Naomi Washburn

ENGL 201

Jonathan Wood

Essay #1

When A Love One Has a Mental Illness

It’s easy to stand outside of things and call people crazy, call them screwed up, call them psycho.  It’s
quite another to grow up with someone who is emotionally unbalanced—hard to see someone you love suffer
from something that really never will get better.  My little sister is one of those people, and my memories of
childhood will always be colored by her disorder.  Growing up with her was difficult, but my family and I were,
and still are, committed to helping her achieve emotional stability, self-confidence, and independence in the world.

We knew something was wrong with my sister when she was only four years old.  The doctor prescribed
 her an antidepressant in order to combat her bedwetting, but the effect it had was unexpected.  Where had once
 been a sullen, withdrawn child, suddenly there was bubbly and happy little girl without a care in the world.  This
clear indication of a chemical imbalance was only the first of many signs that something was not quite right.

Many of my clearer childhood memories involve my mom and my sister fighting.  Mom doesn’t take
defiance well.  She grew up in a very authoritarian household where all the children lived in fear of their mother. 
She expected to have the same kind of control over her own children.   It didn’t happen that way.

My sister, like all children, hated doing chores.  But, unlike other children, she had a foolproof strategy
for getting out of doing them.  She would provoke my mom, push all the right buttons, and get my mom so angry
 she was on the brink of violence.  Inevitably, my dad would intervene, and my sister would be sent to her room.
Sometimes she wound up getting spanked for this, but she apparently thought it was worth it to get out of doing
her chores.  I never saw a glimmer of remorse in her character or her eyes.

Her lack of remorse, coupled with extreme narcissism, has always been particularly distressing.   Even as
 a child, she knew the difference between right and wrong.  She knew, for example, that purposefully provoking
my mom was wrong.  She did it anyway because it got her what she wanted.

Understandably, this was a difficult environment for me to grow up in.  We began going to family therapy
early in my childhood with a wonderful woman named Gail Lee.  Gail’s specialty was marriage and family
counseling, and she did a wonderful job helping us to get along with each other, hold each other up, and so on. 
My sister’s problems, though, were beyond her expertise.

At the age of ten, my parents sent my sister to a group home for troubled teens, hoping that the home
environment (something changeable) was the problem and not something deeper.  After three months, little
progress had been made and our insurance had been depleted.  In those three months, my family had room to
 breathe.  As horrible as it is to admit it, I was glad she was gone.  When she came back home, it didn’t take
 long at all for her to fall back into her established patterns.  When the inevitable big blowup happened after three
 days time, my sister went to her teacher with a very distorted story and said, “I’m afraid to go home.”  In the
group home she had learned the right words to say to get what she wanted.  And, sure enough, it worked.  The
police took her into protective custody and suddenly everyone was looking down their noses at my parents.  The
end result of her stunt, though, was not what she expected.

            There was a slimy district attorney who tried to prosecute my mom for child abuse[1], but Gail made
 sure it didn’t happen.  In the end, my sister was taken out of my parents’ custody and put in the custody of the
state.  This meant that the state was able to place her in what ended up being two separate mental institutions
without any cost to my parents.  It was the best thing we could have ever done for her.

            The purpose of the hospital was twofold.  First, they needed a solid diagnosis.  The final title her disorder
 was given was “Bipolar with psychotic tendencies,” basically meaning that her emotional disorder has a way of
eroding her grasp on reality from time to time.  She does not hear voices or see things that aren’t there, but she
does have a hard time seeing the difference between what is actually real and what she feels is real.  The second
purpose of the hospital was to work out a mix of medications in a controlled environment.  We had experimented
 with a number of different medications while she was still living at home, but some of them, like Prozac, had
disastrous results.  Being in the hospital meant that there would be doctors around to tweak her medications
whenever it was needed and that qualified people would be around her all the time to monitor how the mix of
chemicals was working.

            After her stay in the hospital was over, she still wasn’t quite ready to come home.  So, the state placed
her in a foster home for a while so she could readjust to a normal sort of life.  By the time she finally came home,
she was a very different person and life was a lot easier.


            When someone you love has serious emotional or mental problems, there are many reasons it’s hard to
cope.  It’s hard to see someone you love in so much pain.  It’s hard to deal with the many and varied ways they’ll
 find to hurt you.  It’s hard to keep in mind that they really don’t mean the hurtful things they say or do.  My
 parents still struggle with a sense of guilt—wondering if it was their fault that she ended up the way she did. 
My youngest sister and I struggle with a sort of survivor’s guilt—why was it her and not one of us?  But I think
it’s what my sister feels that is worst of all.

            It is hard, in this culture especially, to be abnormal.  It is hard to be a child.  It is hard to be a middle child.
  Sometimes I think my sister is one of the strongest people in the world because she keeps surviving despite all
the setbacks life has thrown at her.  In my time, I have learned a lot about how to deal with my own feelings
about her, but I have also learned the best ways to help her deal with both her day to day life and any overarching
stigma she feels as a consequence of her disorder.

            There are a lot of things that can be done to make a person who is, unfortunately, abnormal feel more
normal.  The first is to make sure they know they are loved.

            My sister knows without a doubt that her family loves her.  We reaffirm it all the time through words and
actions.  When she was in the hospital, it was hard for us to go and visit her, but that didn’t stop us from calling
her constantly, checking up on her, and making sure she was being taken care of.  Whenever she needs help or
support, whether emotional or financial or whatever, we are there.  And while there are certainly times when her
emotions tell her no one cares, we are always able to remind her of the past, remind her of all we have done for
her out of love.  In this way, we are able to make sure that she can never forget for long that she is loved. 
Believe me, it makes all the difference in the world.  Someone who knows they are loved unconditionally can
endure just about anything.

            Another way to help someone who is mentally ill is to do everything in your power to help them feel
normal.  I know my sister hates feeling abnormal.  I know she feels like a freak, like she’ll never have the kind of
 life she craves because she’ll never be able to handle it.  To some extent, this is true—but that doesn’t mean she
has to feel like it all the time.  We never treat her like a freak.  Never.  We treat her as a normal, functioning
member of the family because that is what she is.  No matter how messed up she is, she is still a member of the
family, and we are committed to never letting her feel like an outsider.  We treat her as a responsible adult
capable of making her own decisions, and sometimes she has to learn the hard way the consequences of those
decisions.  We never talk down to her, and we encourage her to share her heart with us.  She is never treated as
a second-class citizen.  She’s just a normal kid with normal problems and we are her family, there through it all.

            One of the best ways to help a loved one who is mentally ill is just to learn their rhythms.  By this, I mean
learn what makes them tic.  I know that loud sounds and crowds send my sister into a tizzy.  I know that strobe
lights make her sick.  I know that getting dunked too many times in the pool can send her into a panic attack. 
But, more than these things, I know how to calm her down.  I know that when she cries there are times when she
 needs to be held and times when she needs to be left alone.  I can tell when her pride has been wounded and
she needs someone to listen to her rant and rave without giving into the temptation of giving advice.  In short, I
know what she needs and when she needs it.  I can tell when her moods are about to shift and I can compensate
accordingly.  I can be whatever she needs whenever she needs it.


            While all of these things are good principles, the fact is that living with someone who is mentally ill is
exhausting.  While I may know all these things about how to help my sister, the fact is that I don’t feel like doing
them all the time.  There are days when everything just gets under my skin and I can’t stand it anymore.  I no
longer want to be the gentle older sister who helps her younger sibling along with great patience and love.  In
these moments, it becomes obvious that we are sisters because we fight like sisters.  And, like all siblings, we are
supremely skilled at hurting each other.

            It is my parents, though, who probably have the worst time.  When we were growing up I know that the
stress on them was awful.  There were times when everyone involved wanted to call it quits.  But we all stayed,
and it’s made us stronger.  There are, however, things we learned along the way that have helped us to deal with
 living with my sister.

            The first and foremost thing in my mind is learning how to take a break.  If you try to deal constantly with
 someone who has serious emotional issues, it will drive you crazy.  Through a lot of trial and error, I have
learned what my boundaries are when dealing with my sister, and I refuse to let any situation degenerate to the
point where I can’t stand it anymore.  My parents, too, have learned when to just walk away or pass the buck to
 someone else.  This is a principle that would have served my mom greatly in our early years, but some people
learn much more slowly than others.

            The biggest obstacle to learning when to walk away is pride.  When my mom and my sister would get
into those big fights when we were little, my mom’s pride kept her from walking away before she got furious. 
When my sister and I get into arguments, it is my pride, my stubborn determination to be right all the time, that
keeps me from walking away.  It is a hard skill to learn, but it saves a lot of pain and stress in the end.

            Another good way to keep yourself from going crazy is to learn as much as possible about your loved
one’s disorder.  My parents are experts on manic depression.  My youngest sister and I are not as well-versed
on the topic as our parents, but we know enough to recognize when it’s the disorder talking and not our sister.

            Knowing the disorder helps because it enables you to distinguish between the person you love and the
disorder that makes them hurt you.  I know my sister loves me, but there are times when it really isn’t obvious by
 her actions or her words.  In these times, it is a comfort to remember that it’s not my sister talking, it’s the

            One of the big keys to living with a person who is mentally ill is to not take anything personally.  This is
something my youngest sister has an extremely difficult time with.  When they were younger, my two sisters were
the best of friends.  They played together constantly and were almost never apart.  Somewhere along the way,
that changed, and since then my youngest sister has been verbally beaten down by her former favorite playmate
on many an occasion.  This has been hard on my youngest sister because she feels things very deeply and very
 personally.  When her sister she loves says cruel things or hits her for no reason, the hurt resonates.  We try and
 comfort her by reminding her that it is the disorder talking, not her sister.  Sometimes that message gets through.
Sometimes it doesn’t.

            My sister will never be cured.  It’s a fact we all live with every day.  But she is loved, no matter how
much she resists it.

            Mental illness is a destroyer of lives, but there are ways to beat it.  When a mentally ill person has a strong
 support system, they have a much better chance of living a normal life.  And while providing that support can, at
times, be thankless and frustrating, it is worth it to know that someone you love will be better off because of your
 love and support—whether they realize it or not.


[1] Ironically, a few years later that same district attorney was stripped of his license and brought up on
criminal charges for sending naked pictures of himself to an undercover cop he believed was a thirteen year old
girl.  So much for protecting the children.