"Pain travels through families until someone is ready to feel it." -Stephi Wagner
Editor's note: This essay was written in honor of World Mental Health Day, which takes place on October 10th each year. And today, October 12th, the day when I've finished the last few paragraphs, is fittingly my mother's birthday. Her courage is embedded within every word of this essay, as her strength and heart in the face of depression and anxiety has been another form of blessing that has created friends out of my enemies. Happy Birthday Momma.
My father's father was the fifth son of eight children from a long line of farmers. In the rolling hills of Southwestern Pennsyvlania, they raised cattle, grew crops, and tilled huge vegetable gardens that filled basement shelves with rows and rows of canned produce.
I never met my father's father; he died two years before I was born.
When I asked my mother about him, she said that he was the most anxious person she'd ever met. A chainsmoker, he smoked packs and packs of cigarettes to quell the unease that lived in his body and in his spirit.
The anxiety took its toll. He died relatively young, of a heart attack in his early fifties. When he died, he was only a few years older than I am now.
Over the years, as I heard more family stories, and as I began to wonder about him and his life, my grandfather became more real to me, a flesh and blood person rather than an amorphous figure.
In my early forties I learned how he'd wanted to go to college to study to be a teacher. This touched me, to learn about this sensitive and artistic side of him. But in his family they were farmers. There was no room and no support to pursue an alternative dream.
And so he farmed. He, like all of us, coped as best as he could, and found his place in his rural community: meeting neighbors for card games, helping his brother Chink butcher cows, and teaching Sunday school at the local church.
He never went to college, and never made much money.
Like my grandfather, I carry vast eddies of anxiety in my own nervous system. Some is personal to my biography, rooted in traumas both known and unknown. Some is how I came into this world. Some is the sensitivity and porousness that means that I pick up on everything around me.
And like my grandfather, I've coped as best as I could.
Over the years, I've sought out a variety of help to care for my anxiety - therapy, trauma support, yoga, meditation, spiritual practices, medication, nutritional support, exercise, spending time outside, sun lamps...
They all help. Some mitigate the anxiety, some help me care for it, and some help me become kinder towards it.
But they don't eliminate it.
Living with anxiety can be painful. It can also feel shameful and isolating. I've been on the receiving end of other people's frustration, impatience, and exasperation with my worry and overthinking - as well as lots and lots of unsolicited advice.
Because of this pain, and because of the shame and fear that circles around anxiety, it's easy for me to go to war against it. For many years my search for help was rooted in this fight, in my desire to 'make the anxiety go away.' I tried really hard to learn the right nutritional protocols, psychological tools and meditations to make my anxiety disappear.
When it didn't, I felt despair. Now on top of the anxiety I felt the frustration of my helplessness, which often went inwards towards myself. This frustration also went outwards, towards my ancestors.
While I was personally fighting against my anxiety I was also fighting against what I saw as a disappointing and challenging inheritance: the trauma, history of mental illness, and 'bad genes' that ran through my family.
In a word, I felt like I'd been dealt a bad hand. I often felt anger towards my family - especially towards those who had hurt me, or those who I thought had failed to 'do their part.'
If it sounds exhausting and lonely, that's because it was.
What I didn't know was that through my very pain and confusion, my grandfather and my ancestors were present, offering medicine.
Last fall I read an essay where a middle aged man spoke about his gratitude for having lived long enough to come into a different relationship with his elderly mother. With the passage of time, his youthful certainty and anger experienced enough humility and life experience to be transformed into understanding, compassion, and even admiration.
Like him, I'm grateful that I've lived long enough for this fight against my anxiety - and the fight against my ancestral heritage - to soften.
What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That's the world, and we all live there.
When we're young and in the throes of individuation, becoming our own person, we often want to differentiate ourselves from our parents and ancestors. We want to be unlike them - especially in the ways that they may have hurt, frustrated, or disappointed us.
I wanted to be unlike my family, and I wanted to distance myself from these 'enemies' - from the anxiety, depression and PTSD that had scared me. Most of my strategies and pursuits were rooted in this fear.
None of these strategies worked to protect me in the ways I'd wanted. And none of them gave me the connection with my family that I longed for.
So like my grandfather - and like many of my kin - I, too, have journeyed through anxiety, depression and PTSD. And for all my decades of trying, the anxiety has not gone away.
What to make of this 'enemy?'
Enmity is a powerful thing - and it does not mean what we think it does. Rather than meaning something aversive that we hope to avoid, the root of the word enemy means something akin to 'the friend that has not known love.'
I can't help but wonder - where do these enemies - the unlived, unloved life of our ancestors - reside? Where do they go? And how do we make friends with them? How do they come to know love?
This spring I received an email from Nathalie, a beloved mentor and teacher. I'd last seen her over three years ago, and much has changed since that time. As she described the changes from these past few years, she mentioned that her shoulders were a bit more bent, her hair a bit more grey, and her posture a bit more stooped than the last time I'd seen her.
Rather than bemoaning these changes as the unwelcome harbingers of ageing, she wrote about how, in these changes of skin and bone, she was 'going the way of her Old Ones' - how she was being taken home and collected by them.
I read her words and I wept.
I, too, am going the way of my Old Ones.
My legs bear the soft, violet beginnings of the varicose veins that I saw as a little girl on the legs of my great aunts and grandmothers. Here in my late 40s, I've developed the same challenges in remembering word pronunciations and orienting myself in space that my father has. I talk like my father. I look more and more like my people. And yes, the heightened sensitivity and porousness that lived within my grandfather - and within my father, and perhaps in his father's father, and in his father - also runs, with vigor, through my nervous system.
And the anxiety that traveled through my tiny Irish grandmother's body, and my fiesty Italian grandmother's body, and my Polish grandfather's body, they too, travel through and in my body. On and on, this human experience of anxiety - and the keening sensitivity that awakens it - goes back and back and back.
Rather than being an enemy, what if this anxiety is some way I am on the receiving end of something - of many somethings? A way of coming home?
And what if I can create a space in my being - a hearth, here beneath my beating breastbone - in which the anxiety can find rest, and reside?
Within this hearth I take in the story of my father as a young man, patrolling the jungles of Vietnam, experiencing the horrors of war as an infantryman - a war that he didn't support or endorse, but felt obligated to serve as his duty to his country.
And within this hearth I make a home for the story of his return from war, and the shunning stares of his uniform as other passengers on the plane ride home asked to be moved, to sit in a row untouched by him and his nearness to war.
And within this hearth I take in the stories of my grandfather - his ache to teach and to create, the frustrated fallowness of his farming, the sting of his poverty, and the pungent relief of tobacco.
Perhaps, one day in the future, my unborn grandchildren will offer me a similar home, where they receive the fullness of my story.
I never thought that understanding more about my grandfather's life would help me feel cared for. I never thought that learning about his life would help me feel more loved - and more strengthened in the face of a sorrowing inheritance. But it has.
Our wounds and our heritage are not just places of struggle and suffering, they are also a reservoir of strange and mysterious blessings. In their own way, they even become food.
I suspect my anxiety will never completely go away. I suspect it's part of the grace, and sorrow, of living within a sensitive human body.
But there is a gift that my grandfather has given me: my anxiety is no longer the thing that keeps me separate from well being, from health, from my wholeness, or from my people. It is not something I have to eradicate. Anxiety has became the very bridge back into belonging, of being welcomed back by my Old Ones.
It has become a way that they bless and keep me.