What if a couple you loved, two people you were close to, people you loved and respected, chose to remain in an extremely difficult (at times physically harmful) relationship … for over a decade?
You’d probably think they were crazy. You’d likely imagine that they were in deep, dangerous denial. But if you did make those judgments, you’d be doing so without knowing the whole story.
But OK, I admit it: I’m still tempted to make those judgments, even though I do know more of the story.
As it happens, I’m talking about my parents, but the relationship in question isn’t their marriage. It’s their relationship with my younger brother, Willie.
My parents have chosen to love, support, and walk with my brother in the midst of some very challenging behaviors. On bad days, I think that we, as a family, can’t possibly bear these behaviors a moment longer. On better days, I see that we are all being given a crash course in unconditional love.
The Story Begins
My younger brother Willie has autism, and I love him dearly. He’s my only sibling, and aside from the usual sibling squabbles, we enjoyed each other’s company growing up.
But everything changed when Willie became a teenager. During those years, Willie started struggling with self-injurious and aggressive behavior, and it’s a struggle that continues to this day.
Understand: Willie is an incredibly smart, kind, hilarious young man, and I’m proud to be his sister. (In fact, my website, A Wish Come Clear, takes its name from a phrase he coined!) But when Willie has ‘meltdowns’, he doesn’t seem to be able to control his behavior.
For reasons that my parents and I don’t fully comprehend, he flies off the handle on a semi-regular basis, hurting himself and us. He always apologizes and feels awful afterward, but that remorse, alas, isn’t stronger than whatever is driving the behavior.
When I was a teenager, I was fearful and ashamed of my brother. I didn’t want to invite friends over to our house; I didn’t want to acknowledge that these things were happening in my family.
As an adult, then, I can empathize with people who are afraid to tell the truth about their eating disorders or abuse or addiction — it can be so, so difficult to break the silence and share the real story of what goes on at home. And yet it’s so, so vital that we do tell our truths to compassionate listeners.
It was only when I took the risk of inviting my best friends over to our house — only when I started writing stories about my brother and sharing them with the world — that my healing began.
Truth Be Told
But the fact is, some days go better than others. And I struggle to manage my emotions when my brother engages in self-destructive and aggressive behavior.
For example, recently I heard the news that my brother had had an outburst in which he hurt himself and our mother too. I never get ‘used’ to hearing this; it hurts, every time.
When I heard this latest news, I went through a period of deep sadness and anger. Through tears, I said the simplest, most desperate of prayers, “Help. Please help.”
When Help Arrives
And once again, I have received help – not the help I wanted, but the help I needed. This help came in the form of encouragement from friends, writing, and reading Tess’s most recent post (which reminded me to live fully and practice forgiveness NOW, not ‘someday’).
And this help also came in the form of an important realization: I cannot change Willie’s behavior. (I keep forgetting this; perhaps I need to put a Post-It note on the fridge to remind me.)
True, I can support our parents in finding helpful therapies, protocols, and treatments, but I cannot effect change in my brother. That is out of my control — it always has been, and always will be.
However, I can choose my own thoughts and behaviors. I can choose to see how holding on to anger depletes me; I can choose to forgive and be a person of peace.
Vast quantities of good books, yoga classes, and talks with friends have all helped, as has this truth: We can choose our own interpretation of the challenges we face. For my part, I choose to believe that none of my family’s pain is meaningless.
I choose to believe that, in the end, love will win out over fear. And in the meantime, I keep my eyes open for the occasional, beautiful glimpses I get that love is, indeed, taking the lead.
Caroline McGraw is a would-be childhood paleontologist turned storyteller, digging for treasure in people with autism and intellectual disabilities (and empowering caregivers to do the same). Caroline writes about loving and caring for people with special needs at A Wish Come Clear, where she invites you to visit her and receive your complimentary copy of her digital book, Your Creed of Care: How to Dig for Treasure in People (Without Getting Buried Alive).