Brandy Jensen, The Outline’s Power editor, has made a lot of mistakes in her life. Has she learned from them and become a wiser person as a result? Hahaha oh gosh no. But it does leave her uniquely qualified to tell you what not to do — because she’s probably done it.
My brother and I have never been particularly close. There is a decent age gap between us — I am in my early 20s and he turns 30 this year. When we were younger, we had a typical younger brother-older brother relationship. I’d annoy the shit out of him and he’d beat the crap out of me. Since we have grown older, however, it seems that we have plenty in common. We both like the same kinds of movies, TV shows, and our politics align. We talk infrequently, but when we do, the conversation is always engaging.
For all of my brother’s adult life (and going back to his late teenage years) he has dealt with severe anxiety and depression. He still lives with our parents, and dropped out of college in his early 20s during a particularly dark time in his life. (I have also dealt with anxiety and depression; it’s very common in our family). He spends a lot of time alone. All of his friends have moved away to pursue lucrative careers in their respective fields. I see him maybe once a month.
I badly want to be there for him. I know he doesn’t have any obligation to me to open up about his mental health, but I carry an immense amount of guilt about watching him go through these things and at best being a passive observer. I love and respect him immensely; he is incredibly smart, kind, and funny. I have told him that I love him exactly once in my life, over text message while I was drunk. I told him that I was sorry for being such a shitty brother, that I loved him even though I had never said it, and he told me the same. We have not talked about that since. I don’t want to make it sound like I am trying to make his mental illness about me, I just want him to be happy. How do I get past my own sense of guilt and just treat my brother as my brother?
Dear Bad Brother,
I subject myself to a lot of truly awful shit online. Most days I wake up and open Twitter with the express intention of seeking out the dumbest, most objectionable opinions possible in order to get mad about them. When I read this BuzzFeed piece about a children’s YouTube star who made a video of himself pooping on his friend my first thought was “I must find and watch this video immediately.” I read David Brooks columns. On purpose.
But there is one thing I flatly refuse to read about or, if possible, even think about and that is any story that centers on elderly people being lonely. Yes, I am aware that there exists a beautiful and heartwrenching article about Japanese people dying alone. I would sooner claw out my own eyes (I did read the article about the girl who did that, by the way) than learn anything more about it. Contemplating the loneliness and alienation of others does not just make me sad, it leaves me terrified.
The easy explanation has to do with my own strained relationship with my father, and my guilt about not putting in much effort to repair it as he gets older, but if I’m being honest this is also a fate I fear for myself. It is not an irrational fear — Americans, on average, are getting lonelier and this brings with it many deleterious effects to our individual health and the health of society as a whole. And the real mindfuck, I think, is that we are everywhere promised this is not at all what is happening. Our age is supposed to be one of connection. In fact, if there is a problem at all it’s supposed to be that we are too connected. But just as the gig economy promises freedom and delivers neo-feudalism, modern ways of maintaining sociality leave a lot of us wondering if we are the only ones missing out. We imagine we are alone in our loneliness.
Of course, I am projecting a lot onto your brother, whom I do not know and may very well lead a full life that you aren’t seeing. Although the fact that modern life makes it very easy to know a great deal more about the people in our lives and understand them less is perhaps part of what I am talking about. In either case, you want to be closer and that is maybe the best of all good, human instincts we have.
That you don’t know quite how to go about it is something I promise I do take seriously although I must confess that relationships between men are sort of like physics, to me: they structure my reality, often determining what is permissible, and are utterly inscrutable. I am fascinated by the idea that you have told your brother you love him precisely once, while drunk. This is like telling me you have never seen a banana. I believe you, but really???
In any case, I think the way forward is by letting go of your guilt as much as possible, since nobody wants to feel that someone is reaching out to them out of a sense of obligation. You don’t need to begin with a weighty conversation about how terrible you feel, or how sorry you are. A simple “Hey I’m going to be in town next week want to get a drink?” is probably a good start. You can also gently encourage him to open up to you by… opening up to him. During the worst periods of my depression I often find it burdensome when caring, well-meaning people want to talk about me. All I do is lay in bed all day and think about my bad brain; a reprieve from that can be very welcome.
It’s also a nice thing to let someone know you trust them and value their judgment by asking them for advice. In all honesty, writing this column has done wonders for my own mental health. So consider confiding some of your own struggles to your smart, kind, and funny brother.
But however you decide to start, just start. There are countless barriers the world puts up between us — we work too much, and are burdened by financial stress, we receive a steady stream of just enough information to make it seem like we are in touch, the whole way we raise men, the fact that there is some idiot tweeting stupid shit we need to get mad about. I can’t stress enough how much the work of a life is in overcoming these. Close this dumb website and text your brother.
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