Watching a loved one struggle with a deteriorating mental health is a unique sort of pain. In my experience, it is akin to watching someone slowly tear themselves apart and being helpless to do anything to stop it.
This pain came to me in the form of an older sister with Bipolar Disorder.
The transition from the carefree halls of grade school to the cruel world of high school lived up to its reputation. Seemingly overnight, my sister’s eccentric and quirky personality became mania. Her occasional mood swings morphed into an emotional state that lived solely on the extremities, and her rebellious streak turned into a revolution.
Twelve-year-old me didn’t know what to do, and I’m not sure that the 21-year-old version would be much better equipped. That feeling of helplessness eventually led to anxiety and paranoia. Any time I heard muffled conversations and rushed footsteps outside my door at night, I assumed the worst. Years of suspense took their mental toll, and it became easier to stop caring after a while.
Thankfully, my sister recovered. As any loving parents would, my mom and dad bent over backward to get her the treatment she needed. The transition from high school to college was far less dramatic, and, last summer, my sister graduated from college with distinction. The quirky girl with the rebellious streak has been found again, and I couldn’t be more proud of her.
However, after the worst was over, I still had difficulty coping with what I had witnessed. At first, I bottled it all up. Things were getting better, and the sooner I could move on, forget about it, and pretended that it never happened, the better. But the memories lingered vividly, and I had the constant urge to share my experience.
I thought that announcing everything to the world would get this weight off my chest, so I began to tell anyone who would listen: schoolmates, teachers, and random people over the Internet. But that only made the weight heavier. Suddenly, I felt defined by the very thing from which I was trying to escape. At least in my mind, I became that guy with the crazy sister to everyone outside of my family and immediate friend group, and the memories followed me around and suffocated me more than ever. I felt like I had “prostituted” myself á la Holden Caulfield, who warned: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything.”
I struggled with the idea of talking about this period of my life for a long time after that. Could anyone really relate with what I had seen? Did I only want to share my experience for the sake of garnering sympathy and in order to sound tortured? Would I regret making myself vulnerable after the fact?
Recently, I’ve been surrounded by a group of friends who embrace vulnerability. Our M.O. has been to sit back, watch bad movies, and vent with one another about whatever we happen to be going through. Nothing is taboo or off-limits.
By sharing with me some of the most intimate details of their lives and personal struggles, they’ve slowly peeled away at mine. By creating a safe and trusting environment for me to spill my thoughts – and then asking penetrating questions about those thoughts – they’ve teased out details about who I am that were previously foreign to me. They’ve caused me to examine critically the assumptions that I held about myself.
Before I allowed myself to become vulnerable within a constructive and safe environment, I feel as though, in the words of Elizabeth Bennet, “I never knew myself.”
Just as important, I’ve learned through these discussions that mental health is an issue with which a lot of people can relate. My story is just one of many that go largely unnoticed, and it is not abnormal. Nearly everyone has a story about mental health to tell – whether it is their personal struggle, or how they’ve coped with their best friend’s or their older sister’s. But in order to talk about it and, in my experience, in order to learn and to heal, first you need to be OK with being vulnerable.