The Family Tree

Shaemus Spencer

I’m not a farmer or a gardener, but I spend a lot of time thinking about root rot. Root rot will kill a plant before you know there’s something wrong, because most of the damage happens underground. The decay happens with frightening speed, often without warning. You can’t always tell if a plant is overwatered or carrying a microscopic pest until the body is weak, the leaves slack. There are ways to heal the wilting thing, but most solutions are extreme: replanting, trimming, bathing. It takes constant care and a watchful eye. The sick plant can do nothing to save itself.

I never thought twice about my mother’s medicine tray. It was one of those white plastic things, the wells labeled with the days of the week. Every Sunday I watched her carefully sort an array of multi-colored pills, each one rattling before settling in the pile. Zoloft for the depression, Ambien to help her sleep, Xanax for the anxiety spikes, Oxycontin for the pain that rippled through her back and hands and neck. A few more that I never learned to recognize. I’m not certain the regiment did much good. She was always in a terrible mood, always complaining about an ache nobody else could feel. Her swings were hard to predict. She spent weeks slumped on the couch channel surfing through true-crime reenactments, only to have her malaise washed away by a flood of endorphins. Over a weekend, the entire house would be rearranged to heavy metal so loud it rattled picture frames. We’d go shopping and put new clothes on the credit cards. She’d come home from the casino stinking of cigarette smoke, the trip a total loss. When it was over, the couch would occupy a new wall, and she’d return to its cushions for a season.

My maternal grandmother was well-adjusted, but my great-grandmother was felled by dementia long before her peers forgot their names. When I met her as a child, she could still talk. She told me that she personally met every president, a few of whom harbored a secret love for her. I was five, so I believed her. I have always been gullible. When I visited a few years later, she was the residue of a woman. She couldn’t speak or recognize us. At night, my great-grandmother experienced sundowning–a late-stage Alzheimer’s symptom that made her angry and anxious, likely because her body’s internal clock was off. She wandered the house, confused and wailing, her body’s natural rhythms disrupted by disease. She would peek into the room where I slept, giggling, toothless, and hold a finger up to her mouth. The shushing sounded like wind through leafless branches. We’d find her sitting in the middle of the kitchen covered in ice cream, the hand she used as a scoop stiff with cold. I can’t look at Superman ice cream without seeing my family’s eldest matriarch, feeble and dying, resembling an infant covered in her afternoon spoils.

It’s there on my father’s side too. His mother was prone to outbursts. Weeks of silence were offset by sudden religious fanaticism. Obsessive but organized hoarding meant her basement was filled with carefully labeled boxes, sometimes boxes inside of boxes. After my father got out of prison, his parents moved up from Florida and moved in with him. We made family dinners any time I’d visit. While searching for a serving spoon, I found a kitchen drawer filled with rubber bands and paperclips. When I asked my father about it, his face soured. We never talked about these things beyond brief, passing mentions.

Most of this behavior was normalized and expected. I think that’s why I ignored my own symptoms for so long–mood swings, intrusive thoughts, insomnia, anxiety. As a child I found myself fluctuating between weeks of extreme productivity followed by days where I lacked the energy to speak. I was praised for the spark of brilliance that produced artwork and writing at a level far beyond my age. I failed to finish most of the projects I started in these moods, discarding them in favor of whatever the next burst brought. I had disruptive thoughts so frequently that I was alarmed when I learned most people didn’t. I can’t comprehend that other people don’t think about what a body looks like as it falls ten stories, don’t imagine finding their mother’s corpse, don’t have to fight the urge to dig the tip of a ballpoint pen deep into their palm. These impulses were whispers from the base of my brain, echoes of the women who came before me, all accompanied by a constant buzz. My mother calls it “wind.” Mine is closer to static, like someone tuned a radio receiver to a station that won’t come through. It takes effort to hear through it, to prevent it from spreading to my limbs where it manifests as a tremor. It has always been this way.


The frightening thing about root rot is how quickly it can spread from one organism to another. Fungus is a common culprit, decaying the structural integrity of the plant as it infects thirsty veins, quickly damaging an entire network. Consider the aspen tree, which grows in colonies stemming from one originating seedling. Each tree is an independent organism, but the roots are shared. Aspen groves can live this way for thousands of years, new growth replacing dying trees with the assistance of a centralized support system. Imagine the damage if one quadrant became infected–how quickly the grove would fall, the disease spreading from one to others through the system meant to protect it.


I take my mother out for lunch whenever I go home. It’s my way of apologizing for how infrequently I visit. There’s this little Thai place with a banging peanut sauce twenty minutes from her house, and no matter how many times we go, we both order the same thing. I’m jealous of the husband and wife who run the restaurant, and their adult daughter who takes orders when she’s home from college. They huddle behind the counter, whispering in lulls between customers. The trio never seems stressed. They look happy. But a lot of families look happy.

I’m at the point where I can speak candidly with my mother about most topics, as long as we avoid talking about me. We talk shit about her wife, our jobs, the friends who aren’t around anymore. We stopped sugar coating things a long time ago. But I still can’t bring myself to ask her the things I need to know. Every therapist I see asks about diagnoses in the family. Officially, what’s written down on paper? Unfortunately, family history is a key part of getting my own diagnosis. I want to ask my mother if she’s bipolar or clinically depressed, if she was ever diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or if she’s ever experienced psychosis. I only know as much as I saw as a kid, which has given me clues for my own puzzle, but not enough to satisfy the people who can help me name it. In the comfort of the Thai place, outside of the house and all its baggage, I start to mutter. I try to tell her that I’m back in therapy for the first time in almost fifteen years, try to tell her why. Before I began, she stared at me and sighed. She is not an old woman, but she sounded like one then, quietly letting the words tumble out of her. “I really need to quit drinking.”

I wonder if I can outrun this, or if I am watching an inevitability. In thirty years, will I be middle-aged, addled by addiction, unable to control my misfiring chemical receptors? Will I ever be middle-aged? I can change my body in countless ways, but I cannot change the cellular fundamentals. The decaying roots were present at birth.


I am afraid of correlations that might be drawn between myself and others, but also between my own identities. For decades, trans people were classified as mentally ill. I’d guess that many of us do have a diagnosable mental illness, but I doubt we are a community naturally inclined to disorders. It’s more likely that the system we navigate tends to encourage bycatch. Years of therapy to secure hormones has a way of shedding light on other anomalies. I fear a connection being drawn between the two, that people will assume because I’m trans, I am also prone to instability, that some or all of my pain should be discounted because it is expected, that my transness is negated by some coexisting illness. Or, extended further, because my family has a history of illness, that I am doomed to repeat the same patterns.

I don’t talk to my mother as much as I should. It’s hard on her because she misses me, and it’s hard on me because every conversation brings up too many memories. Every drunken night of hers, every argument, every night I spent confused about the noise in my own head. A few months ago, I texted her. I was four hundred miles away, which is apparently the amount of distance I need to be vulnerable. I went out for a walk, wandering along a river in my new town. I wrote, erased, and rewrote a message a dozen times, trying to ask questions, trying to tell her how bad the last few years had been, before finally telling her I was going back on meds. “Good,” she said. “It is not a weakness. It is genetic. All humans are fucked up. The smart ones find a cure.”

“Oh, I know,” I texted back before tucking my phone back in my pocket and staring at the river, having a smoke, letting the night cover me.


Shaemus Spencer is a transgender writer and animator. They live in Thomas, West Virginia.