Guest Post - Jennifer Chambers on Mental Illness

Today we have the lovely Jennifer Chambers, author of the novel "Learning Life Again" guest posting for usShe's here to tell us about her experiences with her brother who suffers from a mental illness, and also touches on her own struggles with a brain injury from a childhood accident.  I think after we read this we should take a moment to appreciate the loved ones in our lives.

Also, don't forget to stop by Jennifer's blog at:, where she talks about writing, brain injuries, and other things.  Interesting stuff!

Enjoy this poignant piece on this (hopefully) lazy Sunday.  Here's hoping you're spending it with family!

Conflicted Questions
We didn’t find out my brother had a mental illness until he was in his late teens. I’m not really sure, exactly, what age he was; I was recovering from a brain injury myself, and virtually out of it during the same time period. My brother had had some behavioral issues which we now know are symptomatic of mental illness, specifically of bipolar disease. It was a traumatic time for my whole family. The car crash I was in, that erased all my memory and ability, was eerily repeated when three of our friends died in a car crash a week to the day after I was injured. The second car accident was in front of my house.
My brother was, very understandably, messed up from the whole thing. Looking back ten years later, I wish it had been more of a red flag for mental illness. I thought he was doing hard drugs. We grew up in a small town, and it was not unknown for our peers to pass the long nights and weekends on the farms in a haze of substance use. Those people weren’t our friends, particularly, but the erratic mood swings and times of silence had no other explanation, or so I thought.

I think a kind of silver bond between siblings ripped in two when I turned him in to my parents. I was eighteen, newly recovered from my brain injury, but still learning social rules. He had become more and more withdrawn and would disappear for periods of time. I was so afraid for him. In the self-centered way of all teenagers, I was terrified that it was my fault for having my own accident and making people take care of me and not him. Even though I was worrying about the nature of the problem, he clearly needed help, I tell myself now. I wish it had been different.

After I turned him in, my brother went to an outdoor program for troubled kids. We didn’t really speak so much after that, until he went to boarding school in Idaho to complete high school. I visited him there and he seemed to forgive me. He came back home, then left on a several month walkabout where he hitchhiked across the southwestern US. I kept in touch with him through a mutual friend, afraid that any phone call would be the one that told me he was dead on the side of a road somewhere.

At some point he came back. About two years ago, he got back in contact with my family. Our stipulation is that he remains medicated. I am still angry about the missed Christmases, mostly for my mother, who I think dies a little when we talk about his absence. I love him, or who I think he is, though I don’t know him. He has an apartment in the nearest town and exists hand-to-mouth, I think. I am afraid to ask. He’s alive, and healthy, I think. He’s medicated, and peripherally a part of my life.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like to have healthy relationship with him. What would that look like? I wish I knew him—but at the same point, I’m afraid to. And that brings all the stereotypes about mental illness to the forefront. We’ve all got our problems, right? Who am I to judge someone who is simply trying to get by? Why can’t he have a real relationship with me and my family? I try every day to forgive him a little more and judge him a little less. It’s hard for me to call him. Maybe one day soon I can.

Jennifer Chambers is the author of Learning Life Again, a novel about two women with brain injury, and an editor for literary magazine Groundwaters (  She blogs about brain injury, writing, and her new projects at  To contact, or for appearance schedule, go to

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Do any of you have loved ones who suffer from a mental illness?  Have you dealt with childhood guilt?  Email your stories to me at:


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