Wednesday, August 26, 2009

My Brother's Keeper

My brother came over last night to show me his bonus check from his job. He has been working at his part-time job now for about a month and received a $50.00 bonus. You don’t know how big a deal that is unless you know my brother.

My brother and I are 13 months apart in age. Though we are close in age we are different in every way. He was the dark skinned child with brown eyes taking after our mother’s Native American heritage and I was the fair, blue-eyed child reflective of my father’s French ancestry. Mike was such a pretty little boy with his baby curls and big brown eyes that he won first place in a baby beauty contest at the age of 18 months. His reign as royalty was quickly extinguished when the judges realized he had been mistaken for a little girl. This was probably the nudge my mother needed to get Mike’s first haircut.

Once we were in school and though only a grade apart we seldom played together. He was a rough and tumble little boy who had a difficult time being still. I was a shy, quiet little girl that people hardly noticed. School was always a challenge for Mike and he usually spent most of the school year in the doghouse. As he left a grade and I took his place my new teacher would remark, “I can’t believe you are Mike’s sister.”

When Mike was in the 5th grade it was discovered that he was extremely nearsighted. Getting glasses for the first time was needless to say, an eye opening experience for him. He told our mom that he didn’t know trees had individual leaves, he just thought they were solid green forms. The only problem he had with his new glasses was keeping them up on his nose. He always seemed to be peering over the top of the lenses rather than through them and when he did bother to adjust them he would just scrunch up his nose until they worked their way back into position. This in itself wasn’t a bad thing but when he was sitting in his music class and scrunching his nose his teacher thought he was making faces at her. She began to make poor Mike sit behind the blackboard during music class for a crime he didn’t commit. The poor kid was just trying see.

My brother had physical challenges that made his life more than uncomfortable. He suffered from severe asthma and the disease was always trying to put limitations on activities he enjoyed. He loved sports and would wheeze himself to death as he ran around the bases of a ball field. If he got too excited about an upcoming college football game or holiday it could send him to the hospital with an asthma attack. I can remember going to the hospital and seeing my brother lying under an oxygen tent barely catching his next breath. His allergies were off the chart, allergic to everything environmental as well as a list of forbidden foods. He endured weekly allergy shots for years but never flinched a muscle when it was time to take one. I on the other hand would go into cataclysmic fits at the mere sight of a needle.

Mike was always the kid with the surplus of energy who never quite thought things through. He tried but there was always a glitch in whatever he attempted to do. In high school he had one date. Unfortunately, as he walked the young lady to his car he accidentally slammed her fingers in the car door. He just opened the car door and escorted her back to her front door. I don’t think he ever had another date.

After graduation he attacked college with the same gusto as he had always approached everything in his life. He was on a vocational rehabilitation scholarship due to his severe asthma and he worked ferociously to maintain his grade point average. He was into his 3rd year in school when his behavior became increasingly manic. He would barricade himself in his bedroom closet with mattresses lining the walls and doors. He said he couldn’t concentrate due to the noise in the house. He would sit in his closet with headphones on his head for hours at a time trying to focus on his textbooks. Finally, at the age of 19 he suffered a complete breakdown. He was having uncontrollable thoughts about suicide and was finally forced to drop out of school and into therapy. Our parents did what they knew to do and kept him close to them at all times. Mike worked alongside our father every day and my father shielded the rest of the family from the severity of Mike’s illness. I knew early on that Mike was suffering from schizophrenia but my suspicions were not confirmed until he was 58 years old. I don’t think my parents were ready to hear it anyway.

Over the years there were times when I was filled with resentment toward my brother. His illness consumed everyone around him. His erratic behavior was exhausting and his hospitalizations left everyone feeling confused and helpless. The mental health system is not always forthcoming and after each hospitalization he was discharged with no plan for follow-up. Mike was on his own and I believe he survived on sheer will and adrenalin. He had always made it difficult for me to be near my parents but my father acted as a buffer. Mike’s attachment to our father left the door open for my mother and I to have a relationship. She would come to visit me in my home leaving Mike at home with Dad. If I tried to visit my parent’s in their home Mike’s behavior would escalate making it impossible for me to stay for more than one day. I was frustrated but at least I still had time with my mother. Mike’s dependency on our father left my other brother and I terrified at the prospect of what might happen when our father died. Our fears were unfounded as Mike simply turned his dependency from our dad to our mother but with an increased possessiveness. I felt as though I had lost both parents. Two years after my father died my brother and mother moved to be closer to me. My mother was having an extremely difficult time dealing with Mike as she had also been shielded from Mike’s illness as well and though we now lived in the same town Mike would become extremely agitated if I came around and life would become unbearable for my mother. My visits had to be short and my resentment grew.

It was weird the way my brother resented me if I was around our mother but at the same time he was dependent upon me. He called me on the phone sometimes 20 or more times in a day. He didn’t understand boundaries and called me at work constantly and at home all hours of the day. As time progressed and my resentment grew I wondered how I would feel after our mother was gone. I was afraid I would resent Mike for all the time I felt I had been denied with our mother.

In 2002 my brother was hospitalized again with a psychotic break. This time he cut his wrists and took an overdose of tranquilizers. Fortunately neither of which were fatal and he fully recovered but this time he was discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. Neither were a surprise to me but somehow I felt relief. I also wanted my brother to finally get the help he needed. I realize now that he was finally at a point in his disease where he was willing to accept help. Before he would have never accepted such a diagnosis or been willing to take medication but at 58 years of age he was finally too tired to fight. He wasn’t on medication long before he began to articulate just what his mental state had been all his life. He began talking about the voices he heard and the psychotic thoughts that plagued him every day. For the first time in his life I saw him relax. Suddenly he could sit quietly and watch TV or just fall asleep in a chair. He was in awe of the changes and so were we. It was like when he got his first pair of glasses. He never knew what normal felt like.

Mike has done well since his diagnosis and medication has changed his life. He survived the death of our mother and though he had never lived on his own he is now managing. He has a part-time job with the home health agency that helped us with our mother and he is managing his disability. I have wrestled with my own demons and won. I spent the last month of our mother’s life reconnecting with her and had the privilege of being with her to the end.

Mike will always have challenges and he will always struggle with social boundaries but I am so proud of him and so happy that he has finally found peace. I am also happy for the peace I have found as well.


Arkansas Patti said...

Wow, that is a powerful post. What a journey you,Mike and your parents had been on. It is just a shame he couln't have gotten the help sooner but as you said, he probably wasn't ready.
Extremely well written, I could feel each ones pain as you wrote. Everyone knows a sick child suffers, few think about the healthy one who gets little notice.
Bless you both.

kenju said...

Powerful, indeed. I cannot imagine what each of you went through, but you have explained it all so well. Patti is right that the well people in the family suffer also when there is a sibling with problems. I am glad to know that he is responding to treatment and that you and he can have a nice relationship now.