People always ask me what it is like to be part of a pair of twins. Whenever I tell someone that I am a twin, they always react with a mixture of surprise, awe and delight, as if I told them that I am part of a special exclusive club. Well, I am telling you now that I AM in fact a part of something seriously special. At least in my experience, being part of a pair of twins is an amazing experience. I have a built-in best friend who knows me so well, who understands my every thought with precision. Sometimes, this can be kinda annoying because I can’t hide anything from her. However, it’s totally worth it. It’s extremely comforting knowing that someone actually understands me, my motivations, my fears and my dreams.
What It Is Like To Be A Twin
Always answering to the wrong name just as a reflex. Having people not believe me that we are identical because she is over 3 inches taller than me. Growing up, we were always forced into matching outfits. We used to always get asked weird questions like if we had the same birthday. Looking at baby pictures, sometimes we weren’t sure who was who. There was this one really cute picture of my sister that we always assumed was her, but then one day we found it was me.
We were obsessed with Sweet Valley High and the Wakefield twins. We were also obsessed with the Parent Trap (the Lindsay Lohan version). We used to be able to recite the whole movie from memory and would stay up late re-enacting it.
We had a secret language that involved hand squeezing and no verbal communication. Friends would pinch one of us and ask the other if they felt it. We would get to do the Twin Parade as part of the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal and people would gawk at us like celebrities. These are just some snippets of a rich life together.
I’m here to talk about mental illness though, so I will get right into it. What is it like to be a twin with mental illness? Also, what is it like to have a twin who has a mental illness herself? What do we do when both twins have mental illness? So many questions but I will try to answer them below.
When You Are The Twin With Mental Illness
First of all, for me at least, having a twin when you have a mental illness is incredible. A good support network is one tool for managing mental health issues and I luckily have a person who is extremely invested in my healthcare and well-being. She knows my needs so she knows what to do to help. She texts me or calls me after events that she knows will make me anxious to check in. She encourages me to engage in self-care acts that she knows are appropriate and that have worked before.
I am particularly lucky because I have a twin who has background in health and science, so she actually understands medical terminology and she knows how to interact with doctors in productive, useful ways. Her advice has ensured that I receive the right treatment.
When Your Twin Also Has A Mental Illness
I have bipolar disorder and severe anxiety but my sister does not have bipolar disorder. However, she does have generalized anxiety disorder so she does know quite intimately what it is like to experience the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety that I know so well. She too overthinks everything, thinks catastrophically and gets paralyzed from her worries. She also feels panic and fear to the extreme. She understands what I mean when I say that my heart hurts because I have chest pain from my anxiety. It is incredibly comforting to have someone you can feel crazy with.
I asked my sister what SHE thought about having a twin with a mental illness. She said:
It is both extremely rewarding and difficult to be the twin of someone with mental illness. Rewarding because I truly feel sometimes that I alone can help her: I know her so well and have such a thorough understanding of her life that no friend or therapist could ever grasp. I know every single event in her life, every misstep, ever tragedy, every treatment pursued. I can therefore be an extremely effective advocate for her and support system and feel like I am truly helping. Her successes are my successes. When she thrives, I thrive. However, there are some downsides to caring and loving a person so much, especially considering I have generalized anxiety disorder that occasionally manifests in depressive episodes. Sometimes when my twin sister is down, I feel so anxious that she will suffer that it impacts my mental health as well. However, I am willing to deal with that and grow together to manage our mental illnesses. I know it makes us both stronger.
The Downsides to Having Both Twins With A Mental Illness
Having a best friend and twin with a mental illness can be incredibly difficult, particularly when you have a mental illness yourself. It can be very painful to see someone you love in pain herself and very discouraging. I want my twin to be happy and healthy. It really makes me sad that often she is not and that her anxiety has had negative impacts on her personal and professional life.
Additionally, and this is purely selfish, it really sucks sometimes because often we can both be in a bad place at the same time. It is hard to support each other because we need to take care of ourselves. Often, I hold back when I feel anxious because I don’t want to make her feel worse. And I know she feels the same way. Losing that support person at such a crucial time can be devastating. Two twins with mental illness is also extremely draining on our family. I feel so bad for my parents to have two daughters who are often in pain and unwell.
It’s also a lot of pressure to know that your mental health has a huge impact on someone else’s life. I feel the need to recover faster so that I don’t ruin my twin’s life. I also blame myself for some negative events that have happened in her life because she was too preoccupied with my mental illness to focus on her own life. The guilt is overwhelming.
The Science Behind Mental Illness in Twins
From a quick Google search, it seems that there is not a lot of accessible information about mental illness in twins. I’d really like to find a psychiatrist or an expert who has done some research in it. I will look into it and write another article. Here’s an article about a study with twin pairs that shows that epigenetic processes play an important role in neuropsychiatric disease. It’s a bit dense and I don’t understand all of it, but it’s interesting to check out. Here’s a study about the role of genetic and environmental factors in health psychological functioning. It examined mental health in twins that were women and basically came to the conclusion that genetics and environment both play a role in mental illness in twins and in others.
Do you have a family member with a mental illness, while also having a mental illness yourself? What is it like? I would love to hear from you in the comments below.