Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

August 22, 2011

My oldest brother is a recluse.  He lives on Social Security and, thanks to Meals-on-Wheels, gets a hot meal every day.  He spends his days sitting, meditating, and listening to books on tape and talk radio.  He keeps his phone unplugged, so no one can call him.  Only when he calls out, does it get plugged in.  To top it off, he’s a hoarder.  With the little spending money he has, he orders books-on-tape—lots of books-on-tape. 

What makes his story compelling is that he is a talented, charmingly funny, dare I say—brilliant soul.  When he was in high school, he was one of the most loved people in his class.  A top student, he went on to get a medical degree and had a small clinic in Mill Valley, California, where he successfully treated patients using alternative medicine, way before it was recognized and acceptable.  His ability to connect with children and patients was jaw-dropping.  Consistently I witnessed people drawn to his self-effacing charm and tender, guileless attention.  His bedside manner couldn’t be matched.   

Sixteen Years Later

Somewhere along the way things skewed out of balance.  He ended his practice and withdrew from friends and family.  He took on a more hermitic lifestyle.  In one phone conversation he told me he needed to be alone for awhile and that he wouldn’t be in touch for at least two years.  Two years stretched into 16, when I finally decided I needed to make contact with him. 

With only knowing his last address, I booked a flight from Northern Virginia to California.  My safety valve was my best friend.  She was making a business trip to the same city; I could stay with her.  She would be there to hold my hand regardless of what I confronted.

My first encounter was a shock.  I found my dear brother blind from cataracts and probably glaucoma.  Boxes two-rows-deep bordered both sides of a short path to the far side of his studio apartment.  It led to a table and two chairs, the locus of most of his living.  Although he didn’t admit guests, he had an occasional volunteer come in to help with bill paying and sorting mail.  Boxes packed the kitchen from floor to ceiling, so there was no access to the sink or stove.  Whenever he needed hot water, he used water from the bathroom sink.  A tattered sofa immediately to the left of entering the room served as his bed.  A sleeping bag took the place of sheets.  The apartment probably hadn’t been cleaned since he first moved in—more than 30 years ago. 

What Was I To Do?

My first visit lasted three days.  I did as much as I thought I could.  Together we went to the grocery store and the bank.  Under his direction I sorted his mail.  We even took a couple of long walks.  We talked easily and comfortably between us, but I was careful not to give any unsolicited opinions.  Only when I suggested going through his boxes did he firmly reject my offer.

I had to go home before I could assimilate what I experienced.  I felt so sad.  My lovely, sweet, funny brother had come to this.  I concluded what I didn’t want to admit—he was suffering from mental illness.  It had gone untreated.  I knew that when left untreated, it only gets worse.

What Is Mine to Do?

I crossed the country three more times.  The third trip was devoted to cleaning his bathroom and entryway.  Together we traipsed to the hardware store and bought a bucket, cleansers, Clorox, brushes and sponges.  I was determined to leave that visit knowing I had made a tangible difference.

The results of my efforts were marginal.  After working six hours straight on the bathroom, primarily the sink, toilet and floor, I never got to the bathtub/shower.  Without a mask I had naively inhaled the toxic odors of Clorox most of those six hours.  I was exhausted and discouraged by the time I called it quits. 

Trying to clean up my brother’s life was a much bigger project than I had imagined.  I was beginning to grasp that this was not in my purview.  Once I got home, it took getting sick—in part due to the toxicity I exposed myself to—to let this sink in.  He had never asked me to clean his bathroom.  I had taken it upon myself. 

My Brother’s Choice

My fourth and final trip several months later confirmed what I had deduced in my sickbed.  The bathroom, my major contribution to helping my brother, returned to its homeostatic state—just as filthy as it was before I touched it.  This was how my brother chose to live. 

For a few months after my last trip he would initiate phone calls, usually asking me to do a favor like calling the books-on-tape company to ensure an order had been placed or check the Internet about something he heard on talk radio.  Eventually the calls stopped.  His phone has remained unplugged ever since.  I am left with either waiting for a call or flying out there to see him.  This is the way he wants it.

Why I Share This Story

I share this story because a few of my friends find themselves asking the same question, “Am I my brother’s or sister’s keeper?”  A sibling falls on hard times due to bad relationships, financial difficulties, or ill health.  These untoward situations don’t happen because of one poor judgment or mistake.  They happen over time usually because emotional wounds weren’t tended to.  With each wound the sibling’s self-esteem gets tarnished or chipped.  Without the proper tools to handle the slings and arrows of daily living, these siblings start making choices most victims make.  Their behavior turns into self-sabotage, a setup for abuse.  Too proud or too ashamed of their consistent misstepping, they don’t ask for help.  They shut down.  Their life becomes small, and things go from grim to grimmer. 

Is it our responsibility to step in and take over?  In my case, the answer is a categorical “NO!”  My brother neither invited me to visit him nor asked me to clean his apartment.  I did it all on my own.  He acquiesced to my visits and accepted my offer to clean his bathroom.  He is getting by, thank you very much, on his own moxie.  It’s just not according to my standards.

Getting sick after my third visit tipped the scales.  My own illness gave me clarity.  I discovered I had crossed a boundary that tacitly said “No Trespassing.”  Now I know that until I am called upon, I have no business crossing that boundary.  Even when called upon, I must be cautious about how much I can take on and what I can reasonably do.  I was vulnerable with my brother because I love him.  But, to love him well, I must love myself first.  Being my brother’s keeper does not qualify in either case.      

Bev Hitchins © 2011

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