The Orchid Hypothesis

As far back as anyone can track, my family has been riddled with mental illness.  The names have changed over time-hysteria, nervous breakdown, manic depression, bipolar disorder, major depression, melancholy, suicide, shock treatment, electroconvulsive treatment, lobotomy-but the general gist is clear.  In my blood, a thread of despair runs long and deep.

I have listed this familial history for a long succession of clinicians and psychiatrists over the years and it has usually had the effect of legitimizing my own suffering in their eyes. Well you do come by this honestly, they say.

Over the years I have been officially diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, adjustment disorder, panic disorder, major depressive disorder.  There might be more.  I’ve lost track. I have tons to say about the utility of labels or lack thereof, but for now I list these diagnoses in order to draw your attention to the many words we can give to the same problems.  

Hysteria, nervous breakdown, manic depression, bipolar disorder, major depression, melancholy, suicide, shock treatment, electroconvulsive treatment, lobotomy, general anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, adjustment disorder, panic disorder.

A reasonable person might conclude that I have a genetic predisposition to mental illness.  But aha! This is where the orchid hypothesis comes in.  Genetic models of mental illness have thus far examined mental disorders in the context of selective vulnerability.  That is to say, baby Jacqueline is born with a vulnerability to say depression and this vulnerability may be activated by certain environmental conditions.  Jay Belsky at the University of London, Bruce Ellis at the University of Arizona, and W. Thomas Boyce of the University of British Columbia have proposed a radical amendment to this theory.  It’s called the orchid hypothesis or the plasticity hypothesis or the sensitivity hypothesis or the differential-suceptibility hypothesis, and here’s how it works.   

The orchid hypothesis posits that a child is not born with a vulnerability towards a particular disorder, but rather with an overarching sensitivity to the environment. This means, that given a stressful environment, this sensitive child is likely to be maximimally impacted. Here’s the rub though; given an optimal environment, this same child will flourish and blossom, like an orchid. The dandelion on the other hand, is the  child who can  function well and continue to grow despite adversity. The dandelion is resilient, but the dandelion is unlikely to be the world’s next Picasso, Hillary Clinton, Virginia Woolf. You see where this is going right? As David Dobbs of the Atlantic writes, for the orchid:  “Risk becomes possiblity; vulnerability becomes plasticity and responsiveness”.

I look back at the various stages of my life and I cycle through the list of diagnoses, turning each over like a pebble or a shard of beach glass collected off the shore. It might seem like these labels are nothing to be proud of. They might appear to belong to someone who is weak or easily wounded. But then I also think of all my adventures, everything I have accomplished, all my talents. There is at least one to match every struggle and label. I see myself as an orchid, not a dandelion, capable of blossoming and bottoming out in equal measure.