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Am I Doomed to Repeat the Mistakes of My Father? Breaking Intergenerational Mental Health Cycles

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

So the Y is not the worst place in the world to live.

It is like a dorm — like a crappy dorm. This building reminds me a lot of the one Paul and Dad lived in, a rooming house that is falling apart at the seams. It’s interesting that it is now considered a dorm, when 30 years ago this would have just been your run-of-the-mill weekly rooming house. Times have changed, but I need to be realistic and say that I am literally in the exact same place in my life as dad was when he lived in a rooming house. The only difference is that I’m not married, have no kids, and am about to complete my masters degree. He was stuck where he was while he worked minimum wage just to afford the rent each week.

The other difference is that he actually felt pretty comfortable living like this. And he had no ambitions or ways to get treatment for the situation he was in. I grew up in the system, one way or another, just like he did. He went into the military and messed around a lot and was never promoted. I went to college, depressed and defeated before developing an anger at the situation and using that to push me to do my best in undergrad.

I had opportunities he never did. There came a point where he honestly didn’t know how to help me because I was reminding him of himself. Perhaps he thought that everything would be different when he had a kid, but quickly realized how difficult and challenging it is to raise kids when you weren’t raised with love yourself. Maybe it was even the State, forbidding him from seeing me.

For him, it was natural to live in the woods, or live in his car in the woods, or live in places like this because he has never seen anything better for himself. I, on the other hand, was pulled away from that world. Doctors intervened, therapists, social workers, lawyers, guardians, and only the five people I was closest to. Everyone else was shut out because the situation I was in was so extreme and so dangerous. Right out of Westboro State Hospital I was surrounded by people my age in Boston. They were going to Boston University, Mass Art, and Boston College. During this time I watched them, observed, learning how college students work. How they function. What it takes.

I thought, “If my sister could do it then so can I.”

When I was ready to graduate from community college, I was accepted into seven of the 10 four-year schools that I applied to, including Loyola Marymount. The future was mine to decide. If I wanted to vertically integrate myself then this was my ticket out of the life I started and into the life I wanted. The future was mine until it wasn’t. I graduated, hurray. And immediately relapsed into old illnesses. I had a horrible internship my senior year, and I stopped eating, lay in bed, and took sedative after sedative for nearly four months.

I once heard someone say that suicide is like jumping out of a burning building.

And ever since then, I’ve wholehearted agreed with that statement. I had nowhere else to turn and I was going to die. It took a team of a lot of people to save my life, dozens, at least. What I had been through was horrifying, and my body and my mind were dying. Nobody had been able to do what they wanted to do, not until it was too late.

The way dad was brought up and the way I was “brought up” (I say this in quotes because… who actually raised me the most? In what order?) couldn’t be any more different. Why? Because he didn’t raise me every day, but he did raise me. By the simple fact of not being in my life until I was 8 or 9 meant that I had already built an entire foundation in my life that looked completely different from his. I always wanted to be treated better, to be in regular classes, and to be as competitive in school as I could be, because that was the only thing I was good at.

I am not my dad.

Why? Because I spent so much of my life trying to learn from his mistakes, not to repeat them while boasting that it was how I was raised. I’ve heard that a lot from him: “This is what my dad used to do to me so now I’m going to do it to you.”

I never once saw the logic in that. I believed that kids should be better than their parents, while being a kid myself. I had to be better than mom because I was jealous of what the kids at school had and I didn’t. Parents, friends, siblings, love, compassion, forgiveness and warmth and consistency are all things that I wanted and didn’t have.

I have to be better than dad because he didn’t set a very high bar, and I know I could more than clear it.

Dad got stuck and so did I, but even though we both have few resources when it comes to people, he stayed stuck because he didn’t know how could get treatment. Even if it was just therapy. He may not have had insurance or known how to get it; I always did, and there were people intervening left and right.

My dad is the parent that impacted me the most, socially. He wanted me to grow up just like he did, and the nice thing about your parents being divorced is that you don’t have to be stuck with the parent that needs the most help. I didn’t see him that often (only on weekends, and that started when I was 10 or 11) and that wasn’t always pleasant.

Sometimes it was very good. Other times, he’d strangle, choke, punch, and starve me. He was a very angry person, and nothing I did pleased him. He valued the gift my sister bought for him for his birthday (a lighthouse thing) far more than he did me — he was protective of that thing. Too bad he wasn’t so careful with his own child.

In short, this is why I refuse to be a parent. I vowed when I was a sophomore in high school and dying of anorexia that I would never put my child through what I have been through, or what my dad has been through, and who knows how far back it goes?

I’ve always believed that I come from a family of losers (with a couple notable exceptions) because nobody has ever been smart enough to think that maybe it was time to end the cycle of abuse and pursue bigger, richer, better alternatives for our futures.

I demand better for myself. If the only thing preventing me from getting better is my depression, then that will be treated. But I’m not going to be stuck here. No way.

Getty image by damircudic

Originally published: June 27, 2023
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