What Could Have Saved My
Brother From His Mental Illness
By Rachel Hollis
My big brother
Ryan was funny and unfailingly kind. He was one of the most talented musicians
you might encounter, and had a prodigious ability to pick up any instrument and
play it by ear within the span of a single day. He was handsome. I didn't know
it then, because I was younger than he was and not inclined to think about it.
But when I look back at photos now and see him with his cocky grin and his
startling blue eyes, I realize that he would have been quite the catch.
When I was a young girl, he was my best friend, my constant playmate. I can
still see the two of us vividly in my memory, staying up late in our room
playing the alphabet game: "My name is Carla and I'm going to
Cincinnati to sell Crabapples. My name is David and I'm going to Delaware to
As an adolescent, he was my protector. He advised me on how to handle a bully,
how to throw a punch and how to thread a ramen noodle in through my nose and
pull it out through my mouth. He wasn't necessarily better or worse than anyone
else's big brother, but he was mine and I loved him.
He was my big brother until I was about 12 years old, and then his mental
illness took over almost completely.
He would take his
own life before I turned 15.
It's heavy, I
know, the reality of that sentence. But here I am, admitting the worst of the
worst, the ugly truth of my brother's disease and its near-destruction of the
family it left behind. I'm talking about it 16 years after his death because
when it comes to mental illness, nobody else is. Because people are afraid to
talk about it, to admit to its existence in their own lives or in the lives of
their loved ones who aren't getting themselves the help they need.
I spent yesterday afternoon with a friend of mine who has a brother who
recently started struggling with mental illness. As with Ryan, these problems
didn't start until her brother was a teenager. It's like someone simply flipped
a switch and turned this bright, charismatic, straight-A student into someone
unrecognizable. She feels impotent and frustrated in the face of a disease she
has no experience with and beyond me, she doesn't know anyone else who does.
She told me yesterday: "If he had cancer or heart disease, I feel like I
could talk about it with other people and find support. But I'm terrified to
say anything, I don't want them to think this is all he's ever been... he used
to be so much more."
I understand where she's coming from completely. I grew up in a small town and
mental illness wasn't something anyone talked about. I didn't want to admit
that my brother was "crazy." It was sad and shameful, and if I'm
being honest, embarrassing. Even now, living in Los Angeles, a fairly
forward-thinking, self-help kind of place, I don't think it's something most
people bring up in polite conversation. thirty thousand Americans will commit suicide this year
and 1 in 4 adults -- that's fifty-seven million people --
suffer from a mental health disorder. It's terrifying that even I didn't know
those statistics until I looked them up.
57 million people in this country are suffering from variations of the same
disease and we're not talking about it.
Think about the
various types of illness and causes that we talk about every day. We'll chat
about cancer, animal cruelty, saving the whales and what Kim Kardashian will
name her baby. People will devote whole Facebook status to their political
beliefs, religious beliefs, their opinion on illegal substances, abortion or
even who they hooked up with last night. We've lost the filter, or any fear of
oversharing... and yet, this chronic disease that is mental illness is somehow
too taboo to discuss?