How do I avoid turning into my mom?
June 30, 2011 12:53 PM   Subscribe

After seeing my mother suffer from myriad health problems due to her depression and obesity, I am freaking out that my destiny is written in my genes. Please help figure out how to change the things I can and accept the things I cannot. I also welcome stories/advice from children of unhealthy people who learned from their parents' mistakes.

My mom is a wonderful person, and I love her very much. I worry, however, about her declining physical and emotional health. Her second marriage is complicated, she hates her job, her kids have left the nest, and she clearly battles depression. She is on prozac and other medications, but she doesn't see a therapist nor do I think she actually thinks of herself as Depressed.

I will shortly ask a question soon about how to help her get healthy, but for now I need to separate my concern for Mom from my agitation that this debilitation might happen to me.

Mom visited me in the large city where I live, and it was nearly impossible for us to get around due to her health issues. She is obese, and for a small-framed woman, these extra 100 pounds put enormous stress on her knees and back. It makes walking up and down stairs very painful. She sweats constantly and can only be active for brief stretches at a time. She has struggled with her weight since her 40s (she's 60 now) and went on lots of fad diets, which worked only briefly. She takes a nap every day and drinks at least 2 glasses of chardonnay a night, though often she finishes off an entire bottle. Her diet consists mainly of wine, starches and processed products, with very few whole foods.

I try to remind myself that my life is very different from my mother's. I live in a city where people walk everywhere. I bike instead of drive, avoid most carbohydrates/starchy foods, keep active, and seek relationships that bring me happiness. But seeing her sweat and suffer while doing basic activities has me terrified that I'll need to be enormously disciplined in order to avoid her fate. I've already lost close to 30lbs after a huge diet and lifestyle change about 2 years ago, and I'm now at a very healthy weight. Then again, I'm also still fairly young at 30 years old. I worry that the older I get, the easier it'll be to gain weight, get depressed about my health issues, rinse and repeat.

My mother used to be beautiful, healthy and active. I worry that any comfort I may take in my current fitness and happiness is illusory and fleeting, that I'm judging her for something that will inevitably take hold of me and not let go.

If anyone who's been in my position, what steps did you take to make sure that you didn't repeat your parents' lifestyle choices? Can city living, knowledge of good nutrition and a general awareness of one's own genetics be effective preventatives?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I have no actual empirical data or proof of this, but I have a theory that the more you fret and worry about the inevitability of becoming like your parents, like there is some tide you have to swim against and be hyper-vigilant of, the more you actually make it so. I don't know why this might be, but I find when I panic about "OMG I AM JUST LIKE PARENT X IN THIS WAY - it is probably inevitable that you will be just like them by tomorrow morning, fight it, fight it! Do not be like parent X!" that's when I find myself embodying the behaviors I am afraid I haven't got control over, if that makes any sense.

You have a handle on your life. You know how you don't want to be, but I would not focus on that, and instead focus on what you want to be, and what you want to maintain. You feel good about your diet, you feel good about your lifestyle, so just keep it up. When you start to think you might get knocked off of your path by genetics, just remember, that is a fear and not reality, and you are fully in command of yourself and your life.

I also think that now that you are 30, you also start to just find yourself with similar physical traits as your parent, so it's only logical that you'd be concerned that you're mentally the same as well. You are cut from the same cloth, no question, but your experiences, your rearing, and your worlds are completely different. You're on a path. You won't be knocked off if you keep your focus in the right place. Go toward the light of the life you want to have. There is no genetic mothership that is going to pick you up and suddenly drop you on a totally different path. I'm pretty sure, at least.
posted by pazazygeek at 1:03 PM on June 30, 2011

Your destiny is not written in your genes. My father was an alcoholic and I'm not. It may be that he didn't pass down the genetic propensity, or it may be that I have taken steps in my life to prevent that from happening to me, or it may be both. Regardless, I made - and you are making - educated decisions now, as an adult, to make health a priority. Seeing your mother's example will probably be a strong motivator to continue with those priorities as you age, not the other way around. Your deck isn't any more stacked than any of the rest of us.
posted by something something at 1:24 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe this question and your upcoming question are actually one and the same: if you help her to improve those aspects of her life that need improving, will it help you to realize that the negatives are not immutable characeristics of her OR of you?
posted by Pomo at 1:31 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your destiny is not written in your genes.

Eh, not so much. Different diseases have different relationships to your genetic heritage. Get your genome tested via a company like 23 and Me, and see what diseases/conditions your genes make you susceptible to, then adopt lifestyle changes (such as your aforementioned diet) that can stave off some of these genetic tendencies.

It sounds like you're well on the way to doing this already, but, really, if you want to understand what diseases you are susceptible to, understanding your genes is a good start.
posted by dfriedman at 1:33 PM on June 30, 2011

what steps did you take to make sure that you didn't repeat your parents' lifestyle choices? Can city living, knowledge of good nutrition and a general awareness of one's own genetics be effective preventatives?


But .. at least the last two are things that can be considered when evaluating what actions to take to prevent the issues you're worried about.

Use it or lose it and make sure you have it.

Eat right, exercise, get a physical each year.

Genes are predispositions but you are not completely out of control for things that are highly dependent on lifestyle. It's different to say "my family has a tendency to gain weight as we age" and to say "I carry the genes responsible for early onset dementia." Not a lot you can do about the latter class of problems.

It is true that as you get older you will have a harder and harder time maintaining your weight and physique unless you take it seriously.

True story: I quietly found myself gaining weight all through my thirties. Both of my parents are very obese, mother has trouble walking. My sibling is very obese. All of my cousins are quite obese. All of my uncles and aunts are very obese. Type 2 diabetes and PCOS are scattered throughout, though as a whole the family is quite long lived and without major issues (many 90+, no heart attacks, etc.).

Over the same period, I educated myself on t2 diabetes and how fat storage seems to work in general and decided to fix the problem before I got too old to do it. I lost a bunch of weight (with ease, actually, by mostly eliminating carbs and eating real food) and started lifting weights and running. Nothing complex. No magic.

That said, it's weird to list "city living." It's not like it is some magic potion. It doesn't mean anything except maybe worse outcomes for lung health, possibly slightly worse outcomes for mental health, and slightly better outcomes for diabetes (t2), arthritis and obesity.
posted by rr at 1:34 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some things to remember:
Your mother's heath problems are not caused entirely by her genes.
Your genes are very significantly different from your mother's.
Even if your genes were identical to your mother's, you would not necessarily have the same health problems. Even "identical" twins who share the same environment do not always develop the same diseases.
The older you get, the more well established your good habits will be.
posted by Corvid at 1:46 PM on June 30, 2011

For what it's worth, I am EXACTLY where you are with concerns about my own mother. In my case, the most important part to realize is that, while you may have your mother's genes, you are not living your mother's life. You are living in a different era, a different area, a different career, and making different choices. I saw over and over again, growing up and as an adult child, how my mother would choose to not take care of herself--ignoring her health, depression, etc--in some misguided belief that she was being selfless, caring. I wish every day she would have been more selfish so I could enjoy a healthy relationship with her now.

I choose to eat good foods. I choose to exercise and enjoy the use of my body. I choose to tend to my emotional needs in order to feel fulfilled with my life. That's not always cheap or easy or a popular choice. For me, it comes down to deciding to choose a different life. I keep that goal in mind with every life decision, and I make sure my husband will call me out if I stop.

So most importantly, choose to take care of yourself.
posted by ninjakins at 1:53 PM on June 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

Both my mother and my father are very overweight. Both are suffering from health problems that would be helped significantly if they lost 100 lbs, some of those problems would disappear completely.

I do my best to just learn from their example. When I see the choices they've made that led them down the path to obesity I do my very best to make the opposite choice when it comes to my turn. I watch my portions and try to make the healthy choice when I'm choosing a meal. I try to move and be active. I try to take care of myself and deal with medical issues when they first come up instead of letting things fester and get worse.

My relatives of my parent's generation are almost all overweight. The ones who are always told me they were rail thin like me until they had kids and/or turned 30. My cousins who stayed active after having kids and who live healthy lives are still trim and fit. My oldest cousin is the mother of 5, over 30, and a triathlete! The ones who laze around and eat whatever they want are younger versions of their parents. I know first hand that having kids and growing older messes with your metabolism and changes your body. I just don't think that is an excuse to give up.

I believe genes have some influence but that lifestyle is more important.
posted by TooFewShoes at 2:00 PM on June 30, 2011

I think the answer to your question is in the question. You changed your lifestyle and your health improved; your mom's lifestyle isn't very health-inducing, so she isn't very healthy. How we live is composed of lots of little choices we're constantly making, and we are in control of those choices. It will get harder to stay healthy and keep your weight down as you get older, but you will also get stronger and learn how to cope with things better as time goes on. I'm also hopeful that treatments for depression will improve as time goes on.

So just keep doing what you're doing, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and you'll handle it. Don't make yourself crazy worrying about what could happen--worry about things you can control, like whether you eat that doughnut this afternoon.

Also, my boyfriend's father smoked and drank heavily all his adult life--despite being a diabetic--and died of a heart attack early. My honey had a stroke at age 40 after 20 years of smoking. Now, 2 1/2 years later, he cycles to work, hasn't smoked since the stroke, eats (mostly) healthy, and is so much healthier now.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 2:23 PM on June 30, 2011

I'm in the same place as you, right down to the antidepressants being taken without therapy. I used to talk to my mom a LOT about how she ate and took care of herself, especially after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I would go to her house with bags of groceries from the health food market and buy her fresh fruit. The only things I succeeded in doing was really annoying her. Over the last 5 years, she has developed some healthier habits, but they all had to be her own ideas. Part of the change came when she moved into a new house in a better neighborhood and started to see things like the way she eats and takes care of herself as part of her new upper class lifestyle (ie. shopping at Whole Foods Market, buying quality bread, going to the Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings, taking leisurely strolls in the evening around the neighborhood with her dog). She's lost some weight and is a bit healthier, so I'm glad.

I definitely inherited my mom's predisposition towards depression and anxiety. She denies that there is anything wrong with her (yet she's happy to accept a Xanax prescription!). When I feel the waves of depression and anxiety start to kick in, I make an appointment to see a therapist and then I'm honest with them about what is going on in my life and how I am feeling. Then we talk it out and I start feeling better. Periodically I take meds to help get me out of some rough patches, but I also try to control my depression/anxiety with diet and exercise.

If there is something wrong in my life, I work to change it. A lot of the older women in my family have this "It's in God's hands" or "This is my lot in life" philosophy that has them stuck in shitty jobs, bad relationships or poor health. I completely reject this way of thinking.
posted by pluckysparrow at 2:29 PM on June 30, 2011

Was her mother obese and depressed? And her grandmother?

Widespread obesity and despression are a relatively recent, first-world phenomenon. Obesity in US adults has increased dramatically in the past twenty years. Depression is similarly growing. The reasons are, of course, hotly debated, but the implication is that you are not destined to be like your mother any more than she was destined to be like her mother and other ancestors.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 2:36 PM on June 30, 2011

I find it's helpful to remember that depression is a sort of degenerative disease. For instance: each time a person has a major depressive episode, it raises the odds that they'll have another one in the future. The longer a depressed person goes without treatment of some sort, the worse they're likely to get.

Okay, when I put it that way it sounds a little grim. But in fact, it's a really liberating way to look at it, because it reminds me how powerful preventative care can be on this stuff. It's like seeing an elderly relative with bad teeth: you don't think "Oh, crap, I'm doomed to lose all my teeth too," you think "I sure am lucky that I got decent dental care growing up. Better keep flossing!" Similarly, I have older relatives who are absolute basket cases, mental-health-wise, but that doesn't mean I'm doomed to be a basket case at their age. It just means I need to remember to take care of myself now.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:10 PM on June 30, 2011

I also welcome stories/advice from children of unhealthy people who learned from their parents' mistakes

You might like The Glass Castle.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:48 PM on June 30, 2011

Can city living, knowledge of good nutrition and a general awareness of one's own genetics be effective preventatives?

Um, yes.

Not trying to be flip. Seriously, it can be very helpful to remember this when you are freaking yourself out. It really is that simple. Your mom is not in the situation she's in because she was predestined in mysterious genetic way. She's making bad choices. For a lot of us weight and depression are things we are going to spend a lifetime managing but there are better and worse ways to manage it.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:08 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

My dad had six heart bypasses during his life. Of course, some of this may be genetic. Some of this may have been down to smoking 40 a day, frying everything he ate, and driving to the shop round the corner rather than walking. My sister suffers from high blood pressure, which may be genetic - or may be a reflection of her lifestyle, as she is overweight, doesn't excerise and eats a lot.

It's hard to say, but many studies suggest that lifestyle has a big impact on health. I tend to carry excess weight, and genetically my metabolism won't let me eat anything I like and stay slender. But I can help avoid some of my father's problems later in life by not smoking, taking care of what I eat and trying to exercise when I can. And this can have a big impact on mental health as well.
posted by mippy at 5:07 AM on July 1, 2011

I have skin cancer on both sides of my family, so I stay well out of the sun. Almost every single member of my Mom's family is a hard core non-functioning violent alcholic so, like she did, I've chosen not to drink at all. We have no history of diabetis so I do not fret about my sugar intake. You have to take what you know about your family medical history and make the best informed decisions for you. Also remember you only have 1/2 of you Mom's genetics, your Dad played a part in your making as well. What is his family like?

I do not think all obesity is in 'genes', I think it is a matter of what the family eats and how active they are. If you see 2 large parents with 2 large children my first thought is not 'I bet they all have a genetic thryoid problem!' I think 'Those parents are eating unhealthy and the kids are served the same foods as well, so they will be large just like the parents.'

Also, to echo everybody else, you two may share some genes but you are not living her life so YMMV
posted by Frosted Cactus at 7:23 AM on July 1, 2011

My mother had issues with weight, diabetes, and depression. Her siblings and my cousins on her side suffer from or tend to much of the same, which suggests a strong genetic component. Like your mother, she is also on prozac. However, unlike your mother, she's worked very hard to fix several of those problems and, while not nearly as healthy or active as my father, is actually in much better shape now than she was ten years ago.

The first thing to keep in mind, as other posters have noted is preventative care. After you've gained weight, it is much, much harder to keep it off than if you never gained weight in the first place. With her, poor diet, several pregnancies, and lack of exercise helped her to gain weight. I'm trying to avoid all that by eating healthy even though I'm on the thin side, not having as many children as she did, and getting plenty of exercise. Although she can't change the fact that she got pregnant many times, she's taken up water exercise and eats extremely healthy. Although she's still on the heavy side, she's no longer obese and, with gastricbypass surgery, is free of diabetes (although she still has to watch her sugar levels).

The other thing to keep in mind is that the education level that we have now is so much different than it was back then. My grandmother suffered terribly from mental illness and died of cancer at an early age after a doctor suggested that she take up smoking to calm her nerves. My mom grew up on a food pyramid which suggested eating lots of grains (without any regard to type of grain) and in a time when depression was still regarded as a personal failure, rather than a disease. She's already done much better than her mother in regards to her mental health and, although I've inherited her depression, I'm able to manage it without medication, as I was diagnosed early, and received excellent care on CBT and other methods. Likewise, I manage my blood sugar problems entirely though diet rather than medication and I hope that my nipping problems in the bud now, I'll avoid future complications.

I hate city living (I'm entirely a country girl), but I think that surrounding yourself with healthy people who have similar goals can help a tremendous amount. My mom hates the holidays because she's surrounded by sweats and I know she does much better on her diets when I'm in the house, as I cook meals with her diet in mind and my healthy eating inspires and reminds her to stick to her own diet. I'm not saying that you have to drop your friends who love processed foods, but if you have a friend who always has your weakness when it comes to food available upon your visits, try not visiting that friend at his/her house. Try to cultivate relationships and friendships with people that involve active outdoor activities. Take up hobbies such as gardening which do wonders for easing depression (something about ingesting dirt and getting sun, apparently).

Also, remember, genes aren't destiny. My parents have done extensive genealogy and gotten tests from companies such as 23-and-me and they found that, while the companies have predicted some things that were spot on, other characteristics for which we have genetic tendencies haven't been observed. For example, my thick haired grandfather should be bald. Studies on rhesus macaques and alcoholism has shown that, while alcoholism definitely can be genetically inherited, upbringing and personality matters a lot. Although we have the genes for higher rates of alcoholism and substance abuse, in a family of over 30 individuals, only one has had serious problems with addiction, and his appear to have been brought on by stress precipitated by my grandmother's early death. If he'd received counseling, perhaps his problems could have been avoided.

So relax. Even if you do have genetic tendencies, they aren't destiny. Even if you do gain weight, that doesn't mean you're doomed to obesity. When you notice problems, don't ignore or avoid them. Take care of yourself, not with the mindset of avoiding turning into your mother, but because you are worth taking care of.
posted by avagoyle at 11:02 AM on July 1, 2011

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