Watching Mental Illness From the Sidelines

21. June 2016 serious 5
Watching Mental Illness From the Sidelines

A few days ago I received a text from my older sister that she lost her job. Again. This is probably the third job she has been fired from in the last few months. Unfortunately, this is just another bump in the roller coaster of her recent life with mental illness.

You see, both of my older sisters (identical twins) suffer from bipolar disorder. One of them was diagnosed within the last couple of years; the other sister was diagnosed around ten years ago. Looking back, their issues were apparent for many years before they were diagnosed, but we just didn’t have the right name or diagnosis for it.

These days, I hear about their lives from the sidelines, usually from my mom or sometimes my brother, but rarely is it a text directly from one of my sisters. It’s not their fault that we rarely communicate, as I am the one who distanced myself from them several years ago.

I just couldn’t ride the mental illness roller coaster with them any longer. They took advantage of my parents and ruined their relationships with their kids. They misused their medicine and blamed others for their unhappiness. I had to walk away from the day-to-day front lines and start watching from the sidelines.

When I was only 9 years old, I saw my father cry for the first time. We were at a family therapy session with one of my sisters who had recently attempted suicide. I didn’t know at the time what “suicide” really meant or why we were there. I just knew that I was angry at my sister for making my dad cry.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t her last suicide attempt. The most memorable one happened the night that I went into labor with my first child. My parents had to choose whether to come to Austin to greet their first granddaughter or find their missing daughter in Houston. While they came to Austin (feeling very torn to say the least), they were getting updates from my other sister. Thankfully, my missing sister was found (alive but unconscious) in a hotel room having nearly overdosed on sleeping pills.

After my father passed away three years ago, one sister had what I would call a mental breakdown, although the doctors called it something different. It was already in-progress before my dad died, but his death was like a lightning-speed catalyst. There were nights that she unknowingly left her apartment on foot and wandered around Houston in the middle of the night for hours on end. The police would find her stumbling and confused on the streets. I’m not sure if she even remembers getting lost or what she was thinking when she was walking around in the middle of the night. I’m just thankful she was never injured (or worse) while walking the streets of Houston alone.

Throughout the years, we’ve seen their marriages fail and jobs come and go. Friendships have changed and relationships have ended. There have been car wrecks, AA meetings, in-patient and out-patient psychiatric care, denied disability claims, financial issues, abusive boyfriends and bankruptcies. In addition, the job losses have caused insurance changes, which lead to a change in therapists, medicine changes, and lots of tears. On top of all of that, they’ve been scammed by online predators from a dating website and burglarized by neighbors in their apartment complex. The last few years have been a terrible ride for them to say the least.

When I stepped away from the front lines several years ago, I thought that being on the sidelines of their lives would be easier. While I was able to escape the day-to-day worry, I didn’t realize that it would be replaced with a nagging guilt.

I feel guilty that there’s nothing I can do to help them. I feel guilty that I’m living a relatively carefree life with a comfortable place to live and no large financial concerns. We are able to put food on our table and pay for any medications that we need. And aside from my silly complaints about the mundane problems of day-to-day life, we are generally happy. This makes me feel guilty.

If there’s one thing that I could wish for them it would be that they can find happiness. I would love for them to have a long period of stability and live life and feel loved. But unfortunately, the only thing I can do is to let them to know that they’re loved.

I can’t make their:

  • medicines work like they’re supposed to.
  • brains function like they’re supposed to.
  • decisions for them.
  • bosses understand their limitations.
  • relationships healthy and true.

But I can love them. 

To my sisters, while I may be on the sidelines of your lives, you are very loved. I’m so sorry that I can’t wave a magic wand to make your lives better again. And no matter how many bumps in the road you may encounter, I’ll always love you.

5 thoughts on “Watching Mental Illness From the Sidelines”

  • 1
    lourdes on June 22, 2016 Reply

    my heart is w you! been there, done that for 30+ yrs.

  • 2
    Heidi Houdek on June 26, 2016 Reply

    Thank you for having the courage to post this. Reading it brought me to tears. It was extra powerful because I feel like our lives (and so many others that remain silent) have pretty much been exactly the same. I think I’ve told you before, but my sister has paranoid schizophrenia and my dad dying 14 years ago escalated her illness/addictions as well. I too chose to distance myself from her, so I completely understand the guilt that coincides with this decision. She is homeless and has been in and out of jail at least a dozen times. It’s BAD, and with the lack of resources available to help her I have lost hope of things ever getting better. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t love her and that I don’t care. Hugs to you and your family Amy. You guys are definitely in my thoughts.

    • 3
      agstine on July 4, 2016 Reply

      Thank you so much Heidi for reaching out. I’ve been meaning to reply to you about your sister, but I haven’t had the words. It’s so awful and sad and challenging. I’m sorry for you that you’ve had to go through your own challenges with her. To say that I understand is an understatement.
      Hugs back at you!

  • 4
    Diana Scheve on July 3, 2016 Reply

    The line that hit me is “the denied disability.” It’s denied for too many and makes the day to day living, hell. How can it be denied with so much evidence? Wish a few judges could be forced to be responsible for people who need help.

    • 5
      agstine on July 4, 2016 Reply

      Diana, you are so right. It is so hard to believe that getting disability for mental illness is so difficult. It’s almost a given that they will be denied the first time, so they have to appeal. The whole process is absolutely mind-boggling.

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