“911, How can I help you?”
“I’m afraid my brother is going to kill himself. He’s a psych patient, not taking his meds. Says he wants to die. Please send someone before he does something.”
“Has he tried to hurt himself? Is he trying now?”
“No, but I’m afraid he will. He’s been talking about it.”
“OK, we’ll send someone right away.”
Ten minutes later three officers and two EMTs arrive. When I tell the cops what’s going on, my brother yells from the bedroom, “Why’d you do this? There’s nothing wrong with me.”
One of the cops pulls me aside. “Let us handle this.”
My sister and her husband are there too, witnesses to what we all agree is my brother’s dire condition: Depression so severe he’s stopped eating. Only gets out of bed to pee. Apartment filled with garbage. He rejects every choice we give him to change the mess he’s in.
Thus, it takes the crisis team half an hour to convince my brother to come with them to the hospital…or else.
Twelve years before, I faced the same dilemma; only I was the one carted off to a hospital. After a long depression, I had tried to kill myself and the authorities showed up when my wife and a friend called for help.
Here I am committing my brother to a psych ward just as I had been. How can one peer do this to another?
My brother’s OCD and depression have always been worse than my bipolar disorder. He spent years in mental hospitals compared to months for me. Our family alternated between blaming him for his condition and fixing him when he broke down.
As his big brother with a diagnosis, I understood him better but still towed the family line. When he didn’t feel dependent on me, he felt betrayed. This is the kind of double bind that ties families in knots.
His love-hate relationship with our mother consumed both their lives. Since she died three years ago, he’s deteriorated mentally and physically. In the past we’d fight but make up. Now there’s no pleasing each other. It seems too late to change a lifetime of anger and guilt. I’m 67; he’s 62.
I ask myself again: How can I, a peer, think about my brother this way? I’ve tried to treat him with the respect of a peer counselor. He’s smart. We can talk about anything except what he wants to do. Inevitably I lose patience.
How bad can this standoff get? I considered forcing ECT on him when he was in the hospital, a treatment I refused during my last hospitalization. But he gained a little weight and his doctor decided ECT wasn’t necessary…yet.
Now he’s back home and I’m taking care of him. He lies in bed doing nothing and I see myself during my worst depressions—helpless and hopeless.
Do I save him from himself or let him drag me down with him? Or do I leave his life up to him for better or worse? In other words, how do I reconcile being a peer and a brother?