On Sarah Silverman, Mental Illness And Having Kids
“I don’t want kids. I know that I have this depression and that it’s in my family. Every family has their stuff but, for me, I just don’t feel strong enough to see that in a child.” These are words from comedian Sarah Silverman, discussing her mental health and her decision not to reproduce because of it.
Her comments inspired an article in TIME Healthland, bringing up a very interesting question: “Do people with depression or other psychological problems have any moral obligation to forgo bearing children in order to avoid passing on their “bad” genes?”
This question really caught my attention on a personal level. I’ve dealt with depression, anxiety and a whole slew of psychological issues since before I can remember. I’ve always known that if I have children, it’s very likely that they will inherit my overly sensitive mind, the intensity with which I feel everything from the wilting of a flower to the death of a family member, and the anxiety that turns every minor problem I encounter into a travesty of epic proportions.
However, I look at the situation differently than Sarah does. When I think about my childhood and the struggles I went through, how they drove me to isolate myself, spending most of my time in my room and on the computer, thinking, reading, writing and creating, there’s nothing I’d go back and change. At the time I would have given anything to just be “normal,” but today I’m grateful. My sensitivity, the thing that spawned all my inner turmoil, also helped me understand people and emotions, in turn making me a better artist and a better writer. It’s a difficult path and at times it’s been incredibly shitty, but ultimately it’s one that I’ve found rewarding. In fact, it’s something I would be totally okay with passing on to my children, especially with me there to help them along the way.
Now, don’t get me wrong: everyone has different experiences with depression and mental illness, and I don’t speak for anyone but myself. As for Sarah Silverman, she’s just speaking for herself based on what she’s been through, and I don’t fault her for her decision. I completely agree with those who have praised her for her honesty, bravery and sense of responsibility. As TIME says, “People with a parent or sibling with major depression are two to three times more likely than average to develop it themselves.” It’s a serious issue that should be taken as such, as Sarah is doing.
But TIME also posits something else to consider: “…the same genes that can cause depression may also encourage the sensitivity and sensibility that gives Silverman her creative talent.”
Atlantic writer David Dobbs has called such genes “orchid genes.” Like the finicky flowers, they thrive and outshine ordinary plants when grown in the perfect conditions, but otherwise rapidly wilt and die. In contrast, he describes “dandelion genes,” which allow healthy development, whether the setting is harsh or bountiful.
Some of the genes involved in risk for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), addiction and depression seem to share this quality, leading to vulnerability if early life is difficult but otherwise providing advantages. A recent study found also that people who had genes associated with better memory — a powerful aid to learning and intelligence — were more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder after trauma, compared with those without the same genetic variants. People with better memories had more flashbacks.
…Basically, whether a gene is “good” or “bad” depends on where it “lives” and how it is “raised.” And I would argue that even when people with orchid genes don’t have the benefit of a good early environment, their innate sensitivity to their condition can still often allow talent to flourish.
…This means that if you eliminate the genes that carry these mental-health risks, you may also do away with their associated benefits. The research suggests strongly that the genes associated with our most tragic psychological conditions may also carry the potential for our greatest talents and skills.
Mental illness is something very personal and manifests itself in many different ways. At the end of the day there are lots of people would trade intellectual benefits for a little bit of relief, but there are also those who find ways to use their depression to their creative advantage.
For those of you who have struggled with depression, what are your feelings? Would you or have you had children in spite of it? Feel free to leave us a comment and share.
Written by Rhiannon Payne
Header image courtesy of Kirstin, blog.violetaharrington.com