I have a brother who was born when I was 21. A half-brother, really, but to me he’s just “brother.” I remember standing at the nursery window, misty-eyed, when the thought occurred to me, When he is 21, I will be 42.
It was all highly conceptual at that point. Visualizing myself at 42 was almost as difficult a visualizing that tiny baby at 21. And yet we are approaching that moment in time, he and I. In one year I turn 42, and then he turns 21, and I will be officially twice his age. And then with each succeeding year, the gap in our development will close slightly more. When he turns 42 and I turn 63, we might find something to talk about.
He’s a pretty good kid. Has a girlfriend in her last year of high school. She’s a good kid too. She had a bit of trouble with her mother, so went to live in my parents’ home. This is not what I would consider an ideal arrangement, but I thought, if her relations with my step-mother could remain positive, then it might work until she is able to be self-sufficient.
But that was not to be, and this weekend, I watched a train-wreck unfold on Facebook as an exchange between the two revealed a nasty confrontation in which my step-mother behaved very, very badly. And I could again comprehend the pain and helplessness of being young and dependant on a mentally ill person.
And my mind sifted through those five years of living with Betty and my father, starting at age 14 when I left my mother’s house forever. Everything seemed fine at first and I was so relieved to live in a home that seemed relaxed and nurturing. And then things started to change, so slowly and subtly at first, imperceptible to anyone but me for a while. And then hostility would flare and then sputter, and flare again, so that my sense of home and safety became tied to the peaks and valleys of her moods. Walking up our steps after school and praying that she was in a good mood, and the crushing feeling to discover that she was not, hiding away in my room, always searching for but never finding the ideal place to hide my journals and letters from her prying eyes. These are the things that I remember. Coming home one day to find that the speaker wires on my stereo had been severed. The sly remarks about my weight issues. (I realize now, I didn’t have any. She convinced me that I did.) All of these, carefully carried out when my father was not around to witness and defend.
And then, calm. Jokes, banter, conversation. Followed by building tension. Silence. And confrontation. It was endless and exhausting.
I left my father’s house during my first semester of college. Fully supporting myself meant that I would have to take fewer classes, but that didn’t break my heart. My solace was found in the fact that I made my own home, and it was always calm and safe. I struggled as young people do, but always made it, as one does when there is no safety net. It took me six years to graduate college, but I graduated.
Last year, during an “episode”, my step-mother was admitted to the ER and finally diagnosed as bipolar. This was little surprise to those of us whose lives she has stormed. Medicine is not an acceptable option to her, nor therapy, so that leaves those of us around her with the final option of management. Manage time spent with her, manage distance, carefully control all interactions. Stay lighthearted and when things start going south, stay away.
This weekend I reached out to my brother’s girlfriend to offer some words of encouragement. What I kept to myself was that I could see so much of myself in her, that young girl with no ideal place to call home, but a lot of drive and pluck. This will strengthen her for coming challenges, but I know she doesn’t want to hear that now.