MY SISTER’S KEEPER
Earlier this month I was in San Francisco helping my mom move. My sister was at the house, smoking up a storm and leaving her cigarette butts everywhere. At night she’d have loud, animated conversations with herself and left the house for hours at a time, but no one ever knew where she went. A police officer once told my mother she was a regular in the Tenderloin district, a high crime area in San Francisco and frequented by the city’s homeless population.
One day she returned with a pair of new baby shoes and clothes that she must’ve bought, or more likely stole, from a shop in the Mission. She handed them to me and told me to give them to our daughters. I thanked her and promised I would even though our girls are 15 years old. It never gets easier seeing her like this, but sometimes I just go with it because there’s not much else I can do.
One morning I went into the room she was staying to close the door. She was snoring softly and I watched her sleep from the doorway. I was tempted to lay next to her just like when we were younger, when we were 6 and 9 and built forts out of blankets and slept under them together. Or like the countless times in our teens and early twenties when we would fall asleep next to one another talking about nothing and everything the night before. I wanted to pretend for just five minutes that everything was okay, that she wasn’t sick, but instead I softly closed the door and let her sleep.
I’m a strong woman. And I can get over, and through, a lot of things. But not my sister. No matter what I do, I can’t seem to get over her. I don’t know that I can. Believe me, I’ve tried. I moved 1700 miles away. I started over. I talk to her. I bargain with her. I plead with her to try. And every time she doesn’t, I hurt with her. I hurt for her. Because until the end of my days, wherever she is, and however well she is or isn’t doing, my sister will continue to mean the world to me. My love and loyalty are hers, always and unconditionally.
And that doesn’t mean I condone how she chooses to live, it only means that I love her despite it, despite what she does and has put our family through, and despite her mental illness. It means that the ties that bind family are real and that for as long as I am strong enough to, I will forgive her, for who she is and isn’t, and what she’s allowed herself to become. And that even now, after everything she’s done, even in my moments of frustration when I think she doesn’t deserve it, I still love my sister with everything I’ve got. I don’t doubt for one second, that had the roles been reversed she wouldn’t have done and felt the same for me. I know she would. It’s what the best of sisters do.
My sister’s battle with mental illness has been a vicissitude of emotional, physical and financial highs and lows, and she hasn’t ridden the waves alone. My family has spent the better part of the last 14 years never knowing what to expect from her, never knowing if she’s safe, if we’re safe, if her last episode will be the last, or if it’s possible for them to just keep getting worse.
A minuscule glimpse of the lows of my sister’s mental illness includes: the time she took her three year old daughter from foster care placement and led the police on a televised five hour police chase along the west coast; several times she was detained at a random airport thousands of miles from California because she was removing her clothes in one of their terminals; the half dozen times she sat cross legged at a busy crosswalk trying to direct traffic; or even the time she was found at 5am wearing shorts in 45 degree weather and digging in the neighborhood dumpsters. That’s just a minuscule glimpse. I’m saving you from the worst stories because those stories hurt too much to tell.
My sister’s episodes come in waves that last anywhere from weeks to months. Similar to many others whose lives are affected with a mental illness, she doesn’t take her medication. In her case, she chooses not to. She’s in and out of mental health facilities and only takes her medication for as long as the involuntary psychiatric hold lasts.
As much and often as I wish I could find a legal loophole to force her to take her medication, and even when I think those meds might just be what saves her, I realize that whether she takes them or not or accepts treatment at all are supposed to remain her choices, not mine or my mother’s or the numerous doctors who’ve treated her over the years. No, as hard as it is for me and my family to accept, how my sister lives her life, good or bad, is her choice and all we can do as her family is hope she eventually finds the strength to choose the life that she deserves. Ultimately, I realize that managing her mental health has to start with her wanting to be better and then doing what it takes to make that happen. She’s either going to save herself or remain unsaved.
As I prepared for my mother’s move to Texas, and since my sister moving with her wasn’t an option unless she proved she could take her medicine regularly and consistently, we arranged for my sister to live in an assisted living facility in the Bay Area. The week we were supposed to check her in she vehemently refused to go and literally ran off. My mother and I flew back to Texas before we could find her. We eventually found out she was, and still is, rotating sleeping from one relative’s house to another some nights, with whomever is willing to help and tolerate her for the night, while other nights no one is quite sure where she sleeps. We have no idea where she spends her days. So it’s fair to say that my sister has consequently just joined the close to 10,000 homeless people living in San Francisco.
That it’s all come down to this breaks my heart. I would go to the ends of the earth for my sister – the ends of the earth. I would do more for her than most people would be willing to do for a sibling, for anyone. And I, and my mother, have done exactly that. Numerous family members and a handful of her old friends have tried to help. Still it’s not enough. She has to want to save herself, but she doesn’t want to, or maybe she doesn’t have the mental capacity to decide that she does. I don’t know. I only want my sister to be happy, safe and healthy. I wish I could help her find that, but I don’t know how.
I have a lot of days when I pine for my sister, the sister I knew growing up, the girl I used to tell all my secrets to, the one person who never judged me because she understood me, the sister who was once the only person in this world I trusted and could rely. I have yet to know anyone else I can trust and rely on more than I ever did her. She was always so bold, incredibly funny, loyal and just fierce. I see some of the best of her in her daughter every day. She was my “ride or die,” the best one I’ve ever had. I miss my sister, I miss her more than you can imagine.
My dear friend and mentor once told me, “I don’t have wise words or sound advice for next steps. I would only remind you that no one loves or will love your sister as much as you and your other family members. You guys are always her first and last hope. You may not understand her illness and it may distance you from her from time to time, but at the end of the day, somewhere at the essence of our humanity, down at the place where God’s creation is a work, she is yours and you are hers. I’m not sure what that this love is supposed to look like after repeated bad episodes and months of erratic behaviors, but surely it’s there and it will always be extended toward her and calling her home.”
In my moments of despair, I cling to the wisdom and hope behind those words. And when I lay my head down each night I pray. I pray that somewhere beneath the haze of my sister’s mental illness she can still feel the breadth of our family’s love. Between the bouts when the chemical imbalance in her brain undermines the logic in her mind, I pray she has moments, however brief, when she’s aware that she is not alone, that she is loved deeply and missed dearly. We have not given up on her. God help, may she never stray so far that she can’t find her way back home. Until then, my family and I will be here, waiting, full of hope, so much hope, and always with arms wide open.