Recently, an acquaintance approached me to let me know she had been stalking my Facebook page. “Wow,” she said. “You really look like you have a lot of fun.” I went home and scrolled through my photos. There are shots of me standing close to my marathon buddies, laughing because someone probably pinched me. There are birthday parties at Mexican restaurants, tequila glass in hand, and celebrations where I’m dancing with my children. Vacation albums display horseback rides in Saguaro National Park and hikes in Palm Springs. There are sunset shots on Vineyard Sound and July Fourth barbecues on Cape Cod. Judging from the Facebook compilation, I have always lived a healthy and full life. As we all know, however, nothing is as it seems.
Twelve years ago, my brother sought treatment for addiction and other issues, but I knew that there was something terribly amiss well before that time. Our relationship, which never stood on solid footing, was pushed to the precipice time and again during the years before his diagnosis. Unlike my parents or my extended family, I felt the ebb and flow of his mood swings jolt through me, as if we were connected in the deepest of ways. He would lash out for the smallest of things, and cut me off whenever he felt I was getting too close to understanding his pain. He worked hard to mask his suffering with a successful job, a marriage, and a circle of friends. Good looking and strong, no one ever mistook him for a man crumbling on the inside.
A 2012 study conducted by the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration revealed that 45 million American adults aged 18 or older experience issues related to mental health. Imagine that each of these individuals has at least one sibling like me and it is easy to see how many people are affected. There are probably enough of us to make a human chain from California to Boston.
I began to question my own sanity. After all, we were blood. Had I made it more difficult for him by repeatedly asking him to seek help? How could he not see how much I loved him, how much I admired him, how badly I needed him? My parents, in an effort to save themselves and their son, flocked to his side. My brother did not allow me to be a part of his healing process. My parents obeyed his wishes. They did what they had to do. Feelings of guilt, loneliness, and abandonment blended together inside of me. I sought help. I pondered what would be next. I soon realized that not being dressed in the same DNA meant I had no excuse. I had to forge ahead and make my own happiness. Stay healthy for my family.
I worked to redefine my relationship with my brother. Tried to be his ally, not his enemy. I visited him, wrote him letters. It worked for a bit, until the course of action became unhealthy. After a long and painful journey, I made the decision to let go.
Six years have passed. In that time, I have raised two beautiful children, worked, run marathons, started a novel and filled the gaping hole with joy. I have a loving and patient husband who rode my roller coaster without complaint. Despite sporadic feelings of isolation, I have a strong and healthy resolve. I concentrate on the here and now. Stealing a kiss from a daughter when she is doing homework, going to a friend’s fiftieth birthday celebration and dancing to country music, sitting on the beach with my best buddies while listening to the waves push lightly against the grainy sand. Those are the things that keep me away from the dark side.
I hear that my brother is doing well. He is a hard worker and a doting father. I am grateful for this news. A part of me believes that he couldn’t live up to the expectation I had of him. Smart, funny and handsome – I spent my childhood idolizing him and wanting to be just like him. Maybe his anger toward me when I tried to help was his way of letting go. I still love him as much as I did for all of those decades and forgive with a full heart.
I am part of a sibling community, over 45 million plus strong, who have been touched by similar issues. Not all of them will have to do what I did to gain the courage to move forward. I support whatever journey they must take to survive. My choice? To be the person portrayed on my Facebook page, determined to live a full and healthy life.