Nov 17, 2011 2 Share

Living My Fears

Man holding another's fist.

One of my biggest fears as Willie's sister is that he'll seriously hurt himself, or someone else. I worry every time he pounds his head into a wall. I fear for his safety, and my parents do, too. When he's upset and angry, they remind him, “Willie, your head is precious.” Sometimes he listens, and sometimes he doesn't, but I'm always touched to hear them say it. Though he's hurt them physically and emotionally, they still love and protect him.

Their love has been a model for me. When Willie first started acting out aggressively, I let myself be driven by my own fear and anger. Whenever he would lash out, my temper would flare, too. Even though I knew it would only make bad situations worse, I kept wanting to strike back.

Gradually, however, I came to see that Willie was hurting himself and others because he was in torment. He didn't need my punishment; he needed my compassion. The struggle for calm behavior has spanned years for my brother, and it's not over yet.

In high school and college, I rarely invited friends over to the house. I was afraid to let others enter into the chaos. Eventually, after much pleading, I let my best friends sleep over. And when Willie had a meltdown that night, my friends were gracious. They stayed close to me, offering comfort, and I felt both ashamed and relieved.

When I introduced my husband Jonathan to my family, I knew that it was only a matter of time before he, too, would see the scary side of Willie. I warned him about what to expect, but secretly, I hoped against hope that my husband and my brother would never come to blows.

In last week's column, I hinted that they had, writing:  “...I just hoped my brother wouldn't get upset and try to tackle my husband-to-be [the first time they met]. That unsettling scene did take place eventually, but not that night.”

During a visit home last year, my husband and I spent time with my brother while my parents went out briefly. During that time, Willie began to aggress, tapping out angry noises, stomping his feet. I tried to remain peaceful, knowing that my own calm energy was the best thing I could offer him. On that day, however, it didn't seem to help.

With my prompting, Willie rolled himself into the rug. (Rolling into a rug is our family's version of Temple Grandin's squeeze machine. It helps Willie to experience steady, calming pressure.)  But just when I thought he was under control, he lashed out again. He rolled out of the rug, too quickly for me to stop him. And then he charged at me.

As the situation had escalated, Jonathan stood back, allowing me to help Willie. He had watched our interactions, listened as I talked to Willie in a soothing voice. But when Willie charged, Jonathan was ready.  In one smooth motion, he stepped in front of my angry brother and wrapped him in a bear hug. Though Willie is strong and tall for his age, Jonathan is stronger. He brought Willie to the floor in seconds, helping him roll back into the rug. Jonathan's movements were both strong and deliberate. Even as he was protecting me, he was gentle with Willie.

I stood nearby, trembling. If Jonathan hadn't been there, I knew I would have been hurt.

When my parents heard what had happened, they were saddened and upset. Willie was remorseful, too. Whenever he has a major episode, he's always altered afterward, always contrite. It's like seeing Jekyll repent for Hyde's wrongdoing.

“I'm sorry, Caroline,” he wailed. “I'm sorry, Jonathan.”

“I know, Willie. I know.” I reached out, slowly, to hug him. I saw Jonathan nod, and I knew he'd accepted the apology. And he'd treated Willie with dignity even as he was bearing him to the ground, and for that, I was speechless with gratitude.

Speechless I stood, my fears realized, holding my brother close.

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Thank you! I appreciate that affirmation, and will definitely pass it along to my parents as well. I agree: How we choose to respond is, ultimately, what shapes us. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.



You told that story beautifully. I felt I knew what it was like to be Willlie's sister and he is one lucky young man. I believe we are all given challenges in life; it miight be an abusive husband, a non-loving parent, an ungrateful child. It's how we respond to these situations that make us into who we are. Your parents are an amazing couple and an example to all of us. God bless and happy Thanksgiving!!