Things You Only Know If Your Sister Has Serious Mental Health Problems
The Debrief: 'The warning signs were all there. But, I missed them.'
The warning bells were ringing - weight loss, sudden aloofness, strange, rambling calls in the middle of the night. But, I didn't (or perhaps couldn't) hear them. Not once did I even consider the possibility that my little sister might be suffering from a mental illness. She’d only just started university and had the world at her feet. Or so I thought. And me? Well I was living a pretty happy, but admittedly selfish life, miles away in London. Depression and schizophrenia were things I heard about on the news – they’d never affect me.
And then, one Sunday morning in early 2013 my world was suddenly turned upside down. My phone rang, it was the Met Police. I needed to get straight to Paddington station because my sister had got off a train in a distressed state and was repeating my name.
As soon as I saw her I knew it was bad. She clung to me, shaking. Her gums were bleeding (a symptom of anxiety I now know) and incoherent sentences were tumbling from her mouth. There was talk of witches and hearing voices... none of it made any sense. It was all so out of character that I actually half expected a camera crew to jump out screaming ‘gotcha!’ at any moment.
Instead, we were rushed to hospital where she had brain scans and blood tests in an attempt to determine what was wrong. I kept telling myself there must be some ‘silly’ explanation. But whenever I looked across at this glassy-eyed version of my sister, I knew I was only lying to myself.
Hours later, my parents arrived, fear was soon etched on their faces. As I hugged them both they seemed smaller, almost as though they were shrinking as the stress took its toll. It was midnight by the time she saw a psychiatrist – and after speaking with her, he told us it would be safer if she stayed in the mental health unit that night. I’d only just convinced my parents that must be the right thing to do when another patient in the unit ran past, stark naked, hurling expletives about Jesus. We found ourselves in a world we didn’t understand. Until you’ve experienced a serious mental health problem yourself, or in a loved one, it’s almost impossible to prepare yourself for the reality because it’s not reality as you know it.
The following day it was confirmed my sister was suffering from depression and psychosis, possibly worse. She was put on medication and my parents took her home. Desperate to learn all I could about what she was experiencing, I turned to Google. But, the more I read, the more daunted I felt about what lay ahead. Much of the available literature was geared towards the sufferer, but what about those trying to support their loved one or family member? I felt so unprepared and helpless.
Before long, fighting for different medications and therapy on my sister’s behalf became a full time occupation for my parents. As it is for so many other families, it was a daily struggle. Last month Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, announced plans to improve mental health provision in the UK after it was deemed the average waiting time for talking therapies last year was 29 days– for some, it could be a wait as long as 129 days. When you realise what that means, what it really means to someone like my sister, who was at crisis point it takes on a whole new meaning.
Before things got better, they got worse. Soon, my sister was talking to the 'voices’ and barely sleeping. She wouldn’t eat or get out of bed and and sometimes refused to take and hid her meds. One night, at her wits end, Mum frantically rang the mental health crisis team. But she was told help wasn’t available unless it was an emergency. 'But that doesn't make sense!' I raged. I was so frustrated. It seemed they would only deal with the situation when it reached crisis point, rather than prevent it in the first place.
I started going home every weekend to support my parents who were exhausted. My sister’s illness was having a huge strain on their relationship and their own mental health. I was struggling too. My parents didn't have time for anything else and I couldn’t help but resent that.
The strain mental illness puts on loved ones should not be underestimated says Lucy Lyus from MIND. ‘When you have someone close to you who isn’t well you tend to spend a lot of your time focusing on someone else. You may also find it difficult to think about yourself and your needs - but it’s important that you look after your own wellbeing too. This can help you maintain the energy, time and distance you need to be able to help someone else. Exercising, eating well and getting enough sleep are all important in looking after your own mental health.’
It took a while for me to get to that point. Before I did, I drank too much and lashed out at friends for no reason. Deep down, I was just really bloody scared and needed to take it out on someone. Things got so bad I even became convinced I was mentally ill too. One night I woke up drenched in sweat after hearing a voice, clear as day, in the dark. When I realised I’d only been dreaming, the relief was overwhelming. Then I felt guilty… because that was exactly what my poor sister was living with daily.
In time I realised that I was going to have to distance myself occasionally in order to be the strong person my parents could rely on. So I stopped going home every single weekend, and found an outlet in running, which gave me another focus.
Indeed, having a break from it all is crucial when a loved one is suffering, says Lucy. ‘Try to make some time for yourself, especially if you’re worried about your own mental health. You may need an hour or two a day, or more, to clear your head and help you feel more rested. You could go out, take a bath or turn your phone off for an agreed period of time.’
It’s also important that you share how you feel about the situation with someone you trust. ‘When you’re caring for someone it’s really important you have someone to talk to, especially if you’re struggling to cope,’ she says. ‘Think about people you can turn to for support. You may have a family member or friend who is good at taking your mind off things.’
Fortunately, I wasn't alone. My pals were amazing. They were there to discuss it all, over and over again and for that I’m eternally grateful. But others might not be so lucky, says Lucy: ‘We would encourage those people to visit online peer support networks like Mind’s Elefriends website. There, they can discuss their problems with others who are going through similar experiences and talk about potential solutions.’
By the time my sister was officially diagnosed with schizophrenia a year later, she’d started having therapy and had stabilized on her medication. There have been many, many ups and downs since then, but for now, she’s doing great - and the sister I once knew is slowly coming back.
As a family we’ve learnt how to cope by sticking together as a team and talking things through. Family counselling sessions helped (courtesy of the NHS after lots of nagging calls) as they created a stronger bond. Strangely, navigating through this pretty terrifying journey together means we’ve actually become closer as a result.
When someone you love is suffering from a mental illness it changes you, there’s no doubt about that. But if it can turn the most laidback selfish person (which I was) into a nicer more sensitive one (fingers crossed I’m on the way) then it can’t be all bad. I now know how to spot the signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression now and have a much more empathetic view of the world.
Of course, while there’s an element of responsibility on my shoulders that wasn't there a few years ago, I wouldn't change it. I’m fiercely protective of my sister’s wellbeing and she knows that I will always be there for her, whatever.
None of us can predict how or when mental illness will strike - we’re all susceptible to it. The better we are at spotting the warning signs and knowing how to help, the more supported sufferers and their loved ones alike will be.
For more information about looking after someone with a mental health problem, visit Mind
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