Once my father said to me, “It seems like you’ve always been running away from home.” A grown woman at the time, I’d lived in three different states before returning to Kansas—home. The context of his remark is entirely lost now. No doubt he was couching a criticism into another of his famous one-liners. That’s how I remember him: in full sentences, memorable ones.
My father was a man of words–linguistics his passion, college classrooms his venue. He’s not the only dad who could engage earnestly with others but not know how to talk to his kids. In our family that only amplified the bigger problem: a legacy of mental illness that persisted in his bloodline. We didn’t talk about that.
But silence under pressure will eventually demand voice. By the time I was fifteen, sitting in a mental hospital, I felt that the family story about the family disease was not quite right. Thirty years later, with the adoption of an infant later diagnosed with autism, I stumbled upon answers at last.
What makes madness happen? Is it a genetic curse, unavoidable and only barely manageable?
Lunacy Lost is my take on the quest for the root causes of mental illness and behavior disorders. The book’s subtitle is “A Memoir of Green Mental Health” because ultimately I consider this an environmental memoir in the manner of New York Notable Books author Susanne Antonetta’s Body Toxic (2001).
Antonetta’s woven observations of growing up on the polluted Jersey shore midst a family that never talked about it really struck a chord. She brilliantly portrays the need of the adults to “get away from it all” into nature during the decades that environmental perils went unremarked. As a child I too raced with glee after the trucks spraying DDT for mosquitoes. And later? Families who can’t talk about things pretend that the one who wants to know is weird, exasperating.
Once when I called my mother with some questions about our well she put the phone down and said, “Nick! She’s asking about the water again.”
She responds to my stories about Ocean County contamination by saying, “We’re all still here, aren’t we?”
So I’ve quit talking about the groundwater and radiation and DDT. When I go home to New Jersey I try to find out secrets, but sneakily. I play the good child. I don’t argue and I censor myself, avoiding the subjects of high school or mental illness or drugs. (Body Toxic, p. 64)
I could also relate to her family’s preference for sons over daughters. As an adult, like Antonetta I too miscarried, four times, and finally adopted. Another similarity: I went the way of shrinks and drugs to try to clean up the mess that was my mind.
I discovered Body Toxic after my book was done, marveling that over ten years ago the author could connect the dots from her toxic home state to mental illness. It makes you wonder how many of us are ailing and anguishing from the unprotected experiences with chemical waste that we had as kids. We have the research telling us it’s so, but in our day-to-day we still ponder difficult or afflicted children as if they exist only because of their soul’s purpose, or due to an unfathomable mystery, or a sad luck of the draw.
Like Body Toxic, my memoir begins and returns to family, searching for how we move beyond our unspeakable curse known as “mental illness.” The book showcases the quest through my experiences with Sixties anti-psychiatry, explorations of Earth-based spirituality, and becoming a therapist myself. Nonetheless, it was the autism epidemic that saved my life. An environmental catastrophe that a family of nations should talk about as such, and soon.
I credit my daughter with autism for giving me a new life. The journey to recover her inspired me to address my own chronic depression, anxiety, fatigue and severe migraines.
How the telling went: slow
I’d plugged away a number of years to write this book, while raising a family, tending our acres of woods and prairie, and providing clerical assistance in my husband’s office. The book was agented and went to publishers twice, once as a proposal and once as the completed manuscript. My first agent’s star client was Joseph Chilton Pearce, who wrote a number of take-notice books, including Magical Child and Evolution’s End. The second agent was dealing with mercury-poisoning and Lyme disease in her daughter. With both of these fine women’s support, even if publishing houses did pass, I was able to confirm that this story could help others and needed to be told.
The majority of the houses liked the writing and the story; some editors said it really made them reflect on their own families. But I wasn’t famous, at the time didn’t have a blog or website—gee, I was awfully busy trying to heal my daughter and write about it. Besides, they fretted, with its weave of body, mind, and spirit themes, where exactly would it go onto book dealers’ shelves? It didn’t fit anywhere. Besides, my grasp of the Earth as the Divine Feminine was passé; they’d so been there and done that.
Over time there came a familiar refrain. I was urged to make the book about just one thing. Autism, not schizophrenia. Diet, not spirituality. But the story wrote me, as authors say when they are seized by the work. So many unexpected events and elements finally answered my question: what causes and what heals “mental” illness, when we dive for the root?
The answer is complex, but diet that is nutrient-rich and quells brain inflammation, along with detox from chemical crud, is far too often overlooked and can be a powerful place to start. Without a thorough meeting with the body, the mind can spin its wheels forever, and forever wonder why. Though I preach no official “steps” or “solutions” (book marketing’s fave words now), if you explore the avenues I did, you can’t help but feel better.
Writing our pain as Earth’s pain
Memoir is a craft that picks and chooses. It is not autobiography. I tried to apply a wide-angle lens to dissect madness and not lose focus.I like to think it’s the book’s story of human suffering and overcoming that unites the whole.
I’ve been told that Lunacy Lost reads like a novel. There are some plot twists and turns that will surprise you. Some of them occurred as I was writing, and affected the telling. It was fun and harrowing by turns: where would this story, real life unfolding, take me? I ended it when I realized I’d started by blaming parents for the woes of the labeled–child and adult–but came full circle to a completely different view of family, mental illness, and behavior disorders.
My father grew up here, there, and everywhere, always on the move. Forced from one home to another by his father’s career. Now that I’ve been back in eastern Kansas for 35 years, I have learned a sense of place. But the best home I came back to was my right mind. I don’t fear for my mind anymore. Not a perfect person, by any means–full of character defects and human failings, often lacking courage and making my share of mistakes—but what’s different is a solid familiarity with energy, clarity, and optimism. That is a welcome homecoming indeed.
How about you? Can you share your story? We’re certainly taught to hide in shame, aren’t we? If you have a family legacy of (fill in the blank with chronic “mental” dis-ease), do you think processed food addiction (our food is a chemical nightmare), lack of sleep, toxic exposures or other environmental stresses may have contributed to family trauma? What a compassionate exercise this is; what a way to find that holy grail that grants closure when it comes to our abuse, the grail known as forgiveness.
I hope that the stigma of mental/environmental illness will fade as we put it in wider context. The beautiful body of our planet ails too: our emotional distress may in part be Mother Earth’s cries and Her attempts to think clearly.
There is a vibrant thread in mystical writings that we are needed for God to express Himself through our human experiences, for God to know God. What a kinder thought than the Godhead-versus-sinners view that puts our flesh, our brains, and our spirits one-down. Instead, to think that Spirit needs us…it’s more like a partnership. Factor in that quantum physicists say all energy and matter are interconnected, and it makes sense: we are the Earth having a unique experience of Herself. Let’s clean up our body-minds and I doubt we will despoil our rivers and skies ever again.
You are the detective
Some other places to explore: