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How ‘Frozen’ Tells Our Family's Story With Mental Illness

Quieres hacer un muñeco?

Don’t speak Spanish? Maybe the English words will be much, much more familiar to you: “Do you wanna build a snowman?”

Yeah, sorry. Now the song is stuck in your head.

I have three daughters, and they (and I) loved “Frozen” so much, the youngest really did learn this song in Spanish. Whether or not this will be profitable in her classwork as a Spanish major has yet to be determined.

I watched a sarcastic take on the movie after it came out, and one of the things the writer had issue with was how the sisters’ relationship remained healthy. Wouldn’t Anna have harbored just a teensy bit of resentment, he wondered? A slight tinge of, “Um, Elsa? Go fall off an iceberg. I’m done.”

I wondered the same thing at times. I wondered it because I understood too well how Anna probably felt on the other side of that door. I’ve seen it. Up close and personal, in my own house. I watched sisters, my daughters, sit on opposite sides of that door, and I agonized over whether they would ever figure out how to get past the hurt it represented.

They shared a bedroom, and pretty much everything else. Eighteen months apart, our first two girls were always assumed to be twins, and they acted like it. We loved that sibling rivalry never seemed to create a rift between our own Elsa and Anna.

But something else did.

When she was barely 15, I watched our oldest daughter go over the ledge of depression. Literally. I saw her tip over it, right there at our kitchen counter. I had no idea you could see this happen, but I did. I fell over a cliff at the same time, helpless and flailing in a void I had never expected to inhabit, unsure of what had just happened but aware that it was very, very bad.

Depression didn’t just “happen” to our Elsa. First, came the chemical predisposition of tourette syndrome and a family history of alcoholism. She had the genetic time bomb, but it didn’t have to explode. But that fall, in a few months piled all together, came a series of identity-crushing blows from her hyper-competitive high school, as well as the tragic death of one of her closest friends.

That’s why I could see it. I sat ringside for these events. When the third and final blow from the school came, I held her as she sobbed in our cheery, pansy painted kitchen. I sobbed too when the look of utter hopelessness glazed over her eyes and stayed there. It would not leave for almost a half-dozen years. During those years, we learned more than we ever wanted to know about suicide watches, cutting and drug addiction. Her little sisters learned that their world was forever different.

Our Elsa moved downstairs, away from her shared room. She moved farther than downstairs in reality. For years, I witnessed big sister locked in her “room” of isolation. I saw her unable to relate to her family, unable to let others into the world she could not escape. I watched her, like Elsa, afraid of the stigma that made her different, run away to a world where she felt safer, though it was as far from safe as it could be.

I watched her little sister sitting outside, thinking, “We used to be best buddies. And now we’re not. I wish you would tell me why.” That scene in “Frozen” managed to depict something maybe they never intended, but it is a scene too common in houses where things are hidden behind locked doors.

Mental illness tears apart sisters, who just want to build snowmen like they used to. In an animated world, I guess you can go back to the way things were once the storm is over and love has conquered. But in this world, it’s a little more complicated.

It’s hard to call through locked doors and get no answer.

It’s painful to trust and hope, only to have it squashed again and again.

It’s scary to never know what normal is or how long it lasts.

It’s tough to have your life controlled by things you had no say in.

There wasn’t any magic to bring these sisters back together. Usually, deep love looks more like plain, hard work rather than magic. This month, big sister will walk down a wedding aisle, and little sis will stand next to her. This is a miracle, people. Not just that her older sister is whole and well, but our Anna learned to reach past her deep hurts and try to trust again.

It’s not a one-time proposition. There are still scars, and there are still fresh hurts that happen because they have gone down such different life paths since their days as “twins.” But the healing is happening. Maybe sometime during next Chicago winter, they will build that snowman.

Lead photo: Frozen

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us about a moment you had a breakthrough with your child who has a mental illness. What happened that helped you better understand what he or she is going through? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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