Upon the recommendation from a friend, I’ve been reading the book It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn. And if the subtitle doesn’t give you enough information about how depressing this book has the potential to be then I don’t know what will. Just from the title I knew I was getting myself into some shit with the book, and a few chapters in I don’t seem to be wrong with that assumption.
I wrote here about some ‘breakthrough’ I had where I realized how my mom’s lack of love while I was growing up most likely fucked me up in a way that I wasn’t even aware of for 98% of my life. I thought I had a normal childhood — as average as anyone else’s — but no; tiny scars are still scars and are they even tiny when you have nothing to compare them to? I’d realized that I always feel lacking, like I always have something to prove, as if my self-worth is based on the approval of others. It seems my entire motivation in life is to gain approval from others; I’m a directionless mess until I have someone to seek approval from. This is the wrong mindset to have — you need to get happiness and approval from yourself — but I seem to be unable to change it. Only making a few tiny steps in progress here or there but never seeming to actually get anywhere. It’s like I’m trying to do a marathon but am crawling. Ten feet done and 138,000 more to go. I’m getting nowhere.
Anyways, I thought this book would go along similar lines, and it has been, if not to a more extreme degree than I imagined. The basis of the book in the first two or three chapters seems to be that hardly any of us know how much shit we actually inherit from our fucked up families. Making matters even bleaker is the author’s insistence that it isn’t only how we are raised that fucks us up (obviously being raised in an abusive home is going to fuck you up) but how things transmit from generation to generation through DNA and genetics. Once again don’t take this to mean that if you have a family history of cancer that, duh, you might get cancer; it’s much more subtle than that. Depression, stress, anxiety, and substance abuse all seemed to be transmitted to offspring somehow even if there isn’t a direct genetic reason for it doing so.
In the first few chapters Wolynn talks about studies on mice and stress in offspring. Baby mice were removed from their parents which caused depression in them, but most surprisingly, their own children — the grandchildren of the original mice — also suffered from stress and depression. Even though the third generation of mice weren’t separated from their parents, because their parents were traumatized this transmitted to them. The author also talks about how grandchildren of Holocaust survivors also seem to suffer from greater stress and anxiety than others. Despite not suffering themselves, or their parents suffering, somehow their bodies and genes “remember” the hell their grandparents went through to where they also suffer negative consequences.
And this is depressing as fuck.
We all like to think of ourselves as unique and separate individual beings not affected by anything but our own life and experiences. Sure you might’ve had a shitty childhood, but you’re still you and have free will, so you can always break the negative traits with sheer might, right? It doesn’t seem so. Even if your childhood was great, you could still be fucked up somehow from your grandparents shitty lives and upbringings. Plus there are four grandparents; more chance to get something fucked up given to you. And it almost seems inevitable.
Reading these first few chapters my mental state took a nosedive. Not trying to be the victim, I did keep thinking, “I didn’t ask for any of this. Why me? Why did my family have to fuck me up in this way?” It’s not so much feeling sorry for myself and more like feeling totally stuck with no actual ability to fix anything. It’s like being dealt a shitty hand in poker or something; sure you might be able to find a winning hand, but the smart bet is to give up and fold. Hope for something better to be dealt to you in the future. Except in life we’re only dealt a single hand and I’ll let you guys think about what “folding your hand” in life might mean.
I’m sure the book will take a more uplifting turn midway as most books do: there isn’t any point in explaining a problem unless the author has a solution. It’d be a poor self-help book if it didn’t give you a way to, well, help yourself. I think it’s the same with every problem. You first need to discover the problem before you can fix it. Trying to be positive here, the human brain is a magnificent piece of machinery even if it is flawed in countless ways. Think of learning a new language or learning an instrument. With each practice session your brain connects new neurons and pathways that allow you to really learn a new skill through physically changing the structure of your brain and how it works. I’m pretty sure the same thing is true with Big Problems like depression and anxiety. Maybe if you practice facing anxiety and having Happy Thoughts you can rewire your brain to not be as fucked up as it typically is?
I’m only 25% through the book but it is interesting and eye-opening; I’m sure I’ll have more to write about it later. One thing that does bother me is trying to even discover my family history. I only have one living grandparent. Sure I can analyze my parents in depth, but it seems the deeper part of my family history has been more or less erased. Did my grandparents grow up during the Great Depression? Is that why I’m so insecure with how much money I have? Is that why I hoard money for ‘safety’? Am I as detached emotionally as my father? Am I as crazy as my mom? Did she have a shitty upbringing that led her to be angry and detached with my sister and I growing up? Who gave me my fondness for alcohol? And what about my sister? Why does she date very controlling and borderline abusive people? Where did that come from? Even if it’s not me, I still think it could shine some light on our mutual upbringing and give reason to some of my own flaws. More questions than answers. Always more questions than answers…