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Finding Peace With the Brother Who Wouldn't Look at Me

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This story occurs in seven-year increments, which is fitting because my brother is seven years older than me.

I first knew things weren’t going to be OK when I was 9 years old. My oldest, 16-year-old brother and my parents were arguing a lot; he was getting into trouble at school and with the law. When your parents are a school principal and a police officer, minor problems become even more amplified. When my brother was 16, he dropped out of high school and moved out of our house, never returning to stay for more than a month at a time. And just like he was in and out of our house, he’s been in and out of my life since then. Sometimes he would be missing for months at a time; sometimes years. He often would end up in other provinces and we would have no idea how he got there, only being notified by a concerned hospital worker or a kind police officer, who had no obligation to call us once he was over 18.

When he was 23 and I was 16, my brother was found by police wandering around Toronto in a psychotic state. He was admitted to a mental health institution and diagnosed with schizophrenia. He has never fully accepted this diagnosis and often finds himself in a cycle of going through treatment (often forced, by the Mental Health Act or a legal order), dropping treatment, disappearing for a while and turning up in a hospital or a jail.

All of this had a profound impact on me, both positive and negative. The positive: I knew I wanted to understand my brother and use my experiences to help others like him from a young age. The negative: the stress of having a struggling sibling puts a lot of pressure on you to feel like you need to be perfect. And so I tried my hardest in school, became a perfectionist and developed undiagnosed high-functioning anxiety, that fueled me for many years. The problem with high-functioning anxiety is that it supports so many positive things (productivity, achievement, attention to detail), that it often gets masked by the achievements associated with it. My physical symptoms got so bad that at 16, I would experience bouts of nausea so strong I would throw up over things like first dates; I would get heart palpitations while sitting still, watching TV. It took me years and a breakdown overseas to finally understand this was not merely something physical: this was anxiety and it had been happening for a long time.

After my breakdown, I learned to manage my anxiety in ways that worked for me. The drive I had never went away, and I was accepted into my top choice for graduate school at age 22 to study mental health. While it was always my dream to live in Vancouver, I was nervous: this had also been the place my brother frequently would turn up, and I hadn’t heard from him in a year and a half. The first five weeks I was there, I would look for him in every face along East Hastings St., scared to see him but more scared to miss him if he was there. But I was hopeful for a fresh start, away from the pain of my past. And while that is what I ended up getting, I didn’t get it in the way I expected.

Six weeks after my partner and I moved out west, and almost seven years after my brother’s schizophrenia diagnosis, we were walking to the bus in downtown Vancouver behind a homeless person who was talking to himself. After many years of visiting my brother in all kinds of places, this wasn’t something that made me nervous. But I noticed when he went to throw something out, missed and walked back to pick it up — this struck me as so familiar because my brother has terrible aim, and I’ve seen him do that exact gesture so many times. We were waiting a stop light, going different directions and I asked my partner if the man we saw looked like my brother. He said yes, but it was dark and hard to tell for sure. We crossed the street, heading for the bus, but I asked my partner to go back to make sure it wasn’t him. I waited, assuming he would quickly return and reassure me that I was wrong, but he never did.

I followed him across the street and saw him talking to the homeless man; as I got closer, I realized he was talking to my brother. I walked over, heart pounding and said his name, asking him to look at me. He kept talking but none of it made any sense — and refused to look at me. I knew that if he saw me, he would know who I was, and I began crying and pleading for him over and over to just, please, look at me. But he never did, and he quickly walked away. My heart broke that night. I went home and cried for two days, and my partner, full of concern, told me he couldn’t keep seeing me go through this.

I couldn’t keep going through this.

I booked an appointment with a counselor who specialized in family trauma. Together, we worked through the pain of that night, and my biggest fear of finally getting the call that my brother is not just missing, but gone. We talked through all the shame I felt over the mixture of feelings that call would bring — overwhelming grief, anger and relief, that he and we would finally be out of pain. It took me years to express that fear out loud. My counselor surprised me when she told me that she, herself, had received that call, and that it was OK and normal that I felt that way. By the end of our time together, we had worked out plans for the future, and agreed that my brother could no longer come in and out of my life as he had for so long.

Today is my brother’s 31st birthday; he lives in another province and I haven’t seen him since that night on the street. But we talked on the phone at Christmas, and I sent him a text to say Happy Birthday. He’s been on medication for a while now, though not by choice; after spending six months in the hospital last year, my mom was able to get a guardianship order to be in charge of his medical care. I will always love him and hope for the best for him. But I also want the best for myself, and all the other people I love and care about.

Just like flight attendants tell you before plans take off, you need to put your own mask on before assisting others. I learned to put my own mask on; to help myself, so that I can help others like my brother, and to be a good daughter, friend, dog mom and partner. Sometimes, the right decisions don’t always look so pretty on the outside; I struggle in my work to use my lived experience knowing that my relationship with my brother hasn’t truly been a relationship for years. I don’t tell many people that I don’t speak with my brother; in many situations, it’s easier not to mention him. It’s something a lot of people struggle to understand — family estrangement doesn’t align with our societal values. But I’ve finally found a peace that I couldn’t find, for years, that only came with acceptance and letting go. I couldn’t help him, but I can and do help others. And I’ll always hang onto a little bit of hope.

Originally published: April 29, 2020
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