A sister’s perspective on mental illness


My mother and her sister had what our family referred to as the “sickness.” Growing up, I did not know what that meant. When I was a teenager, I first heard the term “manic depression.”

My mother’s mood swings had a name.

Many years later, my little sister started acting strangely.

The outgoing, talkative little girl became angry, sad and withdrawn. It was difficult to get a conversation out of her. My parents took her to a psychiatrist who told them she had a “garden variety” sickness that she would probably outgrow.

I am nine years older than my sister. I have always felt protective of her.

When she came home from her first semester of college, her eyes were literally rolling in her head. It became clear to our family that she, too, had a mental illness. But what did that mean?

Would she get better? How should I react when she asked me questions about things that I couldn’t understand?

I didn’t know what I could do.

Life is ever-changing.

My parents passed away young, and my brother and I took over the role of “parenting” my sister.

This was not always an easy task.

She was often mad at me if I didn’t say what she wanted to hear. It seemed like one day my sister took responsibility for what was happening to her.

She started a Jewish support group for “consumers,” which still meets once a month. I hate it when her illness rears its nasty head. I still do not know what to do. I know, though, that even when things are very difficult for her, she will feel better.

Today my sister works for Mental Health America of Eastern Missouri. She gives talks, teaches classes and, is always available to help someone else who is hurting.

She is happily married to a caring husband.

I often think it was just the luck of the draw that, instead of my sister, I did not inherit my mother’s illness.

Despite and because of her mental illness, my sister has found purpose and meaning in her life.

Sybil Fein Stern grew up in St. Louis and currently resides in Northbrook, Illinois


EDITOR’S NOTE: This commentary — and the accompanying piece by Ellen Fein Rosenbaum — are in conjunction with the Jewish Attention to Mental Illness (JAMI) symposium that will be taking place on Sunday, May 23 from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. at the Federation Kopolow Building. Rabbi James Stone Goodman will make opening remarks, followed by keynote speakers Lesley Levin, LCSW, President/CEO of Behavorial Health Response, and Luis Giuffra, M.D., Ph.D., internationally known Psychiatrist and Pharmacologist. The event is free and open to the public. RSVP Neve Shalom, 314-863-4366. JAMI is a program under the umbrella of Neve Shalom which offers paths to hope and recovery through consumer and family support groups, education and advocacy within our Jewish community.