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.