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Genetic Predisposition: A Bipolar Parent’s Worst Fear

 “I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was barely out of my teens. Like our olive skin tone and caterpillar eyebrows, I guess it just runs in the family.”

– AJ Lee

When I learned, or accepted, my diagnosis (Doctors diagnosed me with bipolar disorder at least three times over nine years before I decided to seek out treatment), I had to learn everything I could about the disorder. I needed to know everything. It was all consuming and, to a certain extent, still is. I needed to do my own comparisons, though. I wasn’t a doctor and, it’s true, I’m still not, but I had to know if my “symptoms” matched the criteria for bipolar disorder. It didn’t take but a few minutes to acknowledge the doctors had more than likely been right.

Nine years. I spent nine years in the fire before finally accepting that that was the case. So, I studied up on the disorder and found most of the facts discouraging and embarrassing. But the one thing that was most prevalent was the fact that 80% of the disorder’s existence was genetic. My oldest son was born when I was 18, and I was 24 when I first got any kind of treatment. So, there was a selfish six-year period I avoided what I had learned as “the facts” when it came to any part of the disorder. One day it hit me, though, and it was back to the books.

I knew there was a general genetic connection and that was the first thing that popped into my head.

Various studies ”estimated a heritability rate of about 58%”, according to a 2015 report. Research from the Black Dog Institute suggests the disorder is “inherited, with genetic factors accounting for approximately 80% of the cause of the condition”.

“Bipolar disorder is the most likely psychiatric disorder to be passed down from family.”

That’s scary to me.

One doctor said that “scientists confirm that bipolar disorder has a genetic component, meaning the disorder can run in families.”

Now it’s 2022. I have three sons, and the likelihood of one of them developing bipolar disorder, or any psychiatric disorder, is higher than what is average or typical. Below are some basic stats on the issue:

  • A child of one parent with bipolar disorder and one without has a 15% to 30% chance of having BP.
  • If both parents have bipolar disorder, there’s a 50% to 75% chance that a child of theirs will, too.
  • If you already have one child with BP, there is a 15% to 25% chance that another of your children will also have it.
  • If one identical twin has BP, there’s about an 85%chance that the other one will as well. In three other studies, the chance of an identical twin also having bipolar disorder ranges from 38% to 43% with that of dizygotic non-identical) twins being between 4.5% and 5.6%.

Stats scare me, and maybe they’re supposed to. This was a fear of a different caliber, though. This felt as if I was somehow doomed to a fate that was out of my hands, and one I wanted nothing to do with.

For a long time, I beat myself up over it. I was never like “why me?”, but I sure was pissed. At God, mainly. I realized that was a waste of time and energy, for many reasons. However, the constant state of anxiety I live in doesn’t allow the idea to go away. I still have my moments of sadness and anger, but it’s the worrying part that, at times, can eat me alive.

My wife is my rock. She can usually keep me in check. Thankfully so, because I can’t afford to worry about anything else. The things I worry about may seem trivial to many, but that doesn’t mean they’re not all consuming. It’s hard for me not to worry about something without getting fixated on it.

There are other environmental risk factors that play into the causation of bipolar disorder. The big ones are sleep deprivation, substance abuse, trauma, and stress.

Some of the most common life stressors that can trigger symptoms include:

  • changing jobs or losing a job
  • experiencing a death in the family
  • going to college
  • going through a divorce

A 2019 study suggested that “the resulting cognitive deficits, the high risk of suicide, and the occurrence of severe psychiatric and medical comorbidities all make BD one of the major causes of mortality and disability worldwide.”

Nothing familial in that declaration, but I couldn’t imagine any of my children having to go through any of that or ever feel like that. My wife insists that that’s not something I need to worry about because it’s out of my hands. It’s out of all our hands. What will be, will be, right?

Such a silly thought. Never been a big fan of that ideology.

I still have my moments where it will cross my mind, though, but I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

When I learned, or accepted, my diagnosis (Doctors diagnosed me with bipolar disorder at least three times over nine years before I decided to seek out treatment), I had to learn everything I could about the disorder.

9 Comments

  1. One side of my family is pretty heavily genetically loaded for mental illness. My brother is fine, but I hope his kids don’t end up getting sick. I’ve never really wanted kids anyway, but the chances of me getting sick postpartum and killing myself and the kid are higher than I’d feel comfortable with.

  2. Thank you for being vulnerable with us, Josh, and sharing this fear. I can certainly see where you are coming from as a parent. I might offer you one thought, and if it isn’t helpful, please just disregard. While the thought of one or more of your children having symptoms of bipolar disorder is scary (the is indisputable), you will be in a position to not only recognize the early symptoms but to also help them navigate the mental health system (which is hugely daunting to people unfamiliar with it!). And, as they are growing up, you also have the ability to help de-stigmatize this disorder for them, should any of them ever have it. You are living proof that a person with bipolar disorder can lead a fulfilling life, including marriage and kids etc. I know this doesn’t assuage your fear, but I do see it as something helpful that could potentially come from this. I hope I haven’t spoken out of turn. Have a blessed day, my friend 🙂

    1. You’re totally right. I’ve never thought about it like that. Thank you for pointing that out. At least now I know I do have SOME control over that type of situation. Thanks you!

      1. Well, I hope that I didn’t minimize your feelings in any way. Worrying about our children and their health IS a scary thing. But I am glad that IF one of them end up having mental health issues, they’ve got a self-reflective, kind father to help them navigate difficult times and how to get help. I really enjoy following your blog, Josh. Thank you for sharing your journey with us!

      2. You didn’t minimize my feelings at all. I’m actually glad you pointed it out. So, thank you. And thank you for always reading.

  3. Neither of my kids have (so far) wound up with Tourette Syndrome which has a similar genetic component and typically comes out much younger than they are. And also know that psychotropic drugs improve every year. Could be a nonissue by the time your kids are adults. And lastly, these disorders are challenging and painful but many of us still quite enjoy our lives. I agree with your wife. Don’t make it a problem until it is.

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