A Letter to My Brother with Mental Illness

Dear Brother,

I miss you. I really do. I know you are not far and I can see you whenever I want, but it’s not the same. You’re not the same.

I’m not the same.

Mental illness has changed everything. It came in quiet, a current we didn’t even feel sweeping us out. We kept swimming, kept living life, unaware of the little things that warned us along the way. And now we’re left looking at the shore in the distance wondering how to get back to the sand.

We’re caught in a riptide and we can’t get out.

No one is coming to help.

So we tread water hoping to stay alive, hoping it’s enough to keep our face above the waves. Medicines and doctors and therapists and police and ambulance rides come in to save us, but only leave us with more questions, more worry.

It’s strange that we could be alone with so many people in your head. Sometimes I wish they were real just so we’d have people there with us. People who were in it with us. But then I realize how crazy I sound and crazy isn’t a good word to use when I’m the stable one.

Sometimes being stable sucks.

I look at your fourteen-year-old self and wish I had taught you how to swim better, how to swim out of these currents that keep dragging you down. There are some currents for which we are no match because mental illness is a beast.

Even the words are hard to say. And when I finally got used to saying them they became harder to understand. Now there is a face with the label and the two don’t make sense together.

You should know this is never what I wanted for you. I look at you and still see those big brown eyes from a thousand yesterdays ago. The ones that looked so scared coming to live in a new home. It was not always easy, but you found your place. When you finally smiled it changed not only your face, but mine because I couldn’t help smiling in the light of that beauty.

I miss that smile.

It hides deep under a mask, the latest drug cocktail numbing your face. For as much broken glass as we’ve picked up, the thing I wish would break would be that mask. Though they say it’s the only thing we’ve got holding us up right now.

At least I know you’re safe today. Safe in a locked building behind locked doors for your locked brain. Everything locked tight in an effort to keep your physical self safe. But none of this feels safe.

And tomorrow everything could change.

If mental illness taught me anything, it’s that you never know what to believe. Emotions can change so fast you get whiplash and the bounce back from hospitals is almost as fast. I don’t know who this version of you is, and the truth is I don’t like him very much.

Still, I’m here with you. It may not always seem that way in the middle of this riptide. I couldn’t hold you anymore because we were both going down in a mess of panic, but I’m still here. You are not alone.

You never were.

You never will be.

It may be harder to see me. I may not let you grab on as tight, but it’s only because I need to breathe, too. I back away so you won’t be alone. I only wish you could see that.

No matter where the current takes us, you are my brother, and you are loved.

Always,
Your Sister

Becky Hastings

Becky believes in embracing grace in the messy real of life. At My Ink Dance, she captures hard, uncomfortable, often unspoken feelings and brings light, honesty and God’s truth to them in a relatable way. Becky is a wife and mother of three in Connecticut writing imperfect and finding faith along the way.

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  • This is really beautiful. Honest and shed’s a light on what it’s like loving someone so dearly who lives with mental illness. More than one suffers. Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts.

    • Thank you Randi. It is so much more than one person. I know that God sees it all and keeps us all always. That said, it is still heartbreaking.

  • This is a hard and painful place to stand — loving a family member through all the changes and upheaval of a condition that often makes them unlovely. You are a gift to your brother — and to your readers.

    • Thank you so much Michele. It is such a hard place, isn’t it? Knowing other people see it and are there makes a big difference. Mental illness doesn’t change love, but it can change how we show it.

  • Rea

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your heart. It makes me wonder how we can better support the families of those struggling with mental illness.

    • Thank you Rea, and you bring up such an important question. It’s not easy, but nothing about mental illness is. I think one of the best things you can do for families is be there. I know it sounds cliche, but so many people leave because they don’t understand or know what to do. Stay. Be present. Even when the family can’t be. Even when things are hard. Make food. Show them you are not going away. These families already lose so much, they need friends who will stay.

  • Becky, What a beautiful post about your love for your brother. I think sometimes the siblings are left out, their pain not considered, their loss not acknowledged. Thank you for giving siblings a voice. It hurts when someone you love has mental illness. Your brother is one lucky man to have you for a sister and you too are lucky to have him. I know first hand sometimes having someone you love in a locked facility brings about pain and relief. Relief they are somewhat safe. Praying his treatment is successful. Knowing how unpredictable mental illness is I know lot could have changed since you wrote this hoping it was for the best.