The Antecedents of Survival


Richard Gottlieb, MSW, SOB and MBF (My Best Friend), says that what interests him most is how I got the strength to survive all the crap I went through, said crap being twenty-six years of taking psychiatric drugs, which resulted in about fifty hospitalizations, a dozen suicide attempts, a dozen chronic illnesses, and life in a wheelchair with an indwelling catheter (dwelling in me, not the chair).  What gave me the strength to survive all that?

That’s a pretty good question to ask.  What are the antecedents of survival?  Is courage genetic?  (Is schizophrenia genetic?)  Is there a gene for strong-heartedness?  (Is there a gene for depression?)  This question isn’t about how I recovered; it’s about how I survived, like you might ask Senator John McCain how he survived the Vietnamese POW camp.

The answer is that I come from a long line of strong women who lived close to God and the land:  Anne Woodlen, born of Elizabeth Copeland, born of Mary Hope, and so on back to Hannah Hope and beyond.  “Beyond” was an unnamed Hope woman who saw her husband off on a ship to the New World sometime before 1672.  They were Quakers and she and the children stayed in England.  She had no certainty that she would ever see her husband John again.  What kind of woman has the strength to do that?  To give up her husband and to support her children in the 1670’s?  Maybe a woman of strong faith.

A few years later, she and her children also took ship and went to the new country, where they rejoined John Hope, lived in a two-room log cabin and farmed the land.  A couple generations down the line, we come to Hannah Hope, who also had a husband and children, and lived in the same two-room cabin, except that by now more rooms had been added and it had become a farmhouse.

Hannah stood on her front porch with her youngest children, watching while her husband and oldest sons went off to war.  The British were coming—in fact, they were twenty miles away.  (Imagine that it was World War II and the Germans were in the suburbs of your city.)  She and her husband had renounced one of the basic tenets of their church—“Thou shalt not kill”—and they would now bear the consequences:  they would be expelled from their church.

Hannah’s husband died fighting.  She was left alone to raise the children and continue farming with the boys who did come back after the Revolutionary War.  What gave her the strength?  Was it keeping close to the land?  The generations passed.  The Hope women knew that if their husbands did not plant and harvest then they would starve, and the Hope men knew that if their wives did not preserve and cook then they would starve.  Marriage was a mutually dependent relationship; they understood it and respected each other as equal but different.

By the late 1800’s it was Mary who was living on the farm with her parents, Sidney and Clarence Hope.  The farm had been deeded to John Hope by William Penn and, two hundred years later, the Hope family still lived on it.  They were as unchanging as the land, and deeply grounded in it.  Sons and daughters were all children, and children were equally expected to work.  It was a farm and the cows had to be milked every morning before school. 

After completing local school, Mary—my grandmother—went away to school.  Whether she went to finishing school or college is unclear, but after one year she refused to go back, saying that she wasn’t allowed to whistle there, and Mary would whistle!  She stayed home and got married, saying that her wedding day was the happiest day of her life because she knew she’d never have to milk another cow. 

On the farm, you do what needs to be done whether you like it or not.  It is not about self-actualization; it is about cows moo-ing with urgency.  Mary’s husband, Richard, had been raised on a farm but was working in labor relations at the steel mill.  They built a house just down the road from the farm.  Every spring Clarence Hope would hitch the plow to the mules, walk them down the road, and plow Dick and Mary’s land for the garden—the garden where Dick would plant and harvest, and from which Mary would can and preserve.

The Hopes were decent, God-fearing Presbyterians by now, and when baby Elizabeth was born, she was properly baptized.  Betty lived within walking distance of all thirteen of her cousins until she got married at the age of twenty-two:  family was everything.  The farm had been divided in two, the Upper Farm and the Lower Farm, which was the original farm.  Betty spent her entire life insisting that she did not grow up on the farm, not understanding that one mile down the road hardly qualified as separation from the land.

The Upper Farm had been out of the family for a few decades but had come back in.  On the Sunday nearest to the Fourth of July the Hope family would gather on the farm for reunion.  Decades later, locked in the state psychiatric center and being served meals on paper plates, I would remember the paper plates at these reunions.  Great-grandfather Hope’s Will stipulated that the farm was to be sold at public auction:  Dick and Mary bought it.

In middle-age, they went back to the land.  Mary, menopausal and frightened, asked Dick if they had done the right thing by buying the farm.  He replied, “We won’t know for twenty-five years—if then.”  Betty was already married and away, starting her own family with her husband Milton, a teacher.  In 1946, I was born.

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About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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3 Responses to The Antecedents of Survival

  1. Derry Hunter says:

    I totally agree! Good luck with everything and am ever hopeful for a bright future for us all.

  2. Derry Hunter says:

    I dont believe bipolar is genetic. Have you read the work of Richard Bentall acclaimed British research psychologist? ‘Madness Explained’ and most importantly ‘Doctoring the Mind’. Also ‘Trauma and Psychosis’. I believed for last 22 years I had ‘inherited’ the bipolar gene. My father had a bipolar psychotic episode at late age of 48 after an extreme trauma. I had my first episode aged 31 after super extreme trauma. Not one person or psychiatrist has asked me what caused my first episode. I was never offered a psychologist. I believe I merely inherited my father’s sensitivity and intelligence – no more. I believe that once mind has been exposed to extreme trauma then there will always be a susceptibility to further psychosis if triggered again. Bit like if you have broken your leg then it will heal but never be as strong. If you believe in genetic model then you believe in inevitability and chronicity. Whereas if you look at the Stress Vulnerability Model you can see that if you sort out coping with triggers then Recovery is possible. Its all been a revelation to me too and am now undertaking good psychotherapy to sort out my past trauma and move on properly. Psychiatric drugs are dangerous, addictive, brain-destroying and cause more problems when used long term than sort out.

    • annecwoodlen says:

      You are absolutely right.
      I used to believe that bipolar disorder was genetic–until I recovered from it. Psych meds can push you into bipolar disorder, but as Dr. Peter Breggin has said, “Have you ever looked at a crowd leaving a football game? The winners are manic and the losers are depressed.” Both extreme happiness and extreme despair are moods that are reactive to our life experiences, not to our biology.

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