I have come a long way in how I talk with my brother, who deals with depression and much worse than that at various points of his life. In high school, I saw it as my job to be his fixer. He was in his mid 20s, without a job, not in school, and still living at home without direction. He spent a lot of days just playing online MMORPGs like Path of Exile all day. My parents constantly gave him job brochures and advice on what he could do to get his life together. My dad would ask him why in the world, at 24, he needed so much medication when he was young and physically healthy. He would tell my brother that everyone has depression and that it was no excuse to not get his life together.
For his mental health struggles, I would suggest solutions from my psychology class on how to fix his depressions. In high school, I saw it as my job to be his fixer.
Oh, how naive I was to think that the latest psychological concept I learned in AP Psychology could fix my mental health problems. No, understanding classical conditioning isn’t going to make you Superman.
I started, midway through college, to work on my college suicide and mental health peer support hotline, and the advice I gave was lesson number one of what not to do. It was jarring to me at the time — I wanted to help people and talk people out of suicidal ideation, and I wasn’t supposed to tell them what to do?
Well, no I wasn’t. I learned the role of simply listening and not giving advice, which is, most of the time, so much more valuable. It’s no secret that everyone seems to have an opinion on how everyone else should live their lives and deal with their problems. To have someone not take a personal stake in fixing your life felt liberating to so many of our callers.
Anyway, I recently read an article from Jim Moffatt, chairman and chief executive at Deloitte. He introduced his article by confronting the question of what he wished he’d done differently when he was a parent by a colleague. Another colleague interjected, and said the following that resonated with Moffatt:
“I wish I had let my kids fail more.”
As a parent, Moffatt acknowledged that he tried to protect his kids too much and keep them from failures and disappointments. He always wanted to jump in to help them and coached their baseball and soccer teams and attended all their school events. When his kids failed in various ways, like striking out in baseball, he said:
“Like any parent, I instinctively wanted to catch them. Stop them from making a mistake.”
I think a lot about my brother, who ostensibly hasn’t done as well as I have. My parents have hounded him about getting a job, doing good in school, and getting his life together. He has heard from our whole family about everything he’s doing wrong and what a disappointment he is.
I have seen my parents sob, to his face, about how they failed in parenting him because of where he’s ended up so far. He’s almost 30, and I’m 23, and my parents so often say to him, “don’t you see how your brother, Ryan, works? Why can’t you be more like him?” They also have put various twists on that line, but they all are different ways of saying, “why are you such a failure? Why can’t you be more like your younger brother?”
A couple weeks ago, I read Jessica Wildfire’s piece about her younger brother, titled “Take Advice From Losers. They Know More Than You Think.” Jessica talks about her younger brother who is deemed much less of a success than she is — he didn’t go to college, plays video games a lot, only had one relationship, and was single in his 30s.
But she learned a lot from him. Jessica’s brother was more prepared for failure and happier than she was, and was more in touch with the real world than she was.
“But now he’s the one with all the advantages,” Jessica writes. “The world that judged him is now imploding. They’re scared and scrambling. My brother isn’t. Neither should you.”
I don’t think my brother is a loser, even if a lot of my family and the world does. In fact, he’s more resilient than anyone gives him credit for. He moved to the United States at seven-years-old, had to learn a whole new language while being bullied, had to deal with moving every single year of his childhood, and dealt with my parents’ divorce and conflict first-hand, much more than me.
No one sees the story of all my brother’s hardships more than me. He and I communicate more than we do with our parents, and our parents, as loving as they are, just don’t get what it was like to grow up like we did. They didn’t understand growing up as the only Asian kids in school that struggled to learn English when we were young. They don’t understand how painful it was to have such lofty expectations all the time with very little grace when we failed. They didn’t understand the constraints of growing up in an Asian-American family that prioritized status and appearances above love — and these are things that my brother and I did.
To think I’m more successful than my brother, smarter than my brother, kinder than my brother, or more resilient than my brother is a lie. And yet I’ve thought those things when I was less mature. Just because the world and my family dictate my contribution as more than my older brother doesn’t mean that I am worth more— we are brothers, and we are in this together much more than we’re meant to be ranked against each other.
I learned a lot from him and his struggles, because above all, my brother is a survivor, and he is much more of a survivor than I will ever be.
I disapproved of my brother’s abrasive language about our mom when he called me today. I disapprove of 90% of his life decisions, and yet I hold my tongue in a way I would never have in the past. It’s his life, not mine. It’s not my job to save him like I felt in high school.
It would, in fact, just be exhausting to feel like I have to save someone since I have quite enough problems myself. But I realized today that most of the time, you just have to let people go through things. I have helped my brother during emergencies where the family has had to intervene, but that intervention has often come at unwelcome times, where he has felt singled out, berated, and unloved. The best thing I can do is support him and listen unless he directly asks for my opinion and advice.
I love my brother. I want to support my brother. But I also have enough going on right now — and setting boundaries meant leaving the call today at five minutes and not letting myself be the soundboard today for him to complain to. Not feeling the need to fix him has been good for him, as well as me. Instead of interjecting, intervening, and trying to fix, letting him go through life on his own, through the struggles and triumphs, has been good for my whole family.
My brother has lived through chaos better than me. He has survived chaos more than me, and he has shown me that the best thing you can do is to let go, listen, and show unconditional love instead of trying to fix.
Originally published on Invisible Illness on August 23, 2020.