Mental Health

How to Support a Sibling Living With Mental Illness: lessons from my sister

How to Support a Sibling Living With Mental Illness feature image
I knew it was okay to help others help me. I learned to be honest, state my needs, and figure out how to explain myself.

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“I know I can’t understand everything fully, but I’m gonna try.”

That acknowledgement meant everything to me. Those words bounce around my brain whenever I think I’m alone in this world.

Here’s a Little Background…

My brain is unique. I’ve known forever. I think differently, feel intensely, react more dramatically, and have very particular feelings, all thanks to my unique brain.

I’ve had a lifetime to get used to my rapid, unexpected mood swings. I’ve grown up with anxiety. And I’ve put lots of time into figuring myself out. Getting treatment for my anorexia as a teenager and, as an adult, being part of communities like we have here at Libero Magazine allowed me to understand myself better.

Even still, it can be hard to keep track of, and harder still for other people to understand. Not everyone has had the time to process my mental health issues, and they haven’t necessarily needed to.

I’m so fortunate that my loved ones support me and help me grow.

The words are still fresh in my mind: “I’m gonna try to get it as much as I can. And if you need anything specific from me, you can ask.”

Because of that conversation, I knew it was okay to help others help me. I learned to be honest, state my needs, and figure out how to explain myself.

But long before I was in treatment and those words were said to me, while I paced the floor of my hospital room, I knew how lucky I was that she understood me better than anyone else.

My sister, being related to me, has a similar brain. Well, similar-ish.

I learned this while she was in eighth grade and I was in fifth. We’d sit at the kitchen table and do our homework. I heard her work through problems and found her thought processes were familiar to mine.

Sometimes I’d even sit with her by the computer while she wrote her essays. Sometimes she’d ask me synonyms for words.

Those moments had a profound impact on how I write today. I’m eternally grateful for them. Writing is how I deal with my unique brain, and I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t learned the skill early.

By the time I was in eighth grade, I had recognized my growing internal chaos. A storm surging and retreating, growing and damaging and disappearing only to circle back again with full force.

The following year, I’d descended into an eating disorder: locked in a lonely cognitive prison, afraid to let anyone see what I was thinking, feeling, and doing, claustrophobic but terrified of showing anyone my disordered headspace.

Related: How to Cope with a Sibling’s Eating Disorder

Three years later, we vacationed in Disney. We were in my happy place, the most magical, wonderful, perfect, safe place, and I was waiting for my problems to float away like a Mickey balloon. But that never happened.

I look at pictures of that 2007 trip, at my sad, sorry self on the other side of the camera, smile not reaching my eyes, and I immediately become sucked into the despair I felt. The emotional pain juxtaposed against the glory of Cinderella Castle devastates me.

I frantically tried to keep my family from seeing me starve, to not be cold despite the 90-degree sun, to keep the crippling depression at bay.

One night at dinner, my sister and I were able to have a real conversation. I didn’t use the word “anorexia” and didn’t disclose any behaviours. But I was honest about my feelings.

Even though it shouldn’t have surprised me that my compassionate, loving sister understood how I felt, I cried when she did.

Later that year, I was finally treated for the anorexia that had ruled for so long. My sister called me my first night in the hospital, and it was the first time I’d smiled freely in what felt like forever.

“I know I can’t understand everything fully, but I’m gonna try to get it as much as I can.”

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I’ve learned so much from my sister about a variety of things. But one of the most important is what she taught me about how to help someone you love with mental illness.

In my (perhaps biased) opinion, her actions and her ways of supporting me are perfect examples of how to do just that.

Here’s what my sister taught me:

How to Support a Sibling Living With Mental Illness quote

Listening is hard but crucial.

When irrational thoughts are ruling my brain and I’m feeling out of control, it’s challenging to listen to me ramble. I might say negative things about myself that insult people who love me. I might talk about hurting myself, which is scary. But having someone there who puts her feelings aside and lets me vent my emotions is life-saving.

Consistency is key.

Sometimes it takes a while to get through to me. In my darkest days, I’m not thinking clearly. It takes a few attempts to get me to open up. It’s tremendously helpful to have someone consistent and persistent, meaning someone who continues to approach me despite difficulties.

Tell the truth.

When someone is struggling, it doesn’t mean loved ones should enable them. I know it’s not always simple (for either party), but being honest about behaviours, beliefs, and their impacts is key. Having my sister there to reality check the situation and tell me the truth has helped me put things into perspective, and talking things through with her keeps me accountable.

Validation is invaluable.

There’s nothing like someone recognizing my suffering and giving me credit for surviving it. Need I say more?

Closing Thoughts

Sometimes there’s no greater ally than a sibling, someone who’s seen your earliest moments, the times that shaped you, both good and bad, who’s not going anywhere no matter what.

I’m beyond lucky to have been given a sister who is compassionate. Because of her, I know with greater clarity how to support other people who struggle as I do.

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My name is Laura! When I was a teenager, I fought what I call a crazy battle with anorexia. After three years of intense struggling, I was lucky enough to be shown that there was another option: recovery. It took years of hard work, mental grit, and introspection, but I learned to live a life of freedom. Now I’m learning (once again) that you don’t just choose recovery; you have to keep choosing it.

SITE DISCLAIMER: The opinions and information shared in this article or any other Content on our site may not represent that of Libero Network Society. We hold no liability for any harm that may incur from reading content on our site. Please always consult your own medical professionals before making any changes to your medication, activities, or recovery process. Libero does not provide emergency support. If you are in crisis, please call 1-800-784-2433 or another helpline or 911.