When you have a brother or sister with a mental illness there are several, what I call, Hot Topic items. They range from spousal issues to violence to hospital visitations.
These are the most private thoughts that we, siblings, experience due to the roller-coaster ride we go through when our brother or sister lives with a mental illness. Some of us have lost our siblings to suicide, others to jail, and others to drugs. Some of us have endured periods of time when a brother or sister has gone missing, only to be met with a friend’s advice of, “let them go.” Others of us have experienced stigma by association. In fact, a number of us have had our names shattered through the media because of actions by our siblings who have a mental illness. All of us have experienced trauma.
Below is a Sneak Peek into Hot Topics….
Hot Button Issue #1: Should I Have Kids?
I broke down in tears when the man who is now my husband asked me to marry him. I didn’t know if he would want to have kids with me. Maybe I’m a carrier of a gene connected to schizophrenia. Would he want to put himself through that when he could marry someone else without this kind of baggage? Or did he want to marry me and not have children so that we wouldn’t even have to risk it? Did I want to have kids? I wasn’t sure, especially after watching my brother, my parents, and myself suffer like we did. Schizophrenia is no joke. It’s not something I would wish on my worst enemy. My brother was physically harming himself because of a delusion he was holding onto. I cried myself to sleep more times than I could count. So, would I want to bring a child into the world in which that could possibly be his or her fate?
I can’t answer this question for you. Just know that it’s okay to ask yourself whether or not you want to have kids. After some serious thought, I realized that no matter what we were going through with my brother Jeff at that moment, I was so grateful for the nineteen healthy years I shared with him before his diagnosis. And even during the years after his diagnosis, we were closer than ever. This freed me from being scared about having my own children. Today, my husband and I have two wonderful girls. I admit that I find myself over-thinking their behaviors. Being educated about mental illness makes me constantly question if it is presenting itself. I’ve gotten better, but who knows what will happen when my children hit their teenage years. Yikes!
Hot Button Issue #2: Spouses
When my brother was in the hospital, I would visit him every other night. I never missed a visit. When he was in a locked, long-term-care facility, I also took him out on weekends. When he showed up at my house, I sometimes took him in. I took community college classes on mental illness. I quit my job and changed careers. I cried — a lot.
Our significant others care about us, and then they see us fall apart. We work ourselves to the bone taking care of the needs of our family and siblings. Eventually, these people we love are going to get frustrated. They may take this out on your sibling and/or your parents. They may try to prevent you from participating in your sibling’s care or allowing him or her to visit anymore.
My best advice is to determine a plan on which you both can agree. If my husband felt like I was no longer taking care of myself (for example, not sleeping or eating properly), then I needed to take a step back from my brother’s needs and focus on my own. By talking it out and agreeing on action steps, it eliminated frustration and miscommunication. This discussion may get heated, because a lot of love and emotions are involved. Consider seeking a third-party counselor, such as a marriage counselor, a spiritual leader, or a therapist, to help create your plan.
Hot Button Issue #3: Violence
The U.S. Surgeon General reports that only 4 percent of violent actions are caused by mental illness, and that people with mental illness are more likely to become victims of violence.
Even with these statistics showing that mental illness does not equate to violence, all of us have had wide exposure to media, social media, and the entertainment industry, all of which have skewed and twisted the truth of mental illness and violence. We’ve also heard the stories of a person with mental illness killing his mom in a moment of delusion. Recent reports suggest that education reduces stigma about depression and anxiety but increases it regarding schizophrenia. Trying to combat these misconceptions is exhausting. Even with all of the knowledge you have, a part of you may be scared that your brother or sister will have a moment of violence. Even if it is just a tiny kernel in the back of your mind, it can drive a wedge between you and your sibling. In your spouse’s mind, that kernel is much larger, because he or she wants to protect you. And if you have children, the kernel can turn into a wide chasm of fear.
Talk to your therapist, your spouse, and your support group. Monitor your “self-talk.” The more you use terms like “deal with,” “cope with,” and “manage” in relation to your loved one, the more you focus on possible behavior rather than on the individual.
And you can’t just make this feeling go away, especially if your brother or sister has exhibited moments of violence. Violence is not just physical harm — yelling or screaming can put you on edge as well. If you see signs of violence, you can tell your sibling’s care provider. By law, you can share information with your sibling’s mental health provider.