Heather: Finding Meaning in Life Challenges

As a coping strategy, Heather wrote in a journal about the events and emotions she experienced as she learned about mental illness.

November 2009. My family is a tough subject right now. Grandma passed away last summer and Brad just dropped out of school. He is having an incredibly tough time, and refusing to make it easy on anyone. My poor parents. They’re doing what they can, but Brad is soaking up time and money—I mean a lot of money, thousands of dollars, and being rude and hurtful in the process. I’m not sure how it’s going to end. At this point, it might be best if he cuts ties with the family for a while. It would give him time to cool off, and a nice kick in the ass from reality.

December 2009. I guess Brad went home to get his clothes and stuff. I guess he didn’t even speak to my parents. Mom sound crushed. I’ve pretty much lost all respect for him.

Following arguments with his parents, Brad decided he wanted to go a psychiatric unit at a local hospital to prove that he was okay. When he was told he need to take medication and then discharged, Brad’s mother picked him up to take him to another hospital for a second opinion.

January 2010. Brad got really upset then and didn’t want to go, so he started hitting Mom in the arm. When she didn’t change her course, he punched her in the face. He punched his own mother in face while she was driving on the way to get him real help. It’s revolting. We never thought it would happen. He was always so sweet on mom and he’d never been violent before. But now he is, and it changed everything. Dad and I went to [the hospital] and met up with Mom. She was in a rough state, crying and holding an ice pack over her bruising eye. We sat in the waiting room a long time waiting for the nurse. She finally came and said, yes, Brad is delusional. . .At night I say this prayer for my brother—“Dear God. Please take care of my little brother. Calm his brain and soothe his soul.” . . .I alternated from being really sorry for him and being really pissed off. Who hits their own mother? But then I remember this isn’t the real Brad. It’s the Brad with a mental illness. He can’t help it. He’s not rational, and he’s not in control. I don’t know how to deal with a mentally ill brother.

For the remainder of 2010 and the next two years, a number of Heather’s journal entries focused on having some good times with Brad. She tried to connect with him while she was going to school out of the state.

March 2013. I wonder how much my parents’ relationship affected me and Brad. You know he has schizoaffective disorder and I’m having panic attacks. I wonder how much I affected Brad. MPR [Minnesota Public Radio] said that siblings have just as much effect on each other as parents do.

Heather’s journal entries starting in 2014 focus on her advocacy activities. By 2016, she identified advocacy goals and specific action steps.

2016. Another goal is to advocate for people living with mental illness. This is the goal that I’m most passionate about. This the one that I feel deepest in my soul. . . I wage my small campaign by sending handwritten thank you notes to people in authority positions for even their small work related to mental health, to magazine editors for including articles or advertisements about mental health, . . .asking city council candidates how they hope to address mental health concerns, or our local hospital board why they’re opening a wing for geriatric health rather than mental health.

Although Scott is a source of support for helping Heather to understand her brother, Heather worries that talking with Scott about her brother might affect their relationship. She sought out National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) resources and recalled at first feeling ashamed when the NAMI newsletter was in her mailbox. Now she has worked through the feeling of discrimination and doesn’t think about it as shaming. Her letters on mental health to magazine editors resulted in two publications. She participated in NAMI Day on the Hill and joined the NAMI legislative committee, but is also mindful of the need to balance her advocacy work with confidentiality for her family.

Note: NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) offers an 8-week Family to Family class, specifically for family members who have a relative living with mental illness. Participants learn about: 1) major mental illness, medications, and side effects; 2) skills in coping, problem solving, and communication; and 3) community resources.

In communicating with her brother, Heather has learned how to be on the same side. When her brother was having delusions about planes or the president, at first, she tried to be logical and tell her brother it wasn’t true. She realized that would not get her anywhere and they would end up fighting.

Because to him it’s real. It’s like I’m calling him a liar. I don’t want that. That breaks trust and I’m trying to build trust. I’m on the same side and I say, I’m not sure I agree, but okay, tell me more. Or you just accept it and move on.

More of the Story: Life Lessons