And while my sister and I may share the same last name, same sense of humor and same freckled cheeks, our stories couldn’t be any more different.
I never realized how worry-free my life experiences were until I witnessed what my younger sister went through. For whatever reason, everything was just more difficult for her from the moment she was born (when I was 5). Breathing, something I’d never even thought about as a kid, was made nearly impossible for her by a tumor in her airway — before her first birthday. Eyesight was just a natural given for me; my sister had to be fitted for glasses and an eye patch before she was old enough to read. I welcomed any and all attention; as a child, she was painfully shy — a fact immortalized for all time by a Don Pablo’s souvenir Polaroid from her birthday (she was 6 or 7, I believe) in which she is buried under my mother’s shirt in terror as I cheese it up for the camera, wearing her would-be birthday sombrero.
As she grew older, her difficulties shifted from visible, tangible issues to more confusing internal ones. If you have a cataract, you get glasses and train your eye with adorably patterned eye patches. Mental health problems are more complicated, especially for a growing, changing adolescent.
My parents were careful to give us equal attention and love, but she required more effort. Any problem I was having with friends or growing up couldn’t compare to what she was going through — in my eyes. Any success she met deserved unwavering and totally- deserved congratulations.
And while I can honestly say I have a totally supportive family, a small part of me felt like my success was just expected.
Naturally, I’m going to graduate college. Of course I got that job. Her smaller victories require larger fanfare in order to bolster her confidence and promote continued growth; her challenges rock the entire family.
You often hear of people who lament living in a successful sibling’s shadow or those who struggle to set themselves apart from a family name/reputation. But siblings and families of those with physical, emotional or mental health hardships face a silent kind of struggle of their own. Having one person’s problems dictate a whole family’s dynamics can be exhausting. But at the same time, how could I possibly complain when I am the healthy one, when some things just naturally come much easier for me than for my sister?
It has to be so defeating to navigate a mental illness that makes school, work and relationships even more difficult than they already are for the average person.
Sure, growing up with someone who suffers from mental issues may have conditioned me to hold onto my own problems or anxieties, although that’s more of just who I am than a result of dealing with her illnesses. The real challenge is to remain patient, when, at times, there is nothing I can do or say to make her better. At the root of this struggle — for myself, at least — is this frustrating question: Why did I have it so much easier when we both received the same upbringings in terms of nature and nurture?
As diagnoses, prescriptions and coping mechanisms change, that question remains. But just as illnesses often become more manageable over time, with experience, medication and therapy, so does dealing with another person’s disorder.
You figure out what works, what to let slide and when to speak up. You determine when her problems need attention and when you need to speak up for yourself.
Sometimes being the “easy” kid is tough. But when you see things for the “difficult” child start to click, finally finding a niche and thriving, it’s so worth the struggles.
While our personal challenges have been incomparable, we take turns at being “the other sister” — she may feel disappointed for not following in my big sisterly footsteps; I may feel alienated from a family so concerned with one member.
But it’s all about balance — taking turns wearing that proverbial Don Pablo’s sombrero.
As mental illnesses come into the national spotlight and gradually become de-stigmatized, I hope that, along with help for those who suffer, there is more support for the families of those afflicted.
CONTACT JAC KERN: firstname.lastname@example.org