Editor’s note: The following article is a part of the National Society of Genetic Counselors’ new patient blog post series. Written by real patients, these stories share a glimpse into the sometimes complicated world of genetics and the role a genetic counselor can play in helping people navigate their healthcare. If you are an NSGC member and have a patient interested in sharing his or her genetic counseling experience, please email Jennie Szink at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
By Rina Varley
I have a mental illness. I live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I’ve been in and out of therapy for almost half my life. I was 47 years old when I was properly diagnosed with the disorder, but I’ve felt different from other people since I was 8. This is a long time to wonder, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I like this? Did I do something to make me this way?”
The Search for Answers
I’m determined to find answers to these questions, not only for myself, but for others like me. In October, 2014, I decided to leave my career of more than 20 years in the corporate sector to write a one-woman show about living with GAD. No one recovers from mental illness alone, and I felt compelled to use my creativity to increase awareness for the fact that there’s a community of people who struggle with everyday life. My writing mentor, who worked with a genetic counselor herself, suggested contacting the Psychiatric Genetic Counseling Clinic for some help in finding answers to these questions that haunt me.
Enter Genetic Counselor, Emily
Emily, a genetic counselor, answered my email, and offered her expertise at no charge to help me understand that mental illness is a combination of nature and nurture. In addition to the environment in which I grew up, which includes my world at home with my parents, my siblings, my school environment and other stimuli that I encountered, there also is a genetic component over which no one has any control. This little piece of education changed my life. For the first time, thanks to the genetic counseling program, I learned that my disorder is nothing I caused, and comes through no fault of my own.
The Impact of Working with a Genetic Counselor
Working with a genetic counselor allows me to release the shame, guilt and fear that I have GAD because of an early childhood trauma. Emily helped clarify that trauma may exacerbate a mental disorder or illness, but trauma is not a cause. Emily also talks to me about what I can do to promote mental wellness. Proactive tools that increase my ability to enjoy life include:
- MedicationBecause of genetic counseling, I have been able to release years of doubt and suspicion about why I am the way I am. I now own my entire life.
- Lots of sleep (including naps because GAD is exhausting)
- Healthy eating at regular times
- Less sugar and alcohol
- Fresh air
Many of the items on this list are familiar to me because of my long history in therapy. And, honestly, most of these practices make good sense for anyone who wants to live their best life. The difference for me is that Emily’s list reaches my disorder from a scientific perspective, and is informed by critical data that supports what I know from therapy. It’s undeniable validation.
Because of genetic counseling, I have been able to release years of doubt and suspicion about why I am the way I am. I now own my entire life. I celebrate who I am, fully, with pure pride. Visit my website GAD to be Alive to see all of the positive ways my life has been affected by the diagnosis, including a one-woman show!
Learn more about causes of mental health-related conditions with this blog post by NSGC Psychiatric Disorders Expert Jehannine Austin. Find a genetic counselor in your area by using NSGC’s “Find a Genetic Counselor” tool.