My Mother, My Sister and Mental Health

I spoke to my mom yesterday, and it was somewhat of a tough discussion.  I love giving my mom a call—we usually speak once or twice a week for about 60 minutes each call.  She isn’t one to bring up things that are bothering her—typically she wants to hear how Lila and I are doing.

I know it breaks her heart that we’re so far away—and it breaks mine too.  In the last ten years, I have seen my mom, dad, sisters and nephews just seven or eight times.  As a father who has family across the country, and a daughters mother with roots in CA—I had to make a decision.  The decision was easy, but the outcome has been somewhat of a complicated process.

The options were to either move back home and be a summer father, if the courts would have even granted me summer visitations.  Or, stay in CA and do my best to make it on my own and be an active father.  The moment Lila’s mother told me she was pregnant, somehow I knew that we were going to have a baby girl, and I already loved her with every part of me.  There was no way I was leaving my baby—she needs her father, and I need her.

I know that my family respects that decision.  Heck, they raised my sisters and I according to the rule that “family is everything—without family, there is nothing.” It was instilled in me, from a young age that you take care of your responsibilities—you take care of your family…no matter the cost.

I remember my father practicing his preach—he worked a tremendous amount of hours, often times getting called out in the middle of the night to ensure that he provided us with everything we needed.  Anytime I get tired or overwhelmed, I think about him.  I don’t remember a time in my life where he complained about working—he left the house at 5am every-day, when it was still dark, and didn’t get home until 6 or 7pm.  Then he would get called out for over-time in the middle of the night several times a week.  On top of the grueling work schedule—he coached my baseball and soccer teams, played catch with me and I can never remember a time where I felt like he picked work over family.  He worked for us kids—for my mom.

My mother (like many east coast boys, I call her “Ma”), well, she is just the sweetest lady on earth.  She lights up the room with her smile and is such a nurturing individual.  She makes us feel so loved—so wanted, and stands by us children through thick and thin.  Believe me, there were times when most parents would’ve thrown their hands up and walked away—but not my mom.  She always believed that things happen for a reason and that blessings come to good people.  “It will all work out” she has said to me many times.  My dad and mom love each-other so much…they met when they were teenagers and have been together ever since.  They have only ever dated each-other.

I think about my decision quite a bit—I had to make sacrifices, but that is what parents do for their children.  I miss my sisters—and not seeing my four nephews grow up has been hard.  My parents are getting older—I just wish I was around to help out more—which leads me back to the discussion with my mom yesterday.

My older sister has issues surrounding her mental health.  She was diagnosed with Bi-polar Disorder (at 17yrs old) and struggles with anxiety and panic.  She started on hard drugs when she was thirteen years old, and got clean only after medics had to bring her back to life after a heroin overdose….that was a decade ago or so (she is 35 now).  After my sisters stint with hard drugs, she was just never the same.  She developed anger issues and, in my opinion, a stunted maturity level.  Meaning, she acts like a child even as an adult. Not like a toddler—but like a selfish teenager who will stomp their feet through the floor to get what they want.  It always bothered me—and I had little sympathy for her, especially after her long term drug use.  It was really hard to watch my mom and dad constantly worry about my sister—it was one thing after the other with her…never a peace of mind.

Apparently things have gotten worse.  My sister has been admitted to the hospital twice in the last four months—and is having episodes of psychosis.  My mom sounds tired and afraid—and it’s hard for me to find words that will provide comfort.  Maybe she just needs someone to talk to?  I don’t know.  I feel helpless being so far away.  I guess during her last breakdown all my sister could do is cry and say “mom hug me.”  It brings tears to my eyes to envision my older sister curled up in the fetal position, begging my mom to hold her—and my mom most likely embracing her while holding back tears.  My father, he was probably sitting close by for moral support—but anxiously pacing or sitting down (one of his legs frantically bouncing) because he doesn’t know how to react in these types of situations.

At that moment I didn’t see my sister anymore as someone who intentionally created personal turmoil—I didn’t think that her Bi-polar was a self induced mental health issue.  As a person who intentionally hurt our parents and restricted their happiness and freedom through fear and the constant question of “what will she do next?  What will happen to her if we aren’t there?”

No, I saw her as the little girl I grew up with—my sister, just 18 months older than me.  People used to mistake us for twins.  I saw a person in crisis—a person with so much sadness and confusion built up inside that at times, the only solution she sees is ending it all.  I no longer feel anger toward my sister—I just want her to feel better.  I realize she, or anyone else in her state of mind doesn’t want to live that way…to feel like that.  I want to be more supportive and let her know that I love her no matter what happened before.

Growing up with a person who struggles with mental health is confusing, frustrating and easy to misconstrue.  Raising a person who struggles with mental health is even harder.  It took most of my adulthood to reach a point where I can finally forgive my sister for all of the episodes, outbursts and emotional trauma.  But all that I want now is for her to get the treatment she needs—and continue to take her medicine and attend therapy.  It is the times when she stops doing the before mentioned tasks that things go downhill fast.

I wish I was there to give my sister a hug that day—and it’s a helpless feeling, at times, knowing that I’m so far away.  I sacrifice for my baby, just like my mom does for hers—and we make the best out of a sometimes tough situation.  “Everything happens for a reason, and if we continue to be good people and work-hard—everything will fall together as it should.”

In the news it has become clear that mental health is an issue that impacts millions of people in our country—and challenges with mental health doesn’t discriminate—it impacts all ethnicities, socio-economic classes, genders, etc.  We need to banish the stigma associated with mental health challenges to make those hiding in the shadows feel comfortable seeking support.  If not addressed early, the problems become devastating for some.

I felt compelled to write about my sister today, my family—maybe, in part, because I feel guilty for writing her off at one point.  It may also be because I feel guilty about the distance between us.  At this point, the only thing that matters are our actions moving forward—as a sister, she needs to do her part to continue seeking support—and as a brother, I need to be more supportive.

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