Growing up, my big brother was my protector. He loved having a little sister and I was so proud he was my big brother. I don’t think as a big brother you ever imagine that one day you’ll need your little sister to protect you, but that’s what it’s come to. I won’t tell my brother’s story, for it is his and I could never assume that I understand his experience or pain, but I’ll share my story, and I share it in hopes that sharing these words will help someone else in the same place.
I was one of the first people to realize my brother was in pain, but I didn’t know and couldn’t figure out what that pain was. Mental illness was never something that was spoken about to me before, and in my parent’s defense, I don’t think it was something that was ever spoken to them either. To me, it seemed like my brother was struggling. He was hurting internally, but he was fighting it. My big brother was still there, but soon we’d come to find out that he was fighting against something that he could never defeat solely on his own.
I was in my sophomore year of college in upstate NY when my mom told me that my brother was in the hospital. I literally didn’t really understand what that meant. The hospital? My heart sank at that moment and I think that memory is burned into my head forever. I was devastated; devastated because it was the first moment that confirmed, without a doubt, my brother was in emotional pain. A piece of my heart broke that day, but a part of me also ignited. It was my turn to do what he had done for me his whole life - protect and fight for him.
I processed by my brother being diagnosed with mental illness in my own way. I had no idea what mental health treatment was. My brother wasn’t in a medical hospital, he was in a psychiatric hospital. It was expressed to me that this was a time that my brother needed space. That it was best for both of us if I continued focusing on school and soccer while he received treatment. I will always regret not pushing harder to see and communicate with my brother during this time. The guilt is heavy, even though I understand with and agree with why it happened the way it did. I fear that my brother felt abandoned and I criticize myself for not being strong enough to realize that me being there might have made a difference. It’s an irrational guilt, but one that sits with me at times.
By the time I was graduating college, my brother had been in and out of the hospital several times, but was stable and seemingly in a much better place than I had seen him previously. Life was different now, for all of us. Mental health had to be a priority, and even more than that, it had to be something we accepted into our lives. I educated myself about mental illness. I never left a diagnosis cloud who I knew my brother to be. I refused to judge him, but that was never really a thought in my mind anyways. I just wish the rest of the world could have that same view.
The pain in my brother’s eyes has changed. He’s not fighting mental illness any longer - he’s fighting stigma. He’s fighting to feel accepted - both by himself and by the world around him. Without my brother, I wouldn’t be me. I wouldn’t have this experience with mental illness. I wouldn’t know how it feels to have pain be inflicted on someone you love more than anything and be able to do nothing about it. Without that pain, I’m not sure I would have the passion that I feel within me every day to fight the stigma. Without that pain, I wouldn’t have ended up where I am today. I just celebrated my 4 year anniversary as a Mental Health Specialist on an inpatient unit at the same hospital my brother received his care from. I’m on track to received my Masters in Social Work in the spring of 2019. My brother showed me how to give strength to others when they need it most, and for that I am forever grateful.