A lot of people, who know me well, will know that I have a terrible memory. I forget why I came upstairs; I forget what I was supposed to buy in the supermarket; I write shopping lists so I don't forget the things I was supposed to buy in the supermarket, and then I forget the list.
Some things, though, I will never forget: My first Oasis gig; Seeing the Sydney Opera House in real life; The time I received a phone call from my dad to tell me "Your brother's not well. He's had a breakdown".
That phone call was almost nine years ago.
Out of respect for my brother's privacy, I will not go into the details of what the catalyst was for his rapid slide into mental ill health, but just like I'm sure is the case with many others, our family did not see this coming - it was like a baseball bat had swung around and hit us right in the stomach.
"He's been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder", was the next big update from my parents. It was the first time a label had been attached to my brother that was something different to the descriptions of him I had grown used to hearing throughout our childhood: "Life of the party", "such a lovely boy", "always smiling". Just like the phone call to break the news - this one is also etched into my memory. Not knowing what 'Bipolar' meant, I concentrated on the 'Disorder' part and said it in my head over and over again, trying not to be scared of the realisation that in having a disorder, someone must therefore be 'disordered'.
I will hold my hands up and confess that prior to my brother becoming unwell, my knowledge of mental ill health was largely based on films and the gossip pages of trashy magazines; i.e. not real life.
As soon as my brother had a diagnosis, I rushed to the library and started reading. I struggled to know how to offer help, so I settled for the next best thing - understanding. I wanted to learn about his condition. I wanted to know everything. This person had grown up with me, and I had looked up to him as a perfect model of everything I wanted to be ever since I can remember. I wanted back the brother I knew. In a matter of weeks he had turned into a stranger, a shell of the person I knew so well. Someone I used to spend hours talking to non-stop and now I couldn't even think of two words to say to him.
Looking back, I realise that I must've been in a state of shock for a long time. To this day, I am ashamed and angry with myself for how I dealt with the news. Not knowing what to do, I backed away entirely, for fear of saying the wrong thing or making matters worse, but days of non-communication turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. I kept in regular contact with my parents who would give me updates on his health. Every day was a guessing game as to how he would feel and what he might be capable of doing: some days progress would mean getting dressed. Other days he would be able to go out and see friends. The phrase, 'taking each day as it comes' had taken on a whole new meaning.
Over these last nine years, my brother's illness has been like a mental health rollercoaster - except there are no comedy photos to take home on a key ring, just emotional scars carried by him, and everyone surrounding him; bitter memories of painful episodes: verbal abuse, bouts of mania, paranoia, anxiety and depression.
Having to receive verbal abuse and witness explosive episodes caused by a member of my own family because of mental ill health has been one of the most soul destroying and heart breaking things I've ever experienced. There's been times when I've been prepared to cut out my own brother because of his condition, but my understanding of it has helped me to realise that running away from someone you love who needs help can never be a positive move, no matter how hard that road is - you have to travel it together. I will carry my brother on my back forever, if that's what he needs.
Thanks to some wonderful support from the charity Mind, my brother is living mostly independently and is striving every day for good mental health. A more recent diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder sparked more trips to the library for me, but the more I read, the more I realise the accuracy of his diagnosis and have been working hard to support him in every way I can. With ageing parents and a daughter of my own to care for, I know that the road ahead will continue to be hard, as he will gradually move from being my parents' responsibility to being mine. But it fills my heart with so much hope when I see the huge difference in people's attitudes towards mental health over the last nine years and I'm confident that talking and learning will continue to help break the stigma and support all those affected by mental health (which I hope you've realised by reading to the end of this post, is everyone).
I'm really writing this so that I can share my story and open up the comments to people who may have previously been too afraid to say "I've been there too" "I'm there now" or, simply in the hope that people click the 'share' button to spread the awareness, and help erase the stigma.