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What It's Like to Be There for My Sister in Her Mental Health Recovery

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My sister lives around the corner from me. From my window, I can see hers, and when I get home at the end of a work day, I check to see if her light is on. You may be thinking really, Shazya, your sister is 22. You don’t need to check up on her. But for me, this light represents something else, something fragile, something I’ve dealt with for years but couldn’t find the words to describe.

This light represents my sister’s mental illness.

My sister and I have always been close. While “close” has changed in meaning as we’ve grown older, grown as individuals and moved out on our own, she has always been an important person in my life. We’ve had our challenges too. When we would argue as kids, she would become angry very quickly, much to the confusion of myself and our parents. We didn’t know exactly how to deal with this anger, and frequently ended up fighting further because we were perplexed as to how something we thought was so small could end up so big. The sounds of Eminem would blare from her room as I tried to determine why she was so angry and what went wrong.

This happened again, and again, and again. We fought, and made up and the cycle repeated. I remember often knocking on her door a few minutes after a fight to say sorry for the part I played. The thought of her being angry at me was much worse than the pride I had to swallow to apologize. And life went on.

In 2007, I moved away for university. Our relationship strengthened. We had to work harder to keep in touch, we began to value each other’s opinions more, and I finally felt a shift in our relationship: from sisters to best friends. She knew me and I knew her.

Except that I didn’t really know her. I knew the person she was hiding behind. And it wasn’t until years later, when she left home for university, that I realized.

One night in August of 2013, while I was vehemently ill with food poisoning, my dad called. My sister was in the hospital. She had tried to kill herself only hours earlier. My sister. Kill herself. End her own life. Die by suicide. My mind could no longer compute.

February 6, 2017 marked three years since my sister started her blog, Surviving by Living. What began as a casual conversation where I suggested that she write about her journey as a form of catharsis and healing turned into a flurry of posts at 4 a.m. on a weeknight. While I was sleeping, she bared the details of her reality: lack of sleep, thoughts of self-harm and self-doubt, loss of appetite, detachment from friends and family and many other symptoms I wasn’t privy to. Until I read her posts, I was unaware of the extent to which my sister was struggling. From then on, nothing was the same. I was the sister of someone who tried to kill herself. The one in five statistic was no longer just that – it was real. It was happening to my family, my sister. And there was nothing I could do to escape or prepare.

A part of me wishes I could say that I’m OK, that I’m strong (because society tells us that OK equals strong), and that three years have passed and my family and I have made significant progress in our ability to understand mental illness and how it manifests physically, emotionally, socially and professionally. We have made progress. But the reality is, sometimes mental illness doesn’t go away. Ever. And it has no mercy. It rears its ugly head repeatedly and without warning. Thoughts of why her? What did we do to make her feel this way? What was so bad about her childhood? Why couldn’t we fix it? Why doesn’t she understand that we love her? Why isn’t our love enough?

I don’t want to have these thoughts anymore. I’m tired of them. I’m frustrated that my mind can’t always comprehend them. I’m frustrated that it has taken me this long to admit my sister’s mental illness has affected me too. I’m frustrated at myself for thinking her illness has affected me as much as it has her. Am I being selfish? I’m frustrated that even after a few years of therapy and her working on recognizing her emotions as distinct emotions rather than just anger, we still occasionally fight like we did when we were kids (except now, if she blares Eminem, I can’t hear it). I’m tired of second-guessing whether I should bring up something my sister said or did that bothered me, for fear of making her feel unwanted. I’m angry she has to endure this, and that I can’t always understand. I’m upset about the toll this has taken on my parents, on my friends, on my support systems who don’t always know what’s wrong or what to say but hold me up anyway and without question. I’m scared of hurting her further.

Amid the frustration though, there are moments of hope. When a friend calls me because she is having troubled thoughts and I somehow find the words to comfort her. When my parents are worried because my sister hasn’t answered their texts in a week and I can appease them because I know she’s having a busy week, because she communicated openly that she’s stressed and overwhelmed. When a friend is having an anxiety attack and I know that I can’t do anything to stop it except hold his hand and tell him I’m not going anywhere. And when my sister and I can meet up after work for a drink and have the most incredible time laughing, recounting the details of our days and truly enjoying each other’s company. When we can forget about depression and forget about mental illness, even for a second.

Those moments reassure me I’m not supposed to know everything there is to know about mental illness and mental health just because my sister grapples with it. I’m not supposed to be strong or have it all figured out all the time – I’m human too. It’s OK not to be OK, and admitting that doesn’t mean I’m weak. I’m allowed to get annoyed when I send my sister eight texts in a row and she doesn’t answer. I won’t be hurting her by expressing my feelings clearly. My mental health matters too. But mostly, those moments show me that my sister is not her illness. And while I could claim I knew that before, I didn’t. My sister has no control over how she reacts to situations sometimes, but she is working on it. She doesn’t choose the days when she wakes up feeling like she’s surrounded by darkness, but she still gets out of bed. She is resilient, brave, courageous and an inspiration to me every single day, but I would have described her the same way even before I knew about her illness. I am her biggest fan and her number one cheerleader, and nothing has hurt me more than watching her go through what she has thus far.

But she is healing. She is learning about herself and her emotions, her capacity to be a sister and a friend, and her purpose. And I’m learning too. It will still be challenging, and frustrating, and emotionally draining, and exhausting, but she is healing. And I’m healing too. Seeing her light on at the end of the day tells me she’s probably watching TV in bed, eating bad takeout and drinking a glass of wine. But it also tells me she’s alive, she’s safe and she’s home. My sister is home.

Follow this journey on Surviving by Living

Originally published: March 1, 2018
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