May has been a rough month for me, and delving into my brother’s story didn’t make it easier. I thought it was important to tell Joe’s story because I wanted to contribute to #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth. So for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to write about his last day. Well, not “trying”. I’ve been writing about it. Then rewriting it. I still can’t decide whether to post that, so I’m posting this instead.
I may have mentioned that my daughter has suggested that I am not really telling my brother’s story, but my own. She’s very wise, my kidlet. She’s right: I can’t really tell HIS story, because I didn’t live his life. I can tell what I knew, but more importantly, I can tell how it affected me.
What I Knew
What I knew was that Joe struggled with frustration and explosive anger and rages, yet seemed to “not feel” what I thought were normal things. He would have brief moments of clarity, and he would tell me that he really WANTED to feel what other people felt. He wanted love, any form of love, and he wanted it desperately.
He never felt love, and he never felt loved – certainly not in the way that most of us think of it.
He got very good at mimicking normal behavior, and pretending to feel. But he KNEW that he didn’t feel these things, and he actually did feel sorrow about that. He knew he was missing something fundamental, and it caused him pain throughout his entire life.
Most of the time my brother was my tormentor, one of the monsters from my childhood. Sometimes he was also my friend, and from a very early age he had me convinced that I was the most important person in the world to him. He had a strange sense of ownership over me.
I was his to torment, but others better leave me alone, or he would hurt them. So I learned to not let him know if others had hurt me. You’re welcome, high school bullies. You didn’t know it, but I saved you from some serious consequences!
In fact, that is a core element in my story. I remember that feeling – not only needing to hide Joe’s violence from others, but feeling like I needed to hide OTHERS’ violence from Joe.
My story includes being bullied a lot, and not just at home. I don’t think I’m unique in this – I think a lot of people were bullied in school. For me, there were bullies AT school, but there was a special group of boys on the school bus that made the ride home most days a nightmare for me. For some reason they just could NOT leave me alone. There was the typical stuff – throwing gum in my hair, taunting me, etc.
Then there was the more invasive stuff. Sitting in my seat and gathering around me, egging each other on. Grabbing me. I remember one day in particular there were three of them, one sat in my seat and one was in the seat ahead of me facing us, one was in the seat behind me, leaning over. They were all SO close, and the one in my seat kept scooting closer.
I don’t really remember what they wanted – I just sat there frozen, refusing to show how much this bothered me, while they said things and leaned in closer and laughed at each other’s antics. I do remember two things, though. One, that I felt like a bug and didn’t understand their motives at all. Two, that they didn’t do this when Joe was on the bus.
What Would Joe Do?
It was a good thing that they didn’t, too, because when my brother found out someone had bullied me on the bus, he took matters into his own hands. I remember one specific incident, although I can’t remember what the boy had done…I feel like he had grabbed me or something…anyway, whatever it was, it had me crying when I got home. I made the mistake of telling Joe what had happened.
The next morning, Joe got on the bus ahead of me. The boy who had grabbed me the day before was sitting by himself, about halfway down the aisle, on the left hand side of the bus. He was sitting alone in his seat, close to the aisle – you know, taking up the whole seat so no one else could sit there.
Joe walked down the aisle toward the back of the bus, just like any other day. Except this day, as he passed that boy, Joe punched him in the side of his head, right on the temple, so hard that his head hit the bus window. Joe just kept walking – I don’t even know if the bus driver knew what had happened. The boy’s head was bleeding, and as I walked past him, I could see blood on the window of the bus as well.
My Brother My Keeper
I sat a few seats further back. This was all my fault. I did this. I made that boy bleed.
When we got to school, my brother got off the bus and walked himself into the principal’s office and reported himself. That night, my parents took him to the boy’s house to talk to HIS parents. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I know that Joe got in trouble for it.
And that was my fault, too.
I remember wanting a big brother that protected me. Strangely enough, that was how Joe saw himself – as my protector. The problem was that I truly believed he might kill someone, and as much as I fumed and raged about how some of these people treated me, I didn’t really want them to DIE.
Big Brother Is Watching – Even At School
Joe was popular – at least, from my perspective he was popular. He had a group of about 5 friends that were always around, and I perceived them as THE cute, popular boys. They had an air band, and they practiced in my garage. I remember sitting on the hill opposite my garage with my friends, watching the popular boys play invisible instruments that didn’t exist while “The Who” blasted from my brother’s stereo.
I loved it when we had friends over, because my mother tried to make us seem like the perfect family. It was awesome!
Even though my family was worse than the bullies at school, school bullies were still picnic to deal with. I don’t know what I did to garner their attention, but I did run into a boy a few years later that remembered me from high school. He was trying to pick me up at a bar, believe it or not. He said he remembered me because he had wanted to ask me out but I was just SO stuck up!!!
I was stuck up? He said I walked around all aloof, like I was better than everybody else!
Was THAT what people thought? They thought I was stuck up??? I didn’t walk around aloof – I walked around terrified! The halls were too crowded, the people would laugh at me, the bullies were out to get me, and my big brother was everywhere. If he saw me in the halls talking to people, he would grill me about that at home.
Is It Stalking When It’s Your Brother???
Joe would FOLLOW me in the halls, sometimes…supposedly to make sure that I “got to class safely”. There were times when that was actually kind of a good thing, because his friends would be with him. When his friends were with him, I had a bunch of cute, popular boys talking to me and walking with me…it made me feel kind of special.
I think they all thought Joe was such a great big brother, looking out for his little sister, and they kind of “adopted” me. Sometimes one of them would stay with me when Joe wasn’t there, or stop at my locker to say “Hi”. Those were the best days EVER…I would carry those moments with me for days, that warm, soft, wonderful feeling of someone like that taking the time to talk to ME.
There really was a perk to having Joe as a brother – his friends. One of them was really tall and skinny and super kind, and he would walk behind me and put his chin on my head and match my walk. I still remember his name. I still remember getting kind of weak in the knees and thinking in that moment that I was in LOVE. That one quirky, simple act made me feel safe and special.
Not With MY Sister
Joe started to notice that this boy was especially nice to me. One night at a school dance, this cute, sweet, tall, skinny boy asked me to dance and I thought my heart would melt through my feet – right before my brother yanked him away and threatened him. Joe threw him up against a wall, furious, pressing his forearm across the boy’s throat and telling him to stay AWAY from his sister.
Everybody laughed. The boy looked at me for a moment before walking away. In my memory he looks sad…but I don’t know if I’m making that part up. Maybe that’s just my heart filling in details.
I’m not sure whether anyone else believed that Joe would really hurt that sweet boy – but I knew. I knew, and it crushed me. I still dream about that boy sometimes, and wonder about the man he’s become, and whether he is living a happy life. I truly hope that he is.
SO Not Dating…Nope…Not Gonna Happen
So, you’ve probably figured out by now that I did NOT date in high school. Not once. I went to a couple of dances with a group of girls…but I never went to prom, I never went to homecoming…I never went out to the movies with a boy. I did have one kind of secret “thing” with a guy I barely remember, come to think of it, but I’m not sure that counts as dating.
I had crushes, including a lifelong crush on my brother’s best friend, but I kept myself well out of reach – even taking off running one time when he tried to kiss me. Yes – I literally RAN. That’s a different story, though.
My brother was everywhere. I even had a teacher once pull me aside to warn me to be careful. He and I had taken a college entrance exam at the same time. He was taking it for his final time, to get into a college. He had a bit of a learning disability but he studied really hard.
OH, Also – Being Good is BAD
Joe bought study books and did practice questions for weeks ahead of time. I didn’t do any of that because I didn’t plan on taking the test that year at all. Then, right before the test, my mom thought it would be a good idea for me to take it as practice. I didn’t care – I planned on taking it “for real” the following year – so whatever, right?
I think because I was not stressed about it at all, and because it was all reading comprehension, I got a really high score. I wasn’t great at math, but those tests are so heavily reliant on reading, and that was one area where I excelled and Joe struggled. SO, he did fine but not “great”.
When our scores came in, somehow my math teacher knew that I had scored higher than my brother. She pulled me aside after class, and warned me. She told me to be careful, because she said she knew how Joe “could be”.
How did she know that??? I never found out, but I do remember the beating I took over that score. Joe was enraged – so out of control all I could do was block him as best I could. He generally destroyed STUFF more than he hit me by that age…but he still lost control of his anger and went totally berserk at times. When he did, he did not have the ability to restrain himself, and he could do some real damage – to stuff, AND to me.
Staying Under the Radar
Excelling at anything was dangerous, in my house. Believe it or not, not JUST from my brother. My mother couldn’t stand it, either. I learned to express no positive emotion when I got good grades, or Joe would lose it. I learned to downplay any kind of creative expression, because my mother couldn’t stand THAT. I kept myself very tightly contained, so as not to “poke the beasts”, so to speak.
I learned to freeze, and become as invisible as possible. That way you don’t rile the bullies – whether at school or at home.
So, yes, I suppose I really am just telling my own story. My story of the lifelong impact of growing up with undiagnosed mental illness in the family. It is so important to talk about this stuff. We need to offer help, so people like Joe can find a way to feel love and loved. We need to make sure families are not trying to keep the world ignorant, instead of safe, when someone who is mentally ill is a danger to those around them.
Awareness Can Last More Than A Month
We need to acknowledge that these things are real, and happening to people that we KNOW. People we work with, people we go to school with…kids on the school bus. I don’t think my story is as unusual as it should be. I think many, many people have had to deal with violence in their childhoods, and growing up feeling unsafe, and I think mental illness is a part of that equation that we just can’t afford to ignore!
We may not be able to change everything for everyone, but the more we talk about it, the more chances there are that someone will see themselves and the people around them differently.
Maybe someone will realize that they can get help. Maybe someone will realize that their child NEEDS help. Maybe a parent can see that they need help from a professional, so that a sibling can be supported and protected.
Maybe someone who grew up like I did, can let go of feeling like it was all their fault.