Conflicts with parents can make sibling relationships stronger. “When your parents, who are the anchors you’re counting on the most, are falling down on the job, siblings look to each other and find ways to pull together, because the last thing you can afford to see fractured at that point is the unit among yourselves.”
— Jeffrey Kluger, author of The Sibling Effect, in an interview with Salon Media Group.
What happens when the sibling who stepped into the role of parent by necessity — the person you look up to — develops a mental illness and tries to take her life?
On a Monday, even though it should have been like any other day, Carlos’s big sister attempted to take her life. Depression and psychosis had been plaguing her for years but went unnoticed and misunderstood by her family and her youngest brother, who had been living with her. Their age difference was so great that, in many ways, he saw his sister as a second mother. At the time, his childhood home wasn’t the safe, secure environment that it needed to be for a child to thrive, and his sister offered her home. Carlos went to live with her, her husband, and their three children. Carlos described his sister during those years as a beautiful, intelligent woman.
“She had this amazing smile,” he said. However, the changes that he saw in his sister led to feelings of concern as well as frustration.
Carlos described himself during that time as confused, scared, and constantly questioning what was wrong with his sister. He felt like he was losing her, which made him angry with her. Because he wasn’t even aware of mental illness, he did what most people do when symptoms of paranoia appeared — he assumed she was taking drugs.
But that Monday would force the family’s eyes to open. His sister was a bus driver for the city. She loaded up passengers, drove them over a popular bridge, and promptly dropped off all of the passengers. She proceeded to drive the bus back across the bridge, then attempted to drive it off the bridge. Thankfully, she survived, and no one was hurt. The police took her to a mental health hospital. However, that was just the beginning. The media emerged, and they were all over the place. They were outside of the hospital reporting her every action, including her previous records and insights into her family, such as who they were and why she would do something so extraordinary. They exploited everyone to whom she was connected.
This young brother, who saw his sister as more of a mother, stood outside the hospital. His gaze was trained on the four-wall institution. Carlos was told by his brother-in-law that he could visit her. A part of him wanted to go in and check on her for himself, just to make sure she was alright. And then there was the other part of him, the winning part, that was angry, hurt, and disappointed. Why would she do that to him? He thought she loved him. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she loved only herself. That must be the case, right? Because she was willing to leave him and her family. She put her family in the eyes of the media and humiliated them all. Only the most selfish person would do that, right?
Years later, Carlos has grown into a man. He has served our country in the Iraq War, he has volunteered at an at-risk- youth organization, and he works daily to support individuals with disabilities to get back on their financial feet.
I asked him how his sister was today and inquired about the status of their relationship.
“She is missing,” Carlos replied. “Over seven years ago, she stopped coming to family events, and I haven’t seen her since.” You can see both pain and anger warring with each other inside his mind. He wants his sister to be safe, but he isn’t ready to talk with her.
After the Iraq War, Carlos has worked hard to maintain his own mental health. He experienced much emotional and physical pain. My question is, has a therapist ever asked Carlos how his relationship with his sister played a role in his own mental health?
When Carlos was asked what would have helped during those years, he responded with, “Family therapy would have helped. If not therapy, then education.”
Carlos’s advice for siblings:
- Don’t be quick to judge.
- Don’t pity your siblings with a mental illness.
- Know that functioning individuals are still there.
- Don’t give up on your siblings. You don’t want to end up creating so much distance that one day you don’t even know what they look like anymore.
- Don’t stop being a friend, and don’t stop being a sibling.
- Whether you are the younger or older sibling, be there.
Carlos’s advice for parents:
- Reach out to mental health agencies.
- Don’t be close-minded to the possibilities of what your child could be going through.
- Don’t blow off that your child is just a teenager.
- Pay attention to and allow for expression of emotions, both ups and downs.
- Educate yourself on mental illness.
- Don’t block yourself with your opinion.
- Prepare yourself to be that strong voice for your child.