Normally I keep this subject in the brain-basement. I actively avoid thinking about it, and when I offered to write this article, I naively thought I could make it funny. I wanted to exercise some literary flare to throw some light on an otherwise dark topic that spends most its time in the shadows of my mind, but I’d forgotten just how hard it is to talk about. I’ve instead opted to keep it simple, so please excuse me if it’s a little dull.
For as long as I can remember, my eldest brother has been a bit off. I didn’t understand what the problem was when I was a child, but I can vividly remember my parents putting his unreasonably short temper down to adolescence. The first in a series of innocent misdiagnoses that would nonetheless delay the help my brother needed.
As I got older, his behaviour became more troubling and the added tension caused by my parent’s divorce upped the frequency of what we’d call ‘outbursts’ which often involved drastic changes in speaking volume, and occasionally more serious physical aggression.
Once the divorce was settled, my mum, brother and I moved out, making my brother the man of the house. I was ten years old at the time, my brother must have been 21 or 22.
My mum sought professional help but the GPs we saw were dumbfounded by my brother. In the UK it seems, very little is actually known about mental illness and without knowledge, accurate diagnoses are uncommon. My brother is a smart man and quite skilled at ‘playing it straight’. Repeatedly my brother was diagnosed with depression, manic depression and bipolar, but he wasn’t. He’s schizophrenic.
Paranoid schizophrenic to be precise. In all fairness to the doctors, paranoid schizophrenia, manic depression and bipolar apparently have similar symptoms, and the nature of my brother’s illness had him believe everyone was conspiring against him; naturally he concealed his irrationality in front of people of authority and it took a few years and a serious incident for him to open up. In all that time, he’d been taking the wrong medication.
While I lived with him, he screamed in my face, threatened me, left me waiting for a lift home from Scouts for three hours, threatened my mum, hit my dog, put his fist through double-glazed windows on multiple occasions, shrieked the theme tune to Robin Hood’s Merry Men while manically vacuuming the same small spot of carpet for hours, and chased me down the road barefoot for the unforgiveable crime of going to the dentist.
It wasn’t until my brother punched a neighbour on a dog walk that we got the help we needed. The neighbour told my mum what happened once she got back from work. She got in the car, drove up the road out of sight of the house, cried for just under an hour, drove to the local doctor’s surgery and begged the doctor to come to our house and see her son.
When the doctor visited, my brother broke down. I could see the panic in his face. This was different. This was serious. I think he was 28 at the time but he looked like a little boy. He told the doctor he could hear the neighbours plotting against him every night – auditory hallucinations, according to the doctor. He said he saw people at the windows spying on him – visual hallucinations apparently. He showed the doctor a board game he’d been working on in which the player assumes the role of a ‘gay lion’, he’d written a rule book that stood at about 20,000 words long – the doctor didn’t have a name for this one but he clearly thought it was pretty weird. That afternoon my brother was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, 1983.
My mum and I resented my brother, even hated him at times, but we just put up with him because no one seemed to be able to help. With hindsight, I wish we’d pestered our GP more and sooner.
Even now, nearly ten years on, I can’t give you a straight answer when asked how I feel about my brother. On the one hand he bullied me. He put me through hell and I can’t just let that go. On the other hand he’s my brother, and it wasn’t his fault. I love him and I hate him. It’s hard to reconcile.
There is always help out there. No one has to suffer alone. No one should be resented for something they can’t help. If your family is affected by mental illness, I would recommend banging on every metaphorical door you can find until you find someone who can help.