THIS ( GOLDEN) LIFE
MY brother was a golden child. Firstborns often are. Along with the honour of being the first of four children, he had blond hair, caramel skin and a temperament like the sun’s rays.
‘‘ People used to stop us in the street because he was so beautiful, so happy,’’ my mother says. ‘‘ He smiled at everyone.’’ She tells the story often, her voice cracking with wonder.
Golden he was. He was a good older brother, made for the role. He took all the hot bath water and subcontracted his pocket money jobs to the rest of us for a tidy profit. We learned about hierarchy. He perched on my bed and protected me from the shadow monsters and wardrobe witches until I was calm enough to sleep. I learned about loyalty.
As the four of us branched towards adolescence, my brother stayed golden.
He was popular, academically able and good at sport, blessed with health and privilege. There were girlfriends and cricket, tennis and parties. Golden years.
In his early 20s, my brother’s glow began to fade. He became violent and aggressive, banging doors and yelling, swearing and throwing things in rage. He socialised frenetically and chemically, ricocheting from pubs to parties, to bars, to nightclubs. He’d stumble home at 6am and get up the next day and do it all over again. His temper grew worse. He frightened me, frightened everyone. He was seeing a psychiatrist, taking drugs, drinking too much, brawling at parties. No one could say what was really wrong.
We struggled on. My sister finished her degree and fled overseas, my other brother headed north to forget.
One night I dreamed my brother called my name. He told me he was broken and begged me to pull him from his life’s mire. I stretched my arm out towards him but I couldn’t reach his hand. My brother was lost to me.
The next day he was hospitalised. His mind was so shattered, he barely recognised us. He was heavily sedated and wheeled around in a chair.
‘‘ Schizophrenia,’’ the doctor said, as if he were offering coffee. ‘‘ A terrible disease. Delusions, paranoia, debilitating mental pain. The worst place a person can be.’’
And so it was. My brother came home from hospital, a stranger with a stiff- legged walk, staring straight ahead as if the corners of the world held some fear for him. He stood in the living room, fragile and shaking, then went to bed for close to a decade.
At the beginning he could hardly speak. He was in and out of hospital: locked wards mostly, terrible places overflowing with the damned. He slowly returned to himself, to us, but he wasn’t quite the same.
Through the years my brother clawed his way forward inch by inch, often stumbling and falling along the way. Friends dropped off, relatives looked on in horror, my family and I gritted our teeth and, heartbroken, carried on.
Today my brother lives independently, has a new group of friends, studies a bit and has a job. He is a mental health advocate, visiting clients in locked wards and hostels and halfway houses. He attends hearings with lawyers and medicos to speak on behalf of those who have lost their voices in the labyrinths of their minds.
My brother is regularly invited to give university lectures and public talks about his journey with schizophrenia and what his life is now. He educates with gentle aplomb.
My brother is a generous person, at peace with fate’s cruel hand. He comes for dinner most Sundays, drops in for a weekly cup of tea. We laugh and joke, and he tells me he’s proud of me. I smile and say he’s a good older brother, made for the role.
thislife@ theaustralian. com. au