It’s a Family Affair

Since my diagnosis, I’ve developed an obsession interest in finding mental illness in other people. It’s my new favorite hobby. I see it everywhere.

Neighborhood homeless man who fights with the lamp-post and who once tried to sell Michael already-been-chewed chicken wings? Schizophrenia.

My controlling, jealous ex-boyfriend who needed constant attention?  Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Coworker who has major abandonment issues and is prone to histrionics? Borderline Personality Disorder.

One of the things I’ve tried to do since starting treatment for bipolar II, is to scour my own family’s history to find the genetic source for this disorder. No one on either side of my family has been “officially” diagnosed with bipolar II (or “officially” diagnosed with anything that can be found in the DSM IV, really). On my mom’s side, I’ve got two alcoholic grandparents, one aunt with a substance abuse issue, and at least three cousins who have also struggled with addiction. My mom doesn’t drink, but is prone to depression. I’m inclined to believe that this side of my family is chock full o’ self-medicating depressives.

My dad was a Vietnam veteran and was in treatment for PTSD for several years. He was very prone to serious bouts of depression. He was also prone to energetic bursts of creativity. A professional storyteller, musician and author, he would sometimes lock himself away in his office or studio and write for days on end. He always had erratic sleep habits, and my stepmother said that often, he was overly generous. It was like a compulsion. “If he had a dollar in his pocket, he would give two away.”  He was never officially diagnosed with bipolar II, but his wife (a former therapist) and I agree that he most certainly had it.

His eldest brother has been known to go off the rails at times, and obsess over things–mostly internet conspiracy theories–and drive everyone crazy. These episodes don’t last for very long, and are very puzzling because he is an extremely intelligent and educated man. These conspiracy theories are not something we’d expect him to get sucked into. About a year ago, he was on this New World Order/reptilian humanoids/anti-Zionist kick. I actually had to block him on Gmail, for a while, but he seems like his normal self, for now.

His other brother (the one in the middle) is the sanest of the bunch. He is also the family historian. Right after my father died, this uncle showed me hundreds of family photos, and the family tree he’s been working on. He’s collected some wonderful stories, including an audio recording of an interview he did with my great-aunt Martha, who was married to my grandmother’s older brother, Mose. Aunt Martha was telling the story of my great-grandfather (her father-in-law) coming to the United States, and describing him so that future generations could hear what a lovely man he was. She described him as being “hyper-active” at times, and ambitious. He started at least three successful businesses in Key West and Miami. Everybody loved him because of his exuberance and generosity. However, she said that he would frequently suffer from bouts of melancholia.

Sounds pretty bipolar II-ish, to me.

I know that they know there is a familial link, but they haven’t pinpointed the exact gene (or genes) that cause bipolar disorder. I’ve read that people with one parent who has it, have a 15-30% chance of being diagnosed with it, themselves, but that there isn’t presently any  way to determine whether someone will develop it.  I wonder if they’ll ever figure it out? Or if it even matters, really.

It is strangely comforting to be able to connect the dots, and see where this might have come from. I’m not sure if it’s validation I’m feeling, or maybe just a sense of normalcy. Maybe I’m just normal by my family’s standards?

Eh, I can live with that.

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2 thoughts on “It’s a Family Affair

  1. Funny you should bring this up, as this has also been something that I have been thinking about lately. I always assumed that my mental health problems came from my mother’s side of the family, as her sister and mother both were diagnosed with depression. However, when bipolar disorder started to enter into the equation a few months ago, I actually wondered if it had come from my Dad’s line, as he and I shared quite a few (hypomanic) characteristics, particularly as I got older eg chronic insomnia, severe irritability and an urge to spend, spend, spend (and all on borrowed money … *sigh*). The more I look back, I also wonder if his alcoholism (which killed him at 64 years of age) was the result of needing to medicate himself for a condition that he didn’t even know he had. This tendency definitely exacerbated his depressive side, including his seemingly unquenchable need for sleep at times, his occasional lack of interest in things that he would normally have enjoyed, and his periodic withdrawals from my mother and I.

    I can’t ask other people in his family to confirm symptoms (because I am estranged from them), but like you, I still do find a sense of comfort in knowing that this may not have come out of the blue. It also helps me to know that it’s something that I came by “honestly” … that I didn’t do anything to myself to bring this on, that I’m not being neurotic, that I have a physical reason for being the way I am. I don’t know about you, but for me, that came as a big relief.

  2. Hi Kim: Yep. I spent much of my adult life trying to figure out what the heck was wrong with me, and feeling like a big freak, at times when I was unable to control my emotions. This diagnosis was actually a big relief for me, too. Now it had a name and it could be treated.

    I think my dad’s life could have been a lot less tumultuous if he’d been diagnosed properly, and had been willing to seek treatment for it.

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