All in the Family

I’ve always heard that bipolar disorder is hereditary.  There is statistical evidence of this even if there’s no scientific proof.  As this disease is a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain it stands to reason that it can be passed down through generations.  I know in my illness family history certainly seems to be the case.

I have no proof, but I believe that my Grandmother was bipolar.  I know that she was an overachiever, and that she suffered from depression.  Especially when you consider the times she accomplished some really amazing things.  Some of her accomplishments were hearsay; stories passed on from my parents and aunts and uncles.  According to them, she ran a successful business baking and delivering pies during the great depression.   She was a terrific hunter, much better even than my Grandfather, who was an incredible shot.  I was told more than once that she even learned to fly an airplane in the 1920’s. Now, that may or may not seem so extreme, but remember, this was in a time where women were supposed to be barefoot and pregnant.  When she was in her 80’s, the local newspaper wrote an article about her and all her exploits.  I do remember times though when she was greatly depressed.  Her depressions had such an impact on me as it contrasted so much from her normal exuberance.   And a couple of times I heard that she even underwent Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)to treat her depression.  Maybe this wasn’t bipolar, but it was certainly not the norm.

I always suspected that my Mom wasn’t ‘normal’.   She too was an overachiever, and the controlling force for our family.  She demonstrated some illusions of grandeur; for example every time she bought gasoline for the car she made a careful note of how much she bought, what it cost, and what her miles per gallon were.  OK, that’s meticulous, but not grandiose, right?  Well, until I found that she kept every single notebook she had kept from the very first of her driving.   When she was in her 80’s, I asked her why she had held on to them for all these years, and she said it was because she always figured she would be famous, and ‘the people’ would want to know everything about her.  I do know she was hospitalized in a mental institution at least once.  I was very young, but I remember her being depressed, she claimed it was from PMS (a term which wasn’t coined until decades later) and my brother swore that she had gone on a manic rage and he was the one who had her committed.

My brother (Who I found out in my teens was only a half brother) had the most obvious illness.  Again, I never heard if he had a formal diagnosis, but I strongly believe he was schizophrenic.   In his life his sense of reality was really skewed.  Whatever job he had he was always the boss.  And since he wasn’t he would end up losing the job because he was too busy ‘running’ things and not doing what he was being paid to do.  He started many businesses believing he had millions of dollars coming in even before he got started.  But he never was successful.  It was all about him as the one in charge, never worrying about actually doing any work.  He was an alcoholic.  I actually lost track of how many times he had been married.  And the last 10 years of his life he didn’t work at all, somehow drawing disability even though there was nothing (other than a mental illness) that was wrong with him.  After he died, we found out that he was the worst kind of hoarder.  We found printed emails he had written that were too bizarre to describe.  We always felt like he was barely functional, and what we found after his death really confirmed it.

My Dad was a stoic.  The only time I ever saw him really lose control of his emotions was at his Mother’s funeral; and even that was only for a brief second.  He did get a little better when he became a grandfather, but for me he was cold and inaccessible.  He was always depressed.  I have almost no memory of fun or laughter.  The only friends he had was a couple across the street that he and Mom would play bridge with, once a month.  He never drove a car; he rarely made a decision.  He depended completely on my Mother to take care of everything.  Which of course with her being a control freak she was happy to do. He was a loner, and always alone.  I’ll never know if Dad was so withdrawn from the difficulty of living with my Mother, or if he was just an extremely depressed person in general.  Either way it had an impact on my environment.  But is it the reason that I am bipolar?

I’d like to blame my illness on the way I was raised by all those around me.   But, there are plenty of people who were raised in much worse circumstances that turned out fine.  Kids of alcoholics, that witnessed the wife abuse in their own home or who suffered some kind of traumatic event at some point have grown up to be healthy productive adults.  But I have a physical illness.  The only ‘blame’ I can assign would be the passing of the gene or physical trait that causes this disease.

But, honestly, there is no blame.  There’s just acceptance and learning how to deal with what I have.

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One Response to All in the Family

  1. Terrific understanding of what may be and what could be-read it twice…


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