I am a big sister. The oldest in the family. At the age of six years old I already had one brother, he was three years younger than me and didn't really say much. In fact I spoke for him until he caught on that I didn't always interpret exactly what he wanted me to. For the purpose of this (true) story that may have been the saving grace of our sweet lasting relationship.
Then the great news came that I was to have not only one, but two new siblings. Albeit from different sides of the family, but first I got a darling, chubby, giggly sister Jody who followed me everywhere but she was sweet to all.
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But, when I went over to meet this new boy I was less than impressed. Whereas my sister let me dress her up and generally treat her like a living doll, Josh was a bit more independent than that and he really yelled loudly. Like a lot.
Soon enough both sides of the family reproduced again and I was gifted, in my eyes (we had the same eyes) my own personal boy child,Dale, who was as placid and chilled as Josh was a bouncing ball of energy. I then got my very own youngest sister, Hannah. Separate to me but she and I understood each other.
So, yes I come from a family where I am the oldest sister of a mix of boys and girls none of them share the same parents as me but we all share one.
But guess what?
No matter what I am the big sister and that shit matters. Because from the moment that you are aware you have siblings who are littler than you and you care for them, I mean tell them what to do... and generally know that if any adult in your family asks, 'where's xxxxx', it's your role to know.
Then stuff changed
When I was nine years old, and this is pretty mixed up in my mind, something bad and hard for a kid - even a big sister - to understand happened. We'd been out for the day and I had rushed to get 'my baby' Dale from the car just wearing my white knee-high socks.
My mum was fuming that I'd ruined another pair and I was banished to the upstairs bathroom to wash them back to purity with soap. All the while from the tiny frosted window where I was scrubbing something was going on in the car. I never saw Dale alive again. He'd died in his sleep.
Now even at nine I knew that my blatant disregard for my lack of shoe wear had nothing to do with my baby brother's death, but suffice to say I'm not a big fan of hand-washing.
It's now the seventh anniversary of losing another brother. And yes, to paraphrase the words of Oscar Wilde, "To lose one brother, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."
I do see it as carelessness. You see the job of a big sister is to be there for your siblings - no matter what. Josh was a complicated guy. He was a brilliant, creative, dynamic and challenging person who never let me get away with anything.
That wriggling, that wanting to do his own thing as a baby it just continued - my authority as big sister was largely disregarded. But there was a lot of love there. He was bright, he was articulate and he was frustrated.
Presenting with bi-polar as a teenager is a tough lot to draw.
This is a time when you're struggling with defining who you want to be, not one to be told that if you don't follow these rules and take these drugs (not ones you chose by the way for fun like your mates had the option to do) all sorts of bad stuff could happen not just to you but to all those around you. You test the boundaries and yourself. It's scary for everyone.
While you should be having your usual teenage rebellion you actually are swinging from high to low and there are a lot of casualties including feeling even more hemmed in and distancing yourself from the people who love you the most.
On the night of my brother's death seven years ago...
I was in the UK where I live. He was in the California. I do not know why it was that he took the combo of legal and street drugs that he did which ended his 30 years on this planet in this untimely manner.
I do know that I'm furious that mental health is seen as such a lowly issue that his appointments to get his repeat prescriptions had been cancelled numerous times. I am outraged that I wasn't on the other end of the phone to him.
Maybe, just maybe I could have reminded him that he'd promised his mum, my step-mum, that he was going to call that weekend. I would have joked with him that Larry, his favourite uncle, was still waiting for him to rock up for an overdue visit.
I would most definitely would have pointed out that surely he wasn't going to let down all those people who he'd been helping at The Red Cross (we didn't know about all this tremendous work this until we cleared his room).
It's taken me seven years to summon up the courage to write anything about the death of Josh. There's always been a lot of residual guilt (this is common when a sibling dies) but I could no more help that Dale died due to a 'cot death' than I could that the mental health services let my brother Josh so horrifically.
Now, however I am one angry big sister
A big sister who wants to take on this mental health fight. My brother deserved an appointment, he deserved the dignity of being treated as a patient whatever reason he was in the doctor's office and I want this situation to change because mental health comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
I have discovered that 1 in 4 people are affected every year. It sounds daft but just like we all have physical health we all have mental health. BUT until it touches you in a big way you don't really see the people it touches.
Take the time to talk. Just for five minutes. But do it. It could change a life.
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