Guilty (The Normal One, Part 3)

I’ve been thinking a lot about guilt this week and, in particular, as it relates to a conversation with Jerri about our dad who was her only local support person when she lived in Winston-Salem. He was her money-manager, her occasional chauffeur, dog-sitter, and errand boy. She admits she took advantage. Dad felt guilty for not being more active in our lives as kids and Jerri used that to get him to do things for her even when it was inconvenient or inappropriate for her to ask. Early on in our renewed relationship, she assumed I also carried a hefty load of guilt. I denied it saying, “What do I have to feel guilty for? For believing Mom and Dad when they said you were an addict?”

The thing is I lied. I do feel guilty. For a lot of things. Dr. Safer discusses her own feelings of guilt in her book, The Normal One. In talking about her brother, Steven, she says,

The guilt I never felt also became unavoidable. He was the family scapegoat, and I colluded to keep him so. I cannot reverse the favoritism that was undeserved, nor the way it distorted both our lives and prevented any real trust or real love from developing between us.

This rings so true that when I first read it, it was like sticking my face into a Harry Potter-ish pensieve and viewing the silver, hair-like wisp of a memory that had been extracted from my own brain. The number one crime I feel guilty of is colluding with my parents to keep Jerri the scapegoat. In my own defense, it wasn’t a conscious decision, although there was a part of me that acknowledged as long as the heat was on Jerri, it was focused away from me. Growing up in our house, you were just glad NOT to be the focus. Unfortunately, I got so good at NOT being the focus, that even now when I want to be, I can’t seem to manage it.

I feel guilty about the favoritism our parents showed me. I did not seek it out. I didn’t even realize there was favoritism until long after I was an adult watching Mom apply the same methods to my nieces and nephews.

I feel guilty about Jerri’s living conditions. Her housing is modest but safe and comfortable. Still it’s in a bad often dangerous part of town. Her main mode of transportation is the bus system which is used primarily by the poor, people who are not just down on their luck, but often tough, street-wise predators who snack on people like Jerri. She is surrounded daily by those with complex and recalcitrant mental illness and has little exposure to mentally healthy people. She eats most of her meals at the nearby shelter which has an ongoing problem with bedbugs. On several occasions, she’s been violently attacked. Once, when walking home from the bus stop, she was hit in the head by a homeless man with schizophrenia because she asked him what he’d said–she thought he was talking to her and was just trying to treat him like a human being.

20120211-182648.jpgI feel guilty that I took in her dog, Max, but wasn’t willing to open my home to her. My head says this is wisdom. My heart says, people matter more than dogs.

I felt guilty at work yesterday when I had to get off the phone with Jerri or miss the opportunity to grab lunch before the cafeteria closed. She’d just admitted she’d had nothing to eat all day and had already missed lunch at the shelter.

According to Dr. Safer, all siblings of “damaged” individuals experience guilt. When it comes to mental illness, I wager that it’s not just the siblings. I doubt anyone in the family escapes the guilt complex whether parent, sibling, or child. We all wonder if we might have some how done something to trigger the illness or at the very least, make it worse. We all know we have responded poorly and failed the one who is ill.

My friends and coworkers remind me on a regular basis of how much I do support her, but, frankly, it seems like too little too late. It falls way short of her actual needs. Just this week, a friend said, “what if you did all the things you think you ought to do – moved her into your own home, administered her meds every day, took care of her like she was your own child, paid for everything she needs – what if you dedicated your whole life to her and nothing changed? What if she continued to be just as sick, continued to get into just as many scrapes?”

My friend had a good point. Sometimes I forget that I’m not God. I can’t fix some things even if I throw my life at it. Dr. Safer makes this point:

There is a critical difference between assisting a damaged sibling and trying to undo accidents of fate and fortune you cannot help and did not cause. The former is brotherly or sisterly love and mature, if circumscribed, responsibility. The latter is compulsive self-sacrifice driven by the belief that you do not deserve your advantages. The one is sadly finite; the other never lets you go.

The word “circumscribed” is important. It means “to limit or confine.” When we are assisting with sisterly love and with mature responsibility, we recognize there are limits to what we can do. In fact, we define those limits. We feel sad about the limits but maintain them just the same. I’m trying to accept that I can’t undo the damage—all I can do is love Jerri the best I can. That is enough.


6 Comments on “Guilty (The Normal One, Part 3)”

  1. Denise says:

    Terri, you are doing so much for your sister, though I can understand some of your frustrations and guilt. My eldest brother had a mental illness and there are things that happened that made me feel guilty [though in the later years before he committed suicide, I did a fair amount of things for him to help keep him connected to the real world].

    As you know, I’m now being treated for my own mental illness and most of the time, I’m getting by. Though I do wish my family was more understanding of what’s going on for me but they just don’t seem to want to know or sometimes to even care with what I’m struggling with. Such is life and I don’t see that changing. So I keep plodding along the best I can. 🙂

    • Denise, I don’t know why families behave the way they do. It’s so disappointing really. I’ve learned from my own experiences that part of it is just ignorance and part of it is denial. You don’t want to believe that what is happening to your family member is out of their control. It must be incredibly hard for you at times. I imagine there are days when you really need a hand. Hang in there my friend and feel free to vent here. Your perspective is sure to be insightful to those of us who are trying to understand our friends and family with mental illness.

      I’m really sorry about your brother too. I know it was a long time ago but suicide is so very heartbreaking. Did your brother have schizophrenia? I know you’ve told me before but I have the worst memory on the planet.

      • Denise says:

        Hey Terri, My brother Steve had several issues going on affecting his health [probably caused by the abdominal surgery my mom had in the first trimester of her pregnancy with him]. He had a mild form of Cerebral Palsy, was somewhat developmentally delayed, and had chronic depression. He did make it through school [he did graduate] but it was a struggle for him [and they didn’t have the special ed back then; at least not in the school systems we were in]. However, even going through some outside assistance programs, he wasn’t able to work for pay though he did do a lot of volunteer work, which did help him feel like he was a productive member of society.

        With his depression, he had lots of ups and downs. He wasn’t always compliant with his medications, so that didn’t help. And over the years, he did attempt suicide a number of times. Before he made his final [fatal] attempt, he was living in a group home and had been doing fairly well for awhile. Though I guess he just got overwhelmed when the depression got bad again. He was in his early 30s at the time and just didn’t want to carry on any longer.

      • So incredibly sad. Thanks for sharing what happened.

  2. TrophyDaughter: you are such a good writer!

    I understand your reasons for accepting Jerri’s dog into your home, but not Jerri. I remember you telling us the hurtful words she called you, her self-destructive behaviours, and how she was not truthful with you. You are brave to continue to care for her in your own way even if other family members have abandoned her.

    It is sad that those with mental illness, who are the least able to care for themselves, exhibit behaviours that scare others away.

    I know enough people with mental illnesses to know I usually cannot trust them when they are not stable..

    I grew up with a mother who was diagnosed with schizophrenia (10 years before I was born), and decades later, as bipolar. I hated her for years; she was very mean to my 4 siblings and me when she was the sickest. My father never gave up on her.

    Another mentally ill person I learned I cannot trust is my best friend whom I known since first grade. She too, is bi-polar. When I bought my house a couple of years ago, she wanted to move in with me; she said she needed someone to take care of her. By that time I had lived in Durham for 4 years, saw her frequently, and had learned how very mentally ill she was. She was not truthful with me, stole from me and became very mean to me. Her own house was very messy and crowded (as a hoarder, she does not even remove her trash very often). Her cats’ fleas bit me. I told her I did not think I could live with her for these reasons. She became angry every time I disagreed with her and stopped calling me. Her bi-polar sister moved in with her after their father died. I have not seen her in two years. I thought I would always stand by her, but after 4 years I had had enough. I still hope her doctors will one day prescribe medications that will help her and we can resume our friendship.

    After my son was diagnosed with schizophrenia in August 2007 and he came to Durham for treatment, I was glad he only stayed with me a week or two at a time, alternating time spent with his father rural Southwest VA. I can only tolerate so much stressful time with him. He did not visit me for over 2 years and when he finally came to stay with me several months in 2011, he still believed his hallucinations about his father having been replaced by multiple “beings”. It was very stressful to come home every night from a stressful job and listen to him trying to explain his father’s “disappearance” and the strange things that happened at the VA house.

    Except for the time my son stayed with me I have lived alone now for over 6 and 1/2 years. I have never liked it and have thought a number of times about taking in a boarder: a college student, or an elderly person, and lately when I read about your sister, someone with a mental illness, but I would be afraid to do the latter. I am the kind of person who sacrifices for others and I feel an obligation to help more people with mental illness, but I am overwhelmed with my own challenges.

    People with mental illnesses need social interaction and friends even more. I missed the F2F “reunion” last fall and don’t know if family members were invited. At OASIS, we family members sometime meet with our loved ones with brain disorders. Maybe we could get together with our family members sometime. (My son has not had a social life in years and refuses to meet anyone new.)

    • Hi Rose,

      Yes, in the beginning with Jerri was very tough. We really didn’t know each other at all. We had a lot of preconceived notions about each other based on things other family members had said. And I had a lot of baggage regarding mental illness. When I first moved Jerri here, I wasn’t even sure I believed in mental illness. we’ve come a long way. I will be forever grateful for our F2F class.

      Thanks for sharing about the challenges you’ve had living with friends and family with mental illness. You obviously understand the complexities of making that decision. Most of the time I believe I’m doing the right thing – not just for me and my marriage but for Jerri too. At times, she would like to just be taken care of – wouldn’t we all? But most of the time, she cherishes her independence. That’s something I want for her too.

      I’m not familiar with OASIS. Can you tell me more about that? I also didn’t realize there was a F2F reunion. How old is your son? Is he living with his father now?

      It’s great to be back in touch with you!


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