A few weeks ago, I spilled my coffee at the breakfast table three days in a row. Someone suggested that maybe I was guzzling too much caffeine, and I replied that, no, I’ve been on an unhealthy-grad-student level of coffee consumption for some time. Curious, though, I went off for a few days, but it didn’t change what I had first noticed this winter while wrapping Christmas presents: my fine motor skills are gone. That, and a partial erasure of my short-term memory (as well as the chunk of change I’m paying pharmaceutical companies for the privilege of both) is the bargain-basement price of happiness, for now.
But I’m not the one whose hands are supposed to shake. When I was little, I assumed the normalcy of elements of my relationship with my brother that now, looking back, I realize were distinctly formative. That my friends’ would be my brothers’ friends (and that he would always be the “bad guy” with us); that, when we traveled, I would be entrusted with the plane tickets, despite being four years younger; that my brother would also always be taken out of the “normal” classroom, but for different reasons. Yet, for some reason, I mostly just remember that my brother had really messy handwriting and a shaky grip. It’s weird what kids notice.
My parents let me in gradually. I first remember a matter-of-fact explanation that my brother would not—following the assumed upper-middle-class pattern—go to college. But I was mostly shielded, and I hid myself, locking myself in my room any time there was shouting. It wasn’t until 9th grade, when my brother really fell apart, that I recall hearing the word “bipolar” and only later, with its growing popularity, “autism”. Such strange and inexplicable demons make everyone feel impotent, and I was no exception. The best I was contribute was to sleep outside his door a few times when he was manic, in the hope that he’d wake me up and not my parents.
Oh, and there’s one other thing I thought I could do: achieve. Relentlessly. It’s probably not a coincidence that high school was when I went into arrogant I’m-going-to-be-a-Senator-after-I-go-to-Princeton (I literally put this in the yearbook) overdrive. It wasn’t great timing, since shortly after I became acutely aware of my brother’s limitations, I had an unexpected and novel confrontation with my own. But even as it imposed itself on me, depression was not something I allowed myself. I was the normal one. Or maybe more than that: I was the one who was compensating, the one who was succeeding for two. Having a disabled brother was lumped in with other reminders of my “privilege” that served as good fodder for admissions essays and self-serving save-the-world fervor.
I don’t pretend I will ever understand the challenges my brother faces. I will only say that certain experiences have made me more or less empathetic towards them. I’m afraid I’ve tended towards the latter, which is why my most recent “episode”—our well-worn family parlance for mental illness—was in a way a good thing. Mental illness, I’ve realized, doesn’t fit well into my usual worldview. There’s no zero-sum class war; no structure or power to overthrow; no “privilege” to be negated and redistributed. There’s no one to be angry against except god, and in a sense, the very randomness of it all feels like an argument against him/her anyway.
As I was melting down last summer, a psychiatrist threw out a term I’m so ashamed of I feel the need to unload the burden publically. He said I suffered from “survivor guilt”. But I am no survivor. My brother lives a life full of vitality and meaning and community, things—despite the unfair apportionment of certain skills and capacities between us—that I’ve at times been sorely lacking. There is so much absurdity to placing lives on a continuum, to thinking there’s any measure by which one can ‘make up’ for another, or even that worth can be measured anyway. No one exists to be the subject of a college essay or an inspiration or a reminder of privilege to others or the subject of a hackneyed blog post-conclusion. We just exist. And some of our hands shake.