I’ve tried three times to write a lighthearted and funny post, starting on Friday (it’s now Sunday). I just can’t seem to muster light and fluffy right now (although I did just typo “it snot” when I tried to type “it’s not”, so there’s that.) So instead, let’s talk some more about #mentalhealthawareness. That sounds like fun, right?
These are HARD stories to tell. They make me feel vulnerable in a way that I usually try to avoid at all costs. I’m having trouble maintaining focus, and distilling things down enough to make sense in a 1000 word blog post. I’m struggling to communicate the totality of growing up with a sociopath for a brother because one story plucked out of a thousand can’t convey what it’s like to know that the monster in your basement is real.
I Don’t Really Know HOW To Do This…
I want to bring attention to mental health issues and the best way I can think to do that is to shine a light into the dark places. It might not be funny, or fun. These posts don’t feel good to write, so they might not feel good to read.
Please read them anyway – maybe you’ll see something here that resonates for you and helps you know that you are not alone. Maybe you’ll just reach a new level of understanding for people who have been through stuff you might not have experienced yourself. Either way – I hope you find something worthwhile here, and I hope that it contributes, even in the tiniest way, to a national conversation about mental health awareness.
Pretending That The Monster Isn’t There
I remember laying in bed when I was little, convinced that there was a monster under my bed. I thought that if I stayed really, REALLY still and pretended that it wasn’t there, it would just ignore me. There were nights I lay awake for hours, frozen, unable to convince myself that I was safe.
The real monster lived in the basement, but I don’t think I really understood that yet.
As a society, we ignore and dismiss and hide SO much. My entire childhood and most of my adulthood has been just that – ignoring, dismissing, or hiding. Our monsters are not going away, and they are not ignoring us. In fact, they seem to be emboldened by our pretense and silence.
I grew up in a family system of silence and denial, and I am far from alone.
That family system was enabled by a society that places judgment on mental illness rather than accepting it as a normal part of the vast diversity that is humanity. Our mental health is not a comfortable and normal part of the conversation about health in general. Yet, it is just as malleable and just as vital to our survival as our physical health.
You Know What Makes Me Crazy?
Mental illness is sometimes due to environment, events, and circumstances…and sometimes it is just the luck of the biological draw: the way our brains are built; the structure or chemistry that happens without our consent. The mental health community knows a lot more than we once did, but there is still so much to learn about the things that affect our mental health.
How much more could we know if neurodiversity and mental illness were simply accepted as different aspects of a vast array of possible experiences on this planet?
Point of clarity: I use the terms neurodiversity and mental illness as I understand them to be popularly accepted, and as they work for me, in my life. For me, that means that while many types of neurodivergence can be celebrated and even considered beneficial, there are also aspects that can significantly and negatively impact an individual’s ability to function in society.
Neurodiversity (neurodivergence) is terminology that allows us to focus on the differences, rather than the “illness” aspect, of mental health. I use the term mental illness when the consequences of a divergent brain seem primarily detrimental to the individual and/or the people around them.
Many types of neurodivergence may contain both gifts and curses. My brother’s mental illness was egregious enough that as his sibling, I could see no up side. Perhaps had he received attention and treatment, the curses could have been turned into gifts. For him, that was not to be the case.
My brother’s name was Joe. He was mentally ill: no one ever talked about it and he never got any help. As his life played out, things only ever got worse for him, until he decided he had had enough. If there were gifts hidden in the curses he was dealt, he never got to find them.
The Family That Silence Built
My adoptive mother could not get pregnant so in the early 60’s my parents adopted the first of 3 kids. Two years after my sister, my brother was adopted, and about 1.5 to 2 years after that, I showed up in the family.
My parents adopted us at a time when you just did NOT talk about mental health or the extreme behaviors they must have witnessed in my brother. In my house, you didn’t talk about ANYTHING that wasn’t a reflection of the perfect “Leave It To Beaver” life. Not to each other, and certainly not to anyone else.
So instead of seeing my brother’s mental illness, and accepting the little boy for who he really was, they made him into a monster by denying what was happening, ignoring the consequences, and deciding that he was just “bad” and “disrespectful”.
When A Child Misbehaves, Just Beat It Out Of Them
Being a “bad kid” meant, in my parents minds, that Joe required more and more strict discipline. So that is what they gave him. It had no effect on him whatsoever – except, perhaps, to make him worse. I’m not even sure he felt physical pain the way normal people do.
He would laugh while being beaten, enraging my mother even further. She broke more than one paddle on him in her frustration. She could, and did, escalate his punishments…and he never once changed his behavior due to those beatings. It was a momentary glitch in his day, and that was all.
I am not a mental health diagnostician and Joe was never taken to a psychiatrist, so all I can do is make an educated guess about what was actually going on in his brain. I have done a lot of research about the symptoms he had, and they line up with what I’ve learned about Antisocial Personality Disorder and Delusional Disorder.
My Brother Was A Sociopath
According to The Mayo Clinic’s website, symptoms of Antisocial Personality Disorder may include:
- Disregard for right and wrong
- Persistent lying or deceit to exploit others
- Being callous, cynical and disrespectful of others
- Using charm or wit to manipulate others for personal gain or personal pleasure
- Arrogance, a sense of superiority and being extremely opinionated
- Recurring problems with the law, including criminal behavior
- Repeatedly violating the rights of others through intimidation and dishonesty
- Impulsiveness or failure to plan ahead
- Hostility, significant irritability, agitation, aggression or violence
- Lack of empathy for others and lack of remorse about harming others
- Unnecessary risk-taking or dangerous behavior with no regard for the safety of self or others
- Poor or abusive relationships
- Failure to consider the negative consequences of behavior or learn from them
- Being consistently irresponsible and repeatedly failing to fulfill work or financial obligations
Adults with antisocial personality disorder typically show symptoms of conduct disorder before the age of 15. Signs and symptoms of conduct disorder include serious, persistent behavior problems, such as:
- Aggression toward people and animals
- Destruction of property
- Serious violation of rules
Joe had every single one of these symptoms. It’s eery. In fact, if I were to describe “who he was”, this would be my description. For instance, my brother began torturing animals, and me, before he was 7 years old. Many of my earliest memories involve these types of events.
Not So Happy Delusions
In addition to ALL of the things on the APD list being true for Joe, he also exhibited many signs of what is now called Delusional Disorder (what used to be called Paranoid Disorder). Without adding another long list to what could turn into a very long post, let me just say that he suffered from delusions, paranoia, and at times, an inability to filter fiction and reality.
To my knowledge, his symptoms did not include hearing voices, although I don’t know if that developed later in his life. According to police that were on the scene, he apparently sat in a truck visibly talking to either himself or a non-existent passenger for almost 45 minutes before he killed himself.
All I know for certain is that the things he said to me over a lifetime of strange conversations made it clear to me that he was delusional, even in childhood, but even more so as he got older. He had some VERY strange (and real to him) ideas about things that went well beyond weird. However, he was very adept at appearing normal to other people. So much so that he was popular in school and beloved by his teachers.
When Fantasy Is Someone’s Reality
Joe sent me a long email about a year before he died in which he recounted his story of our childhood. He believed that he had been “sent” to protect me from my parents…this despite the fact that he was by far the worst perpetrator of violence in my admittedly dangerous household.
Joe abused me severely, and in a variety of ways. I learned early on that he enjoyed a pain reaction…so I would not give him one. He would eventually give up if I didn’t show signs of pain, but if I reacted with pain, that seemed to just encourage him. I’ll write more about this at another time, but for my purposes here, it’s simply a piece of information relevant to showing his delusional thinking later in life.
In his last year, Joe rewrote much of our history to cast himself as the hero who put himself in harm’s way so as to deflect violence away from me. He cast my parents as the villains (which, admittedly, they kind of deserved), me as the “angel of light” (his words, NOT mine), and himself as the damned but determined protector. My brother wrote to me using phrases like: “Ours is a love forged in the fires of hell”, and “you were an angel of light who I was sent here to protect”.
Keep two things in mind here:
- He truly BELIEVED this – this was not a metaphor to him. He believed he had been sent from another plane of existence and that I was some kind of angel. He had even drawn pictures of a realm that he said he visited several times, during multiple near death experiences.
- His telling of our childhood never referred to ANY violence on his part. In his mind, all violence was against him, perpetrated by my parents, usually because he would act out to get their attention so they would beat him instead of me.
That’s Enough For Today
Which brings me to a good place to wind down for today. It’s hard to decide where to stop, because there are details and stories I want to tell to help illustrate my point. For now though, let me bring it back to my purpose for sharing all of this.
Growing up in a family and society that refused to acknowledge or address mental illness was a nightmare for me, as I think it must be for anyone with a similar story. I think it may be the root of many of my current mental and physical health issues. I suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and a variety of physical symptoms that are a result of, or exacerbated by, long term exposure to excessive stress.
When as a society we stigmatize mental illness and disregard the importance of good and accessible mental health treatment, we create dangerous situations with long term consequences. (I underscore GOOD mental health treatment, here…not just throwing some drugs we don’t fully understand at someone and hoping it all works out OK).
There is more we can do, and we should be looking at it as a matter of communal safety and well being. We talk a lot about physical health issues…people being fat is a national crisis and vaccinations are fodder for much debate…but the number of people suffering from mental health related issues gets swept under the rug – still!
Undiagnosed and untreated mental illness is not just painful…it is terminal. For my brother, it created a lifetime filled with pain…ending in escape through “self-termination”. However, it is not just painful for the person suffering from mental illness, it is murder on the people around them. Sometimes, literally.
And sometimes it is just the theft of a little girl’s innocence and childhood. Is that a good enough reason to talk about it?