How I've Learned to Open Up About My Brother's Mental Illness
The first time I walked into the counseling center at Syracuse University, I was a sophomore writing an article about mental health services on campus. The center’s director hadn’t returned my emails or my call, so like the up-and-coming journalist I felt myself to be, I stormed to the front desk and feebly asked the woman behind it if the director was available. He wasn’t. I turned to walk out the door but gravitated towards a wall of pamphlets, each boldly claiming its area of expertise. “Eating Disorders,” the blue one said. “Coping With Stress,” said a paler yellow one. A black cover, personally targeting me, screamed: “Dealing With Mental Illness in the Family.” I grabbed it and put it in my backpack.
Later that night I skimmed its contents but eventually threw the pamphlet away. I didn’t talk much about my brother’s mental illness and needed to rid myself of evidence that might start a conversation I wasn’t ready to have. Besides, the concept of a pamphlet created for me — the sibling, the survivor — didn’t make sense. I was the lucky one.
I didn’t understand at the time that the stigma that stops people from getting help prevented me from being honest about the emotional toll mental illness had on my family. I stayed quiet about my life at home, not because I didn’t need to talk or didn’t want to talk but because I didn’t think people would understand. Or worse, I was afraid the situation would be dismissed. Or worse-worse, I was afraid I would be pitied. I could hear myself telling watered-down versions of stories to a select few, lined with, “But it’s OK,” and “Everything will be all right.” But sometimes I wasn’t so sure, and withholding a huge part of my life made it hard to feel close to anyone at all.
I coped by writing about mental health issues in journalism classes, telling my story consistently, vicariously, without having to say a word. It was easy. I was busy. I isolated myself when I got calls from my brother and told my friends I was going home when I visited him in the hospital. I often drank too much the night before school breaks, unable to properly express my anxiety. Everything I accomplished in college came with a dose of surviver’s guilt because my brother — talented and smart and only a year and a half younger than me— couldn’t do the same. I felt completely unsupported in a box I’d created for myself, afraid to even talk to my family who I thought had too much going on to deal with me.
A document released by the National Alliance on Mental Illness called “Impact of Mental Illness on Well Siblings: A Sea of Confusion,” notes common experiences of those with mentally ill siblings. Here are some quotes that stuck out:
“Although many siblings acknowledge that their parents were doing the best they could, siblings frequently feel neglected or ignored.”
“Family rituals and celebrations are often interrupted by mental illness.”
“Many brothers and sisters begin an information-seeking crusade to acquire information and skills.”
“Some siblings report that they experience dual lives as they try to conceal their pain, confusion, and strife from others. Some siblings create the appearance that they lead a carefree, happy life by not telling others about mental illness or family chaos. This can limit the quality of connections with peers, because such dual lives often preclude genuine, open relationships with others.”
After seeking counseling and opening up to more friends, I’m slowly trying to weave my two lives together. Rather than isolating each other, they can support each other, and instead of assuming people won’t understand or shutting down when they don’t, I need to speak up. If we want to make the world a better place for our siblings, our daughters, our sons, our loved ones — a place where they can confront their demons without shame — we have to be honest. We cannot carry shame.
I once interviewed a woman who told me, “Having someone with mental illness in your family is the most isolating thing in the world.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. Everyone has the right to keep their personal lives personal, and out of respect for my brother, there are details I still keep to myself. But acknowledging the personal impact of my family situation has been important for my own mental health.
It’s easy to succumb to survivor’s guilt, and I still consider myself lucky, but I know I’m lucky in others ways, too. I’m lucky because I have supportive friends. I’m lucky because my family, no matter what, will always fight for my brother. I’m lucky because my brother, the bravest person I know, is also my best friend, and I wouldn’t trade that luck for anything in the world.
You are not alone. If you have a family or a friend who is living from a mental illness, you may find this helpful.
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