I am fascinated by the topic of mental health. I spend countless hours reading new studies, shuffling through blogs, attending workshops, listening to Ted Talks, watching documentaries – all to get a deeper and wider understanding of mental health and wellness. It’s almost an obsession. Almost. It’d be downright weird if I didn’t have a good reason for it. I do: I lost my brother to suicide about 15 years ago, and soon after, my sister was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. I am neither articulate nor imaginative enough to accurately describe how difficult the diagnosis was for my sister. I can, however, share my own side of the story in hopes that it will create awareness and help others in a similar position.
I am the youngest in my family and grew up looking up to both my siblings. I have learned a lot from my sister. She is kind and generous. She worships Mother Teresa and values people and relationships above all else. Everything I know about empathy and kindness, I have learned from her. In her battle with her illness, she continues to inspire me with her resilience and her concern for others less well than herself. My brother did not possess the same interpersonal skills as my sister but he was gifted in many other ways. He was intelligent, funny and like most big brothers, had a way of being mean only to me. He kindly agreed to help me with my math homework but in his frustration at my inability to understand the most basic mathematical concepts, he threatened to draw a mustache on my face if I answered incorrectly. I guess you could say he was also very creative. Helpful, smart, mischievous. In other words: the best big brother in the world.
Losing my brother was hard and it changed everything I had ever known about life and what it meant to live. It was difficult not only because he was no longer present in our lives but also because we were so terrifyingly unaware of his suffering. How could I not see it? Was he ever happy? Did he know he was loved? Could I have done something? There were a crushing load of questions and what-ifs, but not a whisper of an answer. The guilt and regrets were wounds that would take a lifetime to heal. The only thing we could do was hold tight to his memories and woefully move on. So we did.
My sister’s diagnosis was a different story. In my eyes, it was hopeful. We could do something about this one. Figuring out what the right thing to do and how to get help was the real challenge. It was painful to see someone you love suffer and change so much, and terrifyingly worse to know that the change was out of her control. My sister struggled in her school, career, relationships and fought a severe battle with herself. Even after witnessing her struggles so closely, I still cannot imagine what it must be like to live with such an illness. To live in a world where you can’t even trust yourself.
I think this is what drives me and many others supporting someone with mental health challenges– the need to understand those that are suffering and to help educate those that question the suffering. Watching someone you love and trust battling this invisible illness enables you to see the hideous creature for what it is and motivates you to tackle it with all your being. It gives you an understanding that cannot be taught and a motivation that doesn’t waver. Yes, it is a real illness! No, she can’t just snap out of it! Other than the person suffering from the illness, no one else has a closer insight. Family, friends and caregivers are the most valuable, and often overlooked, resources in the field of mental health. We need to find a way to empower them before they are silenced.
SidebySide is an educator, writer and a passionate advocate of mental health. She currently maintains a blog where she writes about her experience as a family member supporting (and being supported by) someone living with mental health challenges. She’s also a part of Healthy Minds Canada’s social media team and is currently volunteering with the Toronto Distress Center.