It took a serious amount of courage to write my previous post where I spoke about what it feels like to grow up in a family affected by mental illness. It was difficult for a couple of reasons: 1, I was making myself vulnerable by sharing my story. 2, I was also making my sister vulnerable by sharing her story. What gives me the right to share her story? Having to manage her Bipolar Disorder is challenging enough as it is; why should she also be exposed? Why should she be concerned about what it’s like for me? The more I thought about it, the more self-involved it seemed.
There was no way around it: in writing my story I had to speak of my sister’s story. My story is intertwined with hers; it is difficult to know where one starts and the other ends. That’s family. That’s mental health. If I wanted to blog about it, I knew I’d be faced with two choices: get my sister’s permission or write anonymously. Writing anonymously made sense for a lot of reasons. I could tell my story and get the point across without outing my sister. I also wouldn’t make myself vulnerable. Nobody would have to know. It seemed perfect. It was safe. As I thought more about the two options, safe began to feel less and less right. If I wanted to make a positive contribution in mental health and create a real change, I felt that I had to embrace my story. I had to make myself vulnerable (Thank you, Brene Brown!). I had to speak to my sister.
I thought about speaking to my sister for days. How will I bring it up? What will she say? Will it upset her? Am I going to create additional stress that she just doesn’t need? Am I being selfish? What I experience is not nearly as difficult as what she has to go through. There were a lot of questions but in my mind the decision was made. I was going to be selfish. I was going to do this. So, I called her. After about 5 minutes of idle chit chat, nervously, I got to the point. I explained that I wanted to write a blog about mental health. We also spoke about what this might mean for her now and how it might affect her in the future. I was prepared for an unexplained “no”. If the situation was reversed, I would have said no. Maybe a “no” followed immediately by a firm “get lost”. And I’d also slam the phone down. I’m certain I would do that. To my surprise, my sister said “ok”. It was a hesitant “ok” with lots of terms and conditions but regardless, it was an “ok”. We agreed that she’d review every post I write that involved her and we would change anything that made her uncomfortable. That night, I immediately sent her the previous post I had written for her to review. Done. More nervous waiting.
The next morning, I jumped out of bed eager to check my emails. I was happy to find that my sister had responded but a little nervous about finding out her reaction. Did she like it? Is she mad at me? HOW mad is she? As these questions reeled through my head, I opened her email. To my surprise and relief, she said she liked it! And it was ok to post! ALSO that it was good writing!! Phew.
I was ecstatic.
For a little while.
Then the second guessing started all over again: was she just being nice? The email was only 3 sentences long. Why isn’t she saying more? Maybe I’ve really upset her. She doesn’t need this. The guilt completely took over. I decided to shove it aside for the day, get to work and deal with it later.
That evening, I called my sister again. I pretended it was to ask her advice on which cereal to buy but that was only a really clever (right?) excuse to talk to her about the post. I really wanted to know what she thought and how upset she was. Eventually, I got to the point and asked her. What she said floored me. She said, in her exact words: “It was sad to know that our problems affected you so much. I had no idea.”
I thought it was obvious.
Nothing is ever obvious.
Oftentimes, and for seemingly good reason, family and friends supporting others diagnosed with mental illness are so focused on easing the suffering of the person involved that their own needs get sidelined. Most of the times we are doing it to ourselves. We may not think our problems are important enough in comparison, or we may have done a poor job at communicating them. The more we hold back, the harder it gets for everyone involved. Everybody needs support. With good communication, you know who can provide that? Family. Even if they are battling mental illness themselves.
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.