My Son Sam

He may have inherited more than he bargained for


Reprinted from "Families" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2(3), pp. 22-23

stock photoI have fraternal twin boys about to turn seventeen. Being sons of mine may turn out to be the most difficult experience they will ever have to go through. These boys are intelligent, good-looking and artistic. They are also excellent athletes. To meet them, you would likely comment on how polite or well adjusted they are - that is, of course, if you were unaware of the home life they have had to endure, by no choice of their own.

Children often take on various genetic qualities of previous generations. I inherited mental illness from my father and his parents before him. Now, one of my sons appears to have inherited some of the illness as well. When we saw the first ultrasound, I remember one of them being very peaceful, just floating along, while the other one was highly active. Throughout the pregnancy, the active one kept the three of us awake many nights before he even entered the world. After he was born, he suffered colic for quite some time and we didn't witness his first smile until he was three months of age.

I was a nervous, firsttime mother with two babies and soon after their birth, began to have intense anxiety attacks. Trying to be a 'perfect' mother, I would clean the house and the infants constantly. Having been raised in a very dysfunctional family - with an abusive, alcoholic, (undiagnosed) bipolar father and a mother who left when I was 11 - I intended to do better.

The boys were given lots of love and attention from the start. I remained at home, while my husband worked long hours to save for a down payment on our first house. Shane was a relatively peaceful child, while Sam was highly active, very impatient and unable to sit still for longer than a few minutes.

The boys attended school and were generally happy. From an early age, Sam was able to mimic me and do everything he put his hand to, not unlike me as a child. I believed that with positive reinforcement and attention instead of abuse and criticism, he would fair far better than I had.

At twelve years of age, however, he had his first bout of depression. The boys were now in Grade Seven and at a new school. Shane began to excel, but Sam broke his collarbone and missed a great deal of school. When he went back, he was far behind and became overwhelmed. He cried every night and became extremely depressed.

Upon the doctor's advice, he was put on an antidepressant that unfortunately caused him to become psychotic and violent. He ended up in Children's Hospital and became increasingly worse with the various medications they tried. Even though we live over an hour from Vancouver, either my husband or I would be there with him for several hours every day. In the end, we removed him entirely from the hospital environment, took him off all of the medications and gave him Chinese herbs prescribed through the Dean of the College of Chinese Medicine. Within a few weeks, he was like his old self.

Sam developed anger issues that we tried to get him to address in counseling, but he has always been very private about his feelings and wouldn't willingly talk to the people who tried to help him.

Two and a half years ago, I became manic for the first time in over 20 years and left my husband and children. Shortly thereafter, I spent a period of time on a psychiatric ward. The boys, who were 14 at the time, were scared, confused and angry. There is a great deal of stigma surrounding anyone with a mental illness within high school, so I am pretty sure they didn't talk to too many people about what they were going through. Upon my return, it took several months for me to recover and then try to carry on where we had left off.

Over a year later, with a number of stressors in my life, I experienced another breakdown, but this time the boys did not visit me in the hospital, and my husband sent me to live in Vancouver for several months. Upon my return this last September, I noticed a great deal of change in both boys. Shane had emotionally distanced himself from me. Sam was struggling with his anger towards me, using marijuana regularly and blaming me for everything that was not going right in his life. His grades began to slip, and although he is trying to quit weed, he finds it to be a relaxant. Sam will be entering Grade 12 next year, and he has some catching up to do since he has only been doing one course this semester. Like I was, he is not comfortable sitting in class for many hours.

As he tries to find his first paying job, I worry a great deal about whether or not Sam will be able to cope or if he will follow my pattern of more serious mental illness as the stressors in his life increase. I would love to protect him and keep him cushioned from all the unpleasant experiences he may go through, but he adamantly insists that I don't know how hard it is for him and he is unwilling to talk to me without blame. He also refuses to take medication even though he did take an antidepressant to help him sleep when I was away. I have apologetically taken the blame for all of my children's ups and downs for many years. Unfortunately, it is virtually out of my hands now as they are almost ready to head out on their own.

This hereditary illness - that my father, his siblings and my own sister all have - still needs a great deal more research and funding before we can correct the chemical imbalances involved. We also need to get to the bottom of the other contributing factors so we can learn to cope with them better and perhaps break the cycle of stress and illness before it leads to worse experiences.

About the author

Tara lives in Mission and is grateful for the support she has received as a member of the Mood Disorders Association of BC