When you suffer from mental illness, you don’t suffer alone. The nature of the condition takes a huge toll on family members as well. Here, one lady talks about how she and her parents dealt with the discovery that her brother is bipolar.
It was on my birthday, at exactly 6:00pm on the 18th of November, 1990 when the phone rang. I picked it up eagerly as I was waiting for my brother Saam to call from his college in the US and wish me. Instead it was the dean of the college on the line wanting to speak with my father. I was confused and scared. I didn’t know what the dean said but all I saw was my father holding his head and looking down as tears rolled down his face.
It was an image and a day that I will never forget. It was the day all our lives changed forever. Only now, over 20 years later, have I found the courage to write and tell you what my brother and family went through all these years.
My father told us Saam had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and quickly arranged for a ticket and flew off to be by his side. We had never heard of anything like this before and couldn’t understand what was going on. The two days my mother and I spent waiting for our father to call were probably the worst of our lives. When the phone finally rang, we learned that Saam had been admitted in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. Much later he told me he would never forget the way my brother looked that day.
Saam had been in the US for only three months before this episode took place. The doctors said it could have been culture shock, an emotional trigger, or a genetic predisposition that led to his condition. Or it could have been all three. While the dean asked us to let Saam undergo treatment in the US, my father just wanted him to come back home and get treatment in Karachi.
My Khaloo took us to the airport the day they arrived. My mother and I waited eagerly at the arrival lounge and finally Saam came out. We hugged and cried as we didn’t know what to expect but at the same time were so relieved that he was back home with us.
Saam went to several doctors until we finally settled on treatment by one of the most reputed doctors in the field. Unfortunately, the treatment was based almost solely on medication and simply wasn’t effective. Saam didn’t get better and would find it hard to control his reactions, and would swing from being highly excited to being severely depressed. More and more, he was given sedatives to control these swings. And we suffered along with him; not a single day passed when my father would not fight with him at the dinner table, trying to stop him from overeating. I started to prefer staying hungry than sitting at the table with them.
Then came another blow: my father was diagnosed with cancer. So now we not only had Saam to deal with but my father as well. Then began the extensive rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and we were forced to constantly remind Saam that he wasn’t the only one suffering, that our father was fighting for his life.
Saam began treatment at one of the most reputed hospitals in Pakistan, but once again, the only solution they offered was medication. Despite his own illness, my father made sure Saam completed his studies and got a degree so that he would be able to make something of his life.
Those years were a rollercoaster ride. Saam was in and out of hospitals. He was made a guinea pig with different medications being tried on him by different doctors. It was tough, but he fought on against all odds.
Then, on 18th September, 2004, my father lost his battle with cancer. He had fought his own disease with great courage and a positive attitude but in the end it got the better of him. May Allah rest his soul in peace, Ameen.
When it came to Saam’s own condition however, I feel my father never really accepted it. It was left to my mother to hold us all together and it was she who was the pillar of strength in our lives. Sadly, she suffered a stroke three years ago, and then we were truly left on our own.
This is when my Khala pointed us towards a local rehabilitation center. It was the best thing that had happened to us ever since the day we got the phone call from Saam’s Dean, all those years ago.
Finally, we were told that the cause was a chemical imbalance in the brain, that it was a condition that had to be managed.
More importantly, we learned that managing this condition is not just about medication but requires extensive therapy, in which exercise and walking are very important factors. We were told that Churchill, Einstein and Ted Turner, despite having bipolar disorder went on to achieve great heights and become icons for the world at large.
At first it was very hard to convince Saam to go there but now he thanks his stars that he did. He has now managed to get some of his old life back, and to live as normally as possible.
He still has bad days, but is now able to manage his condition on his own without relying on medication. He has now been working for Adamjee Insurance for the last 10 years…a firm that has given him 100% support through his illness.
What the rehab has taught us is that Saam’s condition is nothing to be ashamed of or to hide from the rest of the world. We learned that what we need to do is to create awareness and thus help others who might be going through the same problem.
I take my hat off to Saam for surviving all he has been through. I have heard of many people who have lost their lives without family support or correct treatment. Helping someone with bipolar disorder is easier said than done, it’s tough on his family and his loved ones, but that’s nothing compared to what the person himself goes through.
As Astrid Alauda said: “There’s no other love like the love for a brother. There’s no other love like the love from a brother.”
Saam, I am proud to be your sister and may Allah always give you the very best of health and happiness always. Ameen.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 4th, 2012.