When I was a senior in high school, my older brother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I remember the early warning signs: the bizarre emails home, the euphoric self-confidence, the missed classes. Most of all, I remember visiting him in the hospital for the first time. He was wearing a white hospital gown, his pupils were dilated with mania and his whole body shook with crazed energy as he talked, caking his torso in a layer of sweat.
I struggled then, as I still do now, to reconcile the physical similarity of his body with the raging psychosis evident in his thoughts and expressions. He still looked like the same kid, but his goofy smile was gone and his thoughts had turned, quite literally, insane.
In the last three years, his illness has worsened into something between bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In the most recent episode, he became suicidal, telling my mom one night that voices in his head were telling him to “get a knife from the kitchen and kill himself.”
Until now, I’ve told only a handful of friends about my brother’s illness, partly because of the private nature of such a personal, familial issue. However, that reluctance to share is also borne out of fear: a fear that my friends would only see him as the kid in the mental hospital or that they would misconstrue his sickness for weakness. Often, those that do know are afraid to ask me about him, as if they’re bringing up a shameful part of my family. This fear even seeps into the way he views his own illness. He’s ashamed that his sickness has prevented him from graduating college on time, as if he’s responsible for the destructive heredities of his brain.
There is no shame in my brother’s experience. As I visited him in the hospital every day over spring break, I came to appreciate how incredibly strong he is. It may seem odd or unfamiliar to use the word “strong” to describe the mentally infirm. While we glorify those with cancer as “battling the disease,” we describe people like my brother as having a “condition.” We remove them from society, place them in mental hospitals and render their struggle private and unrewarded. So, in the absence of familiar words and phrases to describe his struggle and illustrate his resolve, I offer you details.
My brother’s wounds are not visible. He’s not losing hair from chemotherapy, nor will he have any cool scars to show for the weeks and months he’s spent in the hospital. The only vestige of the long days he spends in treatment is the acne that dots his face, an unfortunate side effect of his high Lithium dosages.
Instead, his struggle is internal. He battles voices every day that tell him he is worthless, that he should kill himself, that he is going to hell for an eternity of torture. He is paralyzed by fear that these voices are true, and he spends hours pacing through his unit in restless anxiety. There are times when he is unable to answer the most basic questions because he can’t silence the voices in his head long enough to hear the words coming out of my mouth. He lives that tortuous reality every hour of his waking day, battling to suppress those harmful elements of his brain and regain his tenuous grip on sanity.
He hugs me with silent tears in his eyes, seeking physical support for psychological pain and terrified he’ll always live in this mental agony. I sit there, holding his hand, imploring him to be positive, assuring him that what the voices say is not true. But how can you ask him to distrust his own thoughts? How could he not internalize what his brain is telling him? How is he supposed to fight an invisible assault?
As his struggle becomes a bigger part of my own life, I’ve come to hate that I can’t talk more openly about it. But I’ve also realized that, in hiding his struggle from so many of my close friends, I exacerbate this stigmatization and contribute to the lack of understanding around mental illness. I can’t help but wonder how many other people suppress similar stories out of fear that their own loved ones will be miscast as the crazy relative in the hospital.
My brother’s not that crazy kid, and neither is anyone else suffering from a mental illness. He’s a kid that’s putting everything he has into fighting an incomprehensible disease. He wakes up every day wishing he could get out of the hospital and go back to school. There’s nothing shameful about seeking help for a condition borne of genetics. Perhaps if we stop talking about mental illness in hushed and shameful tones, and treat the mentally ill with the same respect and admiration we afford others fighting disease, then we can offer them the support and encouragement they need.
Eric Truog is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .