Inheritance

A super interesting post about some new research from John Hopkins on how stress affects mood-related genes in a mother and her unborn children got me thinking about the transmission of mental illness from one generation to another.

Before John and I got married, we took a couple of marriage classes. One was through the church, and one was with a pair of married therapists. We took the course led by therapists about nine months before our wedding. At that time, John had not yet experienced any symptoms of bipolar disorder, but we knew that I was a food addict (in recovery), and that his mother was an alcoholic. I remember telling the woman therapist about our situation, and how I was worried that our children would be getting the “addiction gene” from both sides of the family.

“You two are doing great,” she said. “I think your kids will be fine.”

I believed her. After all, after my struggles as a teenager, I had found a way to cope with my disease. If a child born with addictive tendencies grows up with a parent who is in recovery, that would count for something, wouldn’t it? Nature isn’t everything—nurture counts, too.

Well, when John got sick, it once again made me question whether we wanted to pass on our DNA. According to some research we read in my Family-to-Family class, a child with one parent with bipolar disorder has a 27% chance of developing the disease, versus a 1-2% chance for the general population. For a while there, I wasn’t liking those odds, particularly when I’d hear stories from parents of mentally ill children about suicide attempts, hospitalizations, drugs, and prison.

Here’s where I came down on the whole thing: Yes, our child has a higher probability of developing a mental illness, but John and I have both found ways to deal with our mental health issues and be happy, productive members of society. We both have good jobs, we both pay taxes, we participate in the community and do service where we can.

You can’t live your life in fear of something that might, maybe, some day happen. Any “normal” couple could have a baby with Down Syndrome, or cancer, or SIDS. My husband and I are smart, we’re educated, we’re caring, and I think those traits are worth passing on.

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