I was thinking about my aunt Helga a few weeks ago. She's been dead now for 10 years, hit by a cab in NYC one sleety December Saturday in 1995. I miss her sometimes. For all of her craziness, she was a good aunt and was always willing to take me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the mummies for the thousandth time.
When I had gotten out of the hospital that previous summer, I went back to work in NYC as a managing editor for a collector's magazine. Helga had recently retired from Swissair and we would occasionally meet for lunch. The story behind my father's family is a lengthy one--they came to this country in 1940 from Hamburg, Germany via London. My grandfather was a Jew, my grandmother a Gentile. Their children, my father Herbert and Helga, were, in a sense, both victims of this mixed marriage because my grandmother, a neurotic, anxious woman, and my grandfather never got over their guilt.
Now all of them were dead except for Helga. There were no other relatives on my father's side as far as was known. Helga lived her entire life with my grandparents, never marrying, having relationships with married men and working for a Swiss company where she would never be appreciated because she was a woman. Helga suffered from depression. My father, who died at 43, may well have been bipolar. He was an excessive spender, often had rather grandious ideas and also may have had depression. My grandmother had at least two major depressions, one after my father's birth and another after an abortion when my aunt was small.
But were they mentally ill? Of course not. As far as they were concerned, psychiatry was akin to witchcraft. So I debated with myself before that lunch with Helga. Should I tell her? Should I not? I wasn't quite sure how she'd react. But I thought that perhaps by telling her, I could get more information from her about the family psychiatric history. What little I knew, I had heard from my mother.
So we sat down to lunch and I said to her, "I've been diagnosed as manic-depressive and I've just been released from the hospital."
She immediately said, "It didn't come from OUR side of the family."
Yeah, right. I almost said, "Well, where else do you suppose it comes from?" So much for being upfront and honest. I dropped the subject. Even though I knew her doctor had prescribed an antidepressant for her, which she refused to take, I decided that there was little point in trying to have an open discussion on the family's mental health history.
That was the last time I saw her, although I spoke to her on the phone thereafter. Two months after that lunch, she was gone.
If it had not been for my mother overhearing conversations about my grandmother's breakdowns, I would never have known. I might have figured it out, since it was obvious to me, even as a child, that my grandmother was an anxious, unhappy, depressed woman.
As for my mother's side, she and my aunt are both recovering alcoholics. Mom says that her father often suffered from Lincolnesque "black moods," where he would lock himself in the bedroom and not talk to anyone for weeks. So there's a bit of something on the other side of the family too.
The result of this family history is that it was passed on to my generation. I am bipolar, my brother is clinically depressed and on medication and my sister insists that she has ADD. Which she probably does, although I don't see her doing anything about it. My 12-year-old nephew has a cognitive disability, although he does very well these days. My oldest daughter has had depressive episodes in the past. Her treatment has been sporadic but she seems to be doing fine at the moment. My granddaughter, we watch as she grows into her teens. Her father is probably bipolar but was never diagnosed or treated. However, he is an alcoholic and has been to rehab many times without much success.
My grandparents were born more than 100 years ago. When they were alive, mental illness was never discussed and treatment never sought. These days, our family talks about it openly and frequently. We support each other.
When my brother became severely depressed a year ago, he came to me and we talked about it. He went back on meds. When I start having symptoms, I call him or my mother. If somebody's behavior is off and they are unaware of it, they get told. I'm sure the old folks would be shocked if they were still alive.
I'm very fortunate to have the family I have. We stick together because we've been through a lot together. Family relationships can make or break you. Acceptance of each other is the critical ingredient. Without that, there's nothing.