Prenatal Mental Illness Influences

Today is my youngest sister’s birthday but we are estranged due to her hostility towards me which cause is her mental illness.  I read about this book in a recent Time magazine.  It is listed as one of the 10 best nonfiction books for 2019.  I bought it so that I might understand what has happened to my youngest sister better.  This may seem like an odd topic for this blog but actually it is highly relevant.

I’ve only started reading the first essay but I was struck by this statistic – People diagnosed with schizophrenia are more likely to be born in the winter than in the summer – perhaps due to maternal infection during pregnancy.  I have previously written about intergenerational transmission of trauma.  There is a high likelihood of that in my family with both parents being adoptees.

Biological features may mark a susceptibility to already established disorders as well as what types of stressors are most likely to transform those susceptibilities into illness.  I suspect that my sister was always vulnerable.  Something happened to her at some point that caused a marked downturn in her mental health from which she has not yet and may never re-emerge.  She spent some time homeless, which is itself a stressor and I believe caused some of her delusions as she attempted to justify her unconventional lifestyle.

My sister also gave up her only child for adoption.  Adoption was a natural condition in our family even though I now know it is not natural by any stretch of the imagination.  Still, it was her choice from the moment she was aware she was pregnant.  I’ve often wondered now that I know more about mother/child separations if this has been an additional stressor.

She speaks of a subsequent pregnancy that was murdered within her.  I doubt that one also took place but one never knows with her.  One of the ways I have coped with her odd mental functioning is to simply listen without judging the validity of what she tells me because I believe some truth always lies within the stories but the interpretation of the meaning of those stories is off in some manner.

In a review of the book I am reading, I saw this question –

Is there some inner self that lies beyond the reaches of mental illness, a consciousness that disease makes invisible but leaves intact ?

Because I do believe in an eternal consciousness that is ever evolving through a variety of physical lifetime experiences, I do believe there is a witness who knows all of the whys and wherefores.

What Is Enough ?

My mother doubted her worth as a human and as a mother. She never believed she was good enough. Adoption did that to her. She felt broken and torn.

My mom tried very hard to know her roots. She appealed to the state of Tennessee for her adoption file. Though her father was twenty years older than her mother and her mother had already died, she was denied because the state didn’t really try too hard to determine her father’s status. He had been dead for 30 years, when she made her attempt.

She did an Ancestry DNA test and had a profile, hoping against hope to learn some truth. At least, she had some idea of her ethnicity from that effort.  She tried to complete family trees but since they were based on persons who adopted her and adopted my dad, she quit and said to me, “It just didn’t feel real.”  Of course it didn’t.  From a genealogy perspective – it wasn’t the truth.

I now have the complete story for both – my mom and my dad. I wrote everything up in a limited edition book given to family, so that what I worked so hard to learn would not be lost with me, if I died.

There is no risk-free exposure for the children of adopted parents. I know. The wounds and damage passed down my family line and other children ended up adopted too.

Trauma and Stress

The possibility of trauma passing down through generations as genetic mutations affecting health had reason to re-enter my awareness last night.

My mom was an adoptee.  I know for a fact she suffered because of it.  She told me so.  She died believing she had been stolen.  While her made-up story based upon other stories that were sadly all too real under the reign of the notorious Georgia Tann were not entirely accurate, I do believe deep in her soul “stolen” was not that far off.  She died believing it and now that I have her adoption file from the state of Tennessee, I know that her mother never intended to give her up and was trapped into an impossible situation.

She had left my mom at an orphanage in Memphis (Porter-Leath) for temporary care.  That was a decision point from which there was no return of the mother-child bonding for my mom and her mother.  My grandmother was allowed to see my mom one final time before she was ripped away and placed with strangers.  I have those black and white photos now.  The happiness upon seeing her mother again is evident in my mom’s body language.

The adoption file tells me she screamed all the way from Memphis to Nogales Arizona as my adoptive grandmother carried her home.  No wonder my mom felt stolen.  When they reached Arizona, she was drugged to calm her down.  Eventually, with no other choice, she adapted to her circumstances and coped.

Yet, the health impacts left her a medical basket case all her life and I believe her stress at conceiving me as an unwed high school student impacted my health.  And it may go on down the line to my daughter and granddaughter.  Medical science is discovering through research some truth to these theories on my part but they have a lot of work to do yet.

It does appear that genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger.  Some people are born with genetic vulnerabilities and circumstances can then cause those vulnerabilities to manifest as disease.  This is true for every adoptee, regardless of what the manifestations are or how minimally impacted that adoptee may appear.

Where Does It Begin ?

Even if the person who suffered the original trauma has died,
even if his or her story lies submerged in years of silence,
fragments of life experience, memory and body sensation can live on,
reaching out from the past to resolution in the minds and bodies
of those living in the present.

~ It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn

At some point, as I delved into my own origins story, I began to wonder if many of the random things that seemed to happen to my family members were the result of something that happened to our ancestors.

I discovered this book that seemed to indicate that it was a real possibility.

Wolynn asks early in his book – Did something traumatic happen while your mother was pregnant with you ?

I would say that any unplanned pregnancy would be – to some extent – “traumatic”, wouldn’t you ?  Most adoptions are the result of an unplanned pregnancy.  My mom was only a teenager in high school when she discovered that I was on my way.  At 2 months pregnant, she married my father.  He had only just started his university education but had to quit school and go to work to support us.

But what about in the days and weeks before the decision to marry took place ?  I did find the love letters my parents were writing to one another as I cleaned out their belongings after they had both died.  I only read one.  It was a note from my mother to a friend (I don’t know whether she ever delivered it) that was stressing about how my father would react to the news.  I suppose if I had known I was going to embark on this origins journey less than 2 years later, I might have saved them for the insights they would have given me.

I do regret not saving the love letters.  Shortly before I started cleaning out their home, I had read an article.  It was written by a woman who lamented her mother destroying similar letters after her father had died.  She told her daughter that they were not for anyone else to read beyond the two of them – not even their own child.  That the letters were private.  That perspective is what guided my thoughts at the time.

Previously, I had received a bunch of letters that my dad’s adoptive father had written, I believe mostly during World War II, from my mom.  I actually read one of those letters at my grandfather’s funeral service as an indication of his love of family and country.  However, most of those letters simply sat here – unread – for a couple of years and eventually, I delivered them to my grandfather’s biological daughter, my Aunt Karen.

I suppose the lack of time I had to hopefully read those love letters, influenced my decision not to keep my parent’s love letters when I had them in hand.  Too bad I can’t go back and retrieve them now.

 

Books

 

Growing up adoption seemed like the most natural thing in the world. I thought my parents were orphans. Neither of these was true of course. The first bump came when my school friends bragged about being French or German. When I asked my mom what we were, she said American. I said but what else? We don’t know, she said, because your dad and I were adopted. We didn’t have the identity so many people take for granted.

As I began to learn about my grandparents, I began to suspect that being adopted and my grandmothers losing their own mothers at young ages (3 mos for my paternal, 11 yrs for my maternal) played a role in the fact that my sisters and I were not able to raise our own children. I began to suspect this strange detachment my parents had about parenting might have also been affected by our circumstances.

The impacts of being motherless daughters and being adopted did have effects. Then I learned about inherited family trauma. Our circumstances began to fall into place, began to make a bit of sense that I had not previously considered. My sisters and I were not purely failures at living, we were carrying wounds passed down to us.

Anyway, without giving too much of my story away, here’s a list of books that proved informative to me on my journey. The more universal are at the top of the list, the more personally specific nearer the bottom but all of them have proven useful to my own understanding.

[1]  The Primal Wound – Understanding the Adopted Child by Nancy Newton Verrier

While written with a focus on adoption, this book offers a lot of insight into the effects of mother/child separations in general. Adoption is common in our family – Gale Patrick Hart, Julie Sue Hart, Susan Ostrowski and Thomas Patrick Parker – were each given up by their mothers for adoption.

[2]  Motherless Daughters – The Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman

While focused on mothers who died young and left behind daughters, a topic that appealed to me because both of my grandmothers, Lizzie Lou Stark and Dolores Abigail Hempstead – lost their own mothers at a young age; however, this book offers very deep insights into all mother/daughter relationships

[3]  It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn

Explores the possibility of inherited family trauma. I had suspected this was a factor in our own family dynamics even before I knew about or read this book.

[4] The Baby Scoop Era by Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh

Details about adoption practices from the 1940’s up through the 1970s and more.

[5] Hole In My Heart: A Memoir and Report from the Fault Lines of Adoption by Lorraine Dusky

The memoir of a woman who gave her daughter up for adoption and then later has a reunion with her.

[6] Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Although fiction, she did her research on the Georgia Tann/Tennessee Children’s Home Society scandal as the foundation of her engaging book.

[7]  Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America by Jim Webb

Very good historical background of the clan in Scotland and their participation in the settlement and wars of the United States.

[8] The Diary of Joshua Hempstead of New London, Connecticut by Joshua Hempstead

Covering A Period of Forty-Seven Years From September 1711, to November, 1758

A glimpse into everyday colonial life by a direct ancestor through that family line.

[9] Memphis and the Super Flood of 1937 – High Water Blues by Patrick O’Daniel

Thorough account of that event.

[10]  Images of America – Ocean Beach by The Ocean Beach Historical Society

Picture of The Door of Hope, a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers, is where Gale Patrick Hart was born. Image on page 116.

Even before I began uncovering my roots, I read The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption by Barbara Bisantz Raymond – just after my father died. It made me very grateful for the couple that adopted my mother. It could have been much worse. There are other books as well but these were the most significant for my own self.