I wasn’t sure if my grandma, Marie, would be open to talking about her struggles with mental health with me. It’s a touchy subject for many people and I assumed that, coming from a different generation, she might not want to discuss it. I should have known better. I’m extremely lucky to come from a family where we talk about a lot of subjects openly (just this Christmas we talked way more than we needed to about the effect eating pineapple has on your sex life and Grandma didn’t even bat an eye). I’m really close to my grandparents, but after my grandma was so open and honest with me I felt like in under 40 minutes I understood her way more than I ever did. As I’ve reread my notes and written multiple drafts of her story, I find myself jotting down so many questions I need to ask her about her life. How can I not know so much about this woman I love deeply and consider to be such an integral part of my upbringing?
Marie remembers her anxiety and OCD starting around 12 years old after two major events in her life. First she was hospitalized and wasn’t able to see her family very much during that time. She recalls being lucky if she saw her mom once a week because it took three hours to travel from her home to the hospital. Second, Marie moved from a small, village school into a larger high school – a huge culture shock for anybody. Anxiety and OCD seemed to go hand-in-hand as her worries increased and she started to “check” things from the lights, to the taps, to the stove.
In 1955, Marie’s mom was surprisingly progressive in her thinking. She knew my grandmother’s behaviours weren’t really her and wanted to bring her to a doctor. Even then, her mother wanted her to see the younger doctor because she felt that the older doctor wouldn’t be as understanding. Over 50 years later we still hope that the newest generation acts with more empathy, compassion, and openness than the ones that came before it.
Not long after, in 1956, her mom passed away followed by her older brother’s death six months later. As someone that was already dealing with mental health issues, a lot of trauma in such a short amount of time negatively impacted her well-being. Marie reflected, “I had this feeling I caused bad things to happen. I felt like it was because of me these things happened. It was like I as a jinx.”
She also has a vivid memory after her mom’s death of being told by her older brother, “Don’t let them see you cry.” So she didn’t,
“And up until recently I didn’t cry very much. It was a bad thing if you cried.”
Unfortunately, just because they were able to recognize something was wrong with my grandma’s mental health, there weren’t really any steps to take to fix the problem. Marie knows that there must have been mental health professionals in the 1950s but if we think treatment is unaffordable now, it really wasn’t affordable then. She muses, “You probably had to have money.”
She continued to try to cope with her mental health the best that she could. When Marie talks about anxiety she says, “The more I worried about something, the more it wouldn’t happen. If I didn’t worry, something bad would happen.” She also recalls the OCD behaviours she experienced. She didn’t necessarily feel like they were a way to control the world around her, but she does say that her constant checking of things, sometimes while having to count to 10 in the process, felt like her way of making sure her family would stay safe.
Now that Marie is able to control some of these tendencies better she’s able to laugh at some of the ways in which her “checking” turned into mishaps. Like most people, my grandma often checked to make sure the door was locked. However, unlike most people, when she moved into a new home and was checking the door on the first night, she tugged on it so forcefully she pulled it right off of its hinges. For the record, Marie is tiny – less than five feet tall.
Unsurprising to me, and probably most people that know my grandma, the thing that helps her anxiety more than anything stems from her love of dogs. Her last dog, Hamish, helped her get out of the house. Over time she was taking him on walks further and further away from home, and she fondly remembers him as being like a therapy dog. Coincidently, as she talked about her love of dogs, my sister’s dog, Bentley, was snuggled up against her and as if on cue, demanded her attention (which she happily took a few moments to give him). Conversely, when she talked about therapy not being as helpful as she would have liked she offered interesting insight. Marie talks about being anxious about talking to someone and she doesn’t think she talked about the way she was feeling as much as she should have – but for someone who was told not to let people see her cry after her mother’s death at age 13, it feels like that should be expected.
We talked about what the worst part of dealing with mental illness. For Marie, she felt like her mental health restricted her from doing a lot of things she would have liked to do. I asked her what she felt had changed in the mental health sphere since she started to struggle in the 1950s. For Marie, she felt like the biggest changes are that, as a whole, we seem to be more understanding and more people are getting help for their mental health. However, we still have a lot to improve. She talks about the need for more mental health professionals, needing to decrease the wait-times to receive care, and making care more affordable.
One of my favourite things she said during our talk was, “I think you have to have an awful lot of courage in mental illness and it’s difficult to have that courage,” but I see that courage in her. Her resilience and perseverance is an inspiration to me, and I’m so proud to be her granddaughter. And, I hope she’s inspired you, too.