“As her sister, I felt the responsibility”

Emily tells us how she coped during her sister’s mental illness, and shares her advice for others caring for a sibling

13/06/2018

When I arrived home from university for the weekend last year, my Dad who was collecting me from the station said we had to go straight to the hospital.

Dad said matter-of-factly that my sister, Lucy, had a plan to kill herself.

We drove to the adolescent mental health unit, where Lucy was a day patient. Here, Lucy was given a sedative and a strong anti-depressant – and because there were no beds available, her nurse said “We’ll see you on Monday.”

 

My family sat in silence in the car on the way home. I tried to muffle sobs, and held Lucy’s hand tightly as I was scared she was going to try and jump out of the car.

At home, we watched her every move. She stayed in my parents’ bed, and I panicked every time she locked the toilet door.

I remember feeling helpless and frustrated, feeling that this moment of crisis required more help than just two tablets and a polite “see you on Monday”.

We kept Lucy’s illness between the four of us, as we didn’t want her to be judged or defined by it – and frankly, we found it too upsetting to talk about.

So, when my grandad called that evening, Dad told him we were all doing well.

 

Lucy had previously been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She views this as a rather damning diagnosis, as the symptoms suggest she is anti-social and fairly selfish. She’s not.

BPD is characterised by struggling to maintain strong relationships, but caring relationships and love are essential to a successful recovery.

As her sister, I felt the responsibility to support Lucy and stop her from harming herself. This was particularly difficult as I lived hundreds of miles away and was studying for my finals.

Seeing someone you love suffer from a mental health difficulty is horrible, so I want to share some tips that helped me during this time.

 

My first tip is to talk to people. In my experience, other people will rarely be judgmental, and more often they will open up about their own experiences. I struggled to tell people at uni as self-harm and suicide is a dark topic, bound to suck the fun out of a conversation. I did eventually tell a few close friends and they were all supportive. If you don’t feel you can talk to friends about what you’re experiencing there are plenty of online forums and phone helplines.

We did eventually decide to talk to people outside our family unit – including my grandparents from the stiff-upper-lip era. They were incredibly kind, supportive and progressive. The only change now is that they shower Lucy with delicious snacks every time they see her. I think feeding is the typical grandparent way of showing care!

Accept that there is a limit to what you can do to help. I tended to phone Lucy a little too regularly or bombard her with messages just after she was diagnosed. When I took more of a step back, explaining that I was there if and when she needed, Lucy opened up more; I guess she felt less smothered.

I found that keeping a personal diary is a cathartic way to pour out your emotions when you’re supposed to be remaining strong for your family.

Don’t be afraid to ask for information and details. I often worried about Lucy from afar and was afraid to ask my Mum for details as this was an upsetting conversation. This lead to me spending at lot of time imagining all the bad scenarios that might be playing out. Or, I would be afraid to ask Lucy about how she felt in case she gave an answer that made me feel sad. However, confronting the reality is much easier than worrying about potential disasters.

Finally, try to continue doing normal sibling things whenever and wherever possible. Initially, I would be too scared to upset Lucy and our relationship started to feel forced and formal. But ultimately she’s my sister, and I realised I should call her out for borrowing my clothes without asking! I should also organise trips to the cinema, drag her on runs and get her to French plait my hair. These all contributed to dialling down the intensity of home life.

 

A lot has changed since last year. Lucy now works as a health care assistant and has just booked a trip to travel around Asia. Although she still struggles at times, she is able to talk openly and productively about how she is feeling.

With a great deal of professional help, Lucy is doing really well. Siblings can experience a lot of pain in these situations, but rarely receive professional help themselves. If you find yourself in a similar situation, recognise that this is a difficult time, and be kind to yourself: try not to bear too much responsibility, and remember to communicate as much as possible.

 

Looking for help? Our Information Service can guide you towards local services you can use for a loved one’s mental health, and your own.

Read more about borderline personality disorder here.

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Megan joined the team as a fundraiser in 2017 from a background in journalism, editorial and retail. She now manages L&S Mind’s website, social media and community fundraising events, as well as trusts and grants fundraising.