Siblings with Severe Mental Illness: An Evolving Relationship
There is an undeniable connection between siblings. You came from the same family and grew up in the same environment. There will always be a shared past between siblings, whether they are close or not. But when your sibling is diagnosed with mental illness the personal history and the things you had in common can seem to disappear.
Life seems to stop and be consumed by their illness. An intangible connection can be seemingly swept right off the page. Something that therapists never told me was that one day I would just be happy to take what I could get.
The onset of my older brother’s schizophrenia began when he was in his early 20s, and suddenly a life full of promise and vivaciousness became consumed with paranoia. Still in college myself, I lived with my brother Pat at the time. When he began to act strangely, it took me longer than a year to convince others that something was terribly awry. When Pat finally got the help he needed, it was as if a bomb had gone off in the middle of our family. No one knew what to do next.
Other people had trouble wrapping their heads around it. They didn’t know anything about schizophrenia. They hoped that with medication we would never see another psychotic break, but at the same time therapists were telling them that Pat might never be the same again. Almost 10 years later, I can tell you definitively that Pat hasn’t been the same since then.
Since his diagnosis, our parents divorced. I moved out of state for graduate school. Our mother moved out of state, too.
Pat no longer works. He lives alone. Although he is on a long-term injectable antipsychotic and a cocktail of other medications, he still struggles with paranoia. He often has breakthrough positive symptoms — delusions. He struggles with social phobia. He rarely leaves the house and never goes anywhere alone. All of his groceries and other needs are met by family members. He struggles with personal hygiene and our father has concerns that if he leaves the house alone someone will “think he’s homeless,” so no one who sees Pat on a regular basis is advocating for him to get out of the house.
I don’t see my brother very much, which is unusual since he used to be my best friend in all the world. He doesn’t talk on the phone and rarely sends text messages. We email sometimes. We correspond primarily about music and movies, sometimes politics — an old passion of his. He was in graduate school studying political science during the onset of his illness.
One of the hardest things was dealing with our parents’ divorce while Pat was floridly psychotic. There is a lot about that time that he doesn’t remember, and a lot I didn’t tell him because he wasn’t in a place where he could process it. When he’s experiencing positive symptoms, Pat’s like a ball of energy that’s consumed solely with his delusions. Nothing else gets in, except maybe cigarettes.
To this day, I forget to tell him things. I mean, who is the first person you talk to about events that take place in your family (i.e., birthday, a graduation, a divorce, a new job). Your siblings. But that connection between Pat and I has been broken and reconnected several times over the years. Throughout the course of his illness, he’s gone through periods where he couldn’t care less about what anyone is up to, for that matter. You might as well be telling him about the weight and temperature of methane on Titan.
Do I wish things were different? Of course I do but just short of moving and making Pat’s life my full-time job, there’s little I can do.
I’m not pleased with his lack of a treatment plan, the fact that he doesn’t see a psychologist or any therapist on a regular basis. I wish he was enabled to do things for himself, not have things done for him. I wish that Pat would advocate for himself but he lacks motivation. In the end, it’s out of my hands.
See, one thing that doesn’t change just because your sibling is sick is the fact that you have a lot of opinions about how your brother or sister leads his or her life, but most of the time it’s none of your business. My brother is going to do whatever he wants.
Furthermore, Pat respects me and the way I live my life. He doesn’t pass judgment on decisions I make or put down anything I do. I can pay him just as much respect.
I do miss being close to my brother. There’s a lot going on in my life that I don’t get to share with Pat anymore. As a person who lives thousands of miles away, I’ve found that I can be what Pat needs me to be. I’m his friend, an outlet to his peer group. I’m very proud of that responsibility and proud to be his sister.
Newman, S. (2020). Siblings with Severe Mental Illness: An Evolving Relationship. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/siblings-with-severe-mental-illness-an-evolving-relationship/