Stories, skills, and positivity- to anxiety sufferers from anxiety sufferers.
I am not really sure when it all started. My parents had known in some way since my brother was very young. When he was around five or six years old he felt like he didn’t belong, couldn’t connect well with the other kids. It grew from there until the day he was finally, officially diagnosed with anxiety.
It really began going downhill when he started high school, and when I was in my last few years of it. Being at home felt like I was walking on eggshells all of the time. I have always been awful with confrontation, to the point where yelling would cause me to cry and hide. We are both emotional and it used to cause conflict while we were growing up. As a teenager though, he expressed his frustrations through screaming and slamming doors. That was my own personal kind of hell. Knowing that he could go off at any moment gave me a lot of anxiety of my own.
It got a lot worse before it got better. A part of me hurt because I didn’t feel safe in my own home. Through all of my own personal struggles my family had been the one thing that was consistent; the one thing that I could count on to be there for me. When my brother began spiralling, it felt like we were imploding. The one thing that was supposed to love me throughout it all was the one thing giving me the most pain.
Mostly I hurt because they hurt, and because I couldn’t do anything to stop them from hurting. I was helpless watching my little brother be in pain; he was the blonde blue eye kid with the sunniest smile one day, and the next walking into the kitchen with an arm full of scars I had never seen before. He was always on edge, always at war with his own mind. And I stood witness to it.
Imagine that you are standing off to the side, watching the person you love most in the is surrounded by darkness. That darkness is beating them to the ground over and over again. You scream at it to stop, but you can’t be heard. You can’t move to go help your love one up, or even tell them that you are there for them. You just have to stand by and watch while they suffer. I would give anything to be the one suffering instead of him.
The first two years of university were very dark. I became consumed with worry. I attended university out of province, so when I was away at school I worried about his safety, and when I was home at the holidays I was always tense and on edge because I was waiting for him to have another episode. I was scared of him and scared for him always at the same time. My parents knew, and they tried to protect me from his outbursts because they knew how much it upset me. What they could not hide was how much I saw them suffer too.
Seeing the pain in their own eyes was almost the worst of it all. My parents would give us the moon and sun and all the stars if it was in their power, and yet they could do nothing to heal their own child. My father felt like he had lost his son. My work-from-home mom was the punching bag for my brother’s anger. When his pain wasn’t self-inflicted it was targeted at them, and as much as they tried to hide it from me I saw it all. Sometimes I would even bear the brunt of their pain, their pessimism when it reared its ugly head. It was not very often, because again for my sake they tried to bury the hurt as much as I did. All the people I loved most in the world were suffering and there was nothing I could do nothing to help them. That was why I wouldn’t talk to them about how much it hurt me; because I didn’t want to add to their pain. Later they told me I was their saving grace in many ways, the piece of light that helped hold onto the hope and belief that my brother would get stronger. Unfortunately, at that time in my life, my parents were the only ones I trusted enough to talk to about anything personal. Now I didn’t even have them. So I swallowed it all, my pain, theirs and my brother’s.
That’s what caused the nauseating feelings of guilt while I was at school. I felt guilty because I couldn’t be there to help them, and ashamed that I was almost relieved about it. Those feelings made the fear stronger. The fear that my brother might lose that war someday. Every time the phone rings when I am away from home, I still get the chills. I am afraid that my brother will commit suicide. That he will give up. And for a while, I really believed that he would. Every moment I had to myself I was playing the scenario over and over again in my head. I cried myself to sleep more times than I would like to mention, both out of fear and out of shame for not believing in him more.
I wouldn’t allow myself to be happy; I couldn’t. Not while the people I loved were suffering. I believed that I deserved to suffer too, and night after night I would wish that it was me and not my brother who had to bear that struggle.
The summer after my second year of university, I remember being in the car with my mom running errands just like any other day. That was when she suggested I see a therapist. We had talked about it years before, briefly, and I had always shrugged it off. I thought I had to take on the world completely alone, that I had to be their strength. This time she suggested that since it was a professional with an unbiased perspective, I might find it easier to talk to them. On a whim I agreed to give it a try. We didn’t even get to the topic of my brother until the third session, but even after the first meeting I felt so much lighter. It was like I could start to breathe freely again.
My mom gave me another piece of advice the following year, and it is something I wish I had learnt a very long time ago. Of all the strategies that we had as a family to help my brother and to help get through the low times, it was something that I had never thought of. She told me that I had to live for myself. That in doing so, my brother had something to look up to, something to strive for. That if I was happy it would help him be happy too.
Fast forward two years, and I still have a hard time believing that I deserve to be happy. I still would trade anything in my life to take away my brother’s pain, and my parents’, or anyone else’s for that matter. Now I have graduated university and moved back home, but I am not as scared as I have been in the past. I have done a lot in those two years; things that mattered to me and helped me grow as my own person. I am confident now that I can, and I will, stand strong for both me and my brother. He is doing better too. He even came and visited me during my fourth year. I know that there is still a lot of healing to do, in all of us. Still, there is one thing that has been consistent throughout the roller coaster ride. I am indescribably proud of my brother. He is incredibly smart and talented. Every day he gets up and he goes on. I will never give up on him, and while I may not be able to take the pain from him, I can hurt with him. I can empathize, and I think that make a big impact.
Whether you are the one suffering, or you are watching someone you love hurt, it is important to always take a moment for yourself as well. You can’t help them if you don’t take care of yourself too. Mental health matters. Even if it is just taking a moment to breathe, to think one happy thought, to smile. Those little things will make a big impact on your happiness, and the happiness of those who love you.
Katie McLean holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, and bases her anxiety aid in personal experience, as well as techniques that have been passed on to her by counsellors, friends, and fellow anxiety sufferers.