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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 morning 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 the ties that bind family are real and 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 don’t think she deserves 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 the most recent 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; the 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 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, for better or worse, is her choice and all we can do as her family is hope she finds the strength to eventually choose the life she deserves. Ultimately, 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 6,500 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 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 on. 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 her boldness in her daughter everyday. 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, Denise, 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 of clarity, 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. Her life matters, it is valuable and it matters. And 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.

One in five Americans live with mental illness. Please help change the way the world sees mental health. Take the StigmaFree pledge. 1) Learn about mental health issues. 2) See the Person and not the illness. 3) Take action on mental health issues. Click here to learn more.  And if you’re in Texas, click here. #OkaytoSay #EndtheStigma #LetsTalkAboutMentalHealth

**Folks, don’t forget I gain a large portion of my readers by word of mouth. If  you like what you read, if I made you laugh, even cry, please do share my blog post. Forward it via email, Tweet it, Like it, Facebook post it, talk about it.** Much love, MS

Christmas 2004 016

Christmas 2004

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Christina
    August 21, 2016 at 11:14 AM

    It is ironic that I have a sister named, Maria, who has lead a path that has pulled my mother and I into her chaotic world. I can relate to what you have shared but at the same time, I am thankful my sister’s challenges were not as severe as yours. Many people in society judge without having the knowledge or empathy to understand that it is often illness that steered them into the direction they are, now. I have raised my children to believe that something tragic or a mental is likely the reasoning behind a homeless person. Some are con artist, but many have authentic stories. I can imagine the pain you and your family have experienced and on other levels, I do know how exhausting it can be to love someone who has mental illness or disorders. My sister had 5 children, all of them were never raised by her.

    Admittedly, I have been less tolerant of my sister’s choices because she has brought so much pain to my mother. Though I love my sister and have been there for her when she needed me the most, I was not close to her growing up. We are polar opposites and she did many things that started from adolescence to create a lot of conflict over the years. I am protective of my mother, so when she takes advantage of her, it leaves me hardened.

    As a Mother, I have a child I raised who just graduated with honors. It was a full time job being his mother. Executive function challenges are off the charts. Disorders were present as an infant and integrate into childcare or school was a hardship. I made the choice to give up my career aspirations to be a full time mom out of necessity. I have fought the school’s failed system in providing the support needed for children to thrive. Often, parents do not have the time, energy or personality to fight for the resources needed. I have advocated for my child but also for others. I have concerns as a Mother that my child, who is now in the “real” adult world, will make mistakes they cannot get second chances on like a child does. I hope I never get the calls like your family has and that a mental illness does not take over their world. I did not get to enjoy their childhood I had hoped and dreamed about. I was burned out by the time by the 5th Birthday rolled in.

    I have a childhood best friend who was a successful corporate attorney who is living in a college city, here in Nor Cal. She had a breakdown a year ago and she will not accept any help in getting her the treatment she needs. She is living among the homeless, which is heartbreaking. She is an only child raised by a very devoted dad that is left feeling helpless because he, like you, cannot force her into treatment.

    My heart goes out to you and your mother.. A big hug for everyone in your family, especially your sister’s children.
    C

  2. Sarah Maia Pooner
    August 21, 2016 at 4:49 PM

    Thank you, ate Marites, for sharing this. This entry was especially heartbreaking… Thank you for your words, your reflections, and your hope. I hope too…

  3. Amy
    August 21, 2016 at 8:55 PM

    Wow, I have quite a similar story. I have two sisters that are 10 years older than me that deal with mental illness (bipolar). I’ve been dealing with their issues since I was probably 6 or 7 years old. You are a much stronger and much more forgiving person than I have been to my sisters. She is lucky to have you!

  4. Sue
    August 22, 2016 at 5:21 AM

    So sorry for what your family has gone through. You continue to fight for them and hope for them because we love them so much. But it’s so hard. My ex husband suffers from mental illness and addiction, you cannot fully understand what it’s like until you’ve loved someone with these illnesses. It really is a “family disease”.

  5. auntie susan
    August 23, 2016 at 1:23 AM

    Thank you for sharing My Sister’s keeper, Kumare, Christine has been staying with us for the last few days and comes home at night by 6:30 pm. It’s getting cold here and the least that I can do is provide her a warm place to stay and whatever food is available. I cannot afford seeing her sleeping anywhere , she is my niece and is a member of our
    unique family, and a gift from God to us. Alexis knows Christine will be staying with us as long as she wants. Good nite I love you Kumare.
    Auntie Susan.

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