When Parents Are in Denial About Family Problems

As I indicated in a post recently, my brother mentioned to me that he is suffering from MDD (Major Depressive Disorder). He is working a job with difficult hours, has trouble sleeping, and is currently learning the ropes of being a good stepparent. All of this weighs him down at times, and he’s been going to therapy and taking some medication (although I don’t know what exactly and how much).

Interestingly enough, MDD and BPD are related disorders, and in many instances MDD is comorbid with BPD. The fact that these problems come in tandem confirmed my long held conclusion that mental health problems run in our family genes. The roots of this realization are complicated and probably best for another post. For the time being, it’s quite clear that we were born predisposed to developing depression and BPD. In 2008, some scientists concluded that there is actually a “BPD gene”. Read that article here.

My brother and I have a complicated relationship that more often than not created an environment where I bullied him or put him down. For whatever reason, I felt that the bullying I took in school was best relieved taking it out on my family. This caused a lot of tension between us and at times it was caustic. My brother struggles with ADD and this created stress for my parents who inevitably resorted to verbal and physical abuse to control him. I was simply another poisonous element in this potent mix that pushed him towards heavy drinking and mild substance abuse in college. In reality, he’s actually a much better person than I am and uniquely gifted with a genius level verbal IQ.

So in reality, him telling me that he has MDD was not surprising. What was more concerning to me was how my parents dealt with the news.

I called my Mom the day after I spoke with my brother about his MDD and expressed sincere concern to her. I was genuinely worried and a bit scared that he was facing hard times with little to no family support to fall back on. Not surprisingly, my Mom informed me that my other two brothers had reported the same fears to her. My mother was upset but completely at a loss for what to do. In a subsequent call, both she and my father seemed almost helpless dealing with the fact that one of their children is potentially in serious danger.

I told both my parents that they should call my brother and check in. True, they are probably not the best stewards of goodwill when it comes to family mental health, but all the same they are our parents and they should be worried about the situation. Their reaction was rather disturbing to me: instead of saying “We’ll call him first thing tomorrow”, they said “Well…we almost never hear from [your brother] and don’t know when a good time would be to talk to him. He’s very busy and we wouldn’t be able to discuss it.”

I had long known that my parents are helpless when it comes to being supportive regarding depression and BPD. Their knee-jerk reaction that they couldn’t find the time to call my brother scared me. For the first time in my 32 years on earth, I realized that they will not be around forever. They are both heading into their late 60s and will soon develop health concerns of their own. In reality, they are a day late and a dollar short and lack the fortitude to reach out to their own son. Some things never change.

I decided I would have to reach out myself and initiate some sort of exchange with my troubled brother sooner rather than later. I caught him on Facebook one day and we chatted back and forth a bit about innocuous things and then I stepped up to the plate. “We [my other brothers and I] are concerned about your health. Major Depressive Disorder is serious and needs treatment. Mom and Dad also know.”

His initial reaction was a joke, “I knew one of you would tell mom and dad: there’s a joke around here, ‘Snitches get stitches’ “, referring to the health clinic he manages. I kind of laughed myself but also apologized for not observing his wishes that his MDD be kept quiet. I pushed ahead a little further: “I hope you’re getting therapy and talking to someone. Everyone is concerned and we’re here to help if needed.”

After that point the conversation fell deeper into the dark recesses of depressive behavior. We traded our medication regimens and spoke candidly about cognitive therapy. After that we even discussed the fact that both of us have harmed ourselves (cutting, burning, etc.). This came as a shock to me because I didn’t know he was that LOW. All things considered, however, it made perfect sense: combine bad genes, poor parenting, and a stressful life and you get one result: DEPRESSION.

I actually had to decompress a bit after talking to him. I excused myself to dinner and told him to keep in touch and write if he needed any help (not that I could really do anything – but it’s nice to offer anyway). Clearly our parents were at a loss for words and had a huge case of DENIAL. To be honest it isn’t that they don’t care; it’s that they don’t know HOW to care. That’s been the trouble all along and it helped produce serious mental health conditions in their first two of four children.

What to do when parents are in denial about family problems? Take matters into your own hands and deal with it yourself, no matter how awkward it might seem. My brother and I have never really had heart-to-heart conversations because we were different people growing up. Now that I see my aging parents continuing to age and our problems lingering, the onus of stepping up and doing something lies with me. My only hope is that he can be helped and nothing tragic will happen. My parents will get it sooner or later: the “later” option being most likely and potentially “too late”.