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Unraveling the family tree

by Sara Solovitch

BP Magazine

For some families, bipolar disorder runs through the generations as invariably as freckles or cleft chins appear in other family trees. Even so, looking for your family's source of bipolar disorder can be a little like searching for the headwaters of the Nile. You start backtracking through the generations and suddenly realize that the quirky behavior you once brushed aside as your grandmother's eccentricity was really a signpost.

If only you had recognized her outlandishness or rage for what it was-the genetic source of your own bipolar disorder. You might have been more tolerant of her. Perhaps you wouldn't have distanced yourself so much. At the very least, you might have asked some questions.

Unfortunately, many people never think to connect the dots in their family's history of wellness until the day a family member is diagnosed with bipolar. Suddenly, it hits like a ton of bricks-everything falls into place. As one mother describes it, it wasn't until her son was diagnosed that she recognized her own illness. "Oh my gosh, that's what's the matter with me!"

This experience was related in one way or another by several individuals interviewed for this story. Jolted by the diagnosis of a child or a grandchild, an older family member may reluctantly acknowledge the symptoms as his or her own. Sometimes, it comes as a bolt of self-recognition; other times, it's a case of reluctant consent, a muttered admission, "Yes, that's me."

Scientists don't know how many or which genes are involved in bipolar. But there is no way at pre- sent to determine whether someone will inherit the disorder. Nevertheless, according to a study published in the March 2009 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, having family members with bipolar disorder is the best predictor of whether an individual will go on to develop the illness. (See sidebar on page 24.)

Here, we relate the stories of three families: one in Ohio, one in California, the third in Quebec and Alberta. Though each is unique, the similarities among them are often striking. In each case, the individuals interviewed, whose real names have not been used in this story, have begun to unravel their bipolar family tree. They are looking for the genetic source and observing patterns from one generation to the next.

In the Canadian family, a young man shares an unhealthy obsession with military history with a grandfather he's never met. In California, the son doesn't have much insight into his own illness, but he's great at giving advice. "Just like his grandfather," his mother wearily observes. "And he likes to talk, talk, talk-just like my dad."

Several of the people who spoke with bp Magazine lamented that their brothers and sisters were unwilling to acknowledge the illness that seems to run between the generations. Buck up! they say. Meanwhile, some members of the next generation-now in their 20s and 30s-are self-medicating with alcohol and drugs.

At the same time, the parents whose children have not been diagnosed watch guardedly, looking for any behavior that may signify bipolar…

Read the full article, "Unraveling the family tree."

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