Healthy Love and Mental Health

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading on mental health issues over the last year or so. Maybe my life is unusual in that I believe I come in contact with more people with mental health problems than most people. Or perhaps I am overly sensitized to mental health issues. But the more I learn about mental health the more I believe that the majority of us have persistent or chronic mental health issues.

A lot of us don’t seek treatment. The usual coping mechanism seems to be to ignore mental illness or just chalk up its miseries as part of the price of being alive. Some of us develop coping techniques so we can keep these issues contained in some relatively safe spot. Occasionally they pop out, often during periods of stress, to show us they are still around. Clearly for others mental health issues are so chronic and debilitating that their whole lives are filtered through the suffering and pain of their mental illnesses.

I went through a period of mild depression a couple years back. Unlike lots of people I sought treatment. For months I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t even recognize the symptoms within myself. But eventually I figured out that crying at my desk for no logical reason and enduring persistent low level headaches for weeks at a time meant something was out of kilter. It seemed strange to find myself in a psychiatrist’s office, and stranger still to be spilling my guts to a therapist. But it seemed to work for me. Within six months I was off the drugs and felt relatively back to normal. In that sense I was fortunate. My depression appears to have been situational and limited in time and scope. But I had enough of a taste of it to develop empathy for those with much more chronic mental illnesses. It also made me realize that the scope of the problem is huge and our response to it as a society is less than adequate.

It is clear from my reading that the causes of mental illness are still hard to pin down. There appears to be a genetic predisposition toward depression for many people. But it is not clear if it takes events for depression to be manifested, or whether people can get depressed solely due to a predisposition. I do believe that a lot of depression has its roots in how we coped with difficult times in our lives. And I am increasingly convinced that much of these stresses have their roots in early childhood. But they have receded so far in memory that we have no recollection of them.

I have been curious of late why good people stay with people who are toxic to them. Why on earth would a woman who has been physically and emotionally abused by her husband cling to him and say that she can’t live without him? My reading suggests that it may be a result of addictive attachment hunger issues from our early childhood.

I think this is true with me and might be one of the reasons I suffered from depression. It is also one of the reasons I have been either so naive or idealistic when it comes to romantic love. I want to believe there is someone out there who is so in tune with me that we play off against each other perfectly. This ideal person (presumably a woman) can play me like a piano, and I can play her the same way, and life is somehow a continuously pleasant buzz instead of a series of challenges and harsh realities that it often is.

I know that when I was born I was one of three boys in diapers that my mother was shuffling at the same time. As a parent who struggled through nurturing one child I know how difficult child rearing can be. I can’t imagine doing it for three young and active boys at the same time, not to mention two older girls that my mother also was mothering in 1957. In her biography my mother fessed up. I came along at a time when she was mentally and physically exhausted, and quite likely depressed (although she has never admitted to being depressed). While she loved me as any mother would love a child, she was overwhelmed with work, stress and motherhood. I was very much a “time-shared” baby. I know I didn’t get the amount of mother time that children typically get. I probably picked that up even as an infant and it affected me in some powerful ways. Although adolescence is a natural time to pull away from the parents, I pulled away particularly from my mother. The issues were I thought overly excessive Catholicism and conformity, but I now suspect that these were but catalyst issues. The likely real issue was simply that I had not gotten the quality time from my mother than I wanted as an infant or growing up and I resented it. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I could do something about it. And unfortunately when I struck back I did it in a mean and vindictive way.

Part of my coping process until that time had been to play the “good son” role. I endeavored to be the peacemaker in a family of 10. A large family is, by its nature, a boisterous, sometimes rowdy, and always loud place. When the noise and the perceived mayhem got too bad I withdrew to my room and tried to shut it out. I latched onto my father, whom I perceived as calm and gentle mannered, unlike my rather temperamental mother. But my father also got to work with civilized people in clean and modern office environments eight hours a day. My mother was a housewife. Mothering and parenting was a 24/7/365 occupation.

As an adult I suspect I seek that which I felt I was sufficiently denied as an infant. Growing up I likely wanted to feel like I was one with my mother, and I wanted to feel special and utterly cared for by her. An inevitable part of growing up is learning to detach from the mother and confront the world alone. I was probably detached way too soon for my liking. Missing that attachment I seek it now in my marriage. But the reality is that marriage is not a supplicant relationship where I get the love I need from an authority figure. It is a relationship of equals where my responsibilities to provide love are as necessary as my wife’s obligations to me.

So my notions of how romantic love should be (shared perhaps by the majority of people in my country) are probably naive also. It is probably counterproductive and unhealthy for me to seek that sort of bonding in a marital relationship. We need to realize that we are seeking the unattainable. More importantly, if it were attainable, it would be unhealthy.

Still, for many of us adults this lingering attachment disorder echoes through our adult lives. My hope is that I have channeled these longings in appropriate ways. I have tried to have a consistent loving and nurturing relationship with my daughter. And yet sometimes I wonder if I have gone too far in the nurturing the relationship as a reaction to my attachment disorder. Since my daughter is now fourteen she is going through a natural and necessary process of pulling away from me. I wonder if I was perhaps too much of a micromanager of her life. I wonder whether I should have trusted and empowered her more earlier. If I had, would she be a more functional young adult? I don’t really know but my gut says “yes”.

It would have been smarter to know and understand this before she was born. I would have changed my parenting strategies a bit, I think. I will be upset to learn if in spite of my best efforts my daughter spends her adulthood affected by similar attachment disorders.

If so Rosie, please forgive me as I forgive my mother. I did the best I could.