Originally published in Watershed Literature and Arts Magazine, 2012
Awarded the Moorman Prize for Prose, 2012
She is the only one in the family with a smorgasbord of freckles covering her body. She is the only one in the family with the most photogenic smile. She is the only one in the family who needed braces, and got them. She is the only one in the family who was diagnosed with mild schizophrenia and manic bi-polar disorder. She is my younger sister. She has shaped my life.
There is this old, family home movie I play in my mind from an Easter in 1997 or so. I can see my mother’s tired, young face with her old, cut-the-cheek brown glasses and lipstickless lips hovering over my sister, tying a white bonnet on tight. My sister has her new white gloves on, the pair we only get to wear to Easter service. She holds a chocolate lollipop, which makes my mother nervous, and she tries to take from my sister. My father, steadying the video camera, zooms in on my sister’s crinkled face, welling with tears. My heart plummets into my gut as her fat, baby cheeks curl up into her eyes, and she lets out a horrific scream. My mother’s head is splitting, and she gives the chocolate lollipop back. My sister’s tantrum outweighs my mother’s fear of stains on a white and blue flower pattern Sunday dress.
There is an element of that VHS moment in my sister’s entire life. Every moment between my family and my sister is a distorted replay of that scene, that early memory of the symptoms of her disease. There is an altercation, a conflict, a difference in rules, and my sister’s egocentric mind. My mother says, “No, you cannot skip school today.” My sister says, “Yes, I can.” My mother would give in, a prisoner in her own home. My sister would always win, through words, fists or teeth, and my mother would always lose.
My sister still does this. When she turned 18, my sister flipped on a switch of legal right. She would stay out all night, despite my mother’s insomniac concerns. My sister then announced she was moving to Texas to live with our Aunt B. K has met a boy over the internet that lives near there and she is determined to go down and move in with him. Any sane person would agree with my family in saying that this is the stupidest thing a young, sick girl could do. My mother says “No, you shouldn’t.” My sister said “Yes, I will.” And she did. She’s still there, in an apartment with some stranger she hardly knows, possibly carrying his child. My sister’s madness is a mystery to me. Even when we were kids, I could never wrap my mind around how to communicate to her. None of the other kids did either.
Playing with my sister when we were younger was always hard. We had friends in our neighborhood, three girls, who were our “gang.” We would get together outside, walk up to the park, and want to play hide-and-seek, or baseball. My sister never wanted to play whatever game we wanted to play. She would yell, cry, pout or get mad. She would claw, slap, and threaten. We had to give in; we always had to give in to whatever she wanted; it was a matter of self-defense. Soon, the gang no longer called. Soon, the gang would scurry to the park behind cars and trees so not to be noticed. Soon, I would lose my friends because of my sister. Soon, I would be defined by my sister’s illness.
After all the friends left, my father was accepted to be the “faculty abroad” for (redacted) University, in Firenze, Italia. This meant that our family, my father, mother, older brother, younger sister, and I were to move to a villa with 50 college students and one cook and live for 18 months. Confined in a two bedroom flat, a family of five in a foreign country can most absolutely lose their minds. And we did. I slept all day and stayed up all night. I did not attend school. I should have been in eighth grade, but I skipped. My mother occupied herself by baking and by making tea for the students. My brother learned what “discothèque” meant, and my father taught one class an afternoon and drank a lot of espresso. I shared a bedroom with my sister, a bunk bed, one closet, and one dresser. I avoided her by sleeping while she was awake and being awake while she slept. I avoided her because if I attempted to interact, she would rule me like an abusive child tapping incessantly on the glass of a fishbowl. Her disease developed while living abroad, and no one had noticed yet or had wanted to acknowledge it.
When we came back to the states, my sister had flown through the hormonal rages of puberty with a tremendous force. Now everything she did was amplified. Augmented. Enlarged. Every conflict in the house, no matter the importance, became a declaration of war. My sister experienced things with a heightened state of awareness. If she was embarrassed, she was mortified. If she was upset, she was enraged. If she was happy, she was manic. Everything she felt or did became the focus of her energy and mental capacity. We became subject to her extension of emotion, sheep in an electric, barbed-wire cage. My sister trained me to be avoidant and patient. If my mother wanted my sister to clean up her mess she made in the kitchen after baking cupcakes my sister would not eat, my sister would throw dishes. My mother would get louder and my sister, more violent. I would retreat to my room, lock the door, and wait silently.
This began my mother’s paranoia and never ceasing internet searching in order to diagnose what K’s “issue” was. My mother bought bottle after bottle of herbal supplements to moderate mood swings and other hormonal functions. My mother was desperate to solve my sister’s “issue” herself. My mother would tell my sister that she didn’t eat enough protein and that is why she was cranky. Then, when my sister would eat gobs and gobs of protein, hostility unchanged, my mother said she needed more sleep. So K slept, slept and slept but nothing helped. My mother was becoming hopeless. It was affecting the entire family. Everyone in the house became restless and exhausted at the same time, the combination of on-edge anxiety and mental fatigue of dancing around my sister’s “issues” was brutal.
I no longer watched television, because we were not allowed to touch the remote in fear that my sister would hear the infamous TiVo ‘bloop’ interruption of whatever she was recording and dig nails into our necks. I became confined to my bedroom, tucked into the back corner of the house because my sister owned the entire upstairs, living room and kitchen. As if she was some feral beast, spraying every couch and cabinet with her scent, so you would know to stay out. My parents kept in their bedroom, or my father, at work. My brother could drive then, and he would leave for days. Everyone was terrified of her. We were coming to the breaking point. We were approaching the end of her reign. We were turning the corner of the medical plaza to bring my sister to a “shrink” to tell us it is not our fault.
I sat in the waiting room, flipping through years-old copies of Highlights for Children. My mind raced, and I tried to fight it. Why am I worried? What am I doing here, anyway? I fantasized that my parents would come out, my mother respectfully dotting a Kleenex at the corner of her eyes with my father’s arm around her shoulder, and embrace me and say that K was going away for a little while. Instead, my father snorted as he paid the bill for the visit, and my sister throwing elbows in order to make it out of the office faster. The doctor wrote a prescription. He told my sister she was crazy. He told my parents that he was a doctor, and doctors write prescriptions that help. He said that my sister is hormonally imbalanced, and the pills will help. He said that my sister has mild schizophrenia and manic bi-polar disorder, and the only thing to do is to drug her up.
Terrible things can truly make you stronger. I know this now from the many years I spent with my sister and entire family. How we adapted and grew distant from one another was an isolating, harsh experience. My mother and I try to reconnect now, through letters rather than phone calls. It makes it easier to say what we really want to say, rather than allow emotions to fuel a phone conversation. My mother and I are able to take deep breaths and think about what we want to say, to apologize for or clarify. I appreciate this interaction and I wait for the moments where we do talk about my sister and what has happened. I admit that I sometimes get sick of the only thing my mother will talk about is my sister but I am beginning to understand that it consumes her, the feeling of failure she has in my sister. I cannot be mad or blame my mother for anything more than I can for my sister.
My sister was fourteen when we made that trip to the head-doctor. She refused to take the pills. She kept us under supervision and torture. I had to move to Kansas to get out of the house and now she’s gone, too, wearing different clothes and sporting a new hairdo and ordering her dinner with a twang. She’s eighteen now, claims to be an adult, competent and able but she is still my baby sister, and she is still sick. K insists that everyone is out to get her, and I know that she is only interpreting the hands reaching out to comfort her as forces that wish to harm her. I had no sense of self, growing up in that reality of dysfunction, but now posses a tremendous empathy for those who are “off.” Growing up with my sister has shaped me in ways I am still measuring and exploring to this day. I have been modified to accept others’ faults, and not amplify my own. I have been constructed to hide at loud noises, and speak quietly to those that I feel my heart break for. My sister, only eighteen months younger than I, has influenced me greatly, in that she makes me want to help others who cannot help themselves. My sister is the only one in the family with a mental disease, and I am the only one who believes that it’s okay.