My sister, Pam, had been severely depressed for too many years. When she lost her first and only child, and her ability to have more children, PPD (Post Partum Depression) imprisoned her in bed for months. Siblings, parents and friends rallied to support, feed and clean her. Despite feeling her deep depression saturate our souls, we struggled to avoid echoing it back to her. We all felt a moral obligation to keep a stiff upper lip and ween her back into the world of survivors. Her proud, staunch refusal to get professional help was a result of the pervasive stigma of weakness associated with that help. After four months, she returned, listless, to work and was soon fired ‘for cause’—her inability to do her job. Health insurance went with the job, so more options vanished. Pam coped with the setback and depression by suppressing it, pretending to be happy and pursuing ever more risky behavior in public as well as privately. Frightened we care givers walked on eggshells and hid our tears in the rain. Her facade faded into manic depression with suicidal thoughts and two actual attempts—one by pills, the other by waiting beyond the last, safe second to open her sky diving parachute. Her survival in both cases was a miracle, but she didn’t see it that way. Pam’s first BASE jump was her final jump, and her last attempt. Downplaying her mood swing, she said she was excited and happy to feel the rush of jumping off the high Span. She hugged us nervously, jumped and then . . . chose not to open her chute. The recriminations quickly followed her funeral. Sour emotions ripped thru the rest of our family—all of us. We blamed each other for not doing more, not being with her more, for every bitter excuse possible. It pulled us apart and we ignored each other for years. Especially my brother. My brother, Jerry, has had anger issues since he was five. Our parents were already divorced five years and we lived with our mom. Typical in a divorce, dad told me, as the older male, to take over as the ‘man of the house’ and I took that seriously. At just thirteen, I guided mom in family decisions including how to deal with my kid brother in his anger and transgressions. He began resenting my influence and raged against anything that didn’t go his way. In complete contrast to Jerry’s red-faced anger, Pam was quiet and submissive. No one saw that as a danger sign back then. Jerry sought and trashed anything I considered valuable and continued his clandestine destruction for years. Though I had no proof, lacking even superficial empathy, his smug smile always gave him away. Some years later, after I graduated High School, he raided a basement storage area and threw out text books, novels and a fifty-five-year collection of pristine National Geographic issues. He smugly admitted to that crime; felt no remorse; challenged me to do something about it. That broach of boundaries and total disrespect sadly shifted my attitude toward him from unwanted protector and guardian, to letting him become a more distant relative who wanted independence. He got it when I stopped watching out for him and left him to handle his own demons until he asked for help. He never did.
One day, I found a crumpled note he’d written which described a dream he had of falling or flying off a roof. More disturbing was his comment on the dream which said he had been thinking of jumping off that roof. I saw it as a plea for help which he was too proud to explicitly request. Too young to recognize the sign explicitly, I did see it as a problem. When I approached him and said I would be willing to listen if he wanted to talk about anything. He pushed me away with scorn. He left the home as soon as he could and nearly disappeared from our lives for years. We went to his graduation from business college, then didn’t see him again until he had a child. That brought us closer for a time. His lessez faire method of child rearing remained tolerable until he let the child exploit my family by damaging furniture and possessions without consequence or reparation. When I tried to address that, he pushed me away again. Visits dropped from several times a year to just two holidays and the child’s birthday. When I increased email contact with light stories, news flashes etc., his angry response was he also sees those things and didn’t want me to send them to him. We still called each other on our birthdays and chatted about anything unimportant. The angry undercurrent and resentment were always there. He invited us to his wedding. That was a surprise. Beyond the invitation, we’d never met his fiancee. I had reached out to him to not only attend my wedding, but be my best man. He reluctantly agreed to that, but had a friend I’d never heard of be his best man. That slight and cold refusal of any help from me with his wedding were insults that created more distance. Soon, we stopped calling each other at all. I still spent hours creating a custom birthday email card for him every year, though he stopped sending me anything. Honoring his wish for distance, I rarely emailed anything else, yet he complained he didn’t want any email from me. So that too ended. Visits became twice a year if I drove 120 miles to visit him and his new child; then once a year in Christmas snow. I was also expected to leave and drive back home the same night. Was that mindless lack of empathy, or even more angry lashing out? It has been six years since our last visit or contact. He got the distance he demanded for so many years. With so little contact, I often forget I have a brother. I wonder if I’ll even hear of his death and am certain he will not come to my funeral. Despite the years of insults against me, I feel the regrets that we have not been closer. I reach out with my own news to his wife and kids, but they too stopped responding. Once I learned his rage had a treatable diagnosis, it was too late to discuss that with him or offer help. Now, fifteen years after Pam’s death, I learned that my brother has been hiding his intensified manic depression. My protector persona arose again and I refused to respect the isolation his illness demanded. These last fifteen estranged years disappeared and we all found each other again and had moral reasons to forgive each other. We came together and found ways to support him intensely despite the miles. We can not, will not, let our history repeat!