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Sibling Madness

Sibling Madness

– Nonfiction by Brooke Laufer –

It was unusual for Aaron to call so I always answered the phone when he did.

These conversations were cerebral and sometimes hard to follow, filled with stilted and confusing comments about fear and love and death. He never spoke about common details, like getting the car fixed or a new favorite restaurant. It was more interesting than that. At times it seemed like Aaron was speaking in code, and I would listen intently trying to crack it. I believed what Aaron was saying was meaningful, I wanted to believe that more meaning poured out of him than out of anyone else I knew, but the truth was he wasn’t making sense. I tried listening better. I felt remiss in these conversations, there must be a better way to understand him, I thought, or the right thing to say, I’m sure I could be a more compassionate sister, where is the key for this lock? But I kept hearing myself say, “No that’s not true, that’s a delusion, please take your meds, the meds will help you. Have you slept, have you eaten…”

I remember this particular call came over a weekend when my husband and I were camping on Turtle Island. It was the middle of the night and we were in our tent when I took the call from Aaron. He sounded desperate, “Brooke, I’m worried about you.” I could tell that Aaron was walking, taking confident breaths while telling me his ‘plan’. I can’t remember exactly what the plan was, but I know the conversation was about 5 minutes long and it was bizarre. He told me he was ‘coming to help me’. He could ‘see me stuck way up in that tower’. He was ‘getting closer’ to me. Then suddenly his tone changed, he said he could see the police. ‘Uh oh! I couldn’t tell if the police were actually there or if he was in a delusion. Then I heard him yell with a desperation that pulled all of my insides out of me, ‘Help! Help!’ He screamed. Now I could hear the police, their muffled shouts, and suddenly the phone cut off. I remember slowly lying back on my sleeping bag, terrified. Everything was black.

The next day I found out that Aaron had been walking down the middle of a local highway. He resisted arrest and was tasered four times, he was taken down by police and put in the hospital. Here’s the newspaper clip:

A 31-year-old Sheboygan Falls man was Tasered four times and taken into custody for mental evaluation Sunday after police say he blocked traffic on a west-side off ramp and violently resisted officers.

Traffic was shut down for at least 10 minutes as six Sheboygan police officers forcibly removed the man from the ramp on westbound state Highway 23 at Taylor Drive, said Lt. Tim Eirich. The man, who had been living at a county-run group home in Sheboygan, was taken to Aurora Sheboygan Memorial Medical Center on a mental commitment.

That was Aaron’s third break with reality, but it was the first one I was close to. The moment the phone cut out is very clear to me, it shot through me and opened me up like a bolt of lightning. It felt like pure fear. In the days after that I started taking anti-anxiety medications and sleeping medications because I felt like I was leaving my body all the time. I needed to stay in my body to keep my job and my marriage intact and to keep trying to save my brother from his paranoid schizophrenia.

Seven years earlier when Aaron had his first break with reality I believed I could be a bridge between his mad world and the reality that I was in. At that time he was 25 years old living alone in our small Wisconsin hometown, doing drugs and occasionally playing music, and I was 26 studying French and history in Paris. One day I called home from a pay phone and found out Aaron had been taken to the hospital. My mom told me that he had been missing for two days, then was picked up by the police. He had given the police the name John and told them he had taken 3 sugar cubes laced with acid. They took him to the detox unit at the hospital, but after a day of continuing to argue with people no one else could see he was transferred to the psychiatric unit. While standing in a phone booth on a street corner near the Sorbonne I heard my mom explain that Aaron was psychotic, hallucinating, having delusions, talking to himself, talking to people who weren’t there. These were all words I sort of understood, and was definitely scared by. We got off the phone, I don’t remember crying, it felt more like anguish – Aaron was breaking and I was far away.

Aaron and I were close. At one and half years old I was just learning to talk when they brought him home from the hospital. I sang to baby Aaron and cooed to him. Eventually I helped him get dressed and I brushed his hair. I tended to him with diligence. My aunt said I would care for Aaron ‘like a little mother’ helping him with his meals, brushing his teeth, putting him to bed.

It was almost idyllic the way we grew up, a small town in Wisconsin where we never had to lock our doors, where we ran around the neighborhood with other children and there were mothers home to make our lunch. With only 18 months between us it was easy to play together, in fact, Aaron and I often preferred each other’s company to anyone else’s and many days passed where we were building forts in our basement, running through the nearby forests and ravines, playing house, drawing endless mazes and writing stories for each other to follow. We often combined our toys, in our imaginary world Barbie dolls and Star Wars figures teamed up and fought against the same bad guys.

Later, after we moved out of that small town, Aaron was always present on my consciousness. In college when I wrote in my diary it felt like I was writing a letter to Aaron. I had the distinct feeling as I wrote that it was him I was telling my deepest fears and my nascent desires to. Was that because he was the closest person to me, someone to whom I could share my dark and vulnerable feelings? It was more like he was always there, a perpetual audience, in the mirror.

Some siblings are like this I’ve learned, especially if there are just two of them. There is a distinct awareness of one other. In fact, they are the Other, the entity that is Not-the-Self, through which we first become aware of our self in relation to others. The sibling relationship is an essential developmental foundation for a child, one that is transformative for their personality. We learn about life roles in everyday experiences with our siblings as companions, confidantes, combatants, and as the focus of social comparisons.

The sibling relationship is akin to the “encounter” as described in Martin Buber’s I and Thou. Buber suggests that when we enter into a relationship with an object (a sibling), we participate in an encounter with that object where both the I and the You are transformed by the relation between them. The You is encountered in its entirety, not as a sum of its qualities, not as a point in space and time, but, instead, it is encountered as if it were the entire universe, or rather, as if the entire universe somehow existed through the You (Buber, 1923). This is the closest description I have found that captures my sense of how I relate to my brother. Aaron was my You.

In Aaron’s hospital room after that first psychotic break I felt some of the boundaries around me loosen. I was close to Aaron and he was mad, the vibrations of madness were crossing over my threshold, like tentacles coming off of him and brushing into me, lightly grabbing for me. I had to figure out how to protect myself and stay with him.

Aaron was also scared. His movements were slow and his hospital gown was falling off one shoulder, he seemed helpless, like he wasn’t sure who he was or how to take care of himself. I could tell he was not totally connected to the reality my mom and I were in and without a shared reality we lost an ability to easily converse.

At one point my mom left the hospital room. Aaron and I were sitting on his bed and he looked at me, “Do you believe in aliens?” I was taken aback but solemnly nodded my head. He then told me the events of the last 48 hours as he remembered them. He had been in his house when he saw a bug, like a beetle, on TV, a report on a beetle invasion he thought. Then he saw through his attic trap door, beetles were pouring into his house. He had to escape so he kicked out the air conditioner window unit from his bedroom on the second floor and jumped out the window. He was barefoot. He felt much more free and light as he ran down the middle of the street. It was dark outside and lightly raining and as he ran the street lights came on, each one as he passed. He felt like he was a superhero, and as if this was all part of a greater plan. He was on his way to a party, which was a gathering of friends in a nearby field. He may have gone to this field and then was back on the streets when the police stopped him. He appeared high on drugs, talking with himself, and reported that he had done 3 sugar cubes of acid, so they took him to the detox unit at the local hospital.

I just kept nodding. To hear something like that is beguiling, you want to be entertained by it but you need the person who’s telling you the story to understand, like you do, that it’s not real and when they don’t understand that it quickly turns from entertaining to destabilizing.

My father, my mother and I met with the psychiatrist who was treating Aaron. It was a heavy moment for our family and yet the doctor did not seem very moved. He told us Aaron was schizophrenic. I had heard the word schizophrenia before, it had a terror to it. ‘Schizophrenia’ had more violence, less hope.

Eugen Bleuler coined the term schizophrenia in 1911, describing schizophrenia as an organic splitting of the mind resulting in, “an interiorization of psychic life and a loss of contact with the social environment”. The current general scientific understanding is that schizophrenia is a combination of nature and nurture, meaning there is a predisposition in ones physiology to schizophrenia, but stressors in the environment trigger the activation of this genetic complex.

One of my favorite understandings of schizophrenia comes from the transpersonal psychologists like Stanislav Grof and Ken Wilbur who believe that schizophrenia is a spiritual emergency, an experience of escaping the limiting boundaries of the self, which leads to immense elation and freedom as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down. A spiritual emergency or a psychotic break is defined by the transcendence of the ego and often results in intense emotions, unusual thoughts and behaviors, and perceptual changes. Such experiences bring about the potential for profound psychological and spiritual change (Grof & Grof, 1989), but often appear as a psychotic disorder.

So maybe Aaron needed a profound psychological and spiritual change. He had been different for years leading up to his first psychotic break. Aaron had this way about him, like he was a rockstar. He had a presence, it wasn’t loud or overbearing but it was magnetic, warm, observant and witty. He had a thick wave of deep brown hair, round brown eyes, long cheekbones, often a full dark beard, with a smile that filled his face. Aaron looked almost exactly like Jim Morrison, before Jim Morrison was overweight and bloated from alcohol abuse. Aaron wore vests and scarves, interesting hats and leather jackets, at times he wore makeup and a skirt. He was playing in a band, he could play guitar and drums, but mostly he took lead vocals; his voice was rich and sensuous. Aaron was a self-taught genius musician, everyone thought he would go somewhere with his music. I was one of Aaron’s biggest fans. I was at all his shows and I bragged about him when I could.

After the shows Aaron and I would be at the 24 hour diner drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, discussing the capacity of the mind, perception, the role of fate vs free will, the possibility of premonitions. Aaron was a philosopher, his mind always inquiring, wondering, wandering.

After he left for college it wasn’t long before he struggled in his classes and with friends. Our connection started to shift at this time. There was more distance between us, he had more bad mood swings where he was low and unreachable. I remember being home during winter break, after his first semester away at school, and things felt tense. On Christmas day he said he had wrote me a song – I was moved. I was hopeful we were going to feel connected again. He picked up his guitar and started playing, but almost immediately set it down again. He mumbled something. The room was quiet. For the remainder of the day he stared silently out the window, unmovable. Later in the evening I found he and my mom hugging on his bed, he was crying. She was normalizing how the transition to college was hard.

Aaron became paranoid, preoccupied with what others were thinking of him, how they were treating him. He talked repeatedly about coworkers at the restaurant where he waited tables, the girls were talking about him, they flirted with him but hated him. He dropped out of school and lived in an apartment with a friend. He ground up his roommate’s medications and snorted them. Some nights he lit candles and sat in his closet for hours. At that time he had a girlfriend, one day they got into a fight and he took a clock off the wall and threw it at her feet.

The fun rockstar life that we all thought possible for Aaron was not manifesting, moods would last for days, he became more disheveled, made less sense. My family thought maybe he needed to take away stressors, like school and work and people, and restart his life. Maybe he was truly an artist and needed to pursue that life. He moved home and he played music. When I visited him he would make himself steaks and talk about astrology. He told me that although he was a Scorpion he was changing to a Sagittarius, a sign that was appealing in its stability. In retrospect I can see now this was the time he was crossing over, the psychotic and disorganized thoughts were gaining more traction, the rational functioning thoughts were diminishing. I started feeling uncomfortable around him. He was confused and angry all the time. I couldn’t talk him through it. I could engage briefly but then a bizarre intangible comment would fly out and I would be lost as to how to respond.

He became more reclusive, and increasingly angry, and at times he was threatening. He started wearing sunglasses all the time. I remember him giggling to himself and prancing, silly feminine movements were common for him during this time. At one point a friend of his told me that Aaron had shaved half of his body.

He was paranoid and clearly not well but he was also tuned in, he could sit at a family dinner and make small talk. It was a confusing time, he needed help but what could I do? He was an adult who was making his own choices, we couldn’t force him to do anything. Aaron’s psychosis was unchecked and picking up speed, it was taking on a life of its own until it eventually propelled him out his window that night and landed him in the psychiatric unit.

After the hospital stay Aaron moved into my dad’s house, where he was on an antipsychotic medication. He was expected to stay sober, attend AA meetings and live with my father until he could stabilize and find a job. I flew back to Paris to finish my classes, but a new plan had been born in me: once I returned to Paris I applied to graduate school to become a psychologist. Although I had wanted to be a writer or a poet, something bigger opened up in me when I was at the hospital to visit my brother. I felt determined to be a person who could work on a psychiatric unit and not be afraid of what I saw. I felt I had an ability to be empathic with people who were insane. It had peaked my curiosity, the delusions and hallucination and otherworldliness of schizophrenia, but more fervently I wanted to be able to stand in the face of his madness and bring him back. At that time something shifted in me. It was as if I had this small driving voice inside my body repeating: You have to save him, no one else will. I thought becoming a psychologist would be the clearest path to that end.

The mothering of Aaron I did when we were children transformed seamlessly into codependency as an adult. For the next several years I excessively focused on Aaron’s problems, needs and feelings. He seemed helpless and broken to me and I felt equipped to care for him. Maybe the adults–my parents– in the room weren’t adequate, maybe I felt superior because I gave myself this important caretaker role, either way it became a driving force. That Other, that piece of my consciousness I had always known, now demanded most of my attention.

I began to research schizophrenia relentlessly. I wrote papers on theories about Aaron’s symptomatology, I found the most progressive treatment tactics, I read about the history of psychosis through various modalities and perspectives, I became updated on the newest medications. I called doctors, therapists, and nurses who I implored to help my brother. I visited Aaron, I asked him questions, I told him what he should do, which therapist to see, which medications to take. I made appointments for him and drove him to those appointments. I wrote my dissertation on psychosis and I made a low budget documentary on people broken by psychosis. I became a Clinical Psychologist. I supported my parents, I listened to them and talked to them about what my brother was doing, what he needed, what was happening to him. I defended him to my father and I encouraged my mom to truly see who he was. The majority of my conversations that I had with my family during that decade were about my brother. I was my brother’s spokesperson, I explained to cousins and aunts and friends where he was. I listened to horrible advice like, “He just needs to take a class,” or “Find a girlfriend.” I went to workshops and conferences on mental illness and addiction, I joined networks and paid dues in associations to entrench myself in this world. I discovered vitamins and herbs, supplements, that would fix his brain and make him better. I did this for 10 years. And the entire time he got worse.

I see now that I’ve had a lifelong preoccupation with responsibility. At a Psychology conference recently, the speaker, a prominent Jungian analyst, explained an archetype I could relate to, the ‘one who stands guard in the tower’. “This person, who did not receive a sense of security from external sources, must maintain a longstanding vigilance, keeping watch for danger and intruders, like standing guard in a tower for a long time. Because of such long standing vigilance this person also has a deep sense of weariness.”

And it was true, I had a deep sense of weariness. Something in me hardened against the world, I was enraged at my parents, and at the medical system, and I became very tired. I had a good therapist with whom I endlessly argued about my brother. She helped me understand how I was “parentified” as a kid, and that I was now codependent. She told me that schizophrenia was my brother’s journey and not mine. She told me that I couldn’t save him and I said, “But then no one will!” I was very anxious, and I started having panic attacks.

Then, while I was pregnant for the first time, something in me broke for my brother. I had very little energy left for Aaron and I pulled back. He was getting sicker, he had become dependent on alcohol and was drinking all day every day.

His house was littered with beer cans and drug paraphernalia and overflowing ashtrays. His skin was yellowed and covered in patches of red scales and blisters. Finally my mother started to see how sick he truly was; he was killing himself. At the last psychiatric appointment I had taken Aaron to he said to me, “I don’t know why you care, I don’t.”

My parents and I started having more real conversations about him and we planned an intervention. An interventionist arrived at my mother’s house one cold January morning and we told my brother he needed treatment or he would lose our support. And just like that he agreed. He surrendered, the fight was over. Then the interventionist turned to me and told me to go to a Families Anonymous meeting.

When I was young I had a dream of being baptised in a river by women. One woman held me and dipped my head back into the river that we were wading in.

When I came up another woman said into my ear, “It will be ok.”

My first Families Anonymous meeting was a manifestation of that dream. A week after Aaron agreed to go into residential care, I dropped my children at school then I went to the gym to sit in the steam room in order to treat my pain so that I could function that day. My body had become ill with an unknown pain disorder, all the years of not focusing on myself had finally caught up with me. I hurt all over, like an aching deep in my muscles and bones. I had been to many different doctors with no relief. The steam penetrated me and softened the pain, and then I felt up to making my way to the basement of a local church where I was told there was an FA meeting. I walked in late, very tentatively, and before I could ask if this was an FA meeting, someone stood up and said, “You’re in the Right Place.” I took a seat and I was quiet. People were already sharing and I listened to their stories but almost immediately I began to cry. It was an uncontrollable eruption, I was losing my breath, I sobbed. The woman sitting across from me leaned in, “This is a safe place,” she said to me. The woman sitting next to me moved closer to me, “Let it out,” she said and she rubbed my back. “It will be OK,” she said into my ear.

These people, these anonymous family members, were different than my friends and family, they could understand the tornado of emotion one has when someone who is an intrinsic part of you is going mad and killing themselves, and you think you can save them.

About a month after Aaron had been in residential treatment I started to feel the tangible relief that someone was taking care of him, and it wasn’t me. That I was my own cohesive person, that Aaron was not me.

Aaron is now sober and medicated, singing in a Doors cover band.

Sometimes I go to his shows, sometimes I sing to myself.

Works Cited – Brooke Laufer

I and Thou, Martin Buber, 1923 

The Well Siblings; Suffering in Disguise, Karlyn Pleasants PsyD., 2019

Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, Stanislav Grof & Christina Grof, 1989

About the Author – Brooke Laufer
Brooke Laufer

Brooke Laufer is a psychologist and mother of two in Evanston, Illinois. She specializes in treating women’s mental health before, during and after child birth. Brooke is writing a memoir about madness and sisterhood, telling the story of her relationship to her only brother who has schizophrenia.

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Pieces of You
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