Q. I am 23 years old. My mother was bipolar and had obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’ve been scared my whole life of getting what she had, since I’ve heard it’s hereditary.
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In the past year, I have thought I was going to swallow my tongue. It started when I was driving and now it happens any time. This past month I have become scared of going places because I think someone is going to hurt me. I can’t even go to the doctor or dentist, I’m so scared. I just moved to a new city and feel isolated. I am getting depressed because I sit at home 24/7. How can I be normal again?
A. While it is true that certain anxiety and mood disorders (which include bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder) tend to have hereditary components, that doesn’t mean you will suffer from these disorders. There is no one particular bipolar or OCD gene that you inherit, the way you inherit a gene for cystic fibrosis.
The impact of being raised by a mother who had significant psychiatric illnesses may be substantial. It is normal for a daughter to think she will grow up and be like her mother. In many ways, kids feel loyal to their parents and want to be like them. They feel bad if they prefer, instead, to be unlike their parent.
Still, because you are having these kinds of symptoms, you must see a psychiatrist for an evaluation. The symptoms you describe sound like agoraphobia, which involves fear of leaving the house and being in public places. This is quite treatable, as are OCD and bipolar disorder. You say you have just moved to a new city. This is hard for anybody. Feeling friendless and isolated as a young adult — after a childhood spent with a psychiatrically impaired mother — can certainly make you feel that you have few coping skills.
There is no evidence you are not normal now. You have many fears, which is understandable, given your past experiences as well as your current situation. But biology isn’t necessarily destiny. Your fears have become overblown and are creating symptoms for you. These symptoms are causing you to stop being engaged with the world. Psychiatric illness — or fear of such illness — can do that.
So it would be greatly relieving for you to get an evaluation and hear that these symptoms are, in fact, treatable. You can be treated with therapy, medication or both, depending on what a professional figures out is really going on. You do not need to turn into your mother.
Remember, too, it is a different time in the field of psychiatry than when your mother was ill. Treatments are much more varied and effective than they were a generation ago. Your mother may have had little or no treatment, or she may have had to settle for whatever treatment was available at the time. You do not need to suffer as she did.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: These days, many psychiatric illnesses are very treatable and responsive to therapy or medication. Don’t wait to seek help.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.
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