Go outside and look around at all the trees and bushes you see. I guarantee that you will see some broken branches, some twigs that have snapped off and even some limbs that look like they might fall with the next storm or strong gust of wind…
The same is true for our family trees- they just might not be as obvious to spot, nor as easy to talk about. The broken branches in our trees come in all forms, much like those you see on physical trees. For me and my tree these broken branches are found in the form of mental illness.
Understand that by no means am I saying that the people in my family tree, who have dealt or are dealing with mental illness are broken. As you read further, you will see that they are, in fact, some of the strongest parts of my tree- the roots, even, metaphorically speaking.
I have to admit that this will be one of, if not the hardest thing I have ever written, because it is personal and it is extremely close to home and yet, I have to get it out. I am not the only one with broken branches…
You’ll remember I started my journey into genealogy as a way to occupy my mind, as I was (and continue) healing from a head injury. You may also recall that what sucked me into family history, for real, was Horace- who was struck by a train, while walking to visit his daughter in the hospital… Horace happens to also be the first (of what will be many) broken branches in my tree.
I was having a relatively good brain day and my Nana had come to visit. I was excited to show her all the work I had accomplished on our family tree and I had questions, too. My main question was about Horace. I wanted to know who he was visiting in the hospital. I wanted to know what kind of man he was (especially since the newspaper had called him ‘beloved colored man’ and she was the one to ask, because Horace was her grandfather).
“I don’t know” was the response I got as we sat on the couch together. I didn’t understand how she would not know what kind of man her grandfather was. Sure, he died two years before she was born, but my children know about their grandfather, my dad, who went into the light when I was still a mere child and we all know about my great aunt and uncles, Nana’s sister and brother, who went on the great migration years (maybe ions) ago… So, why would she not know about her own grandfather. It didn’t make any sense to me and so I began probing further. Sometimes, having had a head injury works to my advantage, because I am practically given carte blanche when it comes to being blunt and no one ever considers it rude, so on that day I pushed the envelope. “Nana. you always tell us about how much family is important and that we need to always know where we come from and you don’t even know where you came from. You have to know something. Otherwise, you are just being a hypocrite.” I didn’t see it then, but as I am remembering that day, I can clearly see the hurt that stung my Nana’s eyes- or maybe, that is just the way my brain is choosing to remember things and interjecting how I would have felt onto her. I’m honestly not sure…
“My mother never really knew her father. He went away when she was a young girl.” My Nana explained to me, with so much patience and love and I still didn’t understand. I remember asking her what she meant by that and that what she said next astonished me, but most of all I remember the shut down that happened almost immediately after the next words out of her mouth… “He was sick. Mentally. And when my mom was young he was in the state hospital.” Because even I could see that there would be no more discussing this, I let it go- but not before dashing to my room to write myself a quick note to quietly look into this further.
After doing some research into the matter, I came to understand that dear Horace was in the state hospital very shortly after the Civil War. I have also done enough digging to have enough information to reasonably believe that Horace’s parents were enslaved and that Horace, himself, was either bought as a slave by a BLACK woman named Sally (possibly his own aunt) and continued to be labeled ‘slave’ or was made free after Sally purchased him. At any rate, it is Sally who raised him. It is with Sally that he is listed on the Census until 1870, when he begins to be listed with his parents. That is a lot. Especially for a child. So, in my own mind, I concluded that Horace had every reason to be in a mental institution. I never questioned what happened to lead him there. I decided I would not look further into it.
This worked well, until I began discovering other broken branches. All in my grandmother’s line. They were everywhere. Distant cousins, close cousins (here I begin to use the term ‘cousins’ in a very loose fashion, as not to disclose the actual relationship between myself and any living relative, who suffers and struggles with mental illness currently). These broken branches were found so frequently- it was mind boggling. And it became obvious that mental illness can be inherited and passed down the line. I think the old people refer to this as generational curses and they couldn’t be more spot on.
I started to take a more in depth look at all this brokenness. It became easier to spot the possible moment of when the break occurred in the midst of all the documents, stories and information I had gathered. It was murky waters for sure. It was painful, because it made me look at my own life in a not so positive manner. It was depressing and it hurt. My head injury stems from one of these broken branches- a real life snapping point for this cousin and I just happened to be underneath of the falling pieces. I have never blamed this cousin for this breaking. I will never blame this cousin for the breaking. Sure, I’d had anger, but isn’t that to be expected? But, here I was getting angry all over again and this time, I wasn’t angry at the cousin. I was angry with the tree itself.
Having broken branches has become such a stigma, a great thing to be kept hidden and secret, that I wasn’t prepared for the falling pieces. And, I’m not just talking about this cousin. I had to look at my own life… My dad died when I was 12 and my behaviors and actions that followed were horrendous. I spiraled into a deep depression and hatred of self. I was locked in a mental hospital for two weeks. I had no idea why I was doing the things I had done or said. Some doctors said I was grieving and we all grieve differently, while others were quick to label me as bi polar and others still repeatedly said I was a bad apple. But, what if my family had shared the stories and the histories of all these broken branches? As I grew into young adulthood, I fell in love and got married, but I was so ashamed of my thoughts, I didn’t know how to talk to him or trust his love. At times, I couldn’t bring myself to even crawl out of bed and so there I stayed. The way my home looked at times was an embarrassment and I’m sure a thread of the discord we faced. Eventually, we divorced and went our separate ways, but after discovering all of the broken branches, I wonder if things might have been different- if I’d only known what I was up against, instead of allowing me to think I was an isolated incident, wrapped tightly into this bubble of space and shoved to the back of the closet.
I remembered another cousin who seemingly snapped and meta morphed into a completely different person and tried to beat her child and infant grandchild into nonexistence and then days later, when the child and grandchild were placed into a domestic safe house, she believed and acted as if she had done nothing wrong. Would that outcome have been different? Would there have been such a strain on the family relationship, if we had all known about the broken branches?
Even more recent than that, I have had to watch one cousin struggle with their broken branch, which resulted in a baby being born and taken. I have had to watch the fight against governmental powers that be to bring this baby home and out of a system designed for children who are abused, neglected or all around unwanted and all because not one person ever spoke up and said beware of the broken branches.
And that’s the point of this diatribe, isn’t it? No one ever spoke up. No one ever bothered to connect the dots that were sitting there, numbered and everything, for all to see- if they had just bothered to look. Everyone was so quick to clean up the mess, that they forgot to post the highway sign, ‘Beware of Falling Branches’. If they had, at least we would have been looking up. Not so much ready to point a finger at the slightest change in wind, but ever ready to jump in and say, “you are not alone.” Those four words can make huge change and have tremendous impact. Yet, no one (not in my tree or yours) attempts to calm the storm before it has a chance to cause the broken branches. This alone, is why I believe those broken branches are some of the strongest in our trees, because they whether it without any help or comfort from others.
BUT. I am breaking the cycle. I am pulling back the shade. And I say to those broken branches, “you are not alone. We will get past this. You can talk to me and most importantly, you can count on me.”