The Great Below

living the feeling life


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Age of anxiety?

We live in anxious times, I think most people would agree. Nothing is predictable and potential catastrophes loom whichever way you look. The people in charge either don’t seem to have much idea what they are doing, or seem like cynical crooks. But maybe that’s nothing new?

When I was looking through my mother’s papers, I came across a neatly handwritten draft ‘letter’ that begins very alarmingly: “Tonight I sat down seriously to think whether it would not be the best thing to do to take my life and the life of my children.” Needless to say – being one of those children – I dropped this as though it were on fire at first, and it was a while before I found the courage to read on.

I knew my mother had suffered severe depression on and off throughout my lifetime, and that she had sometimes been suicidal – when we were quite small, she used to threaten to put her head in the gas oven, or lock herself in her bedroom with pills while my sister pleaded with her to come out. But in this letter she was threatening to take us with her – a thought that had never occurred to me in all my terror that she might abandon us.

She continues “I know the verdict of the world would be ‘of unsound mind’. My mind is not unsound, I am not mad. But I no longer know how to go on living.” It transpires that she had just watched a Panorama programme about the nuclear arms race, and its seeming unstoppability. This was in 1968 – my mother was then forty, and had already lived through one ‘hideous war’ as she put it. Her parents had survived two, including my grandfather spending four years as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front.

She had seen the devastation caused by the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The new nuclear weapons were 1000 times more destructive, capable of wiping out hundreds of millions of innocent people, yet the leaders talked about them as if they were merely a game of strategy. “What can I do about people like this – madmen – with such enormous power over my life?”

My mother seemed utterly convinced that the world would be wiped out by nuclear war in her lifetime. Well it wasn’t, and somehow we manage to continue living quite comfortably (or perhaps unthinkingly) with the continuing threat of this kind of warfare, worrying only briefly when powerful world leaders rattle their nuclear sabres at each other. So far, the ‘mutually assured destruction’ theory – that if one side uses nuclear weapons, that’s the end of everything – has held, but it’s no surprise that the acronym for this concept is MAD.

I know that the extreme level of my mother’s fear was of course related to her depression, as well as contributing to it. “What can I do? I know the answer is – nothing. I have to try to live my hopeless life through.” Traumatised as a child by the Blitz bombings of London (and also I believe re-traumatised by her experience of giving birth), she felt paralysed by terror and a sense of futility. She couldn’t even see the point in protesting, since the anti-nuclear marches were ignored, or protesters dismissed as ‘cranks’. “I feel so impotent to do anything to stop the bomb falling that everything else is senseless and useless.”

And no doubt some of this fear transmitted itself to us, despite her decision to “tell them (us) to ignore it – forget about it – until it drops.” Perhaps humans have always feared annihilation – it’s hardwired into us to screen the world for potential danger. Awareness of our own future mortality – however much we try to ignore it in our death-denying society – only contributes to the level of alarm. And out imaginations, which have allowed us to create the most marvellous life for ouselves, also sets out a perpetual series of ‘what-ifs?’ for us to worry about.

But I think we do our young people no favours in continually telling them that the world is terrible place, that we have ruined it for them and that they may have aln abysmal future. What they need most is energy and hope, a sense of positivity that there can be better way to live, and that it is achievable despite all appearances. As parents and elders we must be careful not to unwittingly transmit our own fear of death – which as we grow older becomes stronger – to the generation who are starting out in their lives, but to have faith in them that they will undboutedly find a way forward. Indeed they already are.


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Heredity

Does mental illness run in families? In the past, people were prevented from marrying – and thus procreating – if they were considered to come from a ‘tainted’ line. In the 20th century, theories of the heritability of mental illness fed the development of eugenics and the horrors of Nazi ‘experimentation’. Latterly, scientists have found that there is indeed a genetic element in the predisposition to certain mental illnesses, albeit influenced equally by the social and emotional conditions of a person’s life.

On my mother’s side several generations have suffered from psychiatric illnesses. My great-grandmother was diagnosed with ‘religious melancholia’ and was in and out of hospital, until ultimately dying in an asylum at the age of 61. She would prostrate herself in prayer for days at a time, refusing to eat until she began to hallucinate and hear voices. In past eras she might have been considered a visionary, or joined a strict religious order: think of the ‘anchorites’ of the Middle Ages, a majority of whom were women, who were literally walled up in small cells for a lifetime of prayer. But my great-grandmother had three children, a husband – she could only withdraw through madness.

Her condition might today be called ‘scrupulosity’, a form of obsessive compulsive disorder characterised by pathological guilt and the fear of divine judgement for perceived sins. But the word ‘melancholia’ also suggests depression and the hallucinations and voices something more. Recent research has found a significant genetic link between depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia*. My mother suffered from severe lifelong depression, and a young male cousin of hers hanged himself at sixteen in what was at the time passed off as an ‘accident’, suicide being illegal at the time, as well as a source of shame and opprobrium. Alzheimers disease, which also has strong links to depression, has affected three generations of my mother’s family, including her mother and her sister.

In my generation, one of my cousins has schizophrenia. She is the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter of my great-grandmother, who was herself a youngest daughter – it’s as though the illness has trickled down the female line to land in her lap, which sounds rather like a bad fairy-tale. Our understanding and labelling of mental illnesses keeps changing, as well as the degree of openness with which they are discussed, so I may well have other family members whose conditions remained secret or who I simply do not know about.

The recent science of epigenetics has begun exploring how what we experience can alter how our genes work, leading to changes in the brain and how we manage stress hormones. It’s not yet conclusive whether or how that alteration is actually passed on to future generations through the DNA. What seems certain, however, is that trauma can be and often is passed on through the generations by psychological means, especially trauma that is unresolved or unacknowledged. How a parent responds to their child, how they respond to events, how they teach their child to respond – either deliberately or by unconscious example – all shape that child’s psychological development and how, in turn, they will parent their own offspring. Even trying to parent differently, as most of us attempt in one way or another, does not always alter the underlying pattern – as a friend once commented: ‘180 degrees from wrong is not necessarily right.’

You could argue that there is barely a family without trauma in its background: poverty, displacement, early death, loss of children, sexual or physical abuse – these are the stuff of human history and you don’t have to look very far to find them. Above all, in the past century, there is war, on a scale and of a magnitude unprecedented in history, and wars encompass all of the other kinds of trauma imaginable, and add plenty of their own. We are all children of war, in one way or another, whether or not our families were directly involved, and it is the cumulative effects of this trauma in my family and society that is the main subject of my book.

 

*https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2812%2962129-1/fulltext