A Dutchman

In writing about my family tree, I have referred to my paternal grandfather several times, but I have hesitated to write about my mother’s father, Grandpa Bob. Every time I log into my DNA matching accounts, I see his legacy. On 23andMe, the great majority of my close matches are connected to me through him. It so happens that both of his siblings have done genetic genealogy tests. His family tree is so well represented in my matches that I have entertained the notion that the desire to know one’s genetic heritage may be associated with a hitherto nameless gene that happens to run through several of his family lines.

There is no reliably tactful way of raising the subject of a close ancestor with a checkered past. Feelings can still be so raw that the only simple way to refer to such an ancestor is through pictures, such as this one:

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Grandpa was afflicted with both alcoholism and depression. Even though I honestly cannot recall a time he hurt me intentionally, I turned away from him when I was 10 years old, when he bookended several years of sobriety with more drinking. One day I came from school and his voice sounded a half octave higher, like Joe Pesci halfway through a bottle of Ripple. Hearing him say my name in that funhouse voice bricked in my heart, and I couldn’t even look at him.

He pleaded with me, “Why won’t you look at me, Shelly?”

At that age, I did not have the words to explain to him that I couldn’t deal with him because I knew that his drinking had an been an earthquake in my mother’s youth. I loved him, but he had hurt my mother. That was all that mattered. I loved my mother more.

I have written before that there is no point in judging my ancestors because if they had lived their lives differently, I might not exist. But this neutrality is tough when that person’s behavior wounded some of the people I love most.

About a year and a half ago, I lost a friend to suicide, and she gave me the unintentional gift of forgiving Grandpa Bob. Her life had fallen apart by degrees, and she had descended to the outskirts of the local alcoholic culture. That life quickly wore on her; she ended her life three months later.

Through her, I understood that Grandpa’s triumph was his survival. To have been been so afflicted and resisted suicide for seven decades was a victory in itself. In researching his family tree, I discovered that two of his first cousins had ended their lives, one of whom did so in such a dramatic fashion that his end was the lead story in the local newspaper the day after his death. This headline-making cousin was also his best friend.

Depression and alcohol in tandem are a juggernaut. Each alone can drive a person to do or say the very things that push away the people who love you the most. Together this alienation is achieved with greater efficiency, like a carpet bomb that eventually wipes out everyone around you except for toxic strangers.

Grandpa has been gone for fifteen years. When I see the names of his family lines in so many of my genetic matches, I now think of the good times we had with him, which have grown precious in my memory. I remember when he taught me how to cook pancakes and slowly heat maple syrup in a sauce pan at the same time so the syrup would be perfect when all the pancakes were ready.

He told me a few times that he was a Dutchman. I asked him how he knew, and he told me, “Listen to your baby brother. He already knows how to speak Dutch.”

When I was building the outline of my family tree, I discovered that he really did have some Dutch ancestors and that he’d descended from some of the early Dutch settlers of New York:

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How such information is lost and found as family histories are passed down through generations is a mystery to me.

The week before I stopped talking to Grandpa, he surprised me by writing “E.T. phone home” on the chalkboard in my room. He was the kind of Grandpa who excelled at making quarters appear behind ears, so he didn’t reveal himself as the author for a few days. When I found out he was the one who wrote it, I sprayed the chalk board with hairspray so it would stay longer. Even after we stopped talking, I let his message fade in its own time.

10 Years Later


After I wrote about my emergence from long-term welfare last week, I recalled that I still had a screen shot of my 2006 BVR-ordered psychological evaluation. The picture above shows the summary of my MMPI-2 results. Since my life has a perpetual soundtrack, this picture brings to mind a lyric from “Never Too Late” by Three Days Grace: “This world will never be what I expected, and if I don’t belong, who would have guessed it?”

I have considered that there is risk involved in disclosing such information, in particular the risk that this revelation could undermine the apparent legitimacy of my perspective on subjects that are unrelated to my history of mental illness. I think this risk is due to stigma about mental illness and that disclosure helps reduce this stigma. My history of clinical depression does not make me an unreliable narrator because if I were still suffering from disabling mental illness, I would not have the motivation to write this blog. There wouldn’t be enough of my writing for anyone to critique and dismiss on the grounds of my illness.

The highest score on my exam may be surprising considering that I’ve focused on depression in the history of this blog. My seventeen years of treatment (1992-2009) lent me a torn perspective on mental illness. While I do believe that mental illness can be disabling, I’ve also considered that there are symptoms that may be considered part of a “disease” but are not necessarily harmful to one’s happiness and productivity. With that aside, I will tell you that my occasional hallucinations have not been a burden to me. When I was seriously depressed, I had little relief from the drudgery of reality. I wished that I would hear or see something divorced from my everyday life, but it seemed the visions would not return, like a dark night of the soul. If I had no insight that I sometimes hear or see things that are not grounded in physical perception, then my hallucinations would indeed be part of a disease.

Yesterday evening I beheld a precious gift, a gold necklace that belonged to a friend of mine who passed away early this year. I was standing in my kitchen holding the necklace and looked toward the living room. Standing next to my couch was my departed friend. With a peaceful smile, she flickered away. I am grateful for such comfort. If this is a disease, I do not wish to be treated for it.



A letter I wrote to a now departed friend

Back in October, I wrote a letter to a troubled friend who has since passed away. I thought that I should copy it here (minus the first names of others mentioned in the letter) in the event that it is lost elsewhere. At the time, I thought it was a valiant attempt to help her, but now I know that I didn’t really understand how ill she was.


I’ve thought a long time about what to write back to you, and I’m not sure where to begin. There is much proverbial food for thought in your two messages. I can relate to the struggle of addiction. U2 captured the problem well with their lyric, “I feel numb/too much is not enough”. Perhaps numbness is not the core of addiction. Instead, it’s any feeling that seems inappropriate in the situations we face. So we stifle or soothe those feelings with whatever addiction we’re facing at the moment. I think I will be addicted to something for the rest of my life. For a long time I’ve restricted this problem to nicotine and caffeine (and sometimes food, which was easily my biggest problem). I avoid classically addictive things because I assume they would destroy me, e.g. gambling and narcotics.

The first and likely the easiest thing for you to drop would be alcohol. Alcohol never helps depression or anxiety. It also harms sleep. The rest one gets after drinking is poor, too.

I should also disclose that I don’t have much faith in psychiatric meds, at least the ones prescribed for depression. Every one I tried eventually stopped working. The list: prozac, effexor, celexa, lexapro, remeron, paxil, trazodone. I also tried Zyprexa and an anxiety med whose name I don’t recall at the moment. None of these meds did much for me.

The only things that worked were the opportunities to love with E** and R**. Also the habit of physically exhausting myself. Love and wearing myself out is what worked. I’d also like to mention that the healing power of love resides in loving more than in being loved. Love can heal even if you do not feel loved in return. Loving heals because it relieves us of the burden of thinking of oneself, however temporarily.

It sounds like you would need medical supervision to alter or reduce the medications you are taking. I don’t know much at all about medically induced comas in rehab. I’ve only heard reference to them in treating opiate addictions. Change or recovery will be challenging no matter what therapy is used, but it will be worth it.

I’d also like you to know that my recovery has not been perfect, but I’ve grown to accept my situation. Some days I wake up inexplicably pissed, afraid or downright depressed, but I move forward. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with post SSRI “brain shocks.” On occasion I also hallucinate. Last year I was home alone and saw a clown and R** walk through the kitchen. Neither of them were there. I’ve seen L*** and R** at work on their days off. This has been happening sporadically for years, and I’ve gotten used it.

I am flawed, but I survive. I am happy because I accept that I am a mess.

Weighty Matters

After my major depression dissipated (it lasted from 1992 to 2009), I also lost significant amounts of weight. I lost weight slowly over three years in hope that I would be at a healthy weight for the first time for my fortieth birthday. In this venture I was successful. For three years,  I’ve kept off all but 20 of the 135 pounds I lost. I wish there were some formula I could devise and follow so I can devote less of my psyche to this venture. There’s no denying the comfort of reaching and keeping a goal that was so elusive for most of my life, but I feel it is time to focus on something other than my size. I hope that in shifting my focus that I don’t reinflate. It is time to more fully consider matters deeper than my surface.

Past self diagnosis, whether absurd debatable

About ten years ago, when I been in a low functioning stalemate with my funk for several years, I suggested to my psychiatrist that I believed it was possible that my treatment had been of limited success because my diagnosis could be wrong. I told him that perhaps I did not have major depression, but instead schizophrenia with almost entirely negative symptoms such as anhedonia. He greeted this suggestion with his usual stone expression. At that moment I realized that I could have told him anything outrageous, such as telling him I could channel the Buddhist monks who immolated themselves in protest of the Vietnam war, and he wouldn’t have reacted to my words at all. Maybe he was tuned into details like my body language and appearance to gauge how well I was functioning. I don’t think that my outfit, which had been slept in, or my hair, which hadn’t been cut in four years, contradicted the possibility that I had negative symptoms of schizophrenia. My affect was wooden as well. I felt more disordered than the bland term major depression would suggest.

How do you solve a problem like Cecelia?


Her name was not Cecelia, but she could have worn that name like an ermine mantle, with her red curly hair and blue eyes that spoke of the frozen North. Her hair made me think of Viking escapades. At first sight of her, I recalled how St. Brendan spotted Judas chained to a rock in the North Atlantic and that I imagined long ago that the Vikings had also witnessed the captive Judas at sea, his significance lost on them. Both St. Brendan and the Vikings may have visited America, a land unknown to others of their homelands. Like them, Cecelia went to a place unknown but imagined by those of us left behind. Now Cecelia’s red hair has been buried since January, because that was when she took her life.

I feel it is apt to mention something as obscure as St. Brendan’s voyage to America because it ties into my memories of depression. I have trouble recalling the things I learned and my experiences while depressed, as if I had picked up a notebook dropped in the rain. A few passages are clear yet most of material has bled together. Hearing that detail of St. Brendan’s journey, that he allegedly saw Judas freezing and sodden, chained to a rock in the North Atlantic, is one of the limited academic memories I have of my college days due to major depression. I feel that I need to capture my memories of Cecelia now since my episodes of that disease are minor these days in comparison.

Explaining her end has one thing in common with my apologetics for leaving my daughter’s father. No matter how many times I explain it, the theory or theme is different than the time before, yet no new explanation really eclipses a previous one. It’s almost like walking through a labyrinth loaded with random fun house mirrors. The reflection changes, cannot be taken at face value, yet the person (oneself) being reflected is in a concrete sense the same. Would it be better to keep walking and ignore these distortions? Or I must I consider these reflections to get out of this labyrinth?

Often I consider that I was arrogant to think that I could mentor her out of her darkness, and that I failed to believe that her struggle was any worse than mine had been. Time and time again I assured her that she could find a way to survive because I had done so. I admitted to her that my depression lasted for most of her life (she lived only 29 years) and that I had been so afflicted at times that I prayed God would take me and blot out any memory or evidence of my existence so no one would mourn me. I told her that my healing began when I lowered my expectations to the point that I had done well enough on any given day if I lived through it, that I was a success if I stayed alive until a death caused by anything but suicide. To live until God in his wisdom decided I had had enough was my only goal, the sole aim that did not aggravate my depression when it was at its worst.  Once I had lowered my expectations so radically, my healing began. I was pleased little by little by the tiny accomplishments of the day to day, restored at a glacial pace.

One of the cruelest aspects of mental illness is that our story may not help other sufferers, that each of us lives a distinct private hell that seems too disimilar to the trajectory of other’s illnesses to find much comfort or guidance in someone else’s story. Instead of understanding that Cecelia was blind in this regard, I would periodically feel too angry or frustrated with her to deal with hearing more of her downward spiral. By then she wouldn’t be giving me updates on her life for a time, probably tired of hearing me tell her once again that she could make it through because I had.

Now I know that her illness was much more complicated than mine. She had a dual diagnosis of mental illess and substance abuse, though she did not abuse illegal drugs. Her drug dependence was confined to legal substances, prescription medications supplemented with astounding dosages of Benedryl and sporadic use of alcohol. The combo she took on a daily basis could have provoked the sleep of Rip Van Winkle in the uninitiated, but this regimen was not enough to relieve her anxiety and insomnia. Her medically sanctioned, long term dependence on these substances had annihilated her capacity to sleep naturally. For her, the pursuit of a cure or even reliable relief proved to be worse than the disease itself. She did try inpatient treatment, day programs, even a 12 step program. Somehow her involvement in these measures only deepened her dependence, like going on a diet and eventually weighing more than you did when the diet started. Is there such a thing as Yo-Yo rehab?  Could there ever be an Oprah of Recovery? Someone vulnerable yet brave enough to show their struggle with addiction in real time, as Oprah has with her attempts at weight loss?

While it is possible that my history of depression was worse at times than hers, there is no doubt that her struggle with addiction was harder than any affliction I’ve experienced. In the core of me, I feel that there is the unfortunate potential to become an addict, but my circumstances have not developed that problem too much. I am addicted to nicotine and caffeine, had bulimia as a teenager, and have had more than my fair share of compulsive overeating. None of this comes close to taking heavy doses of two, sometimes three different benzos on a daily basis and topping it off with at least 200mg of Benedryl a day . . . and adding glasses of wine if sleep is still elusive. This was not some extreme exercise in hedonism or self indulgence. Imagine being unable to sleep and an facing apocalypse-grade panic if you did not take these substances.

A week before she died, she mentioned to me that she was up to taking 600 mg of Benedryl a day. I thought she was exaggerating, which in retrospect is an odd assumption because she was not prone to inflating such numbers. Except regarding her involvement with men she was better off never knowing, she was the most candid person I’ve known.

When I heard that she died, I assumed she had died of a drug overdose. Her progression of dosing did not make this impossible. I had dreamed that she would die in this manner two years before her passing, that she would die in a hotel room while snow was on the ground. I did not reveal this dream to her but instead urged her to either seek inpatient care or rehab to adjust her medications. Not long after that dream, I had another dream in which my sister was her midwife and she gave birth to a radiant red headed baby girl. I did tell her about the birth dream because I hoped that it might offer a glimmer of hope for the future, for she wanted most of all to get her life in order and become a mother. I look back on this and now see that telling her about the birth dream may have been depressing to her because she also had PCOS which would have made conception difficult for her. The thought of getting well and then climbing the mountain of possible infertility may have seemed too much to bear. In the days after she died, I heard that one of the last things she said was, “I will never be a mom.”

Drugs were not the cause of her death. She posted a question on Facebook about a local news story, as if she were waiting for an answer, then went into the bathroom of her hotel room and hanged herself. She contacted many people in the week before her death, sounding worried about the meds she was taking but slightly hopeful about the future and taking a small job offer. I wonder if these measures were to allay suspicion of her pending suicide. She called us to say goodbye and wanted no one to try talking her out of it.

Her state of mind was a terminal condition. We hear how people lose or win their battles against major physical illnesses like cancer, but I have yet to hear those terms used for mental illness. Perhaps it is time we did. Cecelia was one of the 40,000+ Americans who will lose their battles with mental illness this year.