My brother

It was 2015 when my world changed from what I knew it to be, in fact my whole family’s world changed. I am the eldest of five children and had lived a good life, good family, and nothing major ever happened to us before this. Where I come from mental health is not a priority, it’s taboo and shameful. Those who have mental health problems are often called names like crazy and are looked down upon, people felt sorry for them, but did nothing to help them.

My brother was in his twenties when his life changed. Nothing I go through will ever compare to his pain. Around a year after his university graduation he was still out of a job, sitting around doing nothing and being alone mostly. Let me tell you about my brother; he is a kind young man with so much love and understanding to everyone around him. He rarely had more than one or two friends growing up, he often had difficulties learning at school and had low performance. We as a family often blamed it on his hearing and vision problems; he could hear in one ear and his eyes have always been weak with no solution but to wear glasses. He has had trouble as a child; being bullied at school; mocked because of his low performance; bad vision; and difficulty hearing well. Even kids younger than him hurt him and he rarely ever defended himself. He always took it and kept silent, he never complained and never told us, we would find out from his teachers or his classmates. As an adult he grew up to be an introvert, always keeping to himself, speaking only when addressed. We thought that’s just the way he is, a quiet non-social young man.

One September afternoon a few years ago, my mom called me to say that my brother was missing, he left at dawn and they did not know where he was. After a long traumatising fearful, day looking for him, he returned at night. He told my parents he went  to see a religion man to help him get rid of the spell he is under, a spell or demon he hears and sees, a tall man who wants to kill him. I must admit, no one took it seriously. We had no idea what he was talking about.

Two days later I took him to see a psychiatrist, to be honest it wasn’t because he said he saw things and was under a spell, as we couldn’t comprehend it. It was because his behaviour in the past two months had changed dramatically. He kept hiding in his room, pretending to be sleeping, not doing anything. We also found some writing on a small paper that made no sense. The day that he left the house was the final trigger for us to seek help.

The psychiatrist said my brother had a severe case of psychosis; delusions and hallucinations, and needed to be hospitalised. We were all in shock and didn’t understand. My brother started to get worse, he cried at nights because the voices yelled at him and told him they will hurt him. He started writing pages and pages of nonsensical words and sentences. We took turns to stay up at night to make sure he was okay. It all became so overwhelming for all of us. We followed all the instructions the doctor gave us, we did our online research and we all separately came to understand what was happening.

That first month was the worst, the time we spent on reading materials to understand what he is going through; the effort my family put into hiding that we have a child with such problem, out of shame and embarrassment; the way he kept hiding his pain and struggles because he didn’t want to worry us and also due to his own shame. No one really understood what this was, no one educated us at about this growing up, no one shared their story with us before, it was taboo. Therefore, we were torn, my mom would hide in her room and cry, my dad did the same, the whole balance in our family broke down, we were never prepared to deal with such an illness. We learned about cancer, stroke, blood pressure, who knew that such mental health issues can happen, and who knew that this is what it was!

I will never forget the tears I cried, nor my fear for my brother, in the first three months. I will never forget my parents’ pain, the prayers and the wishes we had. We worried whether we were doing the right things to support him. His illness got worse, he stopped sleeping, he started moving differently, he had twitches, he spent nights crying because he couldn’t rest from the voices he heard and the visions he saw. Every time he felt pain, we all felt pain. We felt alone not knowing where to get support as a family, for us and for him, other than medicine, google was all we had.

A few months later, finally there was positive change with medications, close monitoring from his psychiatrist, and with our support, my brother stopped seeing things, gradually the voices started to disappear and by the first few months he had seen a significant improvement. That was it, the moment of truth; when the doctor’s final diagnosis was Schizophrenia, which was not a surprise for me after all my online readings and correspondences with many clinics. It often takes time to find the right combination of medication and dosage to arrive at a treatment for a person diagnosed with schizophrenia, and that was the case with my brother. This was a rough journey. He kept telling us that he wasn’t sick and didn’t need the medicine. Sadly that’s how we knew he was not better.  Some days were good others were bad.

The medications had side effects, like weight changes, sleepiness, drowsiness, shaky hands, involuntarily movement of hands, dry mouth, memory loss and much more. But as time went by, we started to get stronger, he started to get better, he responded to certain drugs and doses which became eventually fixed and tailored for him by his doctor.

I started to find the strength to talk about this experience a lot earlier than my parents. I shared my feelings with many friends and loved ones early on in his illness, and my goodness I was surprised of the support I got. People were amazing, asking questions, offering a helping hand, giving options and advice, and many actually shared their own personal stories about family members who are struggling with their mental health. I told my parents, and they started sharing with their relatives and friends and talked about it more. It was hard at first, but every time any of us spoke to a friend or a relative we felt better, they were supportive, and shared their own knowledge experiences. The best part was that my uncle, who was 40 at the time and has been struggling with his mental health for years, after finding out about my brother, his family took him to a hospital, and he was diagnosed with severe obsessive compulsive disorder. The idea that sharing our story with our own family member allowed him to get help in return is priceless.

Strength comes as you go, you build it as you learn and adapt to the new situation, some people have their faith to help them through, some have the love and compassion of others to be strong, but the most important part is to not be embarrassed of what you are going through. Be proud, strong, and hopeful that one day it will get better; because even when things are at their worst there is always hope, which keeps us all going.

My brother is currently stable, he has not shown any signs of deterioration for two full years. In my country there are many barriers faced by people recovering from mental illness. My brother conducts himself in a beautiful manner and he is a religious young man who believes in his own recovery. He follows news about new medications and treatments which could help him and reduce side effects. He is still kind and loving and the most adoring brother I could ever wish for.

Knowledge is power, because of my brother’s experience, I became very interested in mental health. I try to share my story with anyone who wants to hear it, as perhaps it could be the reason others are able to help someone they love in return. It is my greatest regret in life that I wasn’t educated on mental health as a young student. Growing up in my culture and my community has made it more difficult to realise that my brother needed help, my parents having grown up in an even more closed community had no awareness, no one taught them.

Editor’s note: Learn more about how you can help someone suffering from a mental illness here.