When we’re writing our family’s history, we tend to skip over the family health stories.
With the exceptions of gory accidents or war injuries, health—or lack of it—gets a subtle billing. It often only rates a simple note of what the attending physician scrawled on a death certificate.
I get it. War stories, including injuries, inspire the imagination. Plus, they possess a certain valor. We’re far removed from a society in which all able-bodied men were expected to serve. And, train-wreck stories rivet us. We’re wired that way. Maybe it’s so we have that “I’m so glad it didn’t happen to me” feeling.
Perhaps storytellers skip over the tales of the “sickly” because they’re harder to research. In past generations, diagnoses were vague. In addition, the story-arc itself is harder to come by. Often, there’s no overcoming of the after-effects of a known illness. People muddled through the best they could.
Hopefully, it’s not because we’re passing judgement on our ancestors and/or our readers, thinking they only want to read of heroes, not of the weak. I hope we’ve come a long way from things like “Cupid does not like sickly girls. His arrows pass them by,” as an 1880s ad for Bradfield’s Female Regulator taunted. (Source: Morrison County (MN) Historical Society)
Family Health Stories Matter
Today’s research tells us that family health stories matter. Often they provide what researchers call an “oscillating” family narrative. In The Stories that Bind Us, Bruce Feiler explains that such stories of repeated successes and setbacks, help children develop confidence and resilience.
When we widen the lens and look at an individual’s illness as family health stories, that oscillating pattern amplifies. Individuals fall ill. Families care for them and cope. They cling together and support each other. Even when they don’t end happily-ever-after, family health stories tell tales of resilience taught by lovingly wiping brows, praying by bedsides, and laughing through tears.
Hiding Family Health Stories Can Do Harm
Often, more harm than good.
Naturally, families hesitate to leave a legacy of emotional anguish. However, by ignoring events and symptoms, they also failing to pass on important information. Many mental illnesses, for instance, are highly inheritable.
A close friend and her husband fell victim to such a hidden family health story. They missed an untold number of red-flags in their son’s behavior, because they didn’t know to look for them. Eventually, as a young twenty-something their son went missing, texting friends that drug dealers were trying to kill him. Alarmed, when they found him, they took him for treatment.
They were shocked to hear their son had no illegal substances in his system. His diagnosis? Paranoid schizophrenia, a highly genetic disease. Over the following months and years, relatives confessed that similar mental health problems ran in the family.
In the intervening fifteen years, they’ve learned that the alcoholism he developed during his late teens and the delay of treatment worsened his prognosis. The mental-health skeletons locked in the family closet inflicted real harm.
Only you can decide which of family health stories you want to tell and publicize. Whatever you decide, it’s worth serious consideration. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.
Stay tuned for How TapGenes Helps Families Compile their Health History