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When Losing Myself Helped Me Understand My Sister’s Mental Illness

My middle sister called me one day when she was about a month postpartum, and the fear in her voice made me white-knuckle my car steering wheel. She was scared of herself and the baby. I asked her to come stay with us, and her speedy agreement terrified me even more. She came with my tiny, dark-haired niece and a car full of bottles, blankets and an infant tub. My new husband and I, in our mid-20s and clueless, took in a 1-month-old baby and a mother who was experiencing psychosis without any idea of how to care for either. My sister’s body would lunge away from her baby, like my niece’s skin could electrocute her. She stayed in the bedroom and writhed in pain at the sound of her daughter crying, but she couldn’t bring herself to hold her. She told me to hide the knives.

Finally, she was hospitalized for postpartum psychosis and cycled in and out of the hospital for the next year.

When I was a freshman in college, I came home for Christmas break thinking the worst event of that year was a falling-out with my roommate.

It took my sister, who is four years older than me, more than five hours to complete the usually two-hour trip to our house because she thought she was being followed. She was hearing voices coming through the radio, talking just to her, telling her she was in danger. Over the next decade, I watched my sister ride the waves of severe bipolar episodes: she’d come home with $400 worth of unnecessary craft supplies from Michael’s or rant in my face about a fight we’d had when I was 6 years old. Or she’d just disappear.

I tried for 10 years to help my middle sister. My entire family tried. We put our lives on hold several times a year. We took phone calls in the middle of the night. We pleaded with her to go to the hospital. We feared for her safety all the time. She hung out with drug addicts, felons and con artists. She seemed to take in every person and animal she met — her generous heart busted dangerously open when she tipped over into mania. But she wouldn’t stay on her meds and she wouldn’t see a therapist regularly, and then she did what we’d all been dreading — she got pregnant.

I saw her lose total control. I saw her lose everything. She lost her child, she lost her partners, she lost my mother and sister and eventually she lost me. A year after she gave birth, I made the painful decision to stop having contact with her. I still wonder every day whether that was the right decision. But life wasn’t livable with her in it. I couldn’t help her anymore. And now I have my own family’s safety to think of. These are the thoughts I cycle through daily to try and justify my decision.

When I got pregnant, three years after my niece was born, my sister’s psychosis haunted me like a mental boogieman, ready to jump out and surprise me. But I was “normal,” right? That was my sister’s illness, not mine.

And then my postpartum anxiety came along and I lost myself. I fell into a dark pool of water and began slowly sinking. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I suffered from debilitating panic attacks daily and laid paralyzed in my bed. I had irrational thoughts and couldn’t stop them from berating me: wouldn’t the baby be better off without me? I prayed to crawl out of my own skin. I thought about getting in the car, leaving and never coming back to my husband and newborn. I thought of my sister during those weeks of desperation. She was like my shadow-self, my shadow sister. I finally had a taste of her experience and I understood her desperation. It was torture, a nightmare. And only those who’ve been through it can fully understand what I mean. But I couldn’t call her to tell her about my experiences. I couldn’t call the one person in my life who would’ve understood, because letting her into my life, opening that door, was an invitation to so much pain and uncertainty.

During those dark months, I didn’t know if I’d ever swim back to the surface, back to my old self. I watched from the ocean floor as everyone yelled for me to come up. I couldn’t, not for some time. And then slowly, I did. I did all the things they said I should even when I didn’t believe anything could help me. I went to a support group. I got on medication. I saw a therapist. And slowly, very slowly, I had some good days. And then, over the course of many months, the good days finally outweighed the bad. It was daily, rigorous work to get there. And I wouldn’t say I’m fully recovered because postpartum anxiety has changed me forever: I’ll never fully trust myself again. I know the terrifying places my mind can go, and I can’t get rid of that knowledge, not ever.

And so I’m left with a deeper understanding of my sister’s illness, maybe a deeper understanding than I ever wanted to have. I can see her in me. Yet I came back, flailed and kicked my way to the surface, while my sister stays behind. I have to leave her there, at least for now. I’m only certain about this: there aren’t any clear answers when it comes to mental illness and my sister. I’ll never know if she can’t or won’t get help. Mental illness doesn’t work that way; it’s slippery and ever-changing.

For now, I’m just trying to keep myself afloat.