This is a story of hope, inspiration and love.
I share it because today is Father’s Day and while my brother Joachim and I will be sad facing this first without our dad, we will still be celebrating. In my family, ever since my brother became a dad, the day has always been as much about honoring him as the man who raised us.
But I tell Joachim’s story, too, because in the wake of my column sharing my struggles with a partner who suffers from depression, I received many calls and emails from readers offering a glimpse of their own turmoil coping with such a disorder. Often, it appeared that to love someone with a mental illness was like tacitly agreeing to a life in which the bumps and pitfalls, the moments of self-abnegation and waning joy were to be weathered, out of love or duty, resignation or the misaligned assumption of a caregiver’s role.
In truth, I’m sure the reasons for staying in such relationships are as complex as they are many. But for those who chose to leave, it seemed their freedom was a forced choice compared to remaining with someone who wasn’t open to the full range of available treatments.
Yet in between those stances is room for so much more.
My brother has bipolar disorder. He was diagnosed in 1996. Today, he is an amazing husband and father who holds down a job, maintains a creative outlet and engages in spiritual pursuits that allow him to share a wisdom and generosity of heart he has grown into through his journey being a manic depressive.
He was a sophomore at Ohio State University studying aviation psychology when he suffered that first, crushing break with reality. I don’t think we will ever know if it was a fall from his bike that triggered his bizarre and alarming behavior or if it was, as he has described it, the sudden onslaught of emotional pain that began to surface as he allowed himself, for the first time, to contemplate the demise of our parents’ marriage and the loss of our maternal grandparents. He’d also wanted to be a musician and maybe a Rastafarian and had been indulging in an attendant lifestyle. But there was no escaping the pain and it eventually ripped him apart.
That first Christmas, after my dad brought him back from Ohio State, we had to hospitalize him. He acted erratically, spoke disjointedly, and flared as quickly in anger as he did a keen and beautiful compassion.
It was a bleak and harrowing Christmas for all of us and the years after brought both relief and agony. At first, Joachim resisted his diagnosis. He slept through most of that first year in shock and denial. Believing he could think his way through being bipolar, he took his medication — and then didn’t. He went to St. Lucia to live with my dad and came back. When he wasn’t depressed and lethargic or in a fragile state of balance, my brother spent a lot of time constructing physics theories, certain he was the next Einstein.
For years, that was his pattern. There would be months of seeming solidity upended by wild, manic highs, though even in the calmness, he remained a shadow of his former self. He tried to return to college, held various odd jobs. And then he had his daughter, Josie, and knew the time had come to reclaim himself.
How to go about that wasn’t always clear and it certainly wasn’t easy. But he realized he had to work through a lot of the anger and hurt he’d been holding in. He remembers the day he broke down while driving in the car with me as a turning point. He sobbed, years of anguish unraveling, as I listened and loved him and held up his own gifts for him to see.
When I sent him and his wife Betsy to a couples retreat shortly after, knowing its facilitators worked as much on individual healing as they did relationships, he was referred to by one of them as a “holy man.”
The term was like a blessing that unlocked a door. He began relying more on God to heal and guide him. He got a new doctor and began taking the right doses of medication. To help him understand his own mind, he started a yoga and meditation practice. And whenever his thoughts became too fast for what the world considers normal, he expressed them on his guitar.
Today, all those things continue to sustain him. He has worked hard to make peace with his past and to embrace his potential. Though he dreams of being a professional musician one day, he also has tapped into an ability to help others move through the pain and confusion of simply being human. He works a nine-to-five where every day he gets to practice the compassion born of his own suffering.
And some days, it is tough. He would rather lie in bed than face the hours, be free from all of his pills. But he keeps going because he knows his well-being is a lifelong commitment. When he needs inspiration and motivation, he laughs with his wife and daughter, listens to Bob Marley, reconnects with his love of aviation by watching the soaring and landing of planes. Family, he says, remains his salvation.
So today, I honor my brother, a great dad and one of my biggest inspirations. He is my reminder that light prevails over darkness, that love and faith have the power to mend an open and willing heart. In him, I see the bravery it takes to fight for the life of our dreams, no matter the hand we are dealt — and to trust in the blessings cloaked in all our brokenness.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times