When You're the 'Sick Sibling'

My younger brother will turn 18 years old this year. It’s almost surreal to think he’s so close to adulthood. I remember when he was a baby, long before he grew taller than me. He seems to have all the components of an ideal adolescent life: excellent grades, strong friendships, respect from his peers, immaculate physical and mental health.

And then there’s me. When I was his age, I had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, had taken over a dozen different medications over the course of five years, been hospitalized and seen multiple doctors for health issues that we could only assume were medication side effects, just to name a few things. Funny how two people can turn out to be so different despite shared genetics.

While I am relieved I don’t have to watch my brother contend with the challenges I did, there is also a part of me that can’t help but feel jealous. Sometimes I think about how much I missed out on because I was constantly unwell. Had I not struggled with as many health issues as I did as a teenager, I could have been just like my brother. I could have had a near-perfect GPA if depression didn’t make me stop caring about everything. I wouldn’t have skipped classes or gone home early because I had a panic attack in the middle of class. I could have developed good friendships with other students instead of isolating myself. I wouldn’t have felt guilty for racking up so many medical bills for my parents over fruitless doctor appointments. I could have been happy and not missed out on so many adolescent experiences.

Of course, there is nothing I can do to change the past now. I don’t mean to sound like I’m looking for pity. I’m just trying to highlight all of the complex emotions that come with being the “sick” child, because I’m sure there are others who have similar experiences. And like any loving sibling, I’m glad that my brother is happy and healthy.

As anyone who loves someone with chronic illness knows, watching your loved one struggle can make you feel upset and helpless. But it can also help you develop a strong sense of compassion, as my brother has. While, to my knowledge, my brother has never had mental health issues, he has seen me at my lowest so he knows how debilitating depression can be. When a classmate died by suicide, my brother did not pass judgment or make hurtful comments. Instead my brother wore purple that week, the student’s favorite color and one of the colors of the suicide awareness ribbon. He doesn’t have to personally know someone to express kindness and compassion, and this is what makes me most proud to be his sister.

Even though I periodically lament what my health has taken from me, I try to redirect my focus to what I have gained. I have become stronger, wiser and more caring over the years. I have a deep sense of empathy for those who struggle, even if their challenges may be different from my own. I feel grateful for the days when I am present and at peace instead of ruminating over the past or worrying about the future. I have a greater appreciation for the days when I feel little to no physical pain and I focus on what I can do instead of what I can’t. I know that even when I feel consumed by darkness the storm will pass and eventually I will see the clear blue sky again.

Just like I can be proud of my brother for being a wonderful brother, friend and student, I can be proud of myself for being strong and resilient. I can take pride in my accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem. I hope everyone else dealing with chronic illness and mental health challenges can do the same.

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Getty image via ArminStautBerlin

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