What “getting better” means for a sibling suffering from mental illness

The day my brother and I found birdseed in his shoes, we laughed. But as funny as we wanted to find it, the truth was that it frightened both of us, for different reasons. Neither of us knew how the birdseed ended up there, and so we played through the scenes that could have caused it.

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Did a team of mice fill their tiny mice-hands with seeds one-by-one before scurrying up the stairs repeatedly until they’d filled up his loafers? Was that old Pennsylvania farmhouse of his actually haunted like we’d suspected? Or had my brother stopped taking his meds? This theory worried me more than mice or ghosts. He reassured me that it wasn’t the case. He was just as confused as I was. It was around that time in our sibling-history that I’d driven the long, winding backroad to my brother’s home for what I’d hoped to be a happy visit. Driving there was like returning to a foggy place from our childhood – all of the roads were lined with property that no one seemed to own and the trees were colored with bright orange “No Hunting” signs meant to keep people out. His house itself was protected like a fortress with a tall, wooden fence meant to keep away strangers and loved-ones alike. Instead of being greeted by the brother I knew and loved, I was greeted by a man wearing sunglasses, the man whom the birdseed had scared. It wasn’t the least bit sunny outside that day and, given his nature, my brother surely wasn’t making a fashion statement. He’d worn the sunglasses to block me out. Better to hide behind these two small, dark shields than to have someone see into you that deep. “Even for me, though?” I’d asked. “I’m your sister. Let me see your eyes.” My brother has diagnosed with a number of mental illnesses over the years. One day he was one thing. The next, my brother had researched a new illness, proposed it to a different doctor, and then he’d have a prescription for that. I imagine that this ebb and flow of diagnoses, having taken place within his formative teenage years, presented a challenge to his identity. Who would he be outside of his illness? How do you build a life based on question marks? I can walk you through some of the moments that I believe triggered his illness initially, but I’m sure he sees those moments differently. All I can share is what I saw from my perspective: a sad boy shoveling gravel from our driveway into our kitchen sink with shaking hands, and the sad faces he drew on his bedroom walls with wax when he was a teenager. Really, that’s when it all began. Twenty years later, my brother is considered to have Schizoaffective Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder. The pathway that led to this point has been a long and strenuous one for our whole family. Growing up, there were long afternoons spent in the psychiatric wards of state hospitals that seemed more like movie sets than reality. The fact that my brother occupied a space there made these experiences slightly less scary. Even when he told me about seeing a spaceship land on the hill outside of Western Psych, I looked at him the same: like the older brother that hung my barbies from our home’s split-entry balcony. I’m 90% sure that this cruel act was a result of being a teenage boy, not the result of an impending mental disorder.

My brother’s life is quite different from the one that my mother and I had imagined for him. When cousins or friends ask if he’ll be attending the next upcoming event or wedding and I tell them he won’t, they look disappointed. I correct them, saying, “He’s good, though. He’s doing better than ever.” And I believe it. We need to recognize our loved ones’ notable milestones. My brother doesn’t leave the house, but he does live in his own house. He doesn’t make himself healthy meals from scratch, but he will fix himself a sandwich with a side. He doesn’t host a house full of friends for movie nights, but he did recently serve me a cup of coffee for the first time without my having asked. Progress manifests differently for everyone, and although these small strokes of normalcy seem insignificant, they’re not small for him. Success, for him (and for our relationship), is having a pleasant visit where no one’s wearing sunglasses, we don’t find birdseed in anyone’s shoes, and everyone’s mugs are full to the brim.

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