The sound was so loud that my heart began to pound and the hair on my arms stood upright. It was dark and the only light in the cold room was the light of the digital clock, its blue numbers showing 4:15 a.m. I gritted my teeth, got up, and walked toward the bathroom. A dim strip of light came from below the door.
Assuming my older brother Zain had come home late again, I asked, “Zain, is it you? Are you okay?”
When you love someone so deeply, how do you accept their tragedy? How do you cope? Do you do everything you can to help even if you're “enabling?” Do you overwork, or overachieve to compensate? Underachieve so the guilt of outshining your sibling is tolerable…?
That night happened when I was sixteen years old, but my heart still pounds to remember. I had moved to California from Iran four years prior to that night. I can still hear the heavy thud that came from the shower next door to my bedroom as if it was yesterday. That was the day I realized the past we had left behind after the 1979 Iranian revolution was not in the past at all.
The water was gushing on full volume, making it impossible to hear or be heard. “Zain. Open up.” I raised my voice and jiggled the doorknob. My parents and Zain’s wife and daughter were asleep across the hallway.
At the sound of an even louder thud, I tugged at the doorknob. “Zain, open up! I mean it!” The water flooded beneath the door. I knew Zain was in trouble.
I threw my shoulder against the door and pushed it open. Zain was submerged in the overflowing tub, his hair floating on the surface and his eyes closed. The water was burning my feet, the beginnings of blistering toes. I grabbed his head to pull him up. When he finally took a breath, the stench of alcohol filled the air. “Breathe,” I said. “Breathe!”
I dragged his body out of the tub and tried to make him stand against the towel rack. I slapped his face a few times until I hit him so hard that his eyes popped open. And then promptly rolled upward. I hit him again, “Wake up Zain! Wake up, damn it.”
His eyes still closed, Zain flapped his limp arms and then tried to push me away. “Don’t look at me, sister. Don’t look at me,” he said. His voice slurred.
I drained the water from the tub and struggled to wedge my hands under his armpits. “For God’s sake! You could have drowned if you’d hit your head any harder.” Pulling him up, I wrapped him in a towel, and propped him against the wall. “Just breathe and open your eyes. I’ll help you to bed.”
“I was right there at the edge...” He said, his words trailing off. “I wish I would have the guts to drive off that cliff.”
Zain’s problem was alcohol, but I knew the pain, the trauma, was much deeper than that. It was the past edging its way into our consciousness, reminding us that moving across continents was not enough distance to forget what had happened to our older brother, his death, which changed the trajectory of our life, and our development, forever.
Sixteen years have passed since that night when Zain tried to kill himself. A lot has changed, but the one thing has remained a constant in my mind. How can I remember the brother of my childhood: the innocent, loving, protective older brother and know that there is nothing I can do to bring him back?
How does one cope with the knowledge that their sibling is suffers, in my case, with bipolar disorder, and will always swing from one extreme to the other, and that they and their family will forever be a part of that rollercoaster ride, no matter how much they try to get off?
Sometimes at night, even though he is four thousand miles away, I wake up in a panic thinking he is knocking at my door. My heart aches for weeks in a way I have never experienced, even in my deepest past suffering.
On some days, when my family is in turmoil due to another of Zain’s episodes or crises -- a manic mood, an impulsive decision, difficult times involving his children, and I am at my worst -- a desperate part of me secretly wishes it all gone so the pain would evaporate. But something began to change recently.
During the last few years, I’ve traveled back to our past to piece together everything I could from a place of acceptance and curiosity, committed to being unattached to what I discover. I have gained more insight into, and awareness of, the deep-rooted trauma that changed my family’s life and altered it’s development. I interviewed my parents and brothers in depth, and began to get a bigger picture of impact of their pain. I understood that no matter what I try to do, or how, I would never understand fully the pain of parents’ hearts for a son.
Soon after my curious investigation led me to writing a book of their story, I brought my struggle with Zain back into therapy, onto the yoga mat, to the daily workout routine where I sweat out my anxieties and sorrow. And I sought out meditative practices.
For some time, I was tested, daily, to stay connected to the family, but not to rescue, change, and not to be on the rollercoaster ride. On those days, my workout routine, daily mental check-in, meditation practice, therapy work, yoga practice, and walks along the Beach supported my healing and strengthened my core and resolve. On tough days, I began to notice the feeling of helplessness would rise up and at first, my mind would begin to panic, thinking if would consume me. But soon, I learned to simply notice it rise up, I would honor it, but now I would have a new sense of trust that the feeling would pass, and that it would not consume me. Soon, I stopped worrying and panicking about all the things that could happen. I began to be more present in what was, and expressed daily gratitude for each simple thing I noticed, for my brother’s gifts and talents. Once I let go of what I wanted things to be like, who I wanted him to be, and accepted, even celebrated what things were like - imagining what others in the world endured and gain perspective – I was grateful he was no longer suicidal and addicted, and I was pleased he was where he was in his life.
One important discovery I made along the way was that, years ago, when I moved away from religion, I also left my trust and faith behind. I lost faith in my universe, in my family, in Zain, my own resourcefulness, the nurturance that comes from my community, others, our environment. I had become a one woman show, over working to make changes in my family, and counting only on myself. It was then that I learned what I really needed to work on. As it turned out, the person I needed to change and help most was, me.
Today, Zain is navigating his world in the ways he knows best. He is taking care of his kids and surviving on his own in a foreign land. He has many tough days, and, he has much laughter.
It has taken me more than thirty years, but my peace came on the day I finally uttered the word, “goodbye,” and felt its freedom in my heart. The day I said goodbye to the brother I once had, to the man I wished he was, and let go of the old narrative - the losses we endured in our past. I said hello to his talents and brilliance, his love and compassion, and to always finding a way and for making everyone laugh. To see him with this perception did not mean I ignored the need for development for change, it was just a fuller, more colorful, more accurate picture.
It turned out his “tragedy” wasn’t a tragedy at all, rather the waves of life that we all must surf, sometimes plummeting us into the wrath of the ocean, other times giving us a perfect wave to surf in bliss. And most of the time, giving us the chance to find the grace in between those two places, celebrating the extremes in life.
Zain gave me the biggest lesson an older brother could teach: radical acceptance. Through him, I rediscovered our intrinsic belonging to each other, and to the world.
“Overcome any bitterness because you were not up to the magnitude of the pain entrusted to you… Like the mother of the world who carries the pain of the world in her heart, you are sharing in the totality of this pain and are called upon to meet it in compassion and joy instead of self-pity.” Sufi Master Pir Vilayat Khan