.
Mom on the other hand was so buried in the mire of her past, she has never found a way out. She did not have issues with alcohol or drugs, not suicidal, not like Willard. But Mom is a professional victim. She accepts no responsibility for her life or things that happened. She embraced the crazy and my dad, sister and myself suffered for it. Mom began taking us to church when I was 8. Religion gave her something other than herself to blame. God and the devil control everything. So personal responsibility was out of your control. Bad happens because of the devil. Good doesn’t happen because God wants us to suffer for our great reward in heaven.
So, this is the dichotomy I grew up in. An alcoholic looking for a way out of addiction and depression… a better life. And a mentally, physically, and emotionally abused child who now had supernatural beings to blame.
Physically abusive – Mom was old school when it came to correction, and to an extent I agree with the adage “spare the rod, spoil the child”. I was a very rambunctious child that needed correction, but there is a difference between correction and abuse. Mom would hit the closest body part with whatever object was closest. I specifically remember a pearl handled hairbrush being broken over my head when I was 6 or 7.
Mentally abusive – When I was 13 my mother gave me a book entitled “Teenage Schizophrenia”. She felt I needed to be aware of how I was going to turn out. Knowing I was different, fearing I would become my grandfather, and now this at 13? I spent the next 17 years just knowing I was going to become like my grandfather.
When I was 12, I picked up the phone to make a call. Mom was on the line with my aunt. I should’ve hung up but curiosity is another of my faults. I listened for 20 minutes as my mother degraded me, talked of how much of a disappointment I was, how much I was just like my dad…how much she hated me.
There are many more things I could provide examples of, but I think you get the idea. Two broken grandparents, raised two broken children, who in turn raised two more broken children. One parent struggling to get better, the other struggling to make excuses.
So, the odds were stacked against me. I’ve spent half of my life numbing the pain, the other half trying to find a way out. I made changes in my life to break the cycle. In many ways my mental health is better than my parents, in others, I’m still finding my way.
I take my medication, I try to practice meditation regularly to clear my mind. I’ve recovered from alcoholism (5 years sober). I’ve battled and still fight drug addiction and I am winning today. I’ve sought out knowledge from books and professionals. I’ve forgiven both my grandparents and parents not for them, but for myself. I’ve accepted responsibility for who, what, how and why I am the way I am.
I’ll be damned if I forget my past. I will not repeat it. Now I am 51, single, no children, no legacy. Alone but at peace in my solitude. The problem is I’ve done it wrong. To not repeat my past, I eliminated the things that should’ve brought joy for the fear they or I would bring pain. I’m single to save a wife from living on eggshells. I’m childless to not pass along the demons inside me. I’m isolated to prevent others from suffering from my pain.
I have not forgotten my past. I’ve forged an entire life where nothing from the past exists, except for my fear, pain, and confusion. And by eliminating all the things that I associate with bringing pain, I haven’t protected myself as much as built a wall that no one penetrate. Safe but alone. No one to share life with, no one to pass my knowledge along to. Here is the kicker…I don’t want the things that I know could bring me joy. They are foreign to me. If I push myself to seek out these things after hiding from them for so long, they bring unnecessary pain. At least that is my justification for staying behind my wall.
How did I get here? That path is clear. How do I get out? How do I change behavior and patterns that I’ve allowed to oversee my life? Step by step, one day at a time, one thought at a time. I will get there. I will succeed. I will break down the walls I’ve built inside…. but Mother did it need to be so high?