Research shows that we can inherit anxiety and depression from our genes. If that is the case, then why even go to therapy? Why sit meditation retreats? Why hope for something different if it’s already written into the code of your being?
When my dad was very stressed, he used to clack his jaw and flick his nails against each other. My family became skilled at giving him space when he was all clicks and clacks and harrumphs, because his stressy energy sometimes escaped from inside him, and came out through his mouth, all pointy and painful for everyone.
He was supporting a family of eight on a writer’s income. While working from home. To be honest, I’m surprised he didn’t murder a few of us just to ease the pressure.
We never used the word “anxiety” in our house. It wasn’t ireally something people talked about much in the 80’s and 90’s. Instead, we said, “Dad has cracked the shits,” passing this warning along to each other until everyone had gotten the memo to give him space until he calmed down.
When he was especially high strung, we would say, “Dad has cracked the absolute shits.”
The only time he relaxed at that point was after a six-pack.
I learned the word “anxiety” only when I was about 28. I had gone to an osteopath for headaches and neck pain, and, as she touched the flesh beside my spine, she described the muscle as being like hard rope.
She held my head in her hands and investigated my body, telling me, “Your jaw is clenched so tightly. No wonder you have headaches.”
“Oh,” I said.
She said, “Can you relax it for me?”
I said, “Okay, sure.”
“She said, “Torre, could you relax your jaw for me?”
I said, “This is me relaxing.”
She asked me to let go of my shoulders, to lower them down from around my ears, and, though I tried with all my effort, I could only manage to ease it for three seconds before everything would harden back into its natural state of granite.
Even with concerted effort to relax, I couldn’t. My shoulders were back up at my ears, like springs, my jaw baring down as if trying to chew through raw meat.
She tilted her head and said, “I think you’re suffering from anxiety.”
I had no idea what that term meant. I had been that way for me for such a long time that I had no other point of reference to compare my experience to.
I went home to Google and suddenly my world made sense to me.
The constant sense of impending doom.
The muscle pain.
Anxiety had a hold on me, I realised.
In other words, I had cracked the absolute shits.
We humans are made up of approximately 35 trillion cells, which create the building blocks for our bodies, like Lego towers. Fleshy, weird Lego towers, built by a very strange child.
Each single cell contains the equivalent information of 1,500 encyclopaedia volumes. Our DNA is located inside our cells and is coiled tightly to compact down into a very small package.
But get this: If you were to stretch out a single DNA strand, it would be as tall as an average man. And given that each of us have 3 billion DNA inside of us, a single body’s worth of strands, stretched out length to length, would go all the way to Pluto and back!
Is that not INSANE?
And yet there is so much about the body that we don’t yet know. We’ve put a man on the moon and sent another to the bottom of the ocean, climbed every mountain and taken selfies on many-a-stick, but much of the workings of the body and brain are still a complete mystery.
A group of scientists have begun work on the “Human Cell Atlas” to try to map our inner geography, in order to better understand and treat disease. “A Google Maps for the Human Body,” an article in the Atlantic calls it.
I imagine that mine might look something like this:
I visited my dad’s sister recently.
She lives in California and raised four kids there, while her one and only brother left the States and moved to Australia in his early twenties with Mum, and raised my family. We lived our lives out on opposite sides of the Pacific.
I was hungry for stories about my dad in a way that only a child of a dead parent is. I wanted all the stories: the long ones, the tall ones, the short ones, the boring ones…
She told me about their childhood, about growing up under a mother who played perverse and disturbing tricks of the two of them, just to assert her control. She was batshit crazy, basically, but brilliant, too, having worked as a drafter for NASA. She was a classic case of intelligence gone awry. Creativity turned toxic.
My aunt pointed to her mother as the likely cause of Dad’s more unpleasant traits, confessing to her own anxiety and how it has shaped – and harmed – her life. With her shoulders raised up near her ears, she described her symptoms to me. They were identical to mine.
My aunt, too, had cracked the absolute shits.
8,000 miles of distance between us. Another country. Another culture. A completely different set of stories around cause and effect. And yet our cells were moving to exactly the same dance.
Some people who survived the Holocaust have been found to have low levels of cortisol – the chemical that helps our bodies return to normal after trauma. The intense terror of fearing for their lives in death camps caused victims to suffer long-term chemical defects.
Incredibly, it has been found that these chemical deficiencies can get passed down through generations, transmitting depression, anxiety, and a range of other symptoms to unsuspecting offspring.
You can be born into a perfect world and raised to perfection, and still become a person who habitually keeps her shoulders up around her ears. What we get from our parents is more than our genes. We can inherit their chemical tendencies, too.
If that is the case, then why even go to therapy? Why sit meditation retreats? Why hope for something different than what is already so?
My dad worked from an office bungalow in the back of our home. At about noon, he would come into the house to make himself a rushed lunch between writing gigs, only to find—
“WHY IS THERE NO GODDAMN BUTTER IN THE HOUSE?” he would yell, slamming cupboards.
When you live in a house of six kids, people eat stuff. That is why there is no goddamn butter, Dad. And butter comes from cows but butter also comes from the supermarket three kilometres away – and you have a car and we don’t.
We thought this.
But we said nothing.
We just waited, wide-eyed, for his tantrum to subside.
“GODDAMINT!” he would yell a few more times, for good measure. He would click and clack and harrumph as he threw bread and meat together in an angry pile, and then he’d carry his butterless sandwich back to his office, slamming the door behind him.
Once he was out of earshot, the warning would travel throughout the house from kid to kid:
The most difficult part of about seeing imperfections in your parents is the knowledge that you’re made up of the same building blocks, and so, when they’re having a bad day, it’s like confronting an awful photograph of yourself in which you have one eye closed, bad skin and your chin pulled back into a soft pillow of your neck folds.
“Ugh, is that really me? Is that what I look like?”
Was this the person I was destined to become? A Lego tower of teetering intolerance? A string of DNA as long as the entire solar system and as smart as an unimaginable number of books, but as impatient as an under-slept two year old?
28 years old and 35 trillion cells inside me and I had no idea if I could do anything to change them, but, still, I decided to try. I didn’t like keeping my shoulders up around my ears, didn’t like the headaches and the jaw pain.
I did research to understand my genetic inheritance from a scientific point of view.
I read more, asked questions, gathered information. The information looked bleak—
Generalised anxiety disorder is a condition you will probably have for life.
I took up therapy, mindfulness, Vipassana…
Treatment for anxiety may include being on medication for the duration of one’s life.
I travelled, adventured, climbed up mountains…
Anxiety linked with increased risk of death…
I pushed my body up hills on spiritual pilgrimages, braving deep dark woods and deep dark uncertainty in pursuit of deep dark truths.
And finally, a breakthrough. The rhythm of walking brought me into communion with my body and breath and my very own aliveness. Lulled into flow by the meditation of walking, I became a disembodied observer of who I am. I saw myself as if from overhead – a tiny spec moving through space, head poking up into the black universe above.
Floating in space in an animated state.
A round trip of the solar system, coiled up inside of me.
A complete fucking mystery carried around inside a hilarious flesh bag.
We may not have control over the makeup of the cells within us, but we can control how we perceive. This shift of perspective allowed me to see everything from a new angle. And from that new angle, things just didn’t feel as stressful anymore.
These days, while I still occasionally crack the tiny shits, I no longer crack the absolute shits. It’s been three years since I stopped carrying my shoulders at ear-level.
Life looks wonderfully different from this way up.
This was post #4 of The Illustrated Guide to Calming the F#@! Down.
Read post #1 here on How To Listen To Your Gut.
Read post # 2 here on How To Love Yourself.
Read post # 3 here on How To See Differently.
Torre DeRoche is the author of two travel memoirs, Love with a Chance of Drowning (2013) and The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World (due out September 2017). She has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian Travel, The Sydney Morning Herald, Emirates, and two Lonely Planet anthologies.