“I am the descendant of a race whose imaginative and easily excitable temperament has at all times rendered them remarkable; and, in my earliest infancy, I gave evidence of having fully inherited the family character. As I advanced in years it was more strongly developed; becoming, for many reasons, a cause of disquietude to my friends, and of positive injury to myself. I grew self-willed, addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions.”
— Poe, “William Wilson”
Poe’s narrators amuse me when they talk about their genetic propensity for mental illness like it’s some kind of aristocratic pedigree. I suppose because, in his opinion, only madness can take you to the heights of creativity and analysis. I’m interested in the genetic legacy of mental health — or lack thereof. For Poe, he turned his into something artistic, a tinge of perversity to bolster his charisma and image.
And what depressed person hasn’t gone through that phase of “I’m disturbed, and proud of it!”? But I’ve grown out of that, really. I’m totally ready to be less “interesting.” Maybe it’s made me wiser, more enlightened — but at a very, very high personal cost.
I’m of the opinion that the vast majority of depressed people are just ill, and it’s not a club I enjoy belonging to. Those who can recover from the disease may use what they’ve learned in an artistic fashion; but nine times out of ten, they’re just going to be tired and defeated, and accomplish less than their mentally-well contemporaries. That’s the reality — even if depression and creativity have rumination in common. Why? Because they’re sick. It doesn’t make you any more artistic than any other adversity, and illness certainly doesn’t make any artist more productive. I have no grandiose notions that since I’m descended from a lot of depressed people, that somehow I’m destined for greatness like Hemingway or Plath.
But knowing more about the condition now, I view a lot of things I’ve heard about my relatives — in particular, my female relatives — with a grain of salt. The most famous for her mental theatrics, of course, was my great grandmother.
“I was polishing the silver, and then I touched my hand to my mouth… And now my mouth is burning. Sylvia, I’ve poisoned myself!” Or the less amusing, “Sylvia, the Devil is with me…” These were, of course, tales of resentment that my Dad told me, about how his mother’s mother’s condition was such an irksome burden… How she would call his mother all the time, to vent her craziness. I’ve been told that she was narcissistic, self-involved.
Now I wonder how much of that was really true — the assault on her character — and how much of it was just the reality of a woman suffering through a mental condition, with no hope of treatment, validation, or understanding. Imagine going through your life with insane moods that drive you into pseudo-delusions, like “I’ve lost everything” and “no one loves me” — with no reason or explanation. Of course, you’re going to be painted as narcissistic and unappreciative… Not to mention insane, because no one has any idea where these emotions are coming from.
And I have not enjoyed inheriting that legacy. Particularly when the men I interact with treat me like I’m Scylla or Charbydis in rollers, wielding a rolling pin, just for expressing to them how they’ve hurt my feelings. Am I just like my grandmother, slamming doors when she got a vacuum cleaner instead of diamonds? How can my “craziness” be distinguished from my actual personality? Am I doomed to grow into an old, moody, stick-in-the-mud, resented by her husband and children for her violent emotional outbursts?
The truth is, I don’t know. Depression can make you feel like everyone is being incredibly insensitive, so then you get irate… But what if people are actually being insensitive? And what if what I have is not only depression, but also the violent desire to stick up for myself when I’ve been hurt, and the tongue to carry out that desire? Maybe I come from a family of divas — moody AND proud. So that when you’ve upset them, not only do you get a shitstorm, but a moral indictment as well.
I have yet to decide how much of this “family character” to embrace as my personality, and how much to try to heal like an inherited disorder. That, I think is the hardest part about mental health problems. The degree to which they are attached to your identity — both by other people and yourself. You can never truly be absolved for anything that happens. Were you out of your mind, or not? It’s not like there’s a breathalyzer for craziness. There will always be a cast of doubt on your credibility, your ability to be positive, your ability to accept love. And it will take someone very intelligent and caring to recognize how much of that cast you actually deserve.