A sibling’s descent

When a family member spirals into mental illness, is anyone to blame?

One can always pick out a dancer by the way he or she walks. They walk with supernatural poise; their shoulders lifted and steady, each step bounding rhythmically into the next as if waiting for a band to strike up a waltz at any moment. My sister still glides across our house with grace, her feet silently padding along the floor as she wanders from room to room without thought. Her gait is one of the few things left to remind me that she is still the same girl I grew up with; that if she can still command her tendons and ligaments and wrench them into a plié, she will soon again be able to do the same for her brain.

She was seated at our kitchen table – a slab of pine-green granite that our parents cemented onto the floor when they were still an item – gaping wide-eyed across at me as daylight streamed in from the room’s bay window. A dehydrated Christmas tree cast a shadow over my side of the table.

“Are you at least going to eat something this morning?” my mother asked, her head buried away in a magazine near the coffee pot.

She did not respond, but instead began twisting a lock of hair into knots with both of her hands. She’d taken to keeping a calendar on the table near the centerpiece, and after a few moments of pregnant silence, began scribbling notes onto past days in blue ink, an obsession the doctors say is typical of those slipping into a psychotic episode.

“Why does Jan. 2 matter so much to you?” I asked, watching her fill a date on the calendar with notes.

“It’s no use,” my mother interjected from across the room, her head in a magazine. “She can’t hear you anyhow.”

“I can hear him fine.” My head snapped up to focus on her.

Instead of speaking, my sister exhaled deeply and turned her gaze. “If I could just go back then … back then and restart…”

My mother slammed her palm down onto the countertop. “Restart? Restart what? What can you possibly restart from a day that already happened?” she exclaimed.

When pressured, my sister loses the ability to speak. She clutches herself and the muscles in her face tighten, the rational parts of her brain fighting to move the pistons in a flooded engine.

“Your father is adamant she’s on the wrong medication,” my mother chided as she walked over and rested her hands on a kitchen chair. “He wants her on the same medicine he takes.”

“He takes medication? What medication?”

“Oh, I don’t even know anymore,” she shrugged. “He’s been on and off a load of crap since he spent that week on the couch when you two were kids.”

“He always said he had the flu.”

My mother milled about, cleaning the kitchen, dabbing a rag under the sink and scrubbing a nonexistent spot on the counter.

“He couldn’t have warned us?” I asked after watching her for a few moments.

“He… he was embarrassed.”

Mental illness has plagued my family for generations. I essentially lived in our basement as a teenager, wallowing in a depression I couldn’t control. It was not sad-sack melancholy: It was the sort of chemical imbalance that makes music sound grey and meals taste beige and traps you in bed each afternoon as you struggle to find a valid reason to exist. When my sister moved away to pursue a degree in dance performance, she’d returned home sputtering and broken after a single semester.

Exasperated, my mother walked into the living room, hoisted a laundry basket up to her chest and began to carry it upstairs. I leapt out of my seat to follow her. She began pairing socks in the upstairs hallway.

“Does it matter anymore?” she asked, her words swallowed by the vaulted ceiling.

“This kind of thing runs in families, you know. Were you both just waiting around and hoping we’d all turn out alright?”

“You know that’s not fair to me,” she said. She folded a towel unevenly and chucked it into the pile that she’d created in the hallway.

When a loved one is diagnosed with a genetic disease like cancer or cerebral palsy, you don’t  run around pointing fingers, attempting to figure out exactly which of your family members is to blame for the affected party’s condition. Yet, this is precisely what happens when mental illness – simply a disease like any other – strikes someone you love. You stare at your mother and father – and yourself – irrationally wondering which of you “broke” your only sibling.

“You left and got along fine,” my mother said after a prolonged silence. “At what point were we supposed to just let you both go?”

A specter had drifted to the foot of the stairs on the balls of her feet. I don’t know how long she’d been there.

Jerry Iannelli can be reached at jerryi@temple.edu or on Twitter      @jerryiannelli.

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