Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Mental Health, Addiction, and Genealogy

When it comes to family history, everyone has their motivations to either explore more or to hold back in hesitation. While our motivations may be different for why we want to explore our family history, it's also important to note the reasons many are hesitant to go down that path.

For much of Western European history, genealogy has been an exercise in documenting one's connections to people of high social standing, to nobility, to royalty. With this history, we can forget that it's okay to see imperfections in our ancestors. Even in the New Testament, there are two descriptions of Jesus' genealogy - and they show that His genealogy includes both Jews and Gentiles, both honorable and scandalous.

Just as there have been scores of reasons people have wanted to name their ancestors in the past, there are also reasons many have no interest in doing so. As the joyful genealogist goes on discovering their roots, it can be easy to forget that these discoveries might not always be happy ones for many others. For them, it's hard to see the appeal of looking backwards when their past brings them pain. What if we don't come from the most upstanding of families to begin with? What if our childhood saw abuse, mental illness, and addiction?

In this post, I'd like to explore the challenges faced by genealogists who discover evidence of mental illness and addictions. I'll also address the struggle faced by those who have grown up with these challenges and how they too might experience healing through family history. Finally, I'll give suggestions to the wider genealogy community about how we can be a more inclusive and welcoming community in relation to these issues.

Don't look the other way

Let me start on a positive note. In a community that has tended toward focusing on people of status and success, there has been a growing movement toward lifting up the laborer, the enslaved, and our female ancestors. In our push to join lineage societies, we might go the easy route of finding well-known ancestors. With wealth and prestige came documents - and we need documents for evidence. But in following the successful, we also look the other way when we see the names of the enslaved, the names of our female ancestors, and the working poor.

So my first suggestion is that we don't look the other way when we discover something or someone we might not want to find, or when it's not what or who we're looking for.

The nature of genealogy, at the very essence of family history research, is that we document what we find - we look backward so that we can understand our present and move forward into the future. We look to our ancestors so that we can have compassion for our families and for ourselves today, and hopefully leave the foundations for a better tomorrow. We need to be in the habit of fully seeing our ancestors - in all their complexity - for who they were, not who we wish they had been.

If we're honestly looking at our ancestors - not to condemn nor to exonerate - we will be better prepared to see their complexity for what it was. Their story.

Recognize what we find

Once we're prepared to find anything and are open to finding anyone in our family history, we will suddenly be attentive to evidence of mental illness, addiction, and other complexities in our families. If we are adamant that grandpa could never have stepped out of his marriage, we will refuse to believe what DNA evidence presents. If we look down on addicts, we will not want to see evidence that they make up the branches of our family tree.

Death certificates are often our source for understanding how addiction or other struggles impacted our ancestors' lives. We can find there that someone died by suicide. We might find that someone else died in a mental health facility. In some older death certificates, we can see the cause of death being sexually transmitted diseases that in our day are no longer death sentences. And more common, we may see liver disease or lung cancer - evidence of drug and alcohol abuse.

When we see these details, we need to be willing to recognize what we find. We don't need to be judge and tribunal. We just need to recognize how these details in our family members' lives affected their families and how those very struggles trickle down into our families today.

As we see how our ancestors weaknesses and illnesses may have affected their families, we will then have greater compassion for those whose families struggle today.

Be more sensitive to others

Our family history research ought to lead us to being more compassionate, understanding members of society. If it's making us more judgmental and divisive, we're doing it wrong.

If we aren't looking away from what we find, and if we're recognizing what we find for what it is, then we also need to be more sensitive to those experiencing these issues today. Let me give some examples.

First off, there are scores of people who have no interest in researching their ancestry. They may have experienced abuse in their homes that has warped their understanding of family or has at the very least colored their ability to look without pain at the names of those family members. So we need to address that looking back isn't always good for everyone. That means that not everyone you may want to interview is going to want to dig into their memories for you. Their past isn't yours to demand access to.

There can also be a lot of fear about becoming our family, of being like our abusive or mentally ill ancestors. We may be scared to look back or to look at ourselves in fear of seeing them in us now. A great example of this is the song "DNA" by Lia Marie Johnson. In this song she talks about her father and how she sees the past repeating itself:

I won’t be, no I won’t be like you 
Fighting back, I’m fighting back the truth 
Eyes like yours can’t look away 
But you can’t stop DNA.

All the pieces of you and the pieces of me 
I’m just so scared you’re who I’ll be, 
when I erupt just like you do, 
they look at me like I look at you.

In our genealogical research, we may want to find similarities between ourselves and our ancestors. But for many others, it's these very similarities that can cause fear and anxiety.

Secondly, be sensitive to yourself and your past. If you have experienced trauma yourself, it's important to seek professional help for working through and processing these experiences. Genealogy isn't a self-help tool. But many have found healing in being able to recognize that our families - not unlike ourselves - are complicated: neither all bad nor all good. It can be a healing process, but it isn't going to be a healing process for everyone.

And that leads me to my one final call to genealogists when it comes to the issue of mental health and sensitivity.

Stop calling genealogy an addiction

Please, stop calling your interest in genealogy an addiction. Stop calling yourself a geneaholic or a genealogy addict. Just stop it. And here's why.

Unless you truly believe that you're powerless over a habit which controls your ability to be with and relate to others, you're not a genealogy addict. Unless your life has become unmanageable, you're not an addict. And using these words degrades those whose families have been torn apart by the pain and wreckage that comes through addiction.

Substance abuse and behavioral addiction are complex issues. Is it possible that some in our genealogy community may suffer various levels of behavioral addiction in relation to research? Sure. It's possible. But I doubt they are the ones using this language. And I see it all the time. In blogs, Facebook posts and Tweets, genealogists are regularly using the language of addiction to describe their love of family history research. And this serves only to desensitize our community to the real struggles of others and the lived experience of our own families.

We can do better, y'all. So please respect the experience of those who have battled addiction, those who have been affected by family members with addiction, and those who are addicts today.


Our genealogy community is experiencing a surge of interest in light of a rise in record digitization and easy access to DNA testing. But as we have more and more new genealogists from various backgrounds, and as we dig deeper into the varied stories of our ancestors, we need to remember several things. 

We need to stop looking away from what we may find as unsavory. We need to recognize what we find, and be sensitive to the needs of our wider community. And finally, it's time we all stop calling genealogy our addiction.

How has your genealogical research made you more sensitive to the needs of others? How have you been able to relate to others better because of genealogy?

This post was inspired by the week 20 prompt "Nature" of the year-long series that I'm participating in with Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!

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