“Both of your parents are psychologists? But you seem so normal.”
Growing up, this was the response I received time and time again whenever I mentioned my parents’ profession. People expected me to be a social misfit, too in touch with my emotions or involved in some long-running psych experiment. Only after assuring them of my sanity would they then venture to ask a follow-up question: “Did your parents ever shrink you?”
They pictured me coming home from a long day at school, laying down on my living-room couch while my mother peered over her yellow pad of notebook paper to ask, “Now, how does that make you feel?” They expected my parents to have analyzed my every move, thought and emotion. They imagined me to be my parents’ own personal lab rat for testing their new methods of entering into the human psyche.
I am sorry to disappoint, but I did not run through mazes or undergo some weird New Age therapy. My parents did their best to leave their psychologist glasses in the consulting room and to allow my older sister and me to have normal childhoods. But some parts of their work — the tales of no-named patients — did follow them home. Sitting around the dinner table, we didn’t discuss what team we thought would make it to the Super Bowl or what my sister and I learned in school that day. Instead, dinner time meant story time. It meant learning of anxiety and depression and the different ways they could manifest themselves. It meant uncovering the intricacies of mental illness.
“They imagined me to be my parents’ own personal lab rat for testing their new methods of entering into the human psyche.”
Don’t get me wrong, we never sat around the dinner table gossiping about the people my parents treated. My parents were scrupulous about patient confidentiality. They always kept patient names anonymous and their stories ambiguous, only sharing the generalities of what they had learned. But, they also saw the power in storytelling, in sharing the universalities of the human condition that they encountered.
These stories were meant to be didactic — to broaden my understanding of human emotion — but for an elementary school girl with no true understanding of human emotion, they had a different effect. To me, they were not narratives of real individuals, but they were tales of storybook characters, who lived in a world separate from my own. After all, with such dynamic emotions and problems more pressing than when their math homework was due, these stories couldn’t be real. They had to be works of fiction, or so I thought.
However, upon coming to Berkeley, my perspective changed — I entered into the world of the fictional. I began to experience severe anxiety and panic attacks, but as I looked around at my peers, I seemed to be the only person in pain. I was in a world separate from them, and I began to see myself as mentally ill — as the stereotype people had expected of me all along.
But then one day, I thought back to our dinnertime conversations. Among the stories told were tales of college students: a freshman who feels paralyzed by social anxiety at parties, so she drinks excessively to numb the pain; a sophomore who has such intense anxiety about speaking in class that she misses every lecture because she spends the time mentally rehearsing what she wants to say; and a junior who feels alienated from his friends but is hesitant to reach out to other friend groups.
“(Storytelling) humanizes us and connects us to people around us.”
These stories became sources of comfort for me, helping me to see that I was not alone in what I was feeling. I’m not crazy or insane, but like my parents’ patients, I am human and have the same kinds of problems as everyone else. I can now see the power in such storytelling. It humanizes us and connects us to people around us. It breaks down the stereotypes surrounding mental illness.
Stress, anxiety, depression: these are all emotions that every human being feels. When my parents tell me that they have shared my own stories with one of their patients, I don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed. I like it. I like knowing that my story can too become a source comfort for some other fictional character.
So maybe I am not the stereotypical “screwed-up child” of a psychologist. Maybe I have just come to realize that we all have our problems and sharing our stories simply eases them. After all, we’re all a little screwed-up — just ask my therapist.
Contact Arianna Moss at [email protected].