My brother was admitted to a psychiatric hospital when I was thirteen years old. The four months that Johnny lived on the first floor of the Glendale Adventist Psychiatric ward was the most difficult and heartbreaking four months of my life. I still remember the first time that I walked through the hospital corridors to visit him. I was surprised when the hallways did not meet the glamorized-movie-images that I had expected. The walls were not padded and no one was in a straight jacket, but the ambiance was more somber than anything I ever thought I could experience. After a while it became too depressing to see not only Johnny in that daily environment, but also the 50 other mentally ill patients whose families were too ashamed to visit them.
Johnny unfortunately suffered from an addiction problem. He was three months sober, after almost a decade of drug abuse, when he had the mental breakdown that put him in the hospital. My family wasn’t aware of the severity of his mental illness because, ironically, the drugs he used actually masked his bipolar and schizophrenia. His sobriety was the catalyst that caused his disability to emerge full force. With a twelve-year age gap between us, he took pride in embracing his role as my older brother. John wanted to protect me from anything that may corrupt my youthful innocence, and though I hated him for abusing drugs he hated himself even more for exposing me to its detriments. A few years ago, I found a letter he wrote at one of the several rehabs he attended in his late teens. The letter’s prompt was to write about his motivation to become sober. His answer: my little sister.
John loved me infinitely as a little sister by taking on the role as my unofficial guardian. He read stories to me when I was a toddler, picked me up from grammar school when our parents were busy at work and babysat me on Saturday nights when I was still too young to stay at home alone. He was the older brother who introduced me to 90’s pop culture when Nirvana was still a band and took me to see my first R- rated movie as a rebellious preteen. Many people take advantage of these everyday experiences that they share with their brothers and sisters. The bond between siblings is irreplaceable and, many times, remains unappreciated until it’s lost. I took my relationship with Johnny for granted and never imagined that my life would change so drastically when he entered the psych hospital six years ago.
John is no longer able to take care of me as he did when I was a child. When his mental illness emerged, I found myself becoming his guardian. Johnny depends on me to bring him his daily medication similarly to how I depended on him when I was young. Although he lives back at home rather than in the hospital, his illness continues to progress. I love of him regardless of his good days and bad days. Although an outsider would never notice, John still makes gestures that are nostalgic of the protective brother he once was. He waits up for me every night to make sure I am home safe and, like a typical older brother, distrusts every one of my boyfriends he meets. It is because of the collective experiences that I have been through with my brother that I believe in the unconditional love between siblings.
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