Family history. We all have one. Some live with a legacy of hope and triumph, while others live with a legacy of oppression and despair.
Here’s the thing: We are a product of our history, whether or not we know the facts. There are traits intrinsic to who we are that have been passed down from generation to generation.
People are quick to claim the positive traits inherited from their family’s history. Everyone loves a story with a happy ending.
But what if your family’s history is less than stellar? What if there is abuse or addiction or sickness or mental illness in your lineage? Are you still as eager to embrace that history?
There is a natural inclination to shy away from the difficult parts in our history or pretend they never happened. Or we don’t ask questions because we don’t want the answers.
Shiny, Happy People
We live in a social media world where we polish our family’s image until it is gleaming. We only show the best snippets of our world. But does that serve us well?
Because the truth is I am guilty of buying into the hype. My image is spit polished until all my flaws are filtered and cropped.
I share who I am with my friends and family only up to a point. There are things I keep hidden. I shove those things down so deep, so I can pretend they don’t really exist.
A Product of My Family’s History
I am a product of my own family’s history. My family does not share hard truths easily. We have trouble processing difficult emotions.
But this not a diatribe against my family. I can’t blame them for my shortcomings and mistakes. There is no guidebook outlining the proper way to share unpleasant family facts.
Even though I am hard-wired to be silent about the difficult parts of my history, I will speak up anyway. Because my beautiful daughter deserves full disclosure and the tools to live a better way.
There are three reasons it is crucial to know your family’s history, especially if you are mentally ill:
1. Knowing your family’s history helps you better navigate the difficult events in your life.
When I was in college, I had my first bout of depression. A car struck me in the crosswalk on campus. My injuries were minimal, but it set off a chain of events that culminated in me spending most of the summer in bed, not realizing that my exhaustion and heaviness were symptoms of depression.
When the next semester started, my feet would not take me to class. I was frozen. My parents were concerned and made me seek treatment.
The psychiatrist put me on medication, and I endured relaxation tapes that told me “my arms were lumps of lead.” Those tapes were about as helpful as they sound.
What I didn’t know was my family’s history of mental illness and my dad’s struggles with depression. That missing piece of the puzzle was essential.
If I had known my dad’s history of depression, it would have provided me with context. I would have known the depression hadn’t come out of left field. I would have known it wasn’t situational. It would have put me on high alert for the next time symptoms popped up.
2. Knowledge is power.
Mental illness has left an indelible mark on my family tree. My father, my aunt, my uncle, two of my siblings, and several of my nieces are all touched by depression, anxiety, and/or bipolar disorder.
My family tree is also riddled with addiction—to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and even food.
It is important to collect all the puzzle pieces of your family’s history. Every single piece is crucial because it provides a much-needed frame of reference.
Incomplete information leads to incomplete preparation. With the full picture of your family’s history, you can prepare a plan of action for if history repeats itself. You can identify which negative events were a case of poor judgment and which events had a deeper, generational cause.
3. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.
Dr. Phil got it right when he said, “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.” Your life won’t change if you keep blinders on or rose-colored glasses.
An essential part of successfully navigating your life’s challenges is complete honesty and transparency about your family’s strengths and weaknesses. When you speak the truth of your history aloud, its power to hurt you fades. You will still deal with the ramifications of that history—faulty genetics, a proclivity to addiction or abuse, etc.—but you don’t have to be defined by it.
While you can’t change your family’s history, you can change your response to it. You can enter the playing field informed. You can equip yourself with the tools to survive and thrive—because and despite your family’s history.
And maybe—just maybe—you will play the game of life a little better than the last generation did.
Is your takeaway from this post how overwhelmed you are by your family’s history or the lack of facts at your disposal? That is a legitimate response. Family histories are complicated. They leave scars. Often, there are more questions than answers.
Here’s a glimmer of hope: Even if your family’s lineage is riddled with addiction, abuse, sickness and mental illness, your place in that history is still important.
From this day forward, you are in the driver’s seat. You dictate how the facts of your family’s history unfold. Let your response to that history be a flurry of information shared to those you love most.
If there are more blank spaces than information, begin by sharing your own story. You can write the first page of your family’s history book.