What It's Like to Have a Mentally Ill Sibling

Registered Yoga Teacher By Rebecca Butler
Registered Yoga Teacher
Rebecca Butler is an E-RYT 500 yoga teacher, writer, inspirational speaker and retreat leader.
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I was 20 the last time we went hand-to-hand in combat. My sister had come to Austin to visit me.

My sister has been diagnosed as bi-polar, manic depressive and paranoid schizophrenic at varying times, but has never felt the need (or desire) to pursue treatment.

Even though we recognized that our relationship was not like that of other siblings, we still tried to create some semblance of normalcy.

So she came to visit and I was dreading every moment, but obliged her out of pure guilt, pure shame that our relationship existed in its pathetic state. I thought somehow it was my fault.

Even though our tastes varied wildly, we still attempted a night out. My only solace was that my roommate was joining us.

A few hours into it, we had a falling out and, true to form, my sister created a scene. Recognizing the all-too-familiar signs of where this was headed, I pulled the plug and headed to the parking garage to call it a night.

In the stairwell of the parking garage, she started hitting me. It came the fuck out of nowhere. She is shorter than I, and, at the time, I was more robust than she, so I held her at bay, avoiding her blows and trudging forward to my car. We got into the car, and I just wanted to go home.

We were driving down I-35, down a particularly narrow stretch that is ancient and dangerous and fraught with short exit ramps and tight lanes when she started kicking me.

My sister was in the backseat on the passenger side, facing my back at a catty-corner angle. She was wearing black, high-heeled boots, and she was kicking me with all of her might as I drove 70 miles per hour.

My roommate was in the passenger seat. She turned around and screamed at my sister to stop.

I remember the salt of my tears, the familiar sting of humiliation, the bizarre unexpected comfort of having someone there to share this experience with, as so many of these unspeakable tragedies had happened alone in my life — behind closed doors, never to be seen, never to be acknowledged, never to be mentioned.

Somehow that night, we got my sister out of the car and dropped her off at the apartment where she was staying. (My roommate and I were in the process of moving, and we had keys to two apartments.)

The next morning, there was a banging on the door. I instantly knew it was her. My roommate didn't want to let her in but after a few minutes, she knew she would have to open the door. I grabbed a blanket and huddled down on the floor with it wrapped around me.

My sister stormed in with a belt in hand and steel toed boots on her feet. The belt had a large silver buckle. She found me on the floor and started kicking me wherever she could make contact and swinging the belt at my head.

My roommate called the police. As she was giving our address and pleading for help, my sister fled.

My roommate took pictures of my black, blue, purple and green bruised back, and sent them to my parents. She just knew something would be done. She was convinced someone would do something!

I was not so optimistic. I'd seen my parents dodge the grim reality of my sister’s existence for two decades. I didn’t see how this would be any different.

And sure enough, nothing was done. I did not even receive so much as a phone call.

When I saw Ryan Lanza, brother of Adam Lanza, arrested on Friday and taken into questioning for his brother’s horrific crimes, a chill climbed my spine.

When I heard that he had not had contact with his brother since 2010, I shuddered.

I do not know what his life was like behind closed doors, but I suspect we may have something in common. For it appears that he too may have grown up alongside a mentally ill sibling.

As Robert Firestone details in his book, Compassionate Child Rearing, many of us are unwilling conspirators in the silent pact of dysfunction that exists in a large percentage of families — for some it might be an alcoholic uncle, others a narcissistic parent, and for some, a mentally ill sibling like mine.

I was blown away when I read this article by Liza Long on The Huffington Post Sunday — I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother where she details her life as the mother of a severely mentally ill child who is often psychotic.

She faces his psychosis head-on and frequently involves proper authorities as needed. As a mother, I view her as unbelievably brave.

In my own home, we cowered under the tyranny of my sister, as she, too, would threaten us with knives and/or hammers. My mother internalized my sister’s illness as a sign that she was in some way an inadequate parent (I disagree), and therefore she refused to seek help.

She also didn’t want to see her child suffer, which is all that there appears to be as an alternative for those with mental illness. For most people what happened in our home was unthinkable, unimaginable, and gross.

For me, it was a harsh reality.

How many others are there like us?

I am sharing my story because I hope to encourage dialogue around this issue. I believe as a country, we need to continue to shine the light on the issue of mental illness. We should work to boost awareness around the resources available to help those families dealing with this and to help them understand that it’s ok to ask for help (without judgment).

For until I read the comments underneath Liza Long’s article, I had never even heard of NAMI (the National Association on Mental Illness).

If we all breathe, move, heal and suffer together, then we should all be focused on healing this situation. We’ve suffered enough already.

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