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Is Bipolar Hereditary or Genetic?

Robin Kahler is a patient who was diagnosed with affective bipolar disorder in 1988. She works from her home in Tucson, Arizona, as an ...Read More

City summers are hot. Hotter than country summers. In the country the trees can shade you and the grass cools your toes and if there’s a stream near-by it’s even better. In 1969 the summer was very hot. I was 14 years old and my parents had divorced when I was nine and I could count on one hand the times I had seen my dad. So when he drove up in his blue Mercury, (this was the car he’d hand-painted a pair of Mustang horses on the outside of the driver’s door; they were black and brown and stood fighting with hind legs raised toward each other) he was a talented artist, always unpaid, but the talent ran deep; he asked if I wouldn’t like to come stay at his place in the country for two-weeks and my mother, who couldn’t afford to feed another teen said, “why not” and I went.

Fourth of July weekend. Dad loved to cook. He’d set out half a dozen red and white tables, stripped six dozen ears of Jersey corn-on-the-cob, three grills sat with charcoal waiting to glow fiery red, then cool to the ash-amber to sizzle the meat. Dad had invited the guys from work and their families; a great celebration that would end with a brilliant display of fireworks he’d traveled to Virginia to buy with money he really didn’t have. Afternoon turned to evening. Hours passed. No guests arrived. For the first time in my life I saw my dad cry. Looking back on it, I figure he probably forgot to invite them. Dad didn’t know he was bipolar. Back in 1969, no one knew he was bipolar.

The depression that followed hit him hard. He figured the guys at work were laughing at him, they hated him, whatever the reason, no one showed up and dad slipped into darkness. Two nights later he swung into mania.

The little house sat back off the road with an acre that ended surrounded by woods and I looked out the window above the kitchen sink as I washed the last of our dinner dishes. There was a bonfire in a hand-dug pit and my dad sat beside it tossing on another small log. He was dressed in tan slacks, his chest was bare, men didn’t bare their chests back then, not my dad anyway, not unless he was at the beach. I left the house and walked up to him. He stared up at me from the fire, in the dark night, shadows from the trees painted lines across his face, his black hair cast blacker, his brown eyes shining. He tossed on another log and he said, “Did I ever tell you that your grandmother was Comanche Indian?”

“I thought she came from Naples, Italy?”

“No, that’s just a story. She was full-blood Comanche. She was married to an Indian Chief, and I am their son.”

He told me to sit beside him and he regaled me with old Indian lore, stories of the white man coming to America with yellow-fever and smallpox to wipe out his people, family history I’d never heard before, stories filled with drama that made Michener and Hitchcock sound weak.

The fire felt warm as dad rambled on, his stories seemed jumbled as he raced from one subject to another; Indian wars, medicine men, and then he said something about gypsies. I listened politely, after all he was my dad and it was the era when we still respected our elders, I hadn’t seen in him in a few years, but he seemed different, I was too young to identify mania; that night I locked my bedroom door behind me.

I’ve written, in a previous article, about my own diagnosis and years on lithium, but I failed to mention therapy. The great doctors won’t like this, but I think, as a patient, they should realize by now (perhaps they do) that most bipolar patients have inherited their disorder from someone and I think much time is wasted in sessions exploring our past. We need to get on with our lives. If you’re bipolar, you most likely have a story to tell and there’s always someone with a story that’s better. (The old joke: “Our family was so poor, we slept with nine kids in one bed.” To which the reply is heard, “YOU had a bed?!” )

I’m not saying we don’t need therapy, because it’s vital, no, it’s crucial, to our success, but in the case of our forefathers, I think it’s wise to realize that they were no different than us. They had their dark times and their mania. In fact, their’s was worse. There was no one to diagnose them, in most cases, no medication, no sessions. Our parents had little to work with, as did their parents, and their’s; who knows, maybe Mother Eve was manic when she heard that serpent talk to her in the Garden of Eden; where does our genetic trail end? How many sessions will it take?

I met with my father again in 1990, two months before he passed away with cancer. We sat at a table at an I-Hop where he joked with a waitress and rambled on about a fishing trip he’d just made to Hemingway’s country in the Florida Keys. He was living out of a hand-made camper that sat on the back of an old pick-up truck, traveling the country like a nomad in search of adventures. He carried a book by Mark Twain and another by Steinbeck. He stopped his joking for a brief moment and with a slight blush from beneath his olive skin he said to me, “Do you remember when I told you I thought I was an Indian?”

“Yes, dad.”

“I really believed that, you know. I wasn’t lying.”

“I know.”

“I don’t know why I thought that.”

“I do. It’s called, “affective bi-polar disorder, dad. You have it, I have it, grandmom had it, and her mom had it.”

“You know, she killed herself when she was thirty-eight, your great-grandmom.”

“Yeah, I know. You don’t have to live like this dad. They have a medication now, it’s just a salt, a natural mineral, your body needs it like a diabetic needs insulin.”

“I know. But, I’m too old, honey, I don’t want it. I’ve got cancer and I’m dyin’. But you take it. You live a good life, I know you can.”

My dad did what he could with his disorder and I believe other parents did the same. We need to do as he said and take our med’s and live a good life, because we can do it. I know we can.

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