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7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we may might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 1 John 4:7-11
Loving a Sibling with a Chronic Illness
by Trudelle Thomas, NAMI Leadership Alliance Donor
My younger and only brother has a mental illness. He came down with it the year after he graduated from high school, during his first year in the U.S. Marines. In 1980, schizophrenia was even less understood than it is today. It was something most people whispered about or mocked, if they spoke of it at all. Thanks to early intervention, support from NAMI, a close-knit family, and his own fighting spirit, Billy learned to manage his illness.
As the oldest sister in our big family, I became Billy's second mother, his protector. As a sibling of a person living with serious mental illness, I faced my own set of challenges. I wanted to keep our close bond but wrestled with feelings of grief, worry, frustration, and guilt. Even though I knew better, I felt guilty for not protecting him. I worried terribly that he would end up sleeping under a bridge. For a long time, the way I expressed my caring was by giving him advice: "Go back to school!", "Don't eat that Cheeto!", and "Stand up straight!". I also became an overachiever, trying to compensate for my family's heartache.
Years passed before I encountered the concept of "unconditional positive regard" -- the idea that all people need and deserve unconditional acceptance. When I first heard this phrase, it was as if a light bulb lit up. I realized that I'd been treating my brother as a problem or a patient rather than a person deserving unconditional acceptance.
Family patterns are hard to change, but I made up my mind to change the way I interacted with my brother. I stopped acting like his second mother and started to become his friend. Unless asked, I gave no advice. I stopped focusing on his illness and instead made a conscious effort to talk about my own life, my own joys and sorrows, even asking his advice from time to time.
Most of all, I stopped feeling guilty that he had a chronic illness. I came to accept that Billy had been given a very tough path to walk, but it was his path. He had his own path and I had mine. We both learned to be companions instead of helper and helpee. As I learned to relate to my brother in this new way, I began to see more clearly the things I loved about him, especially his courage. More importantly, the change empowered Billy to take greater responsibility over his own life. He finally got to live the independent life that he had wanted for so long.