Whenever we tell people about our project, the second or third question that they tend to ask is how do you decide who to interview? Do you only interview people with autism? Is it only people with mental disabilities and not physical ones? The way that we’ve come to answer all of these questions is to let the sibs take the lead. If they reach out to us and consider themselves to be a sib, who are we to tell them that they’re not?
I started with this question because yesterday we had the chance to have our first interview with a sib of someone with mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. Emily, a fellow college student who I met at a summer program, opened up to us in such a candid yet caring way about her older brother Jesse and his long time struggle with his disorder.
Jesse, now 21, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder unusually young, at the age of 8, which means that Emily has been living with this disorder for a large portion of her life. Perhaps because she has a much younger sister, Emily almost immediately stepped into a motherly role, often taking her sister and leaving the house whenever Jesse was embroiled in one of his drastic mood swings. However, it’s clear that Emily never resented this extra responsibility, saying that “I took care of her when my parents needed to give attention to Jesse.” It is clear though that Emily struggled with a variety of emotions during this time, especially fear. She told us that “I would stay away from him, I was scared,” noting that for those with bipolar disorder, “they don’t mean to hurt you but there is potential for them to hurt you.” Despite these childhood challenges, Emily repeatedly spoke of how close knit her family is and how her family jokes that she’s the glue that holds everyone together, a sentiment that seemed truer and truer as the interview continued.
One trait that I especially admired in Emily was her commitment to being a wonderful mentor to her younger sister regarding how to handle Jesse’s outbursts and difficulties. After Emily’s parents pointed out Katie’s constant emulation of Emily, Emily made it a point to set a good example for her when it came to Jesse. She explained to Katie the importance of being really accepting of Jesse since he didn’t bring these issues upon himself. Emily encourages Katie to try to ignore the outbursts as much as possible and to always remember that Jesse is their brother.
Like other sibs we’ve spoken with, Emily firmly believes that having a brother like Jesse has impacted her in a positive way. She credits her desire to help others with her appreciation for the way her community often reached out to support Jesse and their family. Emily also has found that having Jesse as a brother has pushed her to look for the best in people she encounters, because as she says “we’re all people, we all have the basics”. Regarding Jesse specifically, Emily made it clear that she “can see past these things he’s done in the past because it’s not his fault.” Her ability to see beyond Jesse’s symptoms and still love him as her older brother was inspiring to us all.