What it’s like to live with someone with mental illness

I wrote this several years ago, but it seems relevant today:

What is the most terrifying moment of your life? The moment that adrenaline revs your heart so that it pounds in your ears? The moment your brain is forced to confront how you feel about dying? For me, that moment occurred in the pre-dawn hours of a late spring day, a time when nature buzzes with the frenetic activity of recreating itself for another year.
Her soft voice first drew me gently from sleep. As my eyes opened and I processed the horrific scene in front of me, I was shocked awake.

My beloved younger sister stood in my doorway, her face a mess of tears and marred make-up. “I’m sorry,” she kept repeating. It took several moments for me to process the information in front of me. Her wrists were wrapped in white towels. That could mean only one thing. I rose from bed, driven by fear and a single thought: “Do something fast, or your sister is going to die.” Somehow, I remained calm as together we unpeeled the towels from her arms to assess the damage. The stark stain of blood on the white fabric is perhaps the most offensive thing I have ever seen, evidence of my sister’s pain and her bid to escape it.

She had sliced her wrists with a razor blade. We rewrapped them and I told her to put pressure on the wounds. I stumbled to the phone and called 911. Adrenaline and fear had so altered my faculties that I could barely speak. I managed to tell the operator why we needed help. The rest is a blur as I attempted to keep my sister calm and myself from succumbing to the potentially paralyzing fear I was feeling.

A fire-truck arrived first, no sirens, but its garish lights flashing, glancing off neighbouring homes. Two huge men entered our house, perhaps slightly ill-equipped to coax a terrified, confused teenager to accept help. Eventually, they succeeded and we were loaded into an ambulance. Upon arriving at the hospital, we sat side-by-side on the waiting room’s orange plastic chairs for about six hours. Finally, a doctor repaired her broken skin, then attempted to address her shattered spirit.

That was over a decade ago, and this macabre dance with mental illness has not ended for our family. I have never known life without feeling the ravages of mental illness.
As a child, I intuitively understood my sister’s precarious and ambivalent existence. I sensed the fraying string that tethered her to the earth.

It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she began to act on the torment of an ill brain. She has had numerous suicide attempts over the years, the most recent being more several years ago. The worst time is always autumn, when the light recedes and the rest of the world embarks on a new season of professional and academic endeavors. During this season of grey light and falling snow, every time the phone rings, I am on edge, expecting the news that she has succeeded in her attempt to leave life.

A couple of times, my sister ceased communication with me altogether, both periods lasting several months. The lack of contact and knowledge of how she was coping were excruciating. She later told me that she stopped talking to me in an attempt to dull our tight bond so that it would be less painful for me when she killed herself.
Her suicide attempts have consisted of pounding back dozens of pills, pumping her body with the poison of the medication that is supposed to save someone pain when ingested responsibly.

My beloved sister has not been successful in killing herself. In fact, she is doing better now. But she has been medicated for almost 20 years and may never be able to be free of drugs if she wants to live. And she does. But sometimes she doesn’t. On those very worst days a couple of years ago, my sister and I lived together. I was loathe to leave the house, even leave her side, lest she kill herself. My cell phone stayed within reach at all times. I cooked her favourite foods for her, even though she didn’t enjoy them, covered her with blankets, stroked her hair and chattered on about my day in futile attempts to cheer her up.

But you can’t just cheer someone up who is assaulted so gravely by serious mental illness. What seared my soul in the worst way was how dead her eyes appeared. How void of spirit her body was. How flat her voice sounded. In those moments, when my eyes met her lifeless ones, two emotions coursed through me: terror and rage. “Why can’t you just feel better?” I would scream within. “Why can’t you just take a shower and go for a walk? Is life really that bad?’ Of course, I never said this to her, and I never really meant it.

Instead, I learned to love her. I learned to accept her as she was, as well as my own panic and fear, both of which sparked this brutal judgment. I learned how to love a person whose spirit has been so sapped that they can barely tend to their most basic physical needs. I learned about loyalty and commitment and choice. And I learned gratitude. Every day she made it through another 24 hours, I was grateful. In turn, I learned to appreciate those around me, from those I love dearly to strangers on the street.

During the most horrible time, people offered suggestions and asked questions. Should she be hospitalized? You must get on with your life, be true to yourself, they said. To a certain extent, I did. But I never, ever allowed myself to lose hope in my brilliant, beautiful sister.

There was never any other option. What else could I do? Give up on her? I held on with desperation to the hope that if I continued to love her, to believe in her, to tell her I would never give up on her, an atom or two of this love might fuse its way into her brain and convince her to try to jump back into life. Maybe that new atom would float in and dispel whatever nasty hormonal concoction was fooling so cruelly with the chemistry of her brain.

Needless to say, my sister, who so bravely every day fights to want to live, is not alone. Most of us know someone who battles mental illness, or we do ourselves. But the stigma and shame of having a brain plagued by unbearable, unpleasant thoughts and feelings and skewed chemistry keeps us from seeking help.

This is an unfortunate reality that needs to change. There also needs to be an increased focus on research, although human nature is such that we will likely never be able to fully prevent suicide. In addition to focusing on research, we must raise awareness. Suicide is preventable, but irreversible when it occurs, and this reality should prompt us to discuss it more openly and without shame.

As human beings, most of us possess a natural aversion to discussing such a mystifying, counterintuitive action as ending our own life. We instinctively strive to preserve ourselves at all costs, so when a fellow human being does not act in accordance with this fundamental drive, it causes fear and confusion. But this is precisely why we should address this reality: the pain does not have to be endured alone, and the abolishment of a solitary struggle could prevent some loss. Our society is ceaseless in its attempt to eradicate physical pain; we should apply the same to mental illness.

7 thoughts on “What it’s like to live with someone with mental illness

  1. Pingback: Speaking Out Against the Stigma of Mental Illness in the Caribbean | International Political Forum

  2. Pingback: Stigma of Mental Illness in the Caribbean | AFRICA AND HER DIASPORA

  3. Pingback: Speaking Out Against the Stigma of Mental Illness in the Caribbean · Global Voices

  4. This is very powerful, Kate. So many of us dismiss mental illness, but those who have had close and painful experience of it understand… No, you can’t just “cheer people up” but I am positive that your love and support really helped. That is so important. Love really is the key!

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