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Wearing Your Family Genes

#Accepting your family genes

Recently my husband and I made a first time visit to a new physician. During the course of the visit, the doctor was reviewing my medical records and then inquired about my family history. Nothing unusual about that request as that is the norm. This doctor was highly recommended for his qualifications and caring attitude. While sharing this information with the new physician, I had a wave of discomfort pass through me though, as it had been a long time since anyone had inquired about my mother. My mother passed away back in July of 2017, at the age of 92.

As I was reviewing her medical history with the doctor, I was reminded that my genetic history would always be with me. You see, my mother suffered from a terrible disease that you could not see, a mental illness. She was a paranoid schizophrenic, diagnosed as such when I was in the seventh grade. However, the signs and symptoms were present many years prior to her diagnosis.

While I was giving the physician a very brief synopsis of my mother’s medical history, I recognized that I no longer cared or worried about what one may think about my own mental state. For many years I have been comfortable in my own skin and I don’t think I have given anyone too much reason to think otherwise. That was not always the case, as I spent some time during my teen years and early twenties worrying that I would have her disease. I was assured by a medical professional that had that been the case, signs would have shown up early on.

I was surprised by the new physician’s lack of response while I was giving him my family history. He sat quietly at his computer typing away with not even a glance my way. My only thought was that maybe he had heard this type of story before and it was nothing new, or possibly we were reaching the end of the thirty-minute time allotment for a new patient visit or, he was just uncomfortable. I wasn’t expecting sympathy, or a counseling session, just maybe a simple acknowledgement of what our family had been through in regard to my mother’s life journey. His reaction was one of silence and we quickly moved on to another health question from there. He never even inquired about my own mental health. My husband, who had accompanied me to this visit, thought his lack of reaction was odd as well. However, my new doctor was very helpful, and I was very pleased with his medical guidance.

This visit just brought into my awareness that it is possible that some medical professionals may not know how to work with people who have mental illness in their family history. It is apparent that more awareness is still needed as the statistics from the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) indicates that there has been a dramatic increase in individuals suffering from such mental illness as schizophrenia, bipolar disease and severe depression. In 2020, one out of five people suffered from one or more of these types of diseases. It was also noted that some people may even have more than one disorder. That means that 52.9 million people have been diagnosed with a mental illness. One person in a family of five may have a diagnosis or if you work in a company with 12 people, 2-3 people may have a mental illness diagnosis. Again, according to the NIMH, the leading cause of this curious rise in these types of illnesses has possibly been related to the increased use of social media platforms. With the proper attention from the medical community, these people, with early diagnosis, treatment and medication can function well in society.

Personally, it was not until I was forty years of age, working as a business owner when I became more comfortable about having a discussion about the topic of mental illness. It was always something that as a family we tried to hide. Keeping my mother’s illness, a secret was our way of protecting both our mother and family from potential judgment by other people.

However, one day while working in my picture framing and art gallery business, I had a woman come into my shop, a veterinarian who wanted to have some picture framing work completed. I personally took her order and worked with her on the specifics of what she needed. While working with her, we became engaged in quite a conversation about her mother. She shared with me that her mother was a schizophrenic, and she was having a number of problems with her and her care. This conversation, about knocked me flat on the floor in shock, because I could not believe how frank she was in talking about her mother and her mental illness to a perfect stranger.

The storyline that she shared with me was fairly identical to the problems that our family had incurred with our mother. I was flabbergasted that she talked so openly and freely about the issues she was having with her. Her candid talk made me feel comfortable in sharing with her that my mother suffered from the same type of illness. However, she was a single child whose father had passed, and she was left to deal with her mother on her own. Our serendipitous meeting made me feel that it is okay to share such a story with others who are dealing with similar circumstances. My mother’s illness did not have to be a secret, as I came to realize that it was not a reflection of your own sanity. It is nothing to be embarrassed about as it is a disease, just as one would have a physical ailment such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Cancer, etc.

Ironically, this lady appeared in my shop just after my own father passed away and my siblings and myself were left to deal with my mother. This woman and I only interacted for the time needed to complete her work and then I never saw her again. If I could go back and give her a big hug, I would. I am grateful for the lesson that she taught me about being comfortable sharing your family story.

My mother, despite her illness was a very sweet lady and she is my mother, whom I will always love. However, I am thankful that I did not receive the genes predisposing me to her mental illness. She did leave me with warmth and compassion for mankind, her sense of humor, creative abilities and lots of memories. I am no longer embarrassed to tell people about her and the mental illness that she suffered with for most of her life. It has taken me a long time to be able to say that I am comfortable wearing my family genes.

However, our family is not alone in having dealt with a loved one who has a mental illness. There are millions of people that are suffering and 27 million that are going untreated. Some people may not even be diagnosed. It is now very clear to me that we were not alone in our struggles. Hopefully, both the mentally ill and the families that care for them are getting the love, care, support that they need to help them.

Since my mother’s passing, my siblings and myself have all moved on with our own lives. We all have our own scars to deal with and some are a result of my mother’s illness. Genes certainly play an important factor in the development of mental illness but there are other factors as well. Such as alcohol, drugs, early childhood trauma, loss of a parent early in life, environmental factors, etc. and the list goes on. We don’t really know what caused my mother’s illness, but the one common bond that I share with my family is that my mother was a very special person, and she remains in our hearts.


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