Episode 3 - My Sister in Profile
Episode 3 - My Sister in Profile
Episode 3 - My Sister in Profile
Content Warning: Mental Health and Attempted Suicide
Julian struggles to read a piece about a woman visiting her sister who was admitted into a mental health hospital for being a danger to herself. How is it that sometimes the people we have spent our lives knowing can become suddenly estranged from us? How is it that mental health problems can estrange the sufferers from themselves?
After the essay, Julian talks about the folks he’s known who have suffered from similar diseases and has a message for those who are currently suffering.
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Transcription: Episode 3 - My Sister in Profile
Works of Love is a Rosecraft Production
This is "Works of Love: The Podcast" I'm Julian Silver. "Works of Love" is a meditation on a theme through listener submitted personal essays, that theme? Love, the possession of and loss of it. Today’s essay is entitled, “My Sister in Profile” by Christina Hughes from Chicago, Illinois.
The most remarkable thing about the room was just how unremarkable it was. White walls, beige furniture, a nothing green carpet to tie it all together. It did not seem like a place my mother would tell me about in between sobs as she wondered on the phone what she’d done wrong.
Beside the front desk nine other people were lined up, some as uneasy as me, others casually reading old news from months old donated magazines.
After signing the paperwork I took a place in line. An older couple were whispering to each other. A smartly dressed, severe looking woman in pumps was stricken by the deliberate lack of visual panache in the mental hospital’s lobby. .
The caseworker showed up, briefed us on protocol, and then we followed her like ducklings towards our loved ones. We were instructed to wait in the ward’s multipurpose room. Eventually our loved ones would find us and we’d be assigned a private room where we would attempt intimate conversations in a place designed specifically to be impersonal.
Down one of the halls an older man leaned his head against the wall, wet spot beneath him, the result of drool streaming down his unclosing mouth.
The stylish woman stared out the window. “It’s raining,” she said.
Patients filtered in and joined with their visitor. Even the ones reading old news were awkward during this part. A couple of patients came in to see no one had come for them and lingered still, hoping perhaps that someone would apparate.
The severe looking woman and her rail-thin son regarded each other as carefully as two strays meeting again but this time in an unfamiliar setting before wordlessly filing past me.
I was chosen to visit my sister and when discharged, stay with her until I was certain she was okay.
Alone in the room I wished for my mother, to hold her hand.
I did always hate the rain.
Twenty minutes of my allotted hour was spent waiting but finally my sister strolled in, as if there was a very important business meeting and I was late. Her hair greasy and limp, outfitted in pale blue scrubs but standing stern.
It had been six years since I’d last seen her. My junior year of high school. I went to embrace her but she took a step back.
“You shouldn’t have come. I don’t want you here,” she said.
The night before my freshman year in high school my sister and I made a promise to each other, no matter what happened, we would leave Bakersfield after high school. With her help, I brought my grades up, from a 3.2 GPA in junior high to a 4.0. Finally coming in line with my sister’s sustained excellence.
Because of said excellence she received a full-ride scholarship to the University of Oregon.
When we were traveling up the Pacific Coast to move her to Eugene, We shared the back bench seat of our parent’s Ford Taurus as we had most of our lives. On the trip I would sneak glances at her. This face I’d known my entire life, one I could draw in profile with my eyes closed after a life of unintentional study. And on that ride I realized although we’d always be family, we would never be so familiar to each other again.
The Filipino nurse directed us to the room directly adjacent to the nurse’s station. As we sat across from each other, I saw my sister but I didn’t recognize her. She’d lost half herself and she was never heavy to begin with, but most importantly her eyes had changed. Before they were bright and mischievous but now they were sharp, brimming with an anger I didn’t recognize.
Above her head was a crude drawing of carrots, cauliflowers, and beets. A large sun in the top left hand corner. The title of the piece was “Sabrina’s Garden”.
My sister followed my gaze. “We’re allowed outside once a week. So this is our community garden. Isn’t it splendid?”
Over the twelve hours on our trip to move my sister away from us, she was buzzing the entire time. As if her entire body was a tuning fork and it was calibrating to her new melody in Oregon. She sung loudly, off-key, alongside the radio. At pit stops and meal breaks she’d drape over our parents and snuggle Mom like we did as kids right before we were going to be sick. At night in hers and my hotel room she woke me up and sat pretzel style on my bed. Telling me she had something to tell me and proceeding to jam several strange facts into a five minute monologue. My favorite? “Sometimes you may have to shave your toes. It’s not gross, you’re not a monster. You’re just hairy.”
As I sat across from her in the hospital I asked what happened. Mom said she’d been a 5150 - danger to self or others.
My sister narrowed her eyes.
Growing up, my sister could alter the emotional temperature of a room. Furthermore perhaps it’s a feeling endemic to all younger brother and sisters but it always felt like my sister had a sort of wisdom which was inaccessible to me. Even when I was her age. Her sixteen seemed so much more assured than mine.
We grew up in Bakersfield, California. We called it a city-sized challenge to the concept of optimism. But I never lost hope that I’d leave that dried mud stain of a city because my sister got out and I knew I could too. I owe her that sense of confidence.
The male nurse was charting while an orderly took a leisurely stroll, making sure we weren’t passing contraband, I assume. My sister refused to answer any of my questions so I changed tact and tried to cajole her with memories, The time we were on the cruise during the 2010 NBA Finals. We were the only Lakers fans on a sea full of Celtics. During game 7 we were the only cheers on a shipful of groans.
When I reminded her she looked at me as if the body in front of me wasn’t the real her. The real her was instead outside the room watching the two of us with a mild contempt. She let out a deep sigh and said, “I don’t remember that.” I then pushed with another memory, she didn’t remember that one either.
Finally I asked her about the time I was seven and riding my bicycle at the park near our house when a neighbor boy, Mason, who was hiding in a tree threw a pinecone at me. It struck me square in the face and knocked me off my bike. Nose bloody and my helmet knocked askew, I rode home crying. It was summer and with our parents at work my sister was my caretaker. When I burst into our house she immediately patched me up and very calmly asked me what happened.
When I told her it was Mason she put on her church clothes and tied her hair in a bun, she brought her sparkle purse and wore it like our mother did and held my hand as we walked to Mason’s house. When she knocked she stood a little taller and I followed suit, sniffling while I did it. Mason’s mother answered the door and my sister explained very clearly what happened. Mason’s mother looked at both of us and immediately apologized, inviting us in. She offered us ice cream and took another look at me to make certain I was all right.
She assured us Mason would be punished but the thing that most stood out was how my sister snuck some of the coffee in Mrs. Baron’s Garfield head shaped mug. Casually taking a sip while I was being examined. As soon as it hit her lips she made a sharp face and put the mug down.
On the walk home she said, “Parents drink the grossest stuff.”
It’s one of my favorite memories.
My sister, the patient, said, “I don’t remember that.”
Before the hospital, the last time I saw my sister was Christmas of her freshman year. She returned to Bakersfield. Seemingly made uncomfortable by everything, like the city and its air was itchy wool she was constantly pulling against. She’d lost weight even at that time and was removed, nearly inaccessible. She’d always been moody, but it had varied between deeply thoughtful and restless, but that first Christmas was different.
That was the first time I remember feeling like I had less access to her than her new friends. That there was an inner circle I was on the outside of.
When I was accepted to Northwestern (also on a scholarship). My sister did not come with us to move me in.
It’s funny, how if I’m in the backseat, I’m sometimes still surprised when she isn’t beside me. Like how I’ll lay awake in my bed in my apartment in Chicago, the city’s nocturnal heart beating its rhythms and out of nowhere I’ll catch the scent of Mom’s homemade applesauce simmering on the stove.
After admitting she didn’t remember Mason and the pinecone, we sat quietly. I wondered if she’d remember this silence, or if all her memory was a white noise where music once was.
When the nurse told me it was time to go we stood up and hugged brusquely. As I was leaving, I turned to see her once more but she was gone.
In the car I called Mom, gave her as clinical a description of events as I could and assured her I was fine. Then I crawled into the backseat and listened to “We Don’t Deserve Love” by Arcade Fire. It was the last thing my sister had posted on Facebook before she was admitted.
Convenience store sandwiches and terrible hotel Wi-Fi for three days as I waited for her to be discharged. Apparently a local celebrity overdosed on pills and there was some discussion of whether, after her detox, she would be admitted to this particular hospital for treatment.
When my sister was escorted down she didn’t look at me. On the drive back to her place she said, “When are you going back to Chicago?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
We stopped at a burger joint and she asked for sunglasses which she wore inside. The natural, diffuse light of a cloudy Seattle day was too much for her. She became too sensitive for the real world at least for a little while. At her studio she laid down on the couch and went to sleep. Through her window was a bridge over the Sound connecting two Seattle neighborhoods. When I looked at her and then out the window, a small panic rose in me.
When she woke up I got her some water and started trying to ask questions again.
“Is that where you attempted it?”
She smiled sadly.
“What stopped you?”
She then pointed to down at something. “Do you see that?” she asked.
I only saw city traffic and pedestrians minding their own way.
She pointed. “No, see Gerry and his mother?”
“I don’t know who Gerry is.”
“The kid, he had that really harsh looking Mom, she visited on the same day you did.”
I looked again..
“He was on the ward for three months and that was the first time anyone had visited him. But now they’ve come to visit me. How’d they get my address?”
“I don’t see anyone.”
She started getting loud, telling me it wasn’t funny, so I told her we should go down there. Despite her initial reluctance she agreed.
They weren’t there.
They never were.
She mumbled to herself and quickly turned and went back to her room.
That night as we were sleeping, I was shaken awake. “Hey,” she said, “We’re in Seattle right now, right?”
“Okay, okay, thank you, I just needed to hear someone else say it.”
As I rolled over to go back to bed, she was at the window, looking at that bridge. “Do you think you’d love someone even if they turned out to be an imposter?” she said.
“I don’t know.”
“That makes sense,” she said. Her head turned away from me. “It’s raining.”
“I hope so,” she said.
Her phone rang incessantly but she didn’t pick up. We just watched the world turn while listening to NPR’s Pam Fessler tell us what was going on outside.
She asked me if she had been a good sister. I told her she was. She said she wasn’t one anymore.
When she asked if I wanted to go across the bridge for pho, I got excited and went for my keys.
I took the side closest to the water but her eyes wandered to the road where rush hour traffic came crushing by. I wanted to be in both places at once, to envelop her. At the center of the bridge, she stopped. “I’ve missed the water.”
She went to the railing and closed her eyes, held her arms out, and smiled. In profile I nearly recognized my older sister before the grimace returned.
She took out a quarter and looked at me. “Make a wish,” she said as she flipped it into the water. We watched it shimmering and falling, falling for so long before being swallowed by the sea.
“Do you know why I was in the hospital?” she said.
“5150? Because you tried to jump off this bridge?”
The wind picked up and her lifeless hair swirled around her.
“That day an old man. At least I think it was an old man, Vietnamese, I think. He talked to me. Do you ever feel unreal? Or like maybe you’re just an idea?”
“When I spent all night cramming for tests, I did. Or if I haven’t slept in a few days.”
“He talked to me and I felt real for a moment.” She took off her jacket.
“What are you doing?”
“Don’t worry.” She placed it on the railing. “When the first responders arrived, I described the old man to them, asking if was still here. They said they didn’t see an old man. I wondered if my crazy had made its own crazy in an effort to save me. In that moment I felt more alone than you can imagine, Stinkbug.”
Her nickname for me. She wasn’t sobbing but tears were running down her cheeks. I thought for a moment they too would join the Sound but they landed on the metal grating we were standing on.
“I have bipolar 1. I was diagnosed in college. I have delusions. I have mania. At times I feel like I don’t have emotions but I’m more like the shape they take or my emotions have me.” She turned towards me. “I can’t trust my eyes because I see things that aren’t there sometimes. I can’t trust what I feel because sometimes I feel like the new messiah. I can’t remember so much because of the medication but I remember the delusions, they feel so real to me. But I’m forgetting the person I was. The person you knew. I only remember the things my head says and it’s unreliable.”
I went to put my hand on her shoulder but she pulled away.
“You said you weren’t sure you could love an imposter. Stinkbug, I’m an imposter. I’m not the sister you knew, I’m some weird, half-remembered, half-remembering monster.”
We stood there looking to the horizon.
I said. “Do you remember what you said to me in Ashland? In our hotel room?”
She shook her head.
“You gave me advice because you weren’t going to be there for senior year, for prom, for so many things. You told me sometimes I’d have to shave my toes, that it didn’t make me weird.”
“You’re not the only person with Bipolar. You’re not a monster. What you are is my sister. Where are we right now?”
“And I live in Chicago.”
“We did it. We got out of Bakersfield like we promised. I got there because
you showed me how. That’s real. My feelings toward you are real. I’m sorry you don’t trust so many things but let’s go over some facts, okay?”
“You’re my sister. You’re my friend. You are loved and and you always will be because I will always love you. You are real to me.”
She came and slumped against me like we did with our Mom when we were sick. “I’m sorry I’ve been so cold.”
“Want to make it up to me? Let’s get pho and you pick up the bill.”
We laughed as she squeezed me and I held her.
Then we used Sriracha to make anarchy signs in the soup.
That next week we worked at catching up on those lost six years. Each night together felt like a sleepover where we tried to imitate Lady Gaga hairstyles and confided in each other about the folks we were crushing on. We speaker phoned Mom but that was too chaotic so my sister talked to Mom alone.
At the airport we hugged and I whispered I loved her again.
She whispered back “I know”.
And I was grateful.
The Lyft driver was chatty and Pakistani. He told me of his daughters and how they were adjusting to America. I asked if this was also the family car and he said, “dschii haan”. I looked across the seat and I swear, I caught a glimpse of my sister in profile. I saw her and she was smiling.
And that was, “My Sister in Profile” by Christina Hughes.
I will admit it was difficult for me to read this piece. Not because of the message but for the content. I’ve been fortunate enough to have contact with a lot of people, a necessary side effect of my previous life as a journalist. I covered the pipeline of foster kids to homeless shelters and mental hospitals. I’ve seen people destitute and robbed of dignity because they couldn’t afford a roof over their head, much less treatment for their conditions, and I’ve been witness to people feeling unworthy of compassion, of kindness..
More than one person I’ve loved dearly has exited this world because the pain of living was more terrible than the idea of nonexistence. And I feel a special need to say this: whatever your challenges, especially if you have mental health issues, you are still worthy of love. There’s a saying, “The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.” At times, mental health issues make people feel like they are the servant and it can be heartbreakingly convincing. It can tell you you’re ugly, you’re stupid, you’re worthless. But it’s wrong. Know that. It is wrong.
And listeners, wherever you are, I hope you know that if you lose your way there is a constellation of people trying to reach you and guide you back to somewhere safe.
This has been Works of Love, I’m Julian Silver. Thank you for listening and you are not a monster.