A team of three psychologists sat in front of me; two were residents while the lead specialized in post-partum psychological distress. One of my partners, Jon, sat beside me. I held my child, five months old at the time, in my lap. We sat in a room with a wall paneled in one-way mirrors where the team had just observed and videotaped my partner and I playing with our kid. The room was playful, appointed with mats and toys and bright colors. We sat on children’s chairs at a children’s table, all the furniture too small for all of us. The lead psychologist, an older woman with a slight German accent and round glasses, leaned forward.
“Can you tell me about a time your parents made you feel safe?” she asked. I unraveled. For what felt like the thousandth time since Zadie had been born, I fell apart in front of medical professionals. My unraveling was a still, silent thing. Tears slid down my face, and I stared at the psychologist with wide eyes–dumbstruck, frozen. I rifled through my childhood memories looking for anything good, anything untainted, but the trauma meant there weren’t that many memories to go through. The trauma also meant the warmth that was there was marred by uncertainty, a lurking threat, and looming instability.
“No,” I said. “I can’t. I can’t.”
She patted my hand. “It’s all right. I want to show you something.” She loaded the video of the day’s session into a TV behind her. She had us play with Zadie while she had been strapped into her car seat. Zadie was frustrated; she’d wanted to roll around on the mats and grab at the toys. She was crying. I watched myself engage with her in the video. I watched myself calm her in the video. I watched myself coax smiles and laughter from her in the video. The psychologist paused it. She turned to me.
“She will not remember it, but Zadie already feels safe with you. Did you see?”
“I saw it,” I said. Both my partners, Jon who was sitting next to me and Sam who was back at the apartment, both of them had been telling me what the therapist had just said. Friends had told me. The therapist had told me. But I had just seen it.
“You did everything right just then,” said my therapist. “You saw it. I have proof.”
I laughed. It was a messy tearful laugh. “I saw it,” I said. That night was the first night since my kid was born that I slept longer than an hour.
As I said before, I don’t have many memories of my childhood. Mostly the memories are very discrete and very clear–immersive things. I remember the smells and the way my clothes felt against my body and the sounds of the world and the words that were said. Mostly they are of my mother: drunk, violent and maudlin, and of my father, absent in his retreat from her violent drunkenness. She would drink, and he would hide, and I would be the front line. Her violence would either turn outward, directed at me, or inward, towards herself. In the times when she was suicidal, because she was the breadwinner of the household, it felt imperative to get her to turn that violence towards me. We couldn’t afford to let her kill herself. It was better to allow her to spew hate on me. My dad drifted away, to drink sullenly and quietly, while I guarded my sister. That’s what I remember. From about age six onward, that’s what I remember. That and a steady mantra of just keep getting A’s in school. It’s so easy. Just get A’s and then get scholarships and get to college. Get out and never look back. Everything else is either a blur or hearsay.
I knew something was wrong with my mother. I knew she was mentally unwell. One of the very clear memories I do have is my father driving me to school when I was in the fifth grade. My mother was in rehab. He’d forced her to go, one of the few times he’d stood up to her. She used paid vacation time for it, and the family was sworn to secrecy for fear she’d lose her job if they found out where she was. I asked him why she did the things she did.
“She’s what they call Manic Depressive, kiddo,” he said. “Sometimes, she just can’t stop. Sometimes she just goes and goes. Like when she buys all those chairs for no reason and she won’t listen and she won’t sleep. And then she’s down. Like when she takes all those days off work and can’t get out of bed. Her brain works against her. Things aren’t always easy for her. That’s why she drinks.”
“Why do you drink, Daddy?”
“Because she drinks, kiddo. Get to school. I love you. Learn a lot, ok?”
That’s how I found out my family had a history of mental illness.
At twenty-five, while a doctoral candidate in personality psychology, I got pregnant with my own kiddo. She wasn’t precisely planned, but she wasn’t unwanted, either. It was more like we left the door open to the possibility. The timing was good–my health care had good coverage, and while being a grad student is notoriously stressful it is also has a notably flexible schedule.
I had the hubris to think I had my shit together. I thought I had processed and put to bed the trauma of my childhood. I had been through a couple of major depressive episodes: the genetic legacy of my parents. I knew if I became pregnant that I would be at particularly high risk for post-partum psychological mental health issues, but I also thought I knew what to watch for.
I watched like a hawk for the wrong thing. The inescapable immobilizing weight of depression never descended on me, but throughout my pregnancy I was incredibly anxious, constantly worried. I read up on every disability I could think of, making constant contingency plans. What if the kid is deaf? Do we raise them in Deaf culture or get a cochlear implant? What if the kid is autistic? How do we adjust out parenting? What if the kid has Spina Bifida? Visual impairment? Down Syndrome? I was constantly convinced I was miscarrying. Every time I went in for a checkup I was sure just certain that this was the day the doctor was going to turn to me stone-faced and tell me gently there was no heartbeat. I hid all of this from my partners. I told myself the anxiety would lessen when I gave birth, when I could hold my kid and see her and touch her and know for certain she was alright. I did not even recognize that what I was going through was anxiety.
The birth was hard, like all births, but happened without incident. She was perfect–ten fingers, ten toes, dark-haired and squish-faced. I held her to me and she hiccupped. Newborns are capable of surprisingly loud hiccups. She was three weeks early, so I stayed in the hospital with her an extra day to get the hang of breast feeding. I became flooded with hormones every time I touched her or looked at her. My world narrowed, zeroed in on her, just her, just this tiny fragile thing that was so very dependent on me.
When I looked at her I remembered all the research I’d read on replicating cycles of familial abuse. When I looked at her I remembered all the literature on the damage of insecure attachment styles (like what I had with my parents), literature I had contributed to. When I looked at her I felt trapped by everything I knew about families and I wanted very much to give her away before I inevitably broke her.
It was less than two hours after she was born before I was in tears, already convinced I was fucking her up.
It took three months of paralyzing insomnia and hysterical crying before my partners gently persuaded me to go into therapy. Memories of my adult life are rarely as crystalline as ones of my childhood, but that day, that moment, is a turning point. It’s frozen in time. I stood in the kitchen, haggard. Zadie was napping on the floor in the front room of our tiny apartment. I watched her from the corner of my eye. I watched her to make sure she was breathing. I couldn’t help it, I had to. It was a compulsion. I was always watching her to make sure she was still alive. I had created a spreadsheet that organized the three of us so that one of us (usually me) was always awake, watching her, while she slept.
Jon and Sam came into the kitchen. “Where’s Zadie?” Sam asked.
“Sleeping,” I said. “I got her down. I bounced her on the yoga ball for, like, forty-three minutes.”
Sam frowned at my precision. She and Jon exchanged The Look. “Yeah. Hey. You look like shit,” Sam said.
“We all look like shit. We have a newborn.”
Jon wrapped his arm around me. He is warm. He is comforting. I could already feel the tears coming again. “B, you’re not sleeping,” he said gently.
“Neither are you! Not well! You’re on the living room floor with her night after night. You’re not sleeping well either!”
He shrugged. “Actually, I’m sleeping fine now. I’ve gotten used to it.”
I felt damned. “I feel like a zombie, yeah,” I said. “We have a newborn. We all feel like zombies. That’s the deal, right?”
“No,” said Sam. “It’s not. I’m sleeping. Jon’s sleeping. We look like people now. You don’t.” And I didn’t. The bags under my eyes looked like bruises, like I’d been punched. I’d lost weight; I was gaunt and sallow because I ate only when I remembered or when prompted. I was perennially unshowered. It was not my finest hour. I lost the fight against the tears. Jon hugged me tighter.
Zadie stirred. I wiped the tears and tried to extricate myself from Jon’s grasp.
“Dude, you’re not the only one who can take care of her,” Sam said. “You’re not alone in this.” She left to coo the baby back to sleep, perfectly competent.
“We think maybe you should go to doctor or therapy or something,” Jon said.
“Because of this whole not sleeping and crying all the time and being miserable thing,” he said. “We’re worried about you.”
“No, I can handle this,” I said. “I can do this. I’m ok.”
“Bullshit you’re ok,” said Sam.
Bullshit I was ok. I looked at them, really looked at them. They didn’t have bags under their eyes so dark they looked like bruises. They were clean. They were wearing different clothes than the day before. They loved me, and they were worried, and maybe it was time I should listen. I made an intake appointment at a mental health clinic with a post-natal care team the next day, but the wait to see them was a grueling month and a half.
The post-natal care team diagnosed me with severe post-partum anxiety. I had been watching for signs of post-partum depression, but I didn’t know that post-partum anxiety existed. I’d been blindsided. The psychiatrist prescribed me Zoloft to take the edge off the anxiety and Ambien to help me sleep. The Zoloft helped but the Ambien didn’t.
In the initial intake interview, the post-natal team had Sam and Jon come in. They watched while Sam and Jon, each in turn, told me that they knew I was a good parent. They watched while I parried, provided evidence to the contrary, dug up citations, did everything I could to disprove them. I refused to see it. Given my background as an abused child and my training as a research psychologist, the team decided to treat me like a case study. They filmed me interacting with Zadie, then dissected my interactions while I listened, pointing out what I was doing right. They organized a strange situation protocol to prove that my infant was securely attached to me. They provided me with documented observations–hard data–that I was a good parent. They made it harder and harder for me to argue that I was doomed to fail as a parent. It was a slow process. They argued me into a corner, forced me to admit it.
The last session with the team before they transitioned me to weekly talk therapy, (where I processed the trauma of my childhood as it related to the insecurities I felt as a parent), went like this:
“You consistently make good decisions with your child. You’ve reviewed the tapes with us. You see that you do this,” said the lead psychologist in her soft, German accent.
“Yes, here. In front of you. When I know I’m being observed.”
“Hawthorne effect,” she said.
“You really think you behave so differently at home?”
I thought about it. I chewed on an errant fingernail and stared down at the floor. I shrugged.
“That you are saying nothing says to me you think maybe you don’t behave so differently.”
“I am saying nothing because I don’t know for sure one way or another.” There was sharpness in my voice that raised her eyebrows.
She tried another tactic. “You are bonded with your child. She trusts you. You love her. You make good decisions.”
“I might make bad ones, though.”
“We all make bad ones sometimes. You have made bad decisions already, like not getting any sleep. You get snappish, yes?” I laughed in response. “But not with the little one. What matters is that you learn from it. You course-correct. Which your parents didn’t do, or couldn’t do. You’re not your parents. Not every cycle repeats itself. It’s a pattern, not a destiny.”
A pattern, not a destiny. It seems obvious in retrospect.
I still needed months of talk therapy and hundreds of pills to get me out of my maze of post-partum anxiety. The idea was like a compass, leading me to a way out. It was the key. In the years since I still struggle with mental illness. It is the genetic legacy of my parents. The specter of major depressive episodes lingers like storm clouds in the distance, shadows on the horizon. Spikes of acute anxiety–panicky bouts against nothing, figments of dire urgency and insecurity founded in mirages–happen regularly, still managed by a combination of meds and well-honed coping strategies. Seasonal Affective Disorder means every winter leaves me more discontented than the last. I am just the latest addition in a long line of crazy people on both sides of my family.
But I am surviving. I am managing it. And more than that, I am modeling for my kid what it is like to live with mental illness. Zadie will probably have the same kind of brain as me–the kind that is bright and curious but which sometimes turns against itself. The kind that gets depressed and anxious. She is likely the next iteration in this long line of crazy people. Going through post-partum anxiety therapy gave me space to think through what it means to be a good parent and to parent well. If she does have a brain like mine, maybe that means being honest about what having brains like ours is like. If she has a brain like mine, maybe parenting well means accepting the crazy part of me without stigma so she doesn’t stigmatize herself.
Looking back, what was lacking in my childhood was safety and kindness. I didn’t have either because my parents’ mental illness was hidden, treated only with alcohol. Understanding now, in a distant, empathic manner of an estranged adult child, I know I took solace where I could. I want to build safety and kindness for myself and my child. I want to teach her as well as myself that mental health is something to be talked about, managed, coped with, invested in. That there’s no shame in it being hard. That it’s ok to ask for help. That there’s strength in knowing when to reach out. That for some of us it’s a struggle. That all we can ever do is try and learn and lean on each other, provide safety and kindness, let it be a pattern and not a destiny.
B R Sanders is a white, genderqueer writer who lives and works in Denver, CO, with their family and two cats. Outside of writing, B has worked as a research psychologist, a labor organizer and a K-12 public education data specialist. Read more from B and follow their blog here.