An insider’s look at growing up in a family unaware of problems with depression, anxiety and alcohol
Reprinted from "Families" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2(3), pp. 42-44
As far back as I can remember, I felt like an outsider, both within my family, and out there in what seemed to me like an unsafe world. I have spoken to many who have experienced mental illness in their childhood who felt exactly the same way.
Many children go through a stage of shyness in early life. Some may even keep this trait throughout their childhood and into adulthood. Most of us remember hiding behind mom or dad’s leg for a short while, until we got used to a new person in our surroundings; however, an anxiety disorder is quite different.
I recall an afternoon in Peterborough, Ontario. I was three years old. While busy playing in the upstairs of our farmhouse, I heard my uncle and aunt arriving at our front door on a visit from Hamilton. I was terrified. I climbed into an old clothes chest until they and my parents came looking for me. My body trembled as I heard them coming up the stairs, their voices getting louder, with my mother’s becoming more stressed as her concern for my whereabouts increased. As they got closer to my hideout, my fear intensified until they eventually found me.
Thirty-seven years later, I still vividly remember the power of that fear which filled my entire being. This was not shyness: this was mental illness, and neither my parents nor I had any idea what was going on inside my head. This unintentional ignorance on everyone’s part would last another 26 years, until the pain of social anxiety disorder and depression convinced me to seek help.
Soon after this incident, I discovered alcohol. It was never too far out of reach in our Irish family home. The bottle of Canadian Club whiskey was always prominent on top of the fridge. "That’s Dad’s medicine!" would be my mother’s answer to my quizzical musings. "Medicine," I thought. "That’s what makes a person feel better, isn’t it? Hmmm, maybe it would work for me. I’ll have to give it a go."
My adventure into self-medicating with alcohol began early. Six years old is my first recollection of being looped. It took 20 years filled with drunken mishaps and physical illness to get to the doors of recovery from alcoholism. I ran on alcohol, lived for alcohol, and was dying of a seemingly hopeless malady. I remember the insanity near the end of my drinking career thinking, "If this stuff makes me feel better after work, it must do the same if I drink in the morning before the workday begins!" And on it went, until June 10, 1990, when I hit the wall and admitted defeat. The fear of drinking overtook the fear of not drinking, but it was another three years before I got the help I needed for my reason for drinking in the first place: social anxiety disorder and depression.
The illness known as alcoholism is a mystery to most, but not to the alcoholic. In our minds, it is the only way to deal with and stay in the game of life. It is an allergy of the body coupled with an obsession of the mind. The body says, "I can’t drink," yet the mind says, "I must!"– a more perplexing and terrifying dilemma is difficult to imagine. It is even more troublesome when the alternative to being intoxicated is being clinically depressed and anxious. And it was, and probably still is, a mystery to my family as to what was happening to me.
Public education on mental illness and addiction, then and now, is sorely needed, yet remains inadequate.
Since coming into the field of mental health, and learning in recovery what alcoholism is (and isn’t), I have often wondered about the different life I may have lived had my parents known the signs and symptoms of mental illness and where to go for help. Along with cutting into the profits of Labatt’s, Molson and the makers of Jack Daniels, this knowledge might have saved me more than 20 years of not knowing about the life-threatening illnesses I was dealing with. That is why this work is so important to me.
Information needs to be delivered in the classrooms, doctors’ offices, hospital waiting rooms and other public places so that years of suffering by our children can be avoided. It is truly the difference between many of them living a full and happy life or dying a slow and painful death.
About the author
Murphy is Executive Director of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Kamloops Branch and helps organize the Kamloops sites of Depression Anxiety Screening and Education Day