To the Relative of Someone Living With a Mental Illness

 black man looking downwards sitting on ledge

I sincerely do not know which is worse, having a mental disorder or watching someone you love suffer from a mental illness.

There was mental illness in my family.

This is the first time I am actually writing this down and acknowledging it, and in my head, I can imagine my mother coming across it and her typical response would be ‘’God forbid’’ and I sincerely wish that were enough to make it stop.

I lost my Father when I was eight, and then I thought that was the worst thing that could happen to me and my family.

But, clearly, it wasn’t.

I would come to lose my older brother fifteen years after the death of my father when my brother would be diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of twenty-five.

Nothing prepared me for this, not medical school, not my faith in God or my high level of reasoning and logic.

We were heartbroken.

I wish my brother’s story was a good one, the one where the patient in question gains insight, adheres to his medication, gets a job and becomes an advocate for mental health awareness.

But that’s not my story.

My brother, God bless his heart, is difficult; he got diagnosed in 2016, and prior to his diagnosis he was on a mission to intercede for the sins of the world. He fasted excessively, slept little, and did not take a bath or brush his teeth for over a year. He avoided social media and terminated ways he could be reached, so he got rid of his cell phone. Reaching him was indeed a herculean task that I was unwilling to carry out at first because I blamed him for his behavior.

When you have someone close to you suffering from a mental disorder, you become a master at playing the blame game, blaming them and their choices for their problems in life, even though you know better.

Growing up I always felt my brother was spoiled and entitled--and how convenient it was for him to say he was called by God to pray for the sins of the world and not work. Even if he was ‘’called,’’ he had a choice to say no, because he had responsibilities.  

Did he not see how his behavior was hurting my mother, hurting all of us?

I would later learn firsthand what a delusion really was. It was as if logic was annihilated from some part of my brother’s reasoning.

I have learned a lot since my brother’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, and one of them is that it usually creeps up slowly. It comes like a thief in the night. First, it leaves because of the fear of being caught in the morning. Then, subsequently, it gets bolder, staying until morning and acting like an uninvited relative.

We all missed the signs in my brother, no one was watching or perhaps no one thought it could happen to him despite the fact that he had a lot of risk factors. Okay, this is the part where I mention that my mother’s brother also suffers from a mental disorder, this is actually my secret, the one I don’t tell anybody because, like my mother says, “God forbid” that there is a family history of mental illness.

What hurt the most was acknowledging the fact that I had lost my brother a long time ago. It was probably when my father died, no one would ever know. He was really close with my dad, and my father’s death was sudden.  I am bringing this up because, to my mother, my brother’s illness is a spiritual attack, and we need to be more fervent in our prayers. Thank God she is not averse to orthodox care; at least she acknowledges the need for orthodox treatment.

The reality is that it never goes away, it is the uninvited relative who takes off his or her sandals and gets too comfortable in your living room.

Fast forward to four months after my brother’s diagnosis. He stopped taking his medications and defaulted from the clinic. When you ask him why, he says he agreed to go to the hospital to prove us wrong, and when he takes his medications and we see there is no change in his behavior we would let him be.

But the truth is he got better when he was on medications and receiving psychotherapy. He started sleeping more, eating well, and gained healthy weight. There was an improvement in his personal hygiene, he wanted to go back to school, and he was eager about getting a job.

This happy part of the story was short-lived. When he stopped taking his medications, and when I try to bring up the past and his first diagnosis, he acts like it never happened.

He has started fasting again. He has stopped brushing his teeth, and I am mentally and emotionally exhausted of trying to make him take a bath.

I know that he has relapsed, and that’s okay.

My worry is that his story may not be one of the success stories that I have watched on a TED talk, and his story may not necessarily have a great ending.

But whatever the case may be, I’ll love him with my whole heart, especially when it’s hard.


You can read more of Bukola's writing over at Straight Outta the Heart.