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When My Sister's Mental Illness Keeps Her ‘Underwater’


This week we were granted a window – a glimpse into the “real Anna,” my sister. On Monday we had an authentic exchange where she let me talk, offer words of comfort and help her puzzle through some things. She responded with clarity and insight into her life.

On Tuesday, she was Anna. We sat and talked about the state of things and about upcoming options for transition. She was very clear about what she wants to happen and how she wants to make more of her own decisions, become more independent, carve out her piece in this world. She seemed fragile, yet strong. She was her own advocate. Rather than speak for her, I became her interpreter, filling in when the words got lost. She spoke for herself, demanding patience and understanding – considerations she has every right to demand.

On Wednesday, she was gone again, tucked away deeply into some part of herself. On the outside she is angry, frustrated, irritable. Everyone is in a rush. No one understands. The words to explain seem to escape her and she seems to feel trapped and confused. She acknowledges I brought the items she asked for the day before, but she tucks them away, almost immediately forgetting about them. We are again in a holding pattern.

It’s hard not to notice the passing of time. Fall is so beautiful and in your face. There is no subtlety. Leaves have not only turned brilliant colors, but many are no longer on the trees. We’ve pulled the scarves out and fall boots and jackets. I turned the furnace on.

Anna hasn’t felt the sun on her face in almost seven weeks. She hasn’t worn shoes or looked in a mirror or taken a real shower in a private space in that long. This feels impossible.

This afternoon I put some eggs on to boil but forgot to add the water. I emptied the dishwasher but neglected to clear the top tray. Somehow the cereal was in the refrigerator. I’m struck by how easily any of us could cross that delicate line. The role of a family member is tricky – how to support and love without also drawing deep within yourself, retreating, especially as this drags on.

Today she yelled she hated me, hated my family. “Why did you bother to show up?” she screams. She does this while clinging to me frantically like a person drowning, something we have always been cautioned to step away from. Get an expert, call emergency personnel. Do not attempt to help.

But here we are, surrounded by experts and emergency personnel who now give me sympathetic looks and talk to me in soft voices or who stand just off to the side, discussing their double shifts and income taxes and the upcoming football game as my sister slowly drowns in front of them, waving her arms, shouting, as the waves crash in.

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