The other brother: Experiencing life as a “well-sibling”

“Come on guys, we’re going to be late for our reservations,” Nancy Erdlen yelled to her four boys as she searched frantically for her purse.

Shoving each other, Tim, Matt, Mike and John, ages 7, 8, 9 and 10, came running down the stairs and into the living room.

Nancy stared at Matt impatiently.

“Why don’t you have on your socks and shoes Matty,” she asked. “We’re going to be late.”

Matt reluctantly hurried over to the front door where his socks and shoes were and took a seat on the stairs. He peered down at the socks for a moment and then at his feet. He paused and as he took a deep inhale, he slid the left sock on—a success. Now it was time for the hard part. As the top of the right sock reached around his ankle, he collapsed to the ground and began to scream.

“Are you kidding me?” bellowed John as he stomped up the stairs. “Can we have one normal, peaceful day in this house? All I want to do is eat.”

Mike followed him, attempting to calm him down so he would not further upset Matt, but was unsuccessful.

John slammed the door to his bedroom. Everyone in the house could still hear him cussing and screaming. And then suddenly there was a loud bang—the sound of him putting yet another hole through his wall.

Nancy, with a look of exhaustion and disappointment in her eyes, rushed to comfort Matt. She wrapped him in her arms and held him there for almost two hours before he began to calm down. This would be the second time they would have to cancel dinner reservations that week.

For the Erdlen household in Windham, New Hampshire, a night like this was a pretty regular occurrence. This is because John and Matt both suffer from a SMI, or serious mental illness. They, along with six percent of the U.S. population, fall under this classification that includes major depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Both diagnosed at an early age, John struggles with bipolar disorder, an illness characterized by debilitating highs and lows, while Matt suffers from a combination of bipolar disorder and sensory integration dysfunction, a condition where the brain has trouble interpreting and responding to information that it receives through the senses, causing essentially a sensory overload.

While the effects of mental illness have been well researched and documented, little has been said about the siblings of the mentally ill. The sad reality for many of those who have a sibling that suffers from a mental illness is that they are left feeling a pressure to be normal—a phenomena called the well-sibling syndrome.

Mike Erdlen, who is now 24, is no exception.

“I am not a very openly emotional person and never have been,” he explained sternly. “I’m close to the opposite of how they are. I am extremely closed-off because they were open faucets all the time. I never wanted to deal with it and didn’t want to add to the stress so I just found it easier to internalize how I felt.”

From as early as Mike can remember, John and Matt have struggled with their illnesses—Matt’s episodes happening almost daily.

“We would go out and literally buy socks without seams so we could go out and do the thing we had planned for later that day,” he explained, chuckling at how extreme it must of sounded. “Typically, that still wouldn’t work. He would just fall to the floor and lay there for hours. If he put anything with a seam on, it could happen and it did almost daily.”

As Mike made his way to the kitchen to grab a beer from the fridge, he recalled the most recent episode he experienced with John when they were living together at the University of New Hampshire five years ago.

“We had just gotten off a double from work and we were arguing over rent, bills, the house being dirty—just typical daily things,” he said as he took a long sip of his beer. “We were just sitting there talking and he was standing across from me and all of a sudden his eyes just lit up with flames and he punched me right in the face.”

Growing up in this environment often made it difficult for Mike to express his own problems to his parents. With the nearly constant heightened tension in the air and the looming fear of setting one of his brother’s temper’s off, he typically kept to himself.

“I always felt like I had to walk on eggshells,” he said while glancing down at his fingers. “It would be a lie to say that I never felt like my problems were less important in comparison to theirs, but my parents did the best they could. Their needs definitely came first though.”

This feeling is not unique to Mike as psychologist Diane Marsh explains in her book, Troubled Journey.

“As hard as parents may try, and they do, to meet the needs of their well siblings, time and energy are simply finite,” Marsh told NPR. “And so siblings often feel like the forgotten family members. Everyone else’s problems are more important than theirs.”

Although Mike felt that his life was trivialized at times because of his brother’s ailments, he always tried to be as supportive as possible. With the pressure of four boys alone combined with the challenge of two mentally ill children, in Mike’s eyes, his parents did all that they could do.   

“It definitely became unbearable at times,” he explained somberly. “There were some points where it would either be the fifth or sixth hour in a row, or the fifth day in a row where we couldn’t leave the house and I was over it. But it was always understandable. There was never a time I really felt neglected on purpose.”

As understanding as he may be, Mike acknowledges the fact that who he has become as a person has been heavily shaped by his experiences growing up with Matt and John, using adjectives like introverted, weird and passive to describe himself.

“I think with how over the top both of them were, I just don’t experience extreme emotions,” he said as the ends of his mouth curled into a slight frown. “I don’t think I have ever experienced anxiety. I rarely, if ever panic. It’s definitely taken a tole on my capacity for emotions and being able to talk openly about it.”

Unfortunately for well-siblings like Mike, this kind of desensitization is very common. Marsh’s co-author Rex Dickens, who himself is the brother of three mentally-ill siblings, explained that brothers and sisters of the mentally ill often become “frozen souls” over time.

“You sort of shut down, emotionally, in part of your life, and that carries over to other areas,” Dickens told NPR.

To the outsider, Mike’s experience growing up may seem like a burden, but to him and his family it has created an opportunity over time to become closer—and based on research he’s right. According to Marsh, there is evidence of stronger family bonds and commitment within families that have one or more mentally ill children.

“I think going through all of that together made us able to be completely comfortable around each other because we’ve seen the true colors. I would argue that we have one of the closest families that I know, even though half of us are crazy. Well maybe all of us,” he laughed to himself.

Millennials distressed over state of the world

Pessimism is plaguing millennials across the globe, according to Deloitte’s 2017 Millennial Survey.

According to the survey that polled 8,000 adults from 30 different countries born after 1982, millennials overall are worried about the future of their countries and are concerned about topics of terrorism, economics, war and political tensions.

In mature markets, only 34 percent of those surveyed expect economic conditions to improve over the next year and only 36 percent predict the same for social and political situations within their countries.

After a year of political, economic and social upheaval, it is no surprise that young adults are feeling troubled. In fact, when asked by researchers to think about the state of the world in general, respondents in only 11 of the 30 countries predicted that they would be “happier” than their parents.

Ironically, one of those 11 countries is the United States.

Dr. Andrea Bergstrom, a lecturer in the Communication, Media and Culture Department at Coastal Carolina University, said that this could be due to an overarching sense of entitlement that exists among the youth in America.

“In terms of mental preparation, I don’t think younger generations are in any way prepared,” said Bergstrom. “They have always been told that if you work hard and you do what you’re supposed to do, then your life will be great—the American Dream. You’ll have your house and your 2.5 kids and your fence and all that crap, but that is also, I would argue, a kind of privileged way of thinking to begin with…They haven’t been prepared for the possibility that their lives may not be better than their parents.”

Although young adults in the U.S. may not feel as distressed as those in other mature markets, Bergstrom argues that there is reason to be concerned.

“You have been told your whole life that you’re going to be able to do this, and you’re going to achieve that, and your life is going to be great and everything is better for each generation,” said Bergstrom. “This is the first generation in memorable recent history that that’s not going to be the case.”

Millennials, having lived through the 2008 economic meltdown, are increasingly worried about the job market. Because of this, young adults, who statistically prefer the advantages of working as freelancers or consultants, are now seeking full-time employment.

According to the survey, two-thirds of respondents said they would prefer a stable, full-time job over the flexibility of freelancing.

Bergstrom said that with the recent economic past, it makes sense that students are seeking full-time employment.

“I think particularly with the recent unstable economic past, I think students have seen a lot of their parents have financial hardships that they hadn’t seen before or anticipated when they were younger,” said Bersgtom. “And I think that is an important realistic shift. I’m not saying people shouldn’t try to be entrepreneurs. I think that’s great. But, you really can’t have it both ways.”

Senior Lindsey Hanks echoed the results of the survey. 

“I would much rather have a full-time career and job security than ‘job-hop,’” said Hanks. “I don’t want to have to constantly be worried about keeping my job or looking for a new one, or worried about money and having enough of it.”

While unemployment and economic issues are serious concerns among millennials, according to the survey, terrorism is the number one worry. Collectively, 56 percent of respondents cited war, terrorism and political tension to be their top concern.

What is particularly interesting is that in 2014 the results showed that only 15 percent identified terrorism as one of the world’s prominent challenges, while a majority considered the environment and resource scarcity to be the top concern.

Senior TJ Kilbride explained that this is troubling to him.

“Most millennials are afraid of terrorism more so than environmental issues, which is very concerning to me,” said Kilbride. “But what is even more concerning is that millennials are more concerned with terrorism than unemployment. That really worries me because that may lead people to not really think about what might happen if there is something that makes them lose their job. These are things that we should really be focusing on and less on what the media is trying to make us focus on.”

Despite the overall feeling of negativity among millennials, the survey states that young adults are the ones who incite the most change, especially within the working world. This is due to the fact that millennials are better with technology and more creative than their counterparts.

“The Millennials covered by the survey are not mere observers; increasingly and collectively, they have the potential to change the world around them,” the study states. “This is especially true within the workplace—once again, business has the potential to be a force for positive change that shines through as a core belief of the Millennial generation.”

Similar to the survey respondents, Hanks believes that millennials were raised to be more creative and technologically savvy.

“I think people in our generation were encouraged early on to be creative, instead of having our dreams or creativity stifled,” said Hanks. “We also never grew up without technology, so we’re able to grasp concepts about computers, smart phones, devices, and the internet, a lot quicker than others.

While statistically millennials are more capable in these aspects, it is concerning to some that many young adults expect to be successful without putting in the time and effort needed.

Bergstrom explained that it is going to take more than these skills to pay the bills.

“I think that there is a huge tech savvy that is more innate if you’ve grown up with it,” said Bergstrom. “And I do think there is a lot of creativity. I think being able to meld those two things leads to a lot of opportunities once you’re in the door…There are some that just want to skate through whatever this experience this is and think on the other side that things are going to be great. That’s the piece of it that concerns me. But I think there’s a lot of opportunity for people who want to put their head down and work for it.”

College students: To eat or not to eat?

As if getting a degree was not difficult enough already, recent studies show that as the price of college increases, so does the rate of hunger and homelessness among college students in the United States.

Coordinator of Civic Engagement at Coastal Carolina University Elaine Giles explained that because of this, many students are being faced with an impossible decision.

“I think folks often have to make the choice of, do I use my financial aid money or do I use scholarships or loans to pay for books, to pay for my tuition or do I use that for living expenses,” said Giles. “I think sometimes, unfortunately, students have to make that difficult decision of, should I do well academically or do I eat today?”

The average cost of tuition at a four-year university has more than doubled in the last 30 years, increasing from a yearly tuition of $8,238 to $18,632, according to The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

With the constantly climbing costs combined with the decreasing amount of coverage from Pell grants, which were first implemented in the 1970s to aid low-income students in paying for college, it is no surprise that food and house insecurity among students continues to be a detrimental problem.

In fact, when they were first introduced, Pell grants covered 75 percent of college costs. Today, they cover a measly 30 percent. Additionally, two-thirds of current recipients grew up in households that fall below 150 percent of the federal poverty line.

A study by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness surveyed 3765 students in 34 different institutions across 12 states in October 2016. The study found that 48 percent of students reported experiencing food insecurity in the previous 30 days, 22 percent of those qualifying as hungry.

Unfortunately, those students who experience food insecurity also often experience housing insecurity.

Of those 1800 students that reported experiencing food insecurity, 64 percent also reported experiencing housing insecurity, with 15 percent reporting experiencing “some form of homelessness in the past 12 months.”

These outside factors tend to weigh heavily on the success of low-income college students. In fact, the NCES found that only 14 percent of students from the bottom 20 percent of household incomes completed a bachelor’s degree or higher within eight years of graduation.

In response to the growing number of food insecure students, universities and colleges across America are beginning to offer food pantries and other resources.

Coastal Carolina University is no exception.

The CINO Pantry was first established in the fall of 2012 by an FYE class and, at the time, was housed in UP. Unfortunately, according to Giles, after the students graduated it became dormant.

In the fall of 2015, the pantry reopened in the Lib Jackson Student Union and remains there today.

“When I heard they were transitioning, there were still students that would seek out the CINO pantry for those resources,” said Giles.

Free to all students, faculty and staff, the pantry is open Monday through Friday.

Giles explained that all are welcome to stop by at any time. The process is simple.

“Students, faculty and staff can come in and say, ‘I’d like to visit the pantry,’” said Giles. “We get the visitors to fill out a form just explaining the CINO Pantry and recognizing that there is a risk. It’s a liability waiver. Then, they go in and take what they need. When they’re done, they just let us know that they finished up in the pantry. They can come visit as much and as often as they’d like.”

The CINO pantry is not going un-utilized. In the fall of 2016, Giles said that 34 students visited the pantry. She added that there are likely other students who needed the services, but did not know that Coastal offered them or were unaware of where they were located.

During homecoming week, Coastal holds a can drive event called Can-struct. Giles explained that it is these donations that supply the majority of goods in the pantry.

“We have a lot of canned vegetables and canned fruit and canned soup,” said Giles. “A lot of that comes comes from the Coastal Can-struct event that happens during homecoming week. We’re actually still going off of Can-struct donations from 2015.”

Currently, the pantry only accepts shelf stable food such as cereal, protein bars, pasta, shelf stable milk and meats. In the future, Giles hopes to have the resources that are able to accommodate for other goods.

“One day I would love to see the pantry expanded to where we have a fridge and can take other things or we have a community garden and can actually do fresh produce,” said Giles. “I think that would be really cool, knowing that what our pantry has now isn’t really high in nutritional value.”

If you would like to donate goods to the pantry, Giles explained that it is best to contact her first to make sure they have room. Her email is egiles@coastal.edu.

There are also opportunities to donate to the local food pantries, such as Catholic Charities located directly across from University Suites.