“To love at all is to be vulnerable.” by C. S. Lewis
The word vulnerable comes from the Latin word for “wounding.” The vulnerability it takes to seek help where little exists, and deliver a holey basket of care for a person afflicted with symptoms like schizophrenia would shock most people. Most have no idea of the degree of tumult involved, the depth of isolation, or the shame. How your heart gets wrung. How much you hurt inside.
Tara Ebrahimi, who is writing a book about mental illness and family, discussed the stress and emotional pain from caregiving in a recent article, “A Sister’s Comfort, if Not a Cure,” with an honesty that is rare.
It is not often that we hear someone admit out loud, never mind in print, that they gave up taking care of a sick relative . . . got so scared and clueless they felt like a little kid in need of a wise adult . . . got overwhelmed with all the work it took to keep up with appointments, halfway houses, benefits, case workers who did not return calls, mazes of paperwork and hoops to jump, endless searching for the right facility or program, and Medicaid, while holding down a full-time job.
Aside from trying to keep up with your own life, how do you fix a brother with a sick mind?
In an excerpt¹ from her upcoming book Tara tells how she struggled to grasp the confusion and horror of her brother’s descent into delusions and psychosis, and her family’s eventual paralysis in maneuvering the mental health system. The storm of mental illness hit suddenly—not even a gradual slide—and Tara’s meticulous efforts to find a clear path of treatment became fruitless.
“I came up with a plan of action,” she said. “And then another when the first plan failed. And another when the second plan failed.” Her brother got worse. On top of fear and exhaustion, Tara began to have panic attacks. The sadness of the years-long sickness coupled with the fruitless efforts to find help left her reeling.
“So I gave up” she said. “There, I said it. I gave up.”
She censured herself for being weak, but “I just couldn’t do it anymore. Helping him seemed to require that I lose myself into his care and cause.”
I believe Tara Ebrahimi’s exhaustive journey left her wounded. Remember the saying, “love hurts”? C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, phrases it differently:
Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
Ebrahimi gave up trying to work on any plan or demand any services, but she did not shirk the entanglement of the sickness. She did not walk away—she backed away and took a different path.
Tara said she comprehended her inability to give her struggling brother a normal life, as well as her inability to stop his pain. Aware of what she could not do, Ebrahimi decided to make her brother’s life better by doing what she could. She decided to simply treat her mentally afflicted brother … like a brother.
Together they shopped for clothes, ate at restaurants he chose, made pizza. Talked. Told family stories. Had cookouts with her friends. Tara “treated him like the 23-year-old dude he was.”
In the days that followed, during an assessment for a day program, Tara’s brother said he wished for a normal life, a girlfriend, a job. He wanted his ceaseless pain to go away. “Then he laid his head on my shoulder,” said Tara, “and left it there for the remainder of the interview. I bore the weight of my brother’s head on my shoulder as best I could, for as long as I could. It wasn’t much, but it was something.”
Tara, it was love.
¹ “A Sister’s Comfort, if Not a Cure” by Tara Ebrahimi, The New York Times, Modern Love, Dec. 16, 2012.