Thursday, August 21, 2008


(I edited this post significantly on Saturday, August 23.)

Last year I participated in a NIMH research study about the genetics of bipolar disorder. Results of this study and its predecessor--which are starting to be released now--may eventually reveal the genetic components that ultimately result in me having bipolar disorder but the rest of my family being spared.

How does it happen? Who passed it along? What parts of ourselves come from those before us and which parts come along randomly? Fifty percent of patients with bipolar disorder have a family historyof the disorder. And the other 50%?

For the most part, there's more stability in my bloodline than not. My great grandfather was an esteemed colonel with a very long career in the army. He was the organizer of the Inter-Allied Games, otherwise known as the Military Olympics, which took place in France in 1919. He also was largely responsible for the estabishment of the YMCA in Europe. He served as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force, whose WWI soldiers were known as the Doughboys. His regular job was as the personal aide to General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing. He was eventually awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, given to those who didn't quite meet the criteria for a Congressional Medal of Honor.

From Great-Grandfather Wait, (yes, his name was Wait), I got my organizational, planning, and project management talents. I did not inherit any of his esteemed athletic prowess.

His son, my grandfather, was a musician and eventually, a drunk. He was also exceptionally intelligent and well educated, but a free spirit who had no interest in the military or the blue-blood life of privilege he had always known. He married my grandmother, a beautiful teen desperate to leave rural New Mexico and her half-Mexican Indian heritage. My grandmother loved fun. She became severely alcoholic, and in a bizarre bit of irony, died sober when the car she was riding in was hit head-on by a drunk driver. My great-grandparents set up a generous trust fund for my mother that should have left her set for life. Unfortunately, my grandparents managed the trust, then mismanaged it, and finally just drank it away.

From my maternal grandparents, I got my love of socializing (now gone), good cheekbones, big hips, a natural instinct for cooking, and a deep love of percussion instruments (Grandpa was a drummer). I also got a strong streak of irresponsible behavior and a lack of financial management skills bordering on a disability.

On my father's side, I am the descendant of Irish immigrants who fled poverty in Ireland to become coal miners in central Pennsylvania. They were steady and reliable folks who lived a no-nonsense, no frills life. They led spare, structured lives centering around family, hard work, education for the males, staunch Catholicism, and frugality.

From this side of the family I got blue eyes, a deeply stubborn nature, and the gift of gab with an additional knack for storytelling. I also inherited a strong work ethic, an innate love of gardening, and the ability to make fabulous pies. I did not get the gene for drinking copious amounts of whiskey and beer or the tendency toward self-denial of material things. I did, however, come pre-programmed with a sense of humor.

My parents. What a disaster. My mother has Borderline Personality Disorder and a volatile nature. She used to drink too much, but that has improved. She is an hysteric who thrives on personal drama. I got her body, and I'm furious about it. My mother has always been a terrible housekeeper with very limited domestic skills overall. Despite his upbringing, my father was an alcoholic who was frequently depressed and anxious, except for when he was viciously angry. He had OCD that worsened as he got older. When sober, my father loved to tell story jokes and to tease his children and their friends, but not in a malicious way. He demanded structure, obedience and achievement from his children, and he firmly believed that children should be neither seen nor heard. For many years, he went to great lengths to keep my siblings and I in line, mostly so we wouldn't annoy him. He wanted privacy, he wanted quiet, and he believed that discipline was best achieved through physical and emotional abuse.

On the upside, he was a voracious reader. He had been an athlete and sailor until his mother couldn't bear the thought of her eldest being so far away, so he came home, became a carpenter, and eventually married my mother.

From my parents I got mental illness, allergies, gut trouble, and a predisposition to being fat. I also got more than one person's allotment of anxiety and low self-esteem, along with the drive to prove my worth through my achievements--which comes with a near pathological intolerance for my own mistakes. On a more positive note, I also got a love of learning and reading. I did not get any athletic tendencies, although all of my siblings did exceptionally well in this area. I believe the roots of my housekeeping deficiencies lay in my upbringing more than in my genetic inheritance. I only mention it because one of the measures for mental health problems on many psychological evaluations has to do with the subject's slobbiness at any given time.

As far as I know, the Bipolar gene in my family tree was recessive and probably dormant for generations. I just happened to hit the mental illness genetic jackpot. My siblings were spared. I have multiple, chronic health problems that have dogged me since childhood or adolescence. Again, my siblings were spared.

My whole genetic soup might make the case for eugenics.

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