Since my book was published in September 2015, some people have read the introduction and asked when I would write more about growing up with a family member living with a mental illness. I assured them that I would write about it at some point, but I needed to sort out how to do that in a respectful way. While I recognized that my experiences had the potential to offer support and encouragement to other families and friends struggling to support someone in a mental health crisis, I hesitated to speak because my words had the power to portray my sister negatively. Even though my experiences with her have frustrated me beyond belief at times and made me sob in the shower and cry out to God about my anger for being the one with the mission of being her first call, I did not want other people to judge her, be afraid of her, or call her “crazy.” She did not choose this station in life and I don’t think anyone would choose to live a battle for mental stability every day. It was a daily struggle for me so I know it must have been a daily battle for her too.
She was the middle child and I was her “baby sister.” She was eleven years older than me and I trusted her with my innocence and my life. And by life, I mean that I entrusted her to keep me safe, to guide my decisions, and set the example of the direction of my life. To the world outside of my house, I appeared to be the spoiled baby of the family who lived a life of privilege. I learned to resent my sister because her illness changed our family dynamic forever in December 1977 and very few people knew the impact that living that life had on the baby in the family.
My sister had her first break of many one evening in December 1977 just before Christmas break. (In 1977, it was still called Christmas beak and not winter break.) The morning began with the normal anticipation of the end-of-term holiday programming at school: my safety patrol was having a Christmas party in the lunchroom after school and Autaugaville Elementary School was having the annual Christmas program. As usual, my parents, who worked at the school left money for my sister and me to pick up our dinner on our way to the program which was being held in a rural town about thirty miles from our house. Although I awoke excited and the plan seemed to be set for a very festive day, something felt odd and weird to me. As I walked out of my room and past my sister’s door, I realized her lights had seemingly been on the whole night and the same Natalie Cole album that I heard when I went on a middle-of-the-night bathroom trip was still playing. That was odd and not her normal behavior. I think that my young mind just thought she was being a strange, eccentric big sister. It never occurred to me to tell my parents that her behavior had been a bit out of character over the three prior weeks too. I am not certain why I never told anyone that my sister had become a predictor of future events. For example, she told me that I would break my new watch and when I dropped it running to the car one morning and it broke she said, “See, I told you so.” I did not recognize or understand the building of her psychotic break was rooted in paranoia also evidenced when she gave me “secret” advice not to drink the milk at school because people were trying to poison me to “get to her” because “they” knew how much she loved me. Days later, she sternly directed me not to eat food at school because “they” were trying to kill me. Without question and with the innocent and reliant trust of a “baby sister,” I obeyed and never told my parents. Well, at least I didn’t tell until after the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia found a home at our address that late night in Decemeber 1977.
My sister and I never made it to the Christmas program because the break happened at our house. We never ate dinner at all because the break happened. Those hours alone in my house with my older sister, who I idolized and trusted with my life, brought fear, confusion, and anxiety riddled with mental and verbal pleas for help. Living those moments with my sister ironically established a bond that linked me to her mental and emotional health for the rest of our lives. I witnessed what felt like the aftermath of a natural disaster. It began with subtle tremors and rose to the clamor and violent shaking of the fault line that served as a catalyst for the overwhelming tidal wave of a Tsunami. Subsequently, she relied on me to deliver the love of a parent, the supportive prayers of the clergy, the comfort and care of first responders, and the feisty, resistance only present in a healthy sibling rivalry. Instantly, my life changed. Perception by those outside of my house did not match my reality. I became the baby with an amazing responsibility to provide support and guidance for the family and be the informant the mental health providers needed to sort out the complexities of my sister’s new diagnosis.
In writing this blog post, I realize there is so much more to tell. The brain is such a complex and intricately designed organ and my sister was and is a complex human. She was and remains a funny person who could have worked as a stand up comic. She was so smart that she could have been a successful doctor. She was so artistic that she made clothes, painted portraits, and offered up her singing voice to all who would listen. She was such an extrovert that she convinced disc jockey’s to give her shout out’s almost daily on the local radio station. Yet, she had the ability to escape to an isolated place where she could use her college course curricula and other readings to try to understand the voices that lived within her and she never divulged her scientific, self-study to us until after the break. Unfortunately, her mental illness operated like a magician melding her positive attributes, character traits and known talents with her insecurities, resentments, and short comings producing a magical potion that engulfed her every fiber presenting her to me as an emotionally challenged person who faced social, medical, financial, and relational problems the rest of her life. My family and others worked as often as she would allow us to find the place where she felt peace and control of her world.
While my post is not a complete story, I hope that it addresses what my eleven-year-old self experienced: loneliness, pain, and hopelessness. Shortly after the break, my mother told me that I should write about what I was feeling if I couldn’t talk about it. At that time, there was no discussion about counseling for children. It wasn’t popular or recommended, as I recall. I began journaling because of mental illness and it seems that I will continue to journal because of it. Writing has always been a good thing for me – my catharsis and my quiet place. If you or someone you know survived an encounter with mental illness, I hope that my post will help you believe what I found to be true in life with my sister: There is a nugget of truth and goodness even in the situations that looked really crazy to me. I hope that my decision to use my outside voice on this subject will encourage, empower, and enlighten others.