Hey everyone, my sister is doing a guest post this month. You’ve heard from my mom and my dad, so it’s high time you heard from her.
Rachel runs my Facebook page and writes this month about what it’s like to have a brother with a mental illness and the experience of dealing with it while living so far away. -Chris
I remember waking up to the sound of water running in my kitchen. “Not a big deal,” I thought, although I was a little annoyed at having been woken up. I was actually a little annoyed already. And by a little, I mean a lot. It was the weekend of the dinner theater production I directed. My family had flown in from Colorado and I was excited to introduce them to everyone at the cast party. But they wouldn’t go. They went back to my place and told me to have a good time. Except I couldn’t really have a good time because, for the first time that I remembered, I had made a reasonable request of my family and they said no without much of an explanation. I didn’t really know what to make of it. And now I was being woken up in the middle of the night during an already stressful weekend.
My brain only has bits and pieces of what happened next. I know my parents got out of bed and started talking to my brother, who was the one running the water. I know somehow my brother ended up on my couch with the most blank and terrifying look on his face. I remember being afraid one of my cats would jump on his lap. I remember someone telling me that the water was running because he was trying to drown the voices in his head. I remember the family hug when he started to come out of it. I think this is when everything changed.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve already heard from my amazing parents. I’m their favorite daughter. I live with my two cats in southeastern Wisconsin where I teach 1st and 2nd grade at a small Lutheran grade school. I enjoy singing, baking, and all things related to technology. And my brother has schizoaffective disorder.
It’s taken me years to understand what that really means and how it affects my family. I know that I definitely get the easiest part of the deal. While my brother and parents are dealing with the daily ins and outs of this particularly terrible disease, I’m dealing with the stress that is teaching 6 and 7-year-olds — a cake-walk by comparison. For a long while I had no idea how bad it was. My parents chose to protect me and kept the details to themselves.
I know my parents absolutely had my best interest in mind and I would never fault them for their choice. In fact, it probably allowed me to treat my brother more “normally” than I might otherwise would have those first several years. But it also left me a little confused as to what was really going on. Gone was the goofy, nerdy brother I had grown up with. In his place was a person that I can now admit I was slightly afraid of. Not sure what would set off a psychotic event or how I should interact with him, I remember being stressed when I was home for vacation and my parents left for work.
I never knew quite what to expect when I came home. For awhile all the mirrors in the house were covered with paper because he didn’t like them. We couldn’t (and still can’t) watch movies together as a family, which was one of our main family activities when I was younger. One time I got home and my parents dropped me off and turned around to take him to the ER. He was admitted to the mental health floor and I spent my vacation with a visitor’s badge bringing my brother food because somehow the hospital couldn’t manage his gluten-free and vegan diet. Then there was the Christmas of ECT — another thing I shouldn’t have Googled.
At some point my parents and brother decided to fill me in on everything. The conversation happened on the back porch and it must have been spring because I don’t remember wearing a coat… although that deduction is not a very strong one. I learned more than I ever wanted to know in that conversation, but it’s good that I know it. Since that conversation I’ve been kept filled in on my brother’s amazing progress. Having more information has also helped me to share his illness with other people. It’s always amazing to me how many people are exposed to mental illness somewhere in their lives. Unfortunately, it’s one of those things you’re not really supposed to talk about. I’ve decided that social convention is dumb and will readily discuss mental health or share my brother’s story with anyone who will listen.
So how does all this affect my family? I think it’s made us more flexible, understanding, and accepting. Never in a million years did I think my parents would let a dog in their house, let alone sit on their laps. Allow smoking on their back porch because the psychiatrist suggested it would help? Didn’t envision that happening either. It’s possibly made us more boring, as we don’t get out and do many of the typical family things, but I have a feeling we’d be pretty boring no matter what.
As for me, I just try to be the best sister I can, which is what I hope I would do even if he didn’t have a mental illness. There are a few things I do differently. I definitely exploit his memory issues by asking him about birthday and Christmas presents, knowing full well he won’t remember the conversation later. I make sure I always have my phone charged and smart watch on so I get notifications if he needs something. I’m slightly more ambitious in my career than I think I otherwise would be, knowing that some day, when my parents aren’t able to, I’ll have the opportunity to provide more support. Other than that, it’s typical sister stuff; taking advantage of his computer knowledge, laughing at his bad jokes, and providing unconditional love and support. Mental illness can change a lot of things, but it has never and will never change how much I love my brother.
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