I live with a sorrow that is buried deep inside that I competently hide most of the time. My life changed when I was barely out of childhood as a twelve-year-old adolescent. That is when my older brother started acting strangely and had what was then called a “nervous breakdown.” Little did we know that he was receiving a life sentence of schizophrenia and the rest of us would be along for the excruciating ride.
The Tough Reality
My parents were struck hard when their beloved firstborn started acting up. They were bewildered and couldn’t understand why this happened or why the little blue pills prescribed by the psychiatrist did not cure him. We grew up in the penicillin shot generation. A shot could cure almost everything, but in the case of my brother – with hallucinations, delusions, and emotional turmoil – there was no shot or treatment or pill or quick fix that could help him. This was despite the best of intentions of my parents, fervent prayers, endless tears, and unwavering support by our family.
From the time he was a senior in high school, my brother’s life became difficult. He was smart and capable, but his condition meant he would not finish college, could not hold a job or become financially independent, and had numerous run-ins and blow-ups with others. Confrontations were commonplace, even sometimes resulting in threats to call the police. Though, for the most part, he stayed out of trouble, we lived waiting for the proverbial shoe to fall. We learned to never rock the boat and to not question his irrational thinking.
When I was in high school with my brother – who was four years older than me – being sick, it was difficult. I wasn’t a carefree, silly teenager. I was serious and mature and held the secrets of our family close, not wanting my friends to know about my brother and the turmoil at home. This kept me somewhat separate and aloof at times. I learned to put on a good face and to lie to protect him and our family. Once a supposedly “close” friend who had heard about my brother being ill wanted to confirm the gossip but didn’t really care about him. I told her he was just fine.
A Schizophrenic Career
In his early twenties, he wanted to be an insurance salesman, emulating a wealthy relative extremely successful in the insurance business, but when that did not work out for him, he discovered photography. He was talented and his pictures captured magnificent scenes of nature and landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Carmel, Yosemite, and breathtaking sunsets and sunrises. So he started a business and sold his photographs. We were hopeful he would make a success of it, but as always, his behavior and compromised thinking sabotaged his efforts.
Mired in delusion, he fancied himself an advisor to political figures and the president. He busied himself writing hundreds of letters and making endless phone calls, leaving anonymous messages. Though the letter writing and phone calls were benign, we feared people finding out or that he would carry this bizarre behavior further.
This all added up to a tough burden for my family, particularly my parents. When they died, my siblings and I kept close tabs on our brother and gave financial support as needed. For many years, he was able to live independently, albeit with family support.
Sadly, in addition to his disordered thinking preventing him from becoming a general “success”, being in a loving relationship, and having a family, it in itself contributed to him getting sicker. He refused to see doctors at the beginning of his illness, allowing his sickness to worsen. When he finally had no choice but to seek medical help, he was treated and started to improve. However, it was ultimately too late. He refused to continue to take the medication he needed and had a relapse. Today, he is in a wonderful convalescent facility, but he will probably never get better.
Where This Leaves Me
I have come to realize that every family has its secrets and its stuff and its pain and its elephants residing in the living room. These are the deepest feelings and sorrows that you really can’t share nor want to talk about. So much is wrapped up in our family stories and relationships that one keeps close to the vest. The truth is that I don’t think it is always a bad thing to hold in one’s feelings. There is a certain quiet in loneliness, sitting back and listening when the chatter spills around.
So I will breathe in and hold that loneliness and isolation close to me at times and let the sadness suffuse my being. This is a part of my life that can’t be changed, but I think it has made me a better person, more empathetic about what others go through and have to live with.