Preface: Welcome to our Journal. Our intention is to write short, yet informative, pieces about serious mental illness that will educate and inspire compassion. We know that there are numerous websites you can visit for general information about illnesses like Schizophrenia, for example. Instead of a generic list of symptoms, we're going to share about the real life situations behind the labels and diagnosis. Names and circumstances may be slightly altered, but we believe there are some exceptional individuals you should meet. People who live right in your own backyard (so to speak). So sit back, grab a cup of coffee and spend a few brief moments with our Journal.
Today we are going to hear from Sarah Knaub. She is the older sibling to someone who suffers with a serious mental illness. Sarah resides in the East Valley of the Phoenix, Arizona area.
I am a sibling of someone with mental illness.
In my early teens, one of my younger sisters began to change. The sweet, bubbly kid I’d known all my life suddenly seemed like a different person. For my parents, myself, and two other younger sisters, it was a strange and terrifying reality where nothing made sense and there were no good answers.
Here are five main aspects of what it was like discovering and living with a sibling suffering from mental illness:
I didn’t grow up believing in mental illness. From a young age I could have dutifully rattled off a long list of reasons as to why it was all made up. So when my younger sister began to change, it was initially chalked up to “sin”. As a result, I often approached my sister with the ungraciousness this black-and-white explanation produced. I struggled with fear, anger, and guilt over why she would randomly choose to behave so irrationally.
There is a suffocating silence imposed by a lack of vocabulary to describe what’s happening, the look of disbelief on friends’ faces, and the sense of living a double life. I alienated many friends as I put up walls between us, upset and betrayed that they didn’t understand. I watched my sister fall apart and keenly felt my family’s pain; the result was a crushing feeling of helplessness, weakness, and uselessness.
My parents needed to pour constant time and energy into making sure my sister didn’t harm herself or others – so circumstances often required I step up and act as an adult in the family. I acted as protector for my littlest sister. I cleaned up messes, took on chores, helped handle violent situations, and became included in vital decisions pertaining to my sister and the household. Knowing little about emotional boundaries, I accepted these changes as necessary and natural.
My church at the time was not equipped to deal with mental illness. No one had bad intentions, nor did anyone set out to be insensitive. However, my siblings and I were met with surprise and confusion when we tried to express our own fear and hurt over what was going on. We felt invisible, alone, and had few explicit safe places to go in the middle of an “incident.” Afraid of being quoted Romans 8:28 (“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good”) yet again, I simply stopped talking about what was going on, ashamed and wondering whether things really were “that bad." I questioned my faith, I yelled at God, and despaired when there were no instant answers from heaven.
Before my sister even walked out the door for the last time, I mourned her loss. The little sister that I shared secrets with, giggled with, played with, and grew up with suddenly became a person I didn’t understand, a person I feared. I grieved the change, and the fact that the future looked much, much different than I had imagined. I also grieved the hurt I saw my parents and other siblings in, as well as the changes in myself.
There’s much more to the story than these five aspects, and each one has its own complexities and perspectives. However, if these words have brought some awareness to the largely overlooked kids and adults who grew up with someone struggling with mental illness, I’m glad.
To the siblings: God sees you. You are not alone, or forgotten, and your own pain – of being the collateral damage – is very, very real. And very much for a purpose. I’ll tell that story later, though.
Instead of ending with Romans 8:28, I’ll end with a verse right after it:
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”