On Mental Illness and Raising Children

Nature vs. Nurture.

The relationship between nature and nurture is studied by psychologists attempting to understand abrupt punctuations in the human experience, to scientists working through the scientific method, and to philosophers struggling with deep existential and metaphysical problems (and to many more, as well). Members of a society often reflect on the dynamic relationship between nature and nurture without even noticing. We’ve all experienced this to some degree or another; you may see a homeless man on the street begging, and conclude his station in life is somehow his own fault. Or remark, ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’, towards a troubled child from a troubled home. When we talk about homosexuality, we can easily see how the nature vs. nurture discussion could unfold, and the implications one answer has over another. But few of us actually grasp the deep importance the answers we draw forth carry… ex vlugus scientia. Answers which indicate nature over nurture indicate a degree of determinism and place less emphasis on human agency in the role of pathology and choice. Answers which support nurture, though, suggest that the human will is a much more mystical and intermediary force.

While I myself struggle with this debate in every area of my life, I’d like to concentrate my focus on an area much more close to home; that is, I’d like to talk about ‘the home’. In doing so, I hope to reveal some of the complexities and difficulties discussing these questions of origins entail.

‘The Home’ 

I come from somewhat of a broken home. Growing up it was normal for me; it was the standard. Like most western children, I supported the idea that my Grandparents were great and wise and that mystical powers like Santa Claus, Jesus and the Tooth Fairy, did exist, and really did care a whole lot about my life.

My father was a bit of an alcoholic and my mother was very emotionally damaged – I still contend she has a personality disorder, although her aversion towards psychology ensures that question will forever go unanswered. My dad didn’t work, leaving my mother as the sole breadwinner for the family. Long story short: there was a lot of fighting growing up, and we all turned out pretty screwed up; I can’t remember a day when one of my parents didn’t make me feel like shit.

As I matured and aged, more and more truths came out. I quickly realized it wasn’t just our family that had these problems. My mothers family, and my fathers family, and their fathers family, and their father and mothers families before that all had similar problems. I have this long pedigree of abuse, mental illness and social derision. And when I look around at people in similar situations, I often see very similar patterns. I find myself, now 23, at the precipice of life, wondering what started it all? Did someone down the line make some horrible decision raising his children, a decision which snowballed wildly out of control. Or did someone marry someone with some terrible mutation or genetic trait, infecting the whole lineage. Or perhaps both?

I suffer from Depression. For a very long time I believed that the major cause of depression could be found in how a child was raised. Every one of us knows that correlation does not equal causation; but we also all know that sometimes it does – actually, quite often it does… at least much more often than eating cookies causes cancer. If you look at the ‘weird’ people in our world, they often come from a long line of weird people. They act weird in school, therefore, it’s logical to assume that their parents acted weird at home. To solve this dilemma research psychologists often conduct twin studies – the only real limitation being the number of twins who fit their criteria. They may find two identical twins separated at birth; one went to a good home, with loving supportive parents. The other spent his life in foster care. Given that they are twins and share the same genetic material, nature is quite naturally controlled for; it’s the influence (or lack thereof) of nurture which holds the key. What we find are answers which are much more puzzling, and much less straightforward than we would like.. The child from the good home often doesn’t suffer from depression, while the child from foster care does – and much more too.

This presupposes a few things: 1) genetic material does not change over the lifetime, and b) nature does not play a role in nurture… and vice versa.

The field of epigenetics suggests that actions taken within a lifetime – particularly ones involved with survival (eating, drinking, gaining resources) – can change the genetic material of an individual such that what was once nurture, in following generations, becomes nature.

In regards to my own life, and in particular, to ‘the home’, this dynamic puzzles and confounds me. My parents are shitty people; if ever I felt more comfortable with reductions… But do I have to be a shitty person? Their parents were shitty people, and I’m sure as children they vowed never to treat their children in a similar fashion. But they did. Is it because they are devoid of will and self-control? If so, how did that happen? Were they raised in an environment mutually exclusive to good-will, or are they genetically programed to have no-will. But if ever there was an environment more likely to prevent good-will from growing, surely it must be one in which the capacity for good-will is genetically eliminated. Do you see the complexity?

These questions breed questions… which breed more questions. At the end of these discussions, or studies, or papers, I am often more confused than I was to begin with.

My parents really fucked up, but can I really blame them? Is their environment not already determined to be one in which overly zealous and hypocritically optimistic therapists can make distinctions between nature and nurture? See, I blame them for the history between us, and I live every day with the hope that they seize the raw power bursting back at us from the future. Although we are in many ways machine, and much more animal than we are ‘man’, and although I do believe concepts like free-will are much too dramatized to fit in the lives of any single person living in the real world, I do still believe that we each have certain moments of control over our destiny. That control isn’t with us every moment of every day. But which of us can honestly say there was a moment where we could have acted otherwise, a moment of great importance – either morally, financially, socially or even sexually? The real purpose to life is much more plural than our singular minds could ever possibly comprehend. Causality isn’t 1:1 – a fact I must remind myself of on a daily basis.

ex nihilo nihil fit

Are people like me destined to live lives of sadness, anxiety, cowardice and retreat? Are our children’s children going to look back on us with contempt? Can we do anything? These are the questions I am left with. Life is complicated and complex; to men like me, life seems very much as if it were the sine-qua-non of life itself.

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