Extended post on mental illness within a family
I’ve been sitting here lately reflecting on some upcoming posts for the Hate-Loss Challenge that I’m beginning in January. Specifically the question, ‘What makes me the way I am and why do I still struggle with self-esteem issues, shyness and negative thoughts in my life?’ Something I wrote in a previous post kept coming back to me over and over again:
Chances are if you have an issue or problem that you can’t figure out, look to your childhood and you’ll generally find all the answers you need.
I began to identify some of the baggage that I carry around as an adult as unresolved issues I had when I was younger. Many people use the phrase, ‘It’s best to just forget the past and move on.’ I believe this is true if you’ve come to terms with it and have accepted it for what it is. After all, you can’t change it, right? But what if parts of the past have been ignored or shoved deep back into the corners of your mind where you can’t get to them? Are they really gone? No. And I can’t leave something behind when it’s still taking up unwanted space. It’s time for me to begin cleaning house.
During my Reinventing the Holidays post I shared a bit of information on a family member who is mentally handicapped. I was touched by the comments and email I received from people who either know of or are part of families similar to mine. Those of us who celebrate holidays with challenging people tend to become more anxious this time of year. Additional stress on top of the already fast-paced season can wreck havoc on our physical health as well as our emotional health, both of which need to be protected more than ever if we’re also trying to keep healthy food habits in check. This is a very delicate subject, and one that is not discussed very much, but with the holidays in full-swing and tempting food at every table, I think it’s a topic that is very appropriate for a weight-loss/healthy living/maintenance blog. If you happen to be dreading the holidays and a loved one is part of the reason why, then this post is for you.
When my brother was diagnosed with various mental disabilities, there was very little community support. He was born in the fifties, and at that time doctors were quick to coax parents into sending their handicapped children off to mental hospitals and told to forget they exist. There has been so much progress since that time, it staggers the mind. Not only have many state hospitals closed their doors allowing intellectually disabled people the choice of living in group homes or with their families and personal caregivers, but many carry jobs and live very fulfilling lives. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen.
Growing up in a household with a handicapped sibling is extremely challenging for any family, no matter how dedicated the parents may be to the family as a whole. Not only have I experienced this firsthand, but I’ve spent years working with families who have chosen to keep their children at home instead of utilizing other services such as group homes. Trust me when I say, I’ve seen things that makes my story look like a fairytale.
My siblings and I grew up in two very different homes. The one in which my sister and brothers grew up was one where my oldest brother had periods of extreme rage. When he reached puberty, he became uncontrollable, both verbally and physically. He would frequently walk the streets at night, spitting on neighbors’ front doors while cursing at the top of his lungs. He was unable to listen to direction or do things that were asked of him.
I was two years old at the time of the incident. My sister vividly remembers the family sitting at the dining room table; I was in my high chair. As my father made a comment about slowing down as he ate, my oldest brother grew very angry and threw a fork across the room which almost struck me in the eye. My sister who was 12 at the time, asked my mother, “How much longer do we have to live like this before he really hurts one of us?” It was shorty thereafter that my brother was transferred to a state institution.
Before I was ten, my other siblings were adults living on their own. My oldest brother came home to visit many times during the year including holidays. His behavior varied from visit to visit. Sometimes he would be overly-medicated and often sleepy and lethargic, then suddenly get a rush of excitement and go into the kitchen and eat uncontrollably until he’d vomit onto the floor. I’d watch as my mother cleaned the mess, begging him to stop as my brother began eating all over again. Other times he would arrive so agitated and hyper that if I happened to ask him a question or simply be standing in his path, he would hit and/or push me to the ground. I became afraid of him from an early age, and to this day still find myself on guard within his presence.
Birthdays have always been a very tender subject for me. My brother’s birthday happens to be two days before mine so to save time and money, my parents celebrated our birthdays together every year. Because of his violent mood swings and attention seeking behavior, I usually spent my birthdays hiding away, leaving my parents tending to my brother. Within the last 5 years I’ve tried having a discussion with my mother about feeling neglected on my birthday. The conversation did not go well.
Stories like these may shock those of you who have never dealt with mental illness, but I’m guessing that there are more of you reading who are nodding your head thinking, ‘Yep. I can relate to that.’ Personally, I think this type of thing isn’t discussed because we feel ashamed if we express how difficult it can be. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, ‘You have it easy compared to him. You have nothing to complain about and should be grateful.’ But how could I learn to be grateful when everyone around me, including my brother was absolutely miserable? It’s true, I am not a mother of a handicapped child. I don’t know what it’s like to see that child sent away as you are left to deal with the guilt you feel about not being strong enough to parent him. I am also familiar of the stigma attached to needing but refusing to seek therapy back then in order to deal with feelings of inadequacy and frustration. It just wasn’t done. And so, life carried on as it always had. Back then there was no outside intervention, no therapists to talk to, no one to intervene and take some of the pressure off of my parents. They did the best they could under the circumstances.
I’m going to share something else with you. When I first mentioned my brother, that was the first time I’ve ever discussed it in length with anyone who wasn’t extremely close to either me or the situation. In other words, I’ve always kept it within the family. I’ve since come to realize that this is a subject that begs to be discussed more often. If I hadn’t first addressed it with my therapist and then with all of you, I don’t know how many more holidays would have passed before realizing that I deserve Happy Thanksgivings and Merry Christmases and wonderful birthdays as much as he does, they do, or you do. I may be my mother’s daughter but I am not a child anymore. Being an adult can be freeing but it can also bring on some serious backlashing. Unpopular decisions aren’t easy and someone always gets hurt. I am preparing myself for some people to become upset and overwhelmed. When we quiet conformists do things that are unexpected, especially if our job as Peacekeepers is being compromised we have to anticipate some resistance.
I’m not saying that we should all ditch difficult people and forget they exist. What I am saying is that it’s easy to feel as though we have no control when it comes to tender situations. In lowering my inch thick wall of guilt, I’ve found that I’m mourning many lost birthdays and holidays. I can’t undo the past but I can agree to give myself the gift of control over Christmas this year, which I am doing. My husband and I have decided to forego presents for each other, instead giving ourselves new traditions. I will be seeing my brother on Christmas Day, but with the understanding that when things become too stressful, we will excuse ourselves and spend the rest of the day at home with our dogs and enjoying each other’s company.
I’m leaving this post wide open for discussion. Here, you can share your stories, tips on dealing with stressful people over the holidays, or post questions of your own. I’m sure someone will have words of wisdom (I get a lot of those around here). I have one lucky blog.
Thanks for reading today, everyone.