THIS ( GOLDEN) LIFE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - ARIANNE O’CON­NELL

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.

Golden.

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au

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