The impact mental illness has on a family is extraordinary. As parents, we were challenged every day for years as we struggled to understand anorexia, depression, and anxiety and find a way to stop it from destroying our daughter’s life. We had her to protect and, equally as important, her younger brother. He was caught up in the chaos and confusion like the rest of us, and he was only eleven. How could we help him understand what was happening to his big sister when we didn’t fully get it ourselves? Our love for both of them dictated our path moving forward. We decided not to shut him out or protect him from the truth; instead, we chose to do our best to meet his needs, openly communicate what was going on with Julia and include him in her treatment, get him personal counseling so he could ask questions and share his feelings, and always make sure he knew he had our unconditional love and support.
Julia was acting peculiar long before the crisis hit. We did a lot of accommodating for her changing interests and behaviors without realizing what was going on. He had to accept a shifting focus to her as eating and exercising started to consume her thoughts. There were only select restaurants she’d go to, specific types of food she’d eat and specific times she’d eat them, and certain people she wanted to be with. Our family experience slowly started to close in on us, all without our knowing what was happening. He wasn’t happy about it, and we weren’t very understanding.
When a crisis counselor was called in for his sister, he was at the same middle school, in sixth grade. Things changed dramatically for all of us from that moment on. That crisis counselor became a frequent visitor to our home for the next nine months as we navigated Julia’s mental illnesses. He was there every time she or another member of the crisis unit visited. He was part of family therapy, sibling groups, and multifamily groups. He visited Julia in every hospital and program she was admitted to. He was by my side running through the woods looking for her when she ran away from a program she was attending. He watched her throw food, yell at his parents, hide under her bed, sleep on our bedroom floor, refuse to eat, hurt herself, and the list goes on. Christmases, birthdays, holidays, family gatherings, trips, and everything else we were used to doing as a family were affected by Julia’s illness for a very long time—and he wasn’t happy about it. We listened to his frustrations and then proceeded with doing what we had to do for our family.
It wasn’t an ideal or fair situation but we’ve learned that feeling guilty, having regrets, or blaming ourselves isn’t helpful. We know we did our best as parents to not overlook him or shelter him from the truth of Julia’s illness. We don’t truly know the impact having witnessed what he did had on his own mental health. Did he feel neglected or unloved? Does he feel responsible? Does he fear getting ill himself? Is he still angry at her? Only he knows the answers to those questions. Their relationship as siblings went through a great change. It’s their job now to establish a connection that works for both of them. The resilience and flexibility I see in them today is something new that I believe came out of our family crisis. Going through what we did changes you in ways you don’t realize at the time. For me, I find myself more understanding, more at ease, more patient, and more emotionally connected to others.
What I offer to my son is my belief that family isn’t defined only by last names or by blood; it’s defined by commitment and love. It means showing up when they need it most. It means having each other’s backs. It means choosing to love each other even on those days when you struggle to get along. Above all, it means never giving up on each other.