Sep 06, 2011 0 Share

Leaving Normal

Road sign reading "Leaving Normal."

My name is Caroline McGraw, and I have a confession to make: Once upon a time, I wanted a "normal" brother…and a "normal' life."

My younger brother, Willie, has autism. As a child, I used to pray that my brother would wake up one morning with all traces of autism gone. I wanted normal, but I never got it.

Instead, I got something better.

I got original. I got hilarious. I got creative. I got a brother who loves to run, a boy who would jump into the duck pond, chase the geese and leave us in the dust. I got a brother who looked up to me, who thought of me as a princess. I got Willie.

Later on, however, I also got violent and self-destructive. Willie went through a very challenging period in his teenage years. During that time he was out of control, raging, yelling and weeping for no apparent reason. My family struggled to find a treatment that would help him; we fought to protect ourselves, to protect him from himself. Medication has helped, as have behavioral supports and a new day program. Even so, there are nights when he cannot sleep; days when he explodes in anger. In other words: Willie’s struggle is a storm that has abated, but not entirely ceased.

During those years of destruction, I found myself questioning whether or not I still loved my brother. I questioned whether or not the boy I loved was still alive inside the man I feared. And when I couldn’t answer those simple questions, I seethed with anger.

After a particularly difficult evening at home, I walked upstairs, saw my brother’s guitar and simply started smashing it against Willie’s wooden bed frame. I was so, so angry. I so, so badly wanted him to stop acting crazy. I wanted him to change back into the brother I knew.

After, I felt bewildered, astonished…and relieved. While the wood was splintering and the strings were snapping, I’d realized…I could not change him. I could not change my parent’s decisions. I was powerless to change any of those things…but I’d done something I needed to do. I’d released some anger I needed to release. I’d stopped fixating on what I wanted to change about him and started letting myself feel what I felt . That day, I arrived at a wonderfully difficult realization: I can only change myself.

Ironically, this was the first moment in ages at which I could feel empathy for my brother, who had so much rage inside of him. It was small, but it was a beginning.

Sitting amidst the shards of a broken guitar, I took my first step on the road to loving my brother as he was, not as I wished he would be.

And that first step has brought me to places I never dreamed I'd go.

I currently serve as a Program Director for a non-profit. I help to create homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. Wthout Willie, I don't think I'd have ever ended up there . I graduated from Vassar College in 2007, and instead of jumping into the world of publishing like a good English major might, I decided to go and serve people with disabilities for a year. Then two years. Now, it’s been four years, in part because something unexpected happened: I didn’t want to leave my job. I was learning and growing in ways I didn’t expect. The people I came to serve were serving me; they were opening my heart and teaching me how to live fully. What was meant to be a year of service turned into a career of passion and compassion. If you count my time as Willie’s sister, I’ve been living and loving people with intellectual disabilities for twenty-five years. Even so, I feel as though the journey’s just begun . I can’t call the path I’m walking "‘normal"…but then again, I wouldn’t want to. Not anymore.