I’m 55 years old and I have an 8 year-old daughter, which is crazy enough. But getting to this point, being a parent with a mental illness, was a journey even crazier.
In my mania riddled early twenties I ended up married to an older woman named Sharon who I barely knew. I proceeded to tear the relationship apart with reckless behavior, and soon we were set to divorce. But Sharon was pregnant.
Sharon had been raised by a single mother and it had been rough. I was in no shape to be a parent. So we decided on an abortion. It’s a decision that still haunts me. Sharon was crushed, and I spent years in therapy working on the guilt.
But the years ahead, filled with irresponsibility, hospitalizations and suicide attempts would have surely damaged the kid, had she been born.
In my thirties I met and married a young doctor who also struggled with mental illness. We both spent time at the same psychiatric hospital, and we had the same psychiatrist (that’s another story). Theresa and I considered children, so we did a little research.
We found, in 1998, a study that placed the risk of two parents with affective disorders having a child with an affective disorder at 74%. I don’t know where this paper came from, but more recent research, which I’ll cite in a minute, shows a much different risk.
We decided not to have kids.
In the grips of raging bipolar disorder the decision alone was not enough. During a summer when I was hospitalized twice and underwent two-dozen ECT treatments, Theresa found a doctor who thought it was a good idea to sterilize a mental patient. I was definitely not of sound mind to make such a big decision, but I ended up having a vasectomy.
When I recovered fully from this little experiment in eugenics, Theresa and I, too, divorced.
By the time I reached my forties I was living stable with bipolar disorder. The condition was well-managed, and wild mood swings no longer disrupted my life. I met a wonderful, accepting woman named Niki, and I thought, finally, I could settle down and have a family.
We discussed the possibility of a child a lot: with each other, my doctor, family, and friends. We gathered all the information we could.
We learned that present research presented to the NIH shows that bipolar disorder is one of the most heritable medical diseases, with heritability rates as high as 85%.
The chance that a child of a parent with bipolar disorder will develop bipolar disorder I or II is 10 times more likely than that of the general population. The child is three times more likely to have Major Depressive Disorder.
That places the risk of bipolar disorder for first-degree relatives of individuals with bipolar disorder at 9%. The risk of Major Depressive Disorder among offspring is 21% (It’s interesting to note that the study is not conclusive on the weight of genetics in the heritability of bipolar disorder. Environmental factors may play a role).
So while it wasn’t probable, there was a good chance that a child of ours might grow up to have an affective disorder. But we determined that alone was not enough to deny a life, and that I will be better able than most parents to notice any early warning signs of mental illness, and to get our kid help if she needs it.
We found a doctor who could reverse the vasectomy, got married, and, after some difficulty, we had a daughter.
Raising a child is challenging, but she is worth a whole life of my suffering with mania and depression in her joy and wonder. While sometimes my moods lead Niki to despair that she’s living with two children, I think I’m a pretty good father.
The disorder still stands at bay. I’m so happy that it did not prevent me from having a child. I am glad I didn’t have one until I reached this level of living successfully with mental illness, and I’m so happy I met Niki and she was willing to take a chance and become a parent with me.
In the end, it has turned out to be a positive, enlightening experience that has helped to take me out of myself and to fully share a life with others. Raising a child is full of stress, but it’s full of healing, too.
Today it often seems that I’m the oldest dad on the playground. I’m certainly the luckiest. If you’re debating having a child because of your own mental illness, and you’ve got things mostly under control, you can make a positive, informed decision.
The numbers, and the experience, are on your side.