My brother is dead. He died last month. Now more than ever, I need to stay focused on my mental health.
I saw my therapist the day I got the news. Since then, I’ve had a running dialogue with my best friend, talking about my brother almost every day. Sharing feels therapeutic, like it does something to keep me from losing my mind again.
My medications help soften the blow, but they also block many of my emotions. How I feel about my brother’s passing is not what I’d imagined. Instead of being overwhelmed with sorrow, I’m experiencing gratitude for the man I knew. On some level I know I’m sad, but I can’t tell you what shape that takes. Perhaps I’m numb, or maybe I’m upheld by love.
When I was fresh out of college and struggling with my symptoms, my brother was there for me, listening without judgement as I shared my stories of paranoia. His compassion and strength helped calm me down. He was an anchor in the chaos of my volatile youth. A lover of life, he thwarted my suicide attempts and helped me rediscover my own will to live.
During childhood I nurtured him through some hard times, as he would do for me in my darker years of undiagnosed schizophrenia. Once, out of frustration, my father had disowned me for my unpredictable nature, and my brother stood up for me, explaining that I wasn’t any less eccentric than any other artist in their own time. By then he had become the favored son, and when he spoke with his customary passion, people listened. When he received his PhD., he earned their respect. When he summited Mount Rainier, they really took notice. He conquered his battles with trauma and depression, and shared his strength and hope with others without expectation of return.
I am something of an anomaly in our family. While depression and anxiety are common among my siblings, I alone lose touch with reality, experiencing life through the lens of schizophrenia. Thought to be the odd man out, I was frequently seen as an attention seeker, a loner, and a weirdo. Which did nothing for my self esteem.
I shared my diagnosis with my sister, and she was understandably taken aback by the confusing nature of it all. She attended a therapy session with me so that my therapist could share some details of the illness with her. Our father had died of a rare brain disease the year before, and my sister was greatly affected by his death. It stood to reason that the news of my being diagnosed with a severe and chronic mental illness would alter her impression of me. I took her reaction the wrong way, my paranoia informing me that she wanted nothing to do with me, rather than the truth that she’d just been momentarily overwhelmed.
This delusion seared itself into my mind, and I became certain that my entire family was keeping me at arm’s length, informed by the stigma surrounding schizophrenia. I isolated myself in my apartment, rarely venturing out, afraid to bus to my sister’s house in the suburb where we grew up. I was crippled emotionally, but I was certain that my behavior was being interpreted as selfish and antisocial. Nothing could have been further from the truth. While I was frozen in fear that I would never be able to travel to my sister’s home, I wished with all my might that I could be with her and be family like we were before Dad died, before the family splintered, before the days came when I would be hospitalized and medicated. I was a prisoner of my disease.
In a few days there will be a memorial service for my brother. I’m planning to take a trip across the state to attend the service with my youngest brother and his wife. I will probably have to stay in a motel. I will be expected to mingle with people at the location where the memorial’s being held. All of this terrifies me. Although my medication tempers my mood, I still feel apprehensive about the whole ordeal. I’m worried about how I’ll be perceived. Will people treat me like the person they think they knew from days gone by, or will they avoid me because of my illness, afraid to interact with me because I’m a certified “crazy?” My plan is to lay low and only speak when spoken to. Like the child I once was, when that was a thing.
The upcoming gathering may trigger symptoms, and I’ll need to be mindful of that. I know how my paranoia works, and I’m aware that my veneer of resilience is only so thick. But I’ll go because I loved my brother with all my heart. He would want me to be proud of my life, that I can take care of myself, that I can advocate for myself, that I know when to be independent and when to trust the professionals who are there to help me navigate the uncharted waters of schizophrenia. I’ve educated myself about my disorder, and he’d be doubly proud of that. When he was a body builder, he gave me a photograph of himself taken before a competition, with an inscription on the back which read, “I love you, brother. Stay strong!”