As I continued to engage in this conversation about my life with a sister living with a mental illness, I was reminded that my understanding was limited with regard to the science of mental illness. My perspective always came from the point of view of a family member forced to play a real-time game that melded elements of a game of chance, a brain teaser, a history lesson, and a comedy show. It became clear to me later in life that the practice of interacting with my sister and my family like an agent on a secret spy mission or a high roller at a craps table was not normal, but necessary.
My decisions and choices in this high stakes game either promoted a manageable outcome and existence or resulted in an emotionally charged, verbally explosive mean-spirited rant. I never received any rush from games of chance and maybe that is because I grew up gambling on my sister’s temperament on a momentary basis. What I did learn, however, from watching those who were often successful gamblers is that there is a science to what appears to be a game of chance. There are numbers and data that drive the machine. The trick for me became one of focus like the effort it took to watch the objects of the illusions of a magician or the ball under the moving cups on the table of a street hustler. I learned to compartmentalize my emotional self and my scientific self so that I could be the master player my family needed in order to for us to be included in the masterful exhibition of a mental health challenge lived out in front of us each day.
My sister was a genius with what I believed was a photographic memory. Clearly from the standpoint of intelligence quotients we were not evenly matched. However, I worked hard because I had to work hard at almost everything and my work ethic and my competitive drive paid great dividends in this not-so-fun game I never volunteered to play. It was my experience that a family selected to participate in this mental health challenge must recognize the need to separate from the bright lights, the music, and the emotion of the game and designate a scout whose job it was to gather information and maintain data for the team.
One of the elements of my sister’s diagnosis was manipulation. She was a master manipulator. The fact that she was dang near a genius enhanced her capacity to direct the outcomes of her situations and her communications with her subjects. In addition, she studied issues related to the emotionally disturbed in college so she knew the science of mental illness, the terminology and how to produce expected outcomes in interactions and conversations with my family and friends and with the mental health professionals with whom we associated. Again, we found ourselves outmatched. We were living the crash course in mental health for dummies with her as the facilitator. Believe me that was not the optimal learning environment or strategy. Initially, I felt overwhelmed and confused because everything seemed to go her way all of the time. Everybody reacted to what they heard from her and what they saw in her behavior based in their guilt, pity, and fear. Most of the time there seemed to be no logic or consistency in the decisions when she was involved. So, I decided to indulge her genius and to lift her intellect onto the highest platform in an effort to affirm her and to encourage her to teach me. I didn’t really care to know it all. I just needed to know “just enough to make me dangerous,” as my daddy would say. She had too much control and our reliance on her decision making as a family unit would likely leave us busted – financially, socially and emotionally.
As much as I respected my sister’s intellect, I respected her skills as a thespian. I smile now because in retrospect I can see that there was beauty in the lyrical compositions she orchestrated that always led to an end that favored her. She was a college educated, beautiful young woman who had traveled abroad and been exposed to the arts and the sciences. Being separated from her now by distance and time has enabled me to learn more from our journey. I have learned to appreciate the challenges and complexities of what I used to simply describe as dysfunctional. I used to say that in the midst of all that seemed chaotic and crazy was some truth. I still believe that to be the case in situations whether it’s a mental health issue or just life in general.
When I operated in the role of investigative specialist, I could decipher coded language and decisive moves authored by my sister. Her moves were often more challenging than a find the word search and her strength was in her genius which led me to the conclusion that the beauty of her game was the game. Like one who rhythmically solves crossword puzzles, there was a euphoric energy that rose within me when I began to collect pieces of the puzzle that could level the playing field with my sister. One irony of gaining some level of understanding was that we had a wicked, twisted connection that separated us from everyone else in the house. I understood her in a way that nobody else in the house could because they were too emotionally driven or because it took too much energy and she knew it. Her behaviors with most people reminded me of the two-year-old phase of resistance and pushback known to break the will of the exhausted adult being begging for compliance and acceptance of the boundaries.
As the youngest family member, I had time and the feisty, mouthy edge of the frustrated sibling to stay the course in the figurative chess match with my sister and she knew that too. Most of the time she resented my consistency and the fact that I had learned to confront and often outsmart those voices that guided her behaviors. As I reflect on some of the experiences with her, I realize she respected my game as much as I respected her game. I am reminded of athletes and teams like my Crimson Tide football team and Peyton Manning speaking about upcoming matchups in a way that shows that they respect the competitor’s level of competence and mastery of the game. Listening to the athletes talk about wanting to match up against the best sounded rather cliché to me until now. I honestly think that at some level my sister enjoyed the game. I believe it entertained her and satisfied her need for mental exercises. The more I write about this the more fascinated I become about how simplistic such a complex journey with mental illness can be made to appear. Is a master manipulator driven by the love of the game or by the end product?
Throughout my childhood, I believed her sole motivation was the deliverable. I believed my sister enjoyed the fruits and deliverables of her game, but that foxy grin of hers and that memorable chuckle told a different story. It is clear to me now that her motivation and satisfaction were rooted in playing the game itself and that she respected me because I took the time to compete and proved to be strong competitor. I have often wondered why I received phone calls over the years from people delivering messages for me to call my sister. The callers have said that she needed to speak to me, in particular. Now, I am thankful that I took the time to keep writing about my family’s mental health journey because I have written myself into a tear filled warm moment of bonding with my sister. I bet she thought I got it a long time ago because I continued to engage myself in her game and spend time decoding her riddles. This exploration into our relationship has taken my attention from the noisy crowd and bright lights to a narrowed sightline that allowed me to focus on the special bond I have always had with my sister. Knowing that the big sister I remembered before the break still loved me after the break makes life better. As weird as it may sound, today I understand that my sister was communicating her love for me and her need to bond with me through some rather unprecedented methods of communication. I guess it was better to figure out this relationship riddle after an almost forty year journey than to have never known how hard my sister worked to bond with me and show me that she loved me. I dedicate this moment to my sister, with love.