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How to Make Your Own Genogram

by Patty E. Fleener M.S.W.

I am 47 years old and trust me, I have been mentally ill for some time. Through the years, I have developed some coping techniques and I have recovered quite nicely compared to the life I used to live. However, I have noticed that mild depressions and either full blown manic episodes and hypomania still rear their head once in awhile. 

The full blown manic episodes seem to be the result of mistakes in medicine changes. For example, going from 150 mgs. of Wellbutrin twice a day to three times a day brought on a full blown manic episode within 3 days. It scared my ex- husband so bad he was considering phoning the police. 

He always called the crisis line to find out how to deal with me, hoping I will talk with them. In the state I was in during those times, I not only refuse to speak with them, I tell them where to go in no uncertain terms in the background. As I mentioned before, I do a good imitation of my antisocial personality disorder grandfather. 

I don't know if you have noticed or not, but there is a way that people in prison hold their bodies, the way they walk, the way they talk and what they talk about. You will pick up the similarities. I noticed it recently during the science fiction movie "Pitch Black" in the guy who played the prisoner - Vin Diesel. He played the part very well. He was a dead ringer for my grandpa. 

My other grandfather was in the state mental hospital most of his adult life. He came home on occasion. No one ever knew or at least discussed his diagnosis but I learned he had hallucinations, was catatonic sometimes and I suppose he was probably schizophrenic.

I used to think that we inherited the same exact disorder that was in our family background but from what I understand now from Paul Markovitz, Ph. D., M. D., mental illness begets mental illness and it can come in a different form. 

I invite all of you to do a genogram. It is very similar to a family history. You make a square for a male and a circle for females. Start out with yourself at the very bottom of the page along with your siblings and draw a line connecting to them. They are all at the same level. You can, however go down and include your children below you and show your husband or ex-husband (their father) and your children are an offshoot of the line that links you and your husband.

Above you and your siblings, put your parents and above your mother, put both her parents, and above your father put his parents and so on. You will also include your aunts, uncles, etc.


When you have finished, you will write in the people that are divorced "Div 1966" That would be the year of divorce. Then put the new partner in there.

If anyone is deceased, go ahead and put all the info as the rest but at the end put a big X over it.

Okay, here is what you do to each and every person. You put a symbol in each person that has this trait. Here are the symbols that I came up with:

Bipolar Disorder-BP
Borderline Personality Disorder-BPD
Mentally Ill (not sure of diagnosis)-MI
Divorced more than once-D
Drug Addict-DA
Sexual Abuser-SXA
Sexually Abused-SA
Child Abuse Survivor-CA

Be sure to add anything you feel is important and make your own code.

You will begin to see what you have never seen before. You will begin to see things being passed down. Many of these disorders are genetic - substance abuse, suicidal tendencies, mental illness, divorce, bipolar disorder, BPD, etc.

You will begin to see what kind of family history you have.

When I did mine, I was astonished. My brother was killed at age 20 and yet he was a drug user, he was extremely depressed and very suicidal as I learned later. All this at the precious age of 20. I began to understand that I was not alone with my disorders. 

When you take a look at your genogram you will understand why there should be no guilt on your part for your disorders. Anger at your family? They got it the same way you did. Who should they be angry with? 

I remember my daughter being really angry with me saying, "Why did you even have a child?" My answer was simple. "I didn't know I had these problems when I had you."

Am I telling all of you with mental health disorders not to have children? Of course not. Have your children but I do advise you to do your homework ahead of time and read books like the one I mentioned earlier. There is no reason that we cannot have stable lives, as the BPD and the BP are treatable. If you can be stable when your child is born and if you are knowledgeable about treatment for mental health disorders, you can be an excellent parent for your child.

More information about genograms here.

MH Today Attention Deficit Bipolar Borderline Personality Depression
Gender Identity Narcissistic Personality PTSD Schizophrenia Suicide

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Amazon Related Books


Genograms: Assessment and Intervention

Genograms in Family Assessment

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