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Dysfunctional Family

Question:

Dr Dombeck I grew up in a dysfunctional family. My mother and father took turns being admitted to a local mental hospital where they both received shock therapy. My father was a severe alcoholic who attempted suicide. My mother was constantly in a state of either depression, anger, or what I’d call just acting out like some lunatic and then going into a catatonic like state. My younger sister and two younger brothers and myself were often woken in the middle of the night and told we needed to go here or there to attempt to talk our mother out of killing herself. She usually wanted to stab herself and would be holding a hugh butcher knife to her stomach or be trying to jump off the top of something. It seemed our household was always a very emotional mess of a place. My father would come in the middle of the night and start shooting his gun. One time he shot up a basket of clothes in the middle of the kitchen floor. I think it some miracle none of us were actually shot. I even remember him holding my mother down and sticking the gun in her mouth. The police coming to our house with neighbors gathering all around was a common occurance. There are other countless occurances of horrible memories that i do not care to share here. Needless to say none of us have grown up into very well-rounded individuals. I feel like I am still carrying around a big suitcase of anger toward my mother. I at times find I have little control over my emotions and act a little lunatic myself and it worries me. My mother was never diagnosed with any particular mental disorder. But I am just wondering if she possibly did have one. She still to this day has her spells where she just loses it and throws a temper tantrum. It can be very embarressing if it is in public. It is like she just wants all the attention no matter what she has to do to get it. Could she possibly have anything that might be inherited?

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Answer:

You may not realize it – but your childhood would be considered by most mental health professionals to be quite disordered, chaotic and abusive. I don’t know why you’ve singled your anger out for your mother, because it sounds likely that both of your parents had some serious diagnosable conditions happening. It is a shame that no one was able to shield you from the violence you endured. It is indeed a miracle if you survived that environment and grew up to function even moderately well.

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p> It is not possible to diagnose via email. The best I can do is to point you towards conditions that you might read up on that might shed some light on why your mother and father were the way they were. I’d guess that both of your parents grew up in highly abusive circumstances that shaped them into the adults they became. Your father’s alcoholism is significant and may have contributed to his mood disorder and suicidal disposition, but there may have been other stuff going on (possibly anger management problems, depression, etc.). Based on the short description you present of your mother, I’d suggest you read up on the personality disorders, in particular Borderline personality disorder (characterized by intense abandonment fears, swings between loving and hating others, and generally chaotic lifestyle) and Histronic personality disorder (characterized by a need to be the center of attention and superficial and manipulative displays of emotion). I’d read up on severe depressions – depressions with psychotic features, and psychosis because all of these things are also possibilities. I’m arm-chairing this and don’t have the actual information I’d need to make a good set of judgements; you should not take my words here as anything more than reading recommendations

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p> You ask if these conditions are inheritable and the answer is ‘yes’. Many mental health disorders do tend to run in families. This doesn’t mean that if you parent had a disorder that you too will have that disorder. It does mean that statistically, people from similarly disordered backgrounds have a greater than average chance of having disorders. No one is definitively certain why this is so but the likely answer is that there are both genetic/biological and social-learning componants that play a role. As the biological child of someone with a mood disorder, for instance, you may carry the genes that made that parent vulnerable to expressing that mood disorder. By the same token, if your environment is calmer and less stressful, you may never express that same gene in such a dysfunctional way. People also learn how to cope with things by watching their parents cope when they are small. If your parents were dysfunctional copers (which your parents seem to have been) then it is common to grow up knowing only dysfunctional ways of coping. Bad coping can lead to emotional distress just as easily as genetic deficits.

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p> But just as surely as dispositions can be inherited, you also have a great degree of ‘free will’ to influence how these tendancies will play out in your own life. Your parents don’t seem to have sought out systematic help (and maybe it wasn’t available at the time either) – but you can seek therapy or medication if faced with such chaos. All us humans start out with a hand of cards (so to speak) that we’re dealt. Some hands are definitely better than others are for sure. However, every one of us has the capacity to play the hand out to their best advantage (with the assistance of professionals and loved ones) so as to maximize their chances for a happy and healthly life.

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