By Jill Rothwell – Collegiate Staff

It was our family’s secret, or so I I thought growing up. It didn’t seem possible other families could be dealing with such ambiguity. Not everyone knew I had an older brother. Unless you were a part of my inner circle, it didn’t come up. That was my secret, my way of shutting it out.

With the passing of my parents, I have become my older brother’s caretaker, acting health care representative and power of attorney. I’m not exactly sure when Charles was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder because my parents shielded me from most of his problems. Right or wrong, they were doing what they believed to be the best for us as a family unit.

I presume his formal diagnosis was only a few years ago but went undiagnosed for most of his life. Unless you were a witness to his outbursts and later the alcohol or self-medicated altered states, it wasn’t purely discernible.

At seven years old, my parents gave me a beautiful, pink heart-shaped birthstone ring, necklace and bracelet set. Of course it was costume jewelry, but I loved it nonetheless. My earliest, strongest memory of my relationship with my brother is of him destroying the jewelry with a hammer. It’s how I would define our relationship the majority of my life, mostly broken. It was an unpredictable, underlying fear, not knowing what he could or might do if I were to make him angry.

A few weeks ago I was sifting through an old jewelry box and found a few pieces of the set. It took my breath away. Why had I held onto them? My mind raced with questions, trying to calculate how long ago it happened, how many states I had moved with them – was I still holding a grudge?

I’ve lost count of how many years my brother has spent in prison for alcohol-related offenses, each considered a felony now. It would be easy to calculate by looking at holiday photographs.

He’s not in most of them.

My parents were progressive in their approach with him from a young age, taking him to doctors, therapists, hiring tutors, yet nothing seemed to change his behavior. Even doctors agree there is likely not one cause for bipolar disorder or method of treatment, more that it is a progressive disease.

His manipulative behavior divided our family. Living in Chicago, starting my career after college, I would see snippets of his inconsistent behavior when visiting my parents. It was obvious to me he was using pain meds to get high. Because the opioids were a prescription, my parents couldn’t understand why he shouldn’t have them.

We were three hours away in Michigan at our new home when I received a call from my dad in July 2013. My brother was at his house acting erratically, non-cooperative and slurring his words. The choice was clear – call the police. They took him away to the hospital for a welfare check where he was given Narcan (Naloxone), a drug that reverses opioid overdoses.

It has taken almost two years, but after a ridiculous number of phone calls and documentation he is flagged as a pain med abuser and will longer be given the narcotics by a doctor according to a new state law in Indiana. As he is an addict, I know he will find drugs. I’ve only eliminated one source.

I find myself having to explain that I’m not making excuses for his repetitive behavior, rather he has an illness. If he were diagnosed with a life-threatening disease I imagine there would be an outpouring of support. My understanding from reading articles is that there is not necessarily a cure for bipolar disorder. Addictions are often associated with the disease.

Non-violent offenders are encouraged to take courses that make the assumption upon completion the person is fully functioning and ready to return to society after prison life. Charles has sailed through these courses yet continues to re-offend. His first DUI was in 1979 – since then there have been eight prison terms with seventeen arrests. One of his counselors recently told me it’s not likely he will ever live on his own. Why then, with a record like this would he ever be released to live independently?

I hear politicians speak to releasing non-violent offenders, that we have too many in our prisons and that these courses should solve some of the problem reintegrating offenders. I agree the prison population is staggering though we are not addressing the real needs of this demographic. Rather than a blanket sweep, releasing people to the streets without any support, there needs to be a better mental health assessment. Facilities to treat individuals no longer exist, instead we end up warehousing them in prisons when they re-offend.

I often wonder if a number of the buildings (prisons) could be adapted to become mental health facilities for treatment rather than incarceration. To decrease our numbers in prison is a great political sound bite, another broad stroke simplifying a much larger problem in our society.

It’s a natural progression, to be a caretaker for your parents. I was blessed in my relationship with my parents even though we struggled with differences on how to care for my brother. Navigating their health care and end-of-life needs was in itself a debilitating experience. Making decisions for an estranged sibling has been equally difficult, maybe even more so.

The traverse of social security disability and food stamp benefits, collection agencies, medical bills and maintaining a property while Charles has been in jail has taken it’s toll on my psyche. I’m gaining on my ‘education’, compartmentalizing the subjects one by one.

Charles asked if he could live with my husband John and I upon his release. Given our history, it is a completely unrealistic consideration. His network is in Fort Wayne (doctors, social workers, a welcoming facility). I have no guilt about not inviting him to live with us. I will not allow him to inflict the emotional pain on my family that I endured as a kid. I promised my dad before he passed I would help my brother as much as he would allow me to. I believe I am fulfilling that promise.

On the cusp of being released from jail in December for his latest alcohol-related offense, at 57 years old Charles has voluntarily agreed to live at a veterans group home. Because of his service, he’s eligible to stay in the facility up to two years providing he doesn’t violate the rules by using drugs or alcohol. As much as I hope this time Charles will make it on his own, my rational mind knows it’s only a matter of time before he’s back in jail or something worse happens.