Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The scary gene

Now that we’ve passed the period of worrying about autism, we are instead starting to worry about the mental illness gene that runs in Mark’s family. Mark’s grandfather was brilliant and successful, but endured depression so serious he tried to take his life several times. He passed this to at least one of his daughters, who passed it in lesser forms to Mark and to his brother.

It has appeared in a more powerful form in Mark’s niece. The first sign came from serious nightmares as a small child. By age 8 she was having panic attacks. By 11, she was institutionalized. It took them forever to come up with a diagnosis. For a while they thought she might be schizophrenic; now it seems to be bipolar. She’s back at home on medication and functioning, but with difficulties. She still has delusions of grandeur, thinking she can support her family on her singing and acting skills and has a hard time socially. Another daughter seems to be OK and the third is adopted.

Mark’s sister doesn’t show signs of depression, but she contracted a rare and life-threatening illness (Guillain-Barre’s), which made her so afraid she would die that she turned from a Ph.D. candidate in science to a born-again Christian stay-at-home mother of four. Her first born has some learning issues. Her second born appears to have anger issues. He has flown into rages and been destructive since his earliest days. The third is adopted and the fourth is too small to tell.

So something has come through the children of both of Mark’s siblings. I knew this was a risk when I married Mark and when we decided to have children. The members of his family are also extremely bright and I think there is a fine line between brilliance and madness. Nevertheless, you always hope that it’s not going to be your child, that you’ll be the lucky one that is not touched. I guess I just counted on that, and to a certain extent, still do.

Because River is so social and gets along with people, I figure he’s fine. But Mark still has worries. The fact that River chatters to himself at night and used to do so in the morning upon waking up is a gift in my opinion. No crying, no screaming, just calm self entertainment. Whatever he is doing is so entertaining to him that he often laughs. Mark wonders if the talking to himself is a sign of a problem.

I know several parents whose kids have or have gone through night terrors. Most of these kids seem to turn out fine. River has not yet had a night terror as these parents describe it. But he has an occasional bad dream in which he’ll call out. I figure it’s a normal part of sleep and of childhood. Mark thinks he could be following in the footsteps of his cousin.

I suppose it’s good to know the family history, to know what to watch out for, and to pay attention for signs so that problems can be addressed. But I also don’t like leaping to the worst possible conclusion, especially when there are innocent explanations available and the worst is so ugly.

We’ll continue to be thankful for his overall happy, calm demeanor and keep our fingers crossed that this gene doesn’t express itself in him (or the one on the way).

Do you worry about illnesses that run in your family striking your child? How do you balance vigilance with realism?

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