I have a 19 year old sister who is very much aware of my struggles. My two youngest sisters however, aged 10 and 12, have been kept very much in the dark about my mental health history. Sister no. 3 was only a toddler when things started getting difficult for me, and has no recollection of visiting me in hospital or any inkling of my being ill at all. Sister no. 2 however has been experiencing fragmented memories of places and situations I have been in over the years, and has started asking questions and trying to make sense of them. She has sensed that there have been secrets, and has been anxious about what has been kept from her, which is totally legitimate.
We have been talking as a family for a few months about the need to tell her ‘the truth’. It is quite remarkable that despite living with them around one third of the time, we have been able to get away with the excuses and cover-ups for all the times I have been ‘away’.
“Rehab or hospital? No of course not, that was a health and relaxation retreat!”
“Boston? Oh yes of course, I was studying abroad for university!”
“Anorexia? No way, it was just a stomach problem and the doctors had to find out what it was!”
These were the excuses we fed my sisters when they were too young to know the truth, in an effort to protect them from the painful reality we so desperately wanted to shield them from.
However, yesterday, after these months of consideration, and upon a specific opportunity which arose, my dad and stepmum took the plunge and told my 12 year old sister ‘the truth’.
Finding out about this was a really big moment for me, and it came as a heck of a shock considering the spontaneity of the decision and my lack of presence. I spent most of the day crying and catastrophising over the loss of the identity I have portrayed to her for so long. Few people I am close to in my life knew as little as she did about my struggles. I think because I wish that I could be the person she thought I was, without all the messy bits on the side which have made up so much of my story, I am grieving the shattering of that false reality.
People keep telling me that she sees me as a role model, that I’m brave and that I’m working very hard to overcome my mental health difficulties – and that she can look up to me for this. They tell me I’m strong and they tell me my sister will see this too, regardless. But sometimes I don’t want to be strong. And even when I feel weak, I want that to be okay too.
I don’t want to be a role model if it is related to this challenging prolonged recovery from mental illness and years of suffering. I don’t want the pressure and I don’t want it to identify me in the way that it does.
Kids see your personality and your way of interacting with them in the world from one side. They see you in the way you present yourself to be. They see a huge amount of truth but they also miss many of the deeply hidden realities. The truth is that my true personality is “disordered” and my life much more complex than what meets the eye.
Now that my sister is no longer a kid, now that she knows the truth, I fear that she’ll never see me in the same light again. The façade has been shattered.
I don’t want to be seen as ill or recovering or labeled or vulnerable in the way that fits my truth. I don’t want her to feel the need to protect me, or worse even, to fear me. I don’t even want to be brave or strong or inspirational if it’s anything to do with my mental health.
I hate how this has to define me, and yet there is no escaping the ways in which it does.
I don’t want to be anything to her in relation to my struggles. I just want to be her big sister.