My sister Katherine* and I were always close. Growing up, it was I who went to the bus stop to threaten her bullies for throwing her Mother’s Day project out of the school bus window. She was always different, though- at three years younger than me- we look almost exactly alike to the point at which we are often confused for one another. My sister and I lived through a lot of childhood trauma together, from being denied seconds at dinner because we were larger in size than our middle sister- who was naturally thin- to me inserting myself between her and my father in case things got physical during one of their many arguments.
It was perhaps this ongoing trauma that further facilitated the development of her bipolar disorder, which thrust itself into the spotlight after weeks of sleep deprivation resulted in a near-fatal psychotic episode. The diagnosis came as the outcome of a 72-hold involuntary psychiatric hold after my sister tried to murder her boyfriend while he held her infant child in his arms. Despite the shock of these circumstances, the diagnosis came as a relief; we as family members always knew the truth, and the label itself was what really allowed us to finally breath.
Our loved one wasn’t bad, just sick.
Over the years, I’ve struggled with an innate desire to trust my sister. Siblings are supposed to rely on one another through the trying times and, because of this, I feel as though I’ve been cheated in that department. Mental illness often prevents people from acting and reacting normally to challenging situations, and even though I know this is true, my sister was the first one that we called when my OBGYN told me that I was going to be induced. Earlier on in the day, I learned that my unborn child was floating around in amniotic fluid that was rapidly decreasing by the hour, and he needed out immediately. Two days in the hospital turned into five as our baby struggled to put on weight and learn how to nurse.
This would have been fine if it hadn’t been for our dog. Our beloved German Shepherd is a sensitive creature, and the very idea of leaving him at home alone for five days was unacceptable. So we put our hesitations aside and asked my sister to stay at our home until I was discharged. She agreed wholeheartedly.
My sister has spent a lot of time homeless or in prison. I now think that the idea of staying in a warm home with plenty of space to live in was attractive to her. She seemed grateful for the opportunity to help and assured me that everything was going to be fine. “I’ll even clean your floors for you,” she texted. Katherine, her daughter, and her dog (my dog’s father) all moved in for a few days.
Floor cleaning is the way that the females in my family show that we care about one another. My mother has always been somewhat neurotic about cleaning, and she passed the importance of home cleanliness on to her daughters. When we offer to clean someone’s floors, we are trying to tell them that everything is okay- don’t sweat the small stuff, because I’ve got it. I’ve got you. It is a small act of caring and kindness that holds deep meaning for me and my family members. I hate to admit now that it was her promise to clean the floors that tricked me into trusting that all was going to be alright.
The birth of my child was traumatic, and knowing that my sister was at my home, taking care of our dog made me feel relieved. She seemed so in control, so capable of handling these domestic duties that I forgot to worry for a little bit. She’s got it, I told myself. Focus on yourself for once. It felt good to not have to take charge on something, to plan in advance in the midst of a crisis, or to find people to address our needs in the time of coronavirus. Katherine had it under control. I didn’t have to clean up after her this time. She texted me to tell me that my son was going to be okay, that he’ll put on weight and learn how to latch. She reassured me that exclusive breastfeeding is hard and that I need to feed my baby any way I can, and not to beat myself up over any perceived failure on my part. For once in my life, I was comforted by my younger sister. We were finally making progress in our strange relationship that has transformed so many times over the course of both of our lifetimes, though this new dynamic- my sister as caregiver- was foreign to me.
A day after our son was born and after three days in the hospital, my husband went home to check on things. I was rocking our baby to sleep when he texted me. “Did your sister go out somewhere?” The front door was open and no one was responding to his call- not even his dog.
Suddenly, I knew that something was wrong. I had lived this all before. Fear rushed into my mind as I waited for him to update me, constantly checking my phone as I soothed my fussy child. Why did I think things were going to be different this time? I silently scolded myself and felt ashamed of my naivete.
He called me an hour later in tears. My sister was upstairs in the shower and had left the front door open because her dog had run away. Our dog was upstairs with my sister. His dad was nowhere to be found. When my husband asked her about it, she brushed him off. “He always runs away like that in West Virginia,” she said. “He’ll come back eventually.”
My sister’s dog did not come back. He was a casualty of her negligence that night. My husband had to pick his body off the side of the busy road that we live on. We had all known that dog for years and it was like suddenly losing a best friend. But it was more important for my sister to be in the shower alone, high, while her daughter walked around unsupervised in our son’s nursery. She had forgotten that she had let her dog out and never went to look for him. My husband’s dog likely heard his father get hit, and was so traumatized that his entire body was shaking when my husband found him in a corner, curled up into a ball.
The evidence of mental illness was everywhere. Trash was strewn across the floors. There was underwear in the cushions of our couch, headphones in the toaster. Every single can had been taken out of our pantry and set on the floor where my niece played and smashed and destroyed as young children often do. Dirty dishes sat piled high in the sink, pots laid crusted with old food on the stove. The house reeked of marijuana; the very thought that my sister had smoked weed inside the same house that I would be bringing my newborn home to made me physically ill. Our neighbor told us that there had been people over, at least two cars’ worth. My home- my safe space- became a physical manifestation of her depression; everything had been rearranged, and nothing felt familiar.
My husband relayed all of this to me over the phone. Exhausted and in pain, I started sobbing so loudly that a nurse came into my room and held me. The loss of a family dog, my son’s traumatic delivery, my sister’s gross and fatal negligence….it was all too much. Most of all, though, I was angry at myself for giving her one final chance. Her texted words of comfort and security now enraged me. I couldn’t believe that I had fallen for her lies, again.
This is the dilemma of a sibling to someone who is significantly mentally ill. We yearn for more from our loved ones who are so afflicted and so tortured, but the very act of wanting more is like trying to wring water from a stone- there’s nothing there, and it’s never going to be there. Despite having this knowledge as a result of years of experience, I’ve killed myself emotionally time and time again, trying to force my desires for my sister into existence. I was so enamored with the idea of her taking care of me that I forgot to fall back onto my own doubts and hesitation- the very things that kept me safe from her and her destruction in the past. The trust, the love that is supposed to exist between siblings….it’s gone. Was it ever there? If I’m really honest with myself, probably not.
My sister and I don’t speak anymore. There is a memorial up the road from my home for her dog, and I drive past it twice a day. Seeing it feels like rubbing salt into my own wound. I want to avoid it but I can’t.
Much like sisterhood.
*name changed to protect identity