How Christine and her parents found the support to love and care for her brother with mental illness - and each other.
Christine Tan (aged 22) has early childhood memories of sibling fights with her elder brother. Two years older than her, her brother would sometimes break her belongings, and she remembers responding by throwing things at him. The two siblings did not get along.
When she was 14, a phone call changed everything. She was at school that day when her mother called her with urgent news: her brother had been admitted to hospital. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental health issue that swings the patient between two mood extremes, from high periods of mania to low periods of depression. Not knowing what mental conditions were, Christine guessed that it must be serious if her brother was hospitalised. Faced with the news, she cried in worry for her brother. She was scared that the two of them would never be able to relate to each other in a ‘normal’ way again.
From then on, Christine often visited her brother in hospital until his discharge. It was the start of discovering his struggle with extreme mood swings, which were not at all easy to cope with. Sometimes, Christine’s brother had depression that was so severe that it resulted in social anxiety, and he would refuse to go out. It was not uncommon for family plans or holidays to be cancelled if he was struggling with his condition.
A rift remained between the two siblings, and Christine avoided talking to her brother about his condition. In fact, at the early stages after his diagnosis, even though she wanted to connect with her brother, she felt like she did not know how to talk to him. The new situation also affected how she related to her friends. She tried to avoid speaking to her friends about her brother, because she would get offended when they made insensitive remarks or showed a lack of empathy, even when they were rude only unintentionally.
Christine’s family was affected as well. It was most stressful for Christine’s parents as they were the primary caregivers to Christine’s brother. Sick with worry for her son and struggling to support him through the mood swings, Christine’s mother fell into depression around two years after the diagnosis. Although she loved cooking, she had a breakdown and was not able to cook for the family anymore, or do much else. It even reached the point when she was prescribed medication for depression.
With her brother struggling with his condition, and her mother down and out, there was a period when Christine felt terribly alone. It was as though all the responsibility was now on her shoulders. Things only improved after she went to see a counsellor at school. The counsellor helped to her understand that it was not her responsibility to be the parent of the household, and that all she could do was to support her parents to the best of her ability. This advice allowed her to feel less burdened.
Christine’s family was resilient. The setback of the challenges they faced did not put them down, and in 2016, when Christine’s brother had the idea of baking cupcakes from home as a business, the family’s response was to wholeheartedly support his project. Even if the project was not successful, they decided that they were willing to support him as he tried out the idea. Soon, Christine’s brother had his very own bakery running, and the family were constantly his source of support. They would be there physically to help him set up at events, help him out with sales of his products, and encourage him with their presence. Baking is a long process, and Christine’s brother would spend long hours testing and improving his recipes. Throughout his attempts, Christine’s family encouraged him to keep at it and to persevere.
Nevertheless, Christine’s family was reserved on the topic of mental health, and did not like discussing her brother’s condition. However, there was a marked difference in the way the family viewed mental health after attending Caregivers Alliance Limited’s Caregivers-to-Caregivers Training Programme (C2C). It was Christine’s father who first enrolled into C2C in 2016. He found it so useful that he recommended the course to Christine’s mother as well. Realising that it is important for caregivers to advocate on behalf of their loved ones in order to improve their situation, both of them became vocal advocates for mental health after C2C. Christine’s mother even went on to teach the C2C programme as a volunteer trainer, and would eventually became one of CAL’s most active and well-known volunteers. With both her parents encouraging her to attend C2C, Christine herself attended a course in 2017.
At C2C, Christine’s biggest takeaway was being able to find out that many others had similar experiences, and that she was not alone. She also realised that it was important to empathise with her brother, which meant putting in effort to really listen to him and understand his feelings. Recalling her own experiences with anxiety and stress helped her to relate to him better as well. She soon found that there was nothing to be ashamed about when talking about mental health, and she joined the rest of her family in becoming advocates by speaking openly about their challenges and volunteering to support other caregivers.
Eight years after Christine first started being a caregiver to her brother, their relationship has completely changed. They are now on good terms, and in Christine’s view, it was actually the whole experience of her brother’s struggle with bipolar disorder that made them closer as family. While she was scared of talking to him early on, worried that she might make him more upset, over time she learnt to not be afraid to say things such as, “it’s okay to feel like that”. She has also made it a point to try his cupcakes, encourage him verbally, and affirm him for his efforts. As well as this, the two siblings became closer by spending time together and going to church together. She even realises now that he takes what she says seriously and listens to her advice.
Of course, it is not always smooth sailing. Even after setting up his successful baking business, Christine’s brother continues to have moments when he struggles with self-doubt, thinking, “I’m not good enough”. Christine too struggles with worries and anxiety at times. Whenever her brother feels upset, at the back of her mind she has a fear that it might be the start of a massive relapse. But slowly, she has learnt to put aside her worries and to stay positive. She now knows that it is important to find adequate support for herself, and to have patience because recovery is not immediate.
All these experiences have developed Christine as a person. Just as how her parents treated both her and her brother fairly, giving them equal amounts of care and concern, Christine has learnt from them to be caring and protective of her family members. To her, love takes on many different forms. Love is when her family comes together to support her brother – like how she and her mother would do packing in preparation of a hospital stay, or how their family would help set up stalls at events for her brother’s baking business. Love is sometimes choosing to do things that are not easy for the sake of loved ones. Although her family is not perfect, she believes that it has been worth it persevering through hard times, and her message is to others is to stay hopeful.
This story was originally published on the blog of Caregivers Alliance Limited (CAL). CAL is a professional non-profit organisation in Singapore dedicated to meeting the needs of families and caregivers of persons with mental health issues through education, support networks, crisis support, tailored services and self-care enablement.
Our Better World is grateful to CAL for the permission to re-publish this story as part of our series on Mental Health, Silent No More: Giving Voice to Mental Illness.