Go to support groups. Sit in circles and think about how much you fucking hate support groups. Listen to people cry for their own ill family members. Feel your chest tighten with anger toward them, toward their raw displays of sadness, their easy tears. Fantasize about screaming, one long, terrifying scream like your brother’s screams, the ones that summon cops and ambulances and nervous neighbors who pretend to be working inside their garages, who pretend they did not hear.
Find someone to fix. Someone whose ailment is sexier and less scary than schizophrenia — alcoholism, maybe, or drug addiction. Make that person the center of your life. Make him the axis from which you spin. Listen to him talk for hours about the cruel hand God dealt him. Tell yourself all he needs is the right kind of love. Talk to your friends about his potential. Encourage his creative aspirations while neglecting your own. Stand close to the stage at his shows and scream like a teenager when he performs with the band whose music you can’t stand. Spend the night with him in his dark and dirty apartment and don’t mind too much when he throws up on your clothes. Introduce him to an array of alternative solutions — cleanses, acupuncture, Reiki, Ayurveda, mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation, past life regression, crystals, psychic readings, tarot cards, scientology. Don’t get discouraged when he leaves you for trying too hard. You can always find someone else.
Don’t learn about the injustices of your country’s mental health care system. Don’t curse Reagan for closing all the psychiatric hospitals back in the 1980s. Don’t get angry when institutions shut down and services disappear from lack of funding. Don’t get upset at facilities that don’t accept Medicaid or private insurance, that charge 8000 dollars a month. Don’t feel outraged when your brother goes to jail for making people uncomfortable. Don’t think about all the people suffering from mental illness behind bars. Think, at least they’re not on the streets.
Find religion. Choose a practice that’s secular enough not to alienate your agnostic and atheist friends — Buddhism, maybe, or Sufism. Become a Dervish. Shave your head. Wear yoga pants like they’re just pants. Give away your most prized possessions and spend hours meditating in temples in Northern California. Get a tattoo of Chinese characters on the back of your neck and roll your eyes at friends who tell you that’s so 1997. Replace the constant talk of your brother with constant talk of Buddhist principles. Sprinkle your conversations with phrases like “spiritual materialism” and “the first noble truth.” Post quotes by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama on your Facebook page. Make memes of these quotes with pictures of sunsets and kittens in the background and send them to your friends. Tell yourself all suffering stems from attachment. All you have to do is stay detached.
Don’t let yourself become too successful. Abandon your old career goals for an underpaid job you don’t love and work hard enough for your boss to recommend you for a promotion. Thank your boss graciously for noticing your efforts. Quit the next day.
Drink a lot. Go alone to neighborhood bars where nobody knows your name. Sit at the bar nursing a glass of whiskey and pretend to read a book so that no one talks to you. Stare at the words while trying not to think about your brother sitting alone in his room, reading physics and chemistry textbooks in search of a scientific formula that will fix his brain. Don’t think about the pages of formulas he has written himself, the webs of numbers and letters that don’t make any sense. Keep drinking until the alcohol swells your sadness and then numbs you. Go home with strangers who make you feel like a stranger. Let them touch your body until you are nothing more than a body, just a collection of interlocking parts like a machine.
Move at least once every two years. Don’t get too settled in any one place. Stroll through “revitalized” downtowns where no one has seen your brother talking to himself on the streets. Read local papers that have never published news reports of your brother’s psychotic break. Make friends who’ve never met your family. Tell them you’re an only child. Find landscapes that don’t remind you of your childhood or the times when he was well. Find landscapes empty enough to swallow all of your thoughts — to spit them out like stars.
Visit your brother at the mental hospital. Sit across from him at a dirty plastic table while nurses watch you. Don’t stare at his left hand, the one that always trembles as a side effect of his antipsychotic medications. Listen intently as your brother talks about his latest scientific theory using words you don’t understand. Keep your conversation topics light. Tell him about the large urban bat colony that lives in Texas. Tell him funny stories about your cat. Don’t tell him about the nights you wake up in a cold sweat from dreams of him or how often his absence sears you with the pain of a missing limb. Don’t tell him that ever since he fell ill you’ve felt as if the truest part of you has been stolen, that what you are now is a lie. Leave promptly at the end of visiting hours and don’t take it personally when he refuses to hug you. Don’t look uncomfortable when other patients stand too close to you and stare with a medicated gaze. Don’t think about the patients who no one ever visits. Don’t look through the open door at the empty twin bed on your way out of the ward. Tell yourself, “He’s one of the lucky ones.” Don’t tell yourself, “It should have been me.”
Dena Afrasiabi's fiction has appeared in JMWW, Prick of the Spindle, Weave Magazine and the anthology Tremors: New Fiction by Iranian American Writers among others. She has an MFA from Rutgers-Newark University and is currently a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern Languages & Cultures at the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in Austin, TX and co-edits the journal Elsewhere Lit with poet Nandini Dhar.