One nice aspect of the holiday season is that it forces families to communicate with each other to coordinate gift ideas, travel plans, and plan meals/parties. Even families that are usually non-communicative and Spartan like suddenly feel a surge of social energy. This is the case with my family; or at least when it comes to communicating with me 😉 . Most of the year I hardly hear a word from my brothers and have biweekly calls with my parents. Now, we’re trading Facebook messages left and right and chatting late at night over Messenger. It’s actually a welcomed change.
The other night I was on Facebook about 2:00 AM looking at what people were up to. Suddenly, I received an instant chat message from my first brother: “Hey, you still up?”. At first my thought was to ignore it, since I was a bit embarrassed that I was falling off my resolve to go to bed before 1:00 AM, but I decided to answer him.
He has good reason to be up late: his demanding job has rotten scheduling policies that often mean he works 2nd shift hours for a few days, then back to 1st shift. Sometimes he has to work back-to-back shifts with next to no time for sleep.
I replied “Hi, how are you?” We continued with pleasantries for a few minutes and then the conversation got deep pretty fast. He was lamenting his development of insomnia and the fact that he barely has any time to spend with his wife and step child. She works almost normal hours, just in time to help her son make it to Kindergarten and make sure someone’s home when he returns. My brother, on the other hand, is it the whim of his employer and sometimes goes off to work mid-afternoon on a Friday night and doesn’t get back in the door until early Saturday morning. That pretty much ruins date night with the Missus.
I casually asked him if he was on anything for insomnia, noting that as a youth he struggled with Attention Deficit Disorder and was given Ritalin and later Adderall. These drugs are effective at treating ADD, but also have their side effects. Instead of answering with with his new medication regimen, he said: “Well I’m seeing a therapist now”.
Immediately a shock wave of guilt came over me. As youths and teens we both were at each other’s necks, but I was definitely more often than not the perpetrator of psychological abuse. I acted that way to gain favor from my parents who were trying to find time for 4 children during important formative years. Now that I think back, it’s clear to see that BPD was brewing inside me long before my diagnosis midway through college. I think it actually may have started in High School. All the same, that’s no excuse to be mean.
I asked him, “Are you ok? Do you need any help with anything?”, which is what I normally say to someone who is distressed whether or not I can actually help them. He then dropped a bomb shell: “…I have major depressive disorder…”.
At first I was incredulous: he seemed to be doing well after his marriage, but admittedly was stressed about his job. I didn’t realize he was that stressed. Apparently he and his therapist have been working together for some time now; and he was receiving CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I also concluded it was highly likely he was on antidepressants as well, although he didn’t offer a conclusive answer answer regarding medication.
We then delved into our family history of “depression” (used loosely to describe mental illness), which is long and replete with many desperate acts. I actually told him in words, for the first time, that I was in the same boat with the melancholic feelings and also – by the way – that I had Borderline Personality Disorder. Interestingly, we both didn’t freak out to each other’s diagnoses, we seemed to both nod “Ah ha” over instant messenger.
Our conversation continued to meander and I mostly talked to him and didn’t go into detail about my situation. I was admittedly extremely concerned: he’s on an awful work schedule, has insomnia, feels miserable, and a good relationship with his wife that is challenged by work, their son, and the various other stresses of life. Throw all that together and you’ve got the perfect recipe for major depression, and we all know where that can lead without effective treatment.
Our conversation ended about as abruptly as it started. I think he may have stepped out of the room for a moment and I left a salutation in the chat window just in case he returned. I waited a few more minutes and it appeared he signed off Facebook, hopefully turning in for the night.
No matter what your family situation is, I think it is always scary to learn that someone else who is related to you is facing mental illness compounded by a demanding life. I won’t go into details why this has popped up in our family just yet, but I will say I think he and I may have some genetic predisposition to mental illness.
Before I close, here are a few interesting numbers about our family of 6 (Married mother and father with 4 grown sons):
- 2/3’s of the family has been on – or is still on – psychiatric medication.
- 2/3’s of the family has seen a doctor for some sort of mental problem, ranging from BPD, major depression, and ADD to minor concentration issues.
- 1/2 the family has seen – or continues to see – a therapist for mental health problems.
- 1/3 of the family has diagnosed mood and personality disorders, while possibly 1 more (Mother) might have mood and anxiety disorders. This is unconfirmed at the moment.
- 100% of the family has abused alcohol but none of us are alcoholics. We each did the usual tour of duty with liquor and beer during the teens and early twenties and it only complicated things.
- 1/3 of the family is Type 1 diabetic (my other brother and I). My father has to take extra care of his heart: his father died shortly before his 70’s of a heart attack and other ailments.
- 1/3 of family (that I know of) has engaged in self harm ranging from mild to moderate acts. There have been no suicide attempts.
Give all this empirical evidence, it’s unfortunately clear that mental illness is definitely a family problem, something that arises from poor genes, difficult upbringings, or chronic health conditions.
Enjoy the holidays: they are a good excuse to laugh and have fun with your family, even if you’ve had your differences over the years.