The end of Writer’s Block

I wrote the rest of this post yesterday here. Thank you again to Bill for giving me a topic I could bite into.

Back to my thoughts on the subject of drug use and mental illness sufferers.

Speaking of sufferers, I am one. I have dealt with a cyclical recurrence of minor depression through out my adult life. Judging from the statistics above, that set me up to be very likely to become someone who used and even abused recreational drugs. Bill wanted to know how I’m not someone who’s done much use. For a background, I am a social drinker with 1-2 drinks a week average. I spent about 6 months smoking an average of one-two cigarettes a day which I quit cold turkey and never went back; it isn’t a lot, but it was enough to be addicted and smell like smoke for weeks. I have tried marijuana once and did not like it in the slightest. I have had only minor pain pills given to me for pain relief after the few surgeries I have had.

So, my use never has even really bordered on abuse and one could say that I avoided a significant use even to be called more than average. How did that happen? I can say that when my symptoms of mental illness came on is a big part of it. My most harrowing bout with depression was when I was 16. I feel I became a different kid at that time. And, by that time, my frontal lobe of my brain was already developing at a nice pace.

You see, I was pretty lucky in my upbringing. My parents kept me busy with mind-occupying challenges, body-wearying activity, and spiritual direction to something higher than myself. They also loved me without condition; no matter how bad I screwed up, I always knew that they loved me. Those aspects of my life prevented me from even being exposed to drugs much until I was in my mid-late teens. I couldn’t steal cigarettes from my mom because she didn’t have any. I was so busy with school clubs that I didn’t even know where I could have gotten any drugs, much less how to use them. The only thing I was exposed to was alcohol, as 95% of kids in Wisconsin are. With a farmer who was a Marine for a father and a teacher for a mother, I couldn’t bring  myself to even steal a swig of alcohol until was almost 16. By that time, I had acquaintances who were already going to drinking parties and getting high in the back woods. I was definitely not up for that. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. This strict yet loving atmosphere is what I credit with staying out of drugs.

Also, the late onset of my depression symptoms made it so that I was able to develop some coping skills during my preteen years before I got to the point where my brain was attacking me. On top of that, I didn’t have the typical stresses that a teenage girl has. I didn’t start dating until I was 16, again because of my parents’ strict training. I was pretty much a nerd, so school and extra curriculars offered by the school were what I spent my time on. I did not care about fashion, being raised on a farm. Makeup wasn’t even an option for me because it was so expensive and I didn’t want to give up the time necessary to wear it; the same idea went for my hair. Basic and simple was my approach to all things “girly”. Having less stress about these sorts of things kept depression something far away until I was 16.

Being able to develop my brain normally for most of my early and mid teenage years was important for my impulse control. Although I still had slips of impulse control, I was able to reason easier than someone who has mental illness symptoms and substance use from a young age. I also knew that I didn’t want to deal with the consequences of use. I was too lazy to pay for fines and too easily bored to sit in a holding cell. Being sheltered in a small town kept me out of the rings of dealers and having lots of people watching out for me kept me accountable. I also hate feeling out of control of my own body.

It all adds up to me being able to be part of the non-users that experience psychiatric disorders. I’m grateful that I don’t have to wonder if my mental illness is a side effect of my drug use. About 6 months ago, I did notice that drinking lead me to feel more depressed for a few days afterward. You’d think I would have predicted that, considering I have my degree in Chemistry and had extensive classes on recreational drugs in my classes for a Criminalistics emphasis. I guess I hadn’t put 2-and-2 together until I was feeling like staying in bed for 17 hours after having a few beers the night before. Giving up drinking helped me for a time, but the depression symptoms held on. Psychiatric Disorders are not always created by recreational drugs, but are almost always exacerbated by them. I’m glad I noticed before it became danger level depression.

Mental illness and substance abuse are something that obviously go hand-in-hand. We have seen the repercussions of them both in our family. It’s helpful to both of us that we try to keep our noses pointed in the right direction and we have some great support systems to keep us out of a bad lifestyle. We’re hoping that will come soon for our boys too and they’ll be able to be more stable as they grow into the great young men they both are destined to be.

We’ll keep you informed on how our adventures in mental wellness are going. It’s not an easy road and it’s not immediate, but we will continue on this path. Stay safe, all, and we’ll see you on the road.

How does genetics fit in?

Genetics is the study of inheritance; it’s finding out what traits are handed down from lineage and what is environmental. Everyone is affected by genetics because we all have parents, who we got our genetic traits from.

Many factions of scientists track genetics through the generations. Most use a “genogram”for a reference for their research in one line or for one person. A genogram is like a family tree in that you put all of your ancestors, siblings, and relatives into the chart. Then, you track who had the trait in question and who may have had the trait but was unconfirmed. The creator may use interviews with family, birth & death records, as well as criminal records and past diaries to fill in the blanks. This is usually a good way to find out if a trait is environmentally induced or if it is genetic.

Talking about and noticing these types of traits gets me jazzed. I have my Bachelors of Science in Chemistry with an emphasis in DNA analysis & Criminalistics. Genetics was my favorite college course because the connections are so interesting. When you know a lot about a subject, it becomes more interesting. Plus, genetics is kind of a puzzle with clues as far as I’m concerned; it’s like a mystery novel.

It got even more interesting for me when Jeremy and I started talking about mental illness. He and I are both strong believers that mental illness can be both genetic and environmental. How this is described in the scientific world is usually comparison of expressivity and penetrance. In layman’s terms, expressivity is how much an individual displays a given gene trait and penetrance is how many individuals in a genetic pool are likely to have the gene for that trait.

This is where most average people hit a wall right now. There hasn’t been a phenomenal wealth of research done on the genetics of most mental illnesses. There are also a lot of barriers to proper diagnosis of mental illnesses because of the lack of research.

The National Institute of Mental Health, a division of the National Institute of Health (NIH) is trying to remedy that. They have greatly increased their research basis in the fields of mental health in the last 10 years. As a result, new medicines, treatments, and diagnosis protocols are being created every day.

Now, we are hoping to be a part of some of the research. The NIMH is currently running a research study called “Investigating the Genetics of Bipolar Disorder in those affected and their family members”. Finding this study has really opened our eyes to how our family members, primarily Jeremy’s family of origin, may be affected by Bipolar disorder. We’re hoping they will also partner with us to help with this study.

To really understand why we’re interested in it so highly, we need to talk some about Jeremy’s illness. He was diagnosed at 28 years old after years of struggle. He was divorced, had two children, worked the same job for 8 years, and had recently lost another relationship. When first treated, he was treated only for depression. He was given Effexor. As was common with this medication, when Jeremy still didn’t feel “well”, they increased his dosage. The more they increased it, the more his symptoms grew. He started having days and weeks of mania, very high anxiety and agitation, and delusional thoughts. One day he couldn’t take it anymore and he was taken to the hospital.

He ended up in an inpatient psychiatric treatment program. This is what you’d do for anyone with a severe illness; for severe pneumonia, they’d go to the PICU; for an infection they’d stay in the ICU. Think of inpatient treatment as the Intensive care unit for psychiatric cases. While there, he participated in many tests and many group sessions, as well as individual counseling. The psychiatrist determined that his response to Effexor was because he wasn’t depressed; he has bipolar disorder or cycling manic-depression.

Finding the right diagnosis makes it a lot easier to get the right treatment, but it is still not easy. Many of you have read my entry here about the mental illness in our life and the treatments we are currently seeking for it. There are hundreds more treatment options that we haven’t had to seek out yet. There are also a lot that we have tried that have not helped a lick. While in the hospital, the doctors tried many different medicines with Jeremy. Since going back on medication in 2012, there have been a few more added to the list. For some, they never find the “right” medicine for them. We are grateful that Jeremy’s found one that helped him.

Now, bring in the fact that his children struggle with illness too. The youngest is currently in residential treatment. Over the last month, the doctors there have reached out to see parallels between Jeremy’s evolution with mental illness and his son’s. In turn, they tried the medicine that’s been helping Jeremy. Lo and behold, his son has started to see some progress with impulse control and mood stabilization. That got me thinking of genetics.

When I started searching information on genetics and bipolar disorder, I found the study on the NIH site. Jeremy and I have discussed a little how his illness may be genetic. We have looked at his kids dealing with what the do, but we’ve also taken information from his family about some of Jeremy’s relatives and possible mental health issues.

Mental health is just becoming something that is viewed as a health issue instead of a stigmatized character flaw or weakness. In generations past, people were billed as “crazy”, “unstable”, or “psycho”. They were pushed out of society because of their odd behaviors or ideas. People with mental illness were avoided instead of being understood. There may well have been quite a few people who had some high functioning form of mental illness that were just outcast because of their odd life. Even in more recent generations, such as our parents, people with mental illness often didn’t seek diagnosis and treatment because of the stigma attached to it.

That’s what a genogram looks at. Jeremy and I both believe that doing this kind of exercise could be very telling for our family. We are hoping that this NIH study will accept him as part of the study; we are also hoping that some of his family members will join him in participating if they can. It would be telling to find out if there are genetic markers for bipolar disorder. To have a definitive way to diagnose this horrible disease would be one step in the right direction for a viable treatment.

Until then, we’ll keep doing what we can find that helps; we’ll be working on running the race that God has put in front of us. Stay safe out there, my friends. We’ll see you on the road.