Dear Lily June,
It’s hard to know, with a story like this, where to begin.
Do I begin by telling you that recently, your Aunt Loren came for a visit–the first since you were a newborn–and that you instantly fell in love with her? Since she was nineteen, she has had five children, and there’s something about her that exudes maternal energy. Something in you responded to that. From the moment she arrived, you wanted her attention, wanted to be held by her even more than your father or me. As your mother, that inspired some pain and jealousy in me, but there was also indescribable beauty in that instantaneous love, some connection beyond what you could begin to understand. In some ways, seeing you with her was more like seeing you with a grandparent…
Do I begin when we were kids–explaining that, at six years my senior and living in a dysfunctional family, my sister practically raised me, so I have feelings toward her beyond just sisterly affection, going into complicated aspects of the mother/daughter dynamic? Do I begin by telling you our parents, largely involved in their own depressions and addictions and codependency, mostly abandoned us to each other, and that your Aunt Loren had to learn to be a mother before she ever really experienced being a child, that she made me feel afraid and loved, scared and safe, in equal measures as my surrogate parent, sometimes sheltering me from our home’s abuse, other times playacting it with me?
Can I even begin to explain the depths of gratitude and resentment that build in a relationship so strangely structured? How much I wanted her to be my real mother, because even when she was angry with me, I knew how deep the love went? Do I tell you that she would block the door while my parents fought so I couldn’t stumble into the fray, listen too closely to the words they flung at one another?
That she, also, though, was sometimes too physical in grabbing my arms and tugging me around our childhood home for lectures, leaving tiny bracelets of bruises around my wrists? Or that she once pulled me into our basement to teach me how to fight, telling me that if her rage ever went too far–if she ever took too much out on me–I had her permission to use self-defense against her? She wanted me to know I was worth protecting, even from her…
Her summer of 2007 isn’t really my story, though it deeply affected me. Do I have the right to tell it? Do I have the ability to hold it in? I don’t want to temper your feelings toward your Aunt, but you have to know that every person you meet is a web of complexity, tenuous threads of their best and worst moments spun around in a circle until they are strong enough to live inside, fragile enough to break under the pressure of their own heart beat.
Summers have always been hard times for my sister and I in terms of our depression, maybe, it only occurs to me now, because that’s when school let out, and we’d have to spend more time at home with our dysfunctional family, more time leaning into one another when we were left alone…
By the summer of 2007, I had just graduated college, and would be moving, for the first time, out of state, away from the family, to go to grad school 1,000+ miles south, leaving my sister behind in Pittsburgh with her own family. At that point, she was extremely unhappy in her first marriage. Her son, Martin, was almost ten; her daughter, Natalia, around six. For their sakes, she had been faking being the happy homemaker who had her act all together. For their sakes, she cleaned manically, cooked bountifully, smiled dutifully. But her husband, in many ways emotionally unavailable, couldn’t see or respond in the way she needed to the cracks building in her armor.
She was spiraling into a depression. Her smile, if this makes any sense, was only built of teeth. In some ways, it reminds me of the terrible advice given by Nat King Cole, in a song I sometimes sing to you regardless at bedtime because of its beauty:
“Smile, though your heart is aching / Smile, even though it’s breaking / When there are clouds in the sky / You’ll get by / If you smile…”
At the start of that summer, we’d been talking everyday. But then my sister started “waking and baking” (smoking marijuana early in the morning) to get through the pain she wasn’t always sharing, and as a result, all I heard on the phone was a person with seemingly no memory of the last time we’d spoken. It started to really bother me, the number of times I had to repeat a story I’d already told her, or the number of times I had to pretend I didn’t recognize a story she’d already told me. I stopped calling.
Lily, I’ll admit right now: I should have been a better sister. I knew, at some point, that my sister had started cutting, a habit she’d actually, ironically since I was the younger sister, picked up from me. She did it, she told me later, when she had to release the tension, and I understood completely: There was something so healing about making incomprehensible, internal pain that felt nebulously limitless and terrifying into something small enough to visualize externally. A cut on the arm was pain you could see, even relieve. Bandaging it felt more active than trying to self-talk her way out of emotions that echoed like a bottomless well inside, into which, everyone with a need from my sister–her husband, her children, me–threw a penny… Still, I’d stopped calling.
Because I was working two jobs, trying to save up for the first time I’d live entirely alone, without so much to my name yet as a pot or pan, I was focused almost entirely on me. I don’t know if that was selfish or human, or if the two are just sometimes one in the same. I didn’t notice the longer gaps of silence building over the weeks until my mom started asking when she’d call (which was only ever occasionally) if I’d spoken with my sister. There was something in her tone that was a little frantic. And then a call came in that confirmed the panic sinking into me: Her husband, seeing the cuts on her arms, had committed her.
This isn’t the story of whether or not what he did was the right thing.
There was a lot going on that summer, it seemed, neither right nor wrong, reactions to problems in life that seemed outside the realms of ethics or morality. The big story on the news that summer in Pittsburgh was about five children who’d burned to death in an apartment building in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. Two mothers had left them at home to go out, telling police later they’d been left in the care of babysitter who was only seventeen.
I remember the coverage, at the time, revolved mostly around whether that sitter even existed or whether she was a fabrication of the grief-stricken mothers who left their kids to care for themselves, negligently. I still don’t know whether police ever found and arrested her, or whether they arrested the mothers, but whatever the case, I’m sure those parents will be handcuffed to the memories of what happened for the rest of their lives. It’s amazing how effective guilt and shame and pain and loss can be as jailers.
I only remember the coverage because I watched it inside the place my sister had been institutionalized, in the rec room where my mother and I would sit when we’d visit her. The TV served as another medication to keep her sedated, extinguish the fires from her mind. I can’t forget the way her eyes looked, watching the same screen that I did without seeming to absorb anything. She was so heavily medicated, there was no longer a light on inside her. I know she was initially labeled bipolar, with additional signs of schizoaffective disorder.
I remember the clothes my sister wore, oversized t-shirts and sweatpants without adjustable waistband strings. She’d been admitted wearing a zip-up hoodie, but the nurses had taken it from her. She had been rubbing the zipper along her wrist, using the teeth as one more sharp thing to bite her. They put her in a room without windows when she threatened that if she had one, she’d either jump from it or break it and use the shards for self-harm. They took away her hairbrush, too, when she used it to brush her sore wrists red. She pulled out all the stops, she told me later. If she was going to be committed, away from her kids, she needed to deserve it. She needed to be as crazy as they would let her.
She told the doctors that when she made love to her husband, there was a voice that entered deep inside her, mocking the weight she’d gained after Natalia, telling her she was ugly and repulsive and undesirable. I know, sometimes, her husband would make comments on her weight, though I think he thought he was trying to support her. I don’t know why I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, though. I wonder how much of the voices inside my sister were invented, how much they were like the cutting reversed: a way to make seemingly false the indescribably real things, including her husband, that hurt her.
After all, here was my sister, thrust into the role of a mother as early as six years old. By 2007, she’d been taking care of others for almost twenty years–her abusive alcoholic father, her emotionally unavailable mother, her little needy sister, her drug-addicted boyfriend who got her evicted from their apartment and stole her jewelry to score with when she was pregnant with her first son (Martin), her first emotionally unavailable husband who put his own pressures on her, the daughter (Natalia) they’d conceived as early as the honeymoon, so that they never got time as a husband and wife alone together.
I understood why she felt she needed the break, even while I was angry at her for what she was doing as a mother. Her husband, even as stoic as he was in general, seemed frail, almost broken without her. And her kids, I judged, long before I was a mother myself, they needed her. And maybe, just maybe, as someone who’d always looked at herself as her sister’s first kid, I, too much, with too much pressure, needed her.
At home, her children waited after school, and sometimes, when her husband had to work, I’d serve as their babysitter. They didn’t know what was going on. All they grasped was that their mother was “sick,” had gone to a hospital, and that they missed her. Martin and Natalie were tracing their hands onto a card they wanted to give her, and I played director. Natalia was running her crayons so lightly over the paper, it hardly left behind any color. I sat beside her and illustrated with my own hand. “Look,” I showed her. “You have to press down hard to make an impression on the paper.”
The same thing is true for a cutter, with skin. The first time, especially, it’s hard to go against your natural instincts to live, to survive, to thrive, and do visceral and instantaneous damage to your own body. Even those who commit suicide by knife often have a number of scratches, false starts and unsuccessful surface slices. They’re called “hesitation wounds.” You have to push the knife down harder than you’d believe is possible, necessary, to leave a mark.
All in all, my sister had dozens of cuts up and down her forearms. Dozens, each one less hesitant, a little more sure, deeper. She was following my lead, my example, doing the thing I’d inadvertently taught her. I will be locked into that knowledge for a lifetime.
But it works both ways. My sister will never forgive herself for leaving her kids behind. Whether she was suffering from bipolar disorder or schizoaffective disorder or, as is more often what counselors tell her these days, severe and atypical depression, she both knew and didn’t know what she was doing at the time. She was both in and out of control of her mind. She couldn’t predict, for instance, that being committed would later, after her divorce, be used against her to keep her from getting custody of Martin and Natalia.
Martin was adopted by my sister’s first husband and has only a handful of times met his biological father. And yet, with a record of my sister’s mental health break, along with the fact that, at the time, she was engaged in a relationship with a physically abusive partner–the man would end up as husband #2 and father to her next three children–courts awarded full custody to husband #1. She still is rarely able to see her first kids. They live in a different state now, and sometimes, they stop calling her altogether. And it reignites every old wound, every raw memory of the time in her life when she didn’t know what to do but fall apart.
There was a lot of anger at the time. My sister’s husband was resentful that he was left to pick up the slack on everything, that later, my sister would end up cheating on him with a man more explicitly abusive. My mother accused my sister of faking being crazy for attention, though I tried to grapple with the fact that, if you need attention so badly that you’re willing to hurt yourself for it, you are, in fact, not mentally healthy.
My own anger–aside from being at myself–was at her for taking a route I’d never even considered. Through college, I’d been diagnosed with all my autoimmune disorders–the alopecia, the interstitial cystitis–and the doctors kept telling me they were a result of stress. And yet, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could let myself fall apart, that I could give in, imploding into my depression. I thought, with my perfectionism, that it was my responsibility (to whom, though?) to fight it. Or maybe I wanted someone to commit me, too–to care enough to say “Enough is enough. You need to get better.”
In a completely messed up, unforgiveable way, my response to my sister’s being institutionalized was disgustingly selfish: I was jealous of her.
The lessons here, Lily, are incredibly ambiguous, but I think it’s important for me to parse them out, now that I have you as my daughter.
I know now that if I could’ve done things differently then, I would have. First and foremost, I never would have stopped reaching out to my sister. After all, if she (whom I love so truly and completely, Lily) had, for instance, ended up taking her life –even though, in the greater picture, it’s an unhealthy mindset for me to take–I’m not sure I’d have ever forgiven myself for not saving her.
And yet, you have to know–if it were your friend or your family member, even if it were me, I wouldn’t want you harboring such impossible standards of responsibility. You can be someone’s helper or supporter, but Lily, you can NEVER be their savior.
If it’s ever you suffering with your mental health, you have to know that my sister regrets the paths she took, as do I with my own paths at that time. Both of us wish we’d gotten in to see counselors sooner. She made excuses for not having time as a mother; I, as a college student. But mental health is something worth making time for. You have to believe it.
And yet, it’s also important to know that doctors are not infallible, that your getting better in terms of mental health relies almost entirely on your ability to be honest–with everyone. With your doctors. With your family, your friends, your whole network of supporters. Most importantly, with yourself.
You have to have the bravery to admit to yourself this truth: That life will be full of times when you are not okay, when you do not feel alright, when, in fact, you feel you can barely keep moving forward. Despite what your depression or anxiety or whatever you might be experiencing tells you in your mind: EVERYONE FEELS THIS WAY AT TIMES.
It is not something you deserve, something you’ve done, something you’ve brought on yourself, some kind of cosmic punishment for not being the perfect wife, mother, friend, lover, partner, daughter, sister, person, human being. It is just a fact of life.
And if you find those times are outweighing any others, I beg of you to come to me (or someone you may trust even more; it doesn’t matter who, Lily). If you find you’re having more bad days than good, more days that you wish life was over than days of wonder at its mystery, you need to know the scales can be tipped back in your favor.
It’s hard work, I won’t lie. I feel safer and happier and freer at thirty-one than I ever felt at twenty-three or even thirteen. It took a long time to get me here, but the vista is worth the back-breaking climb.
But this story isn’t just about us: It’s about my sister. You need to know that your Aunt Loren represents the best of what this family has to offer. She is the quintessential survivor, a woman who has reinvented herself over and over. She had the courage to divorce husband #2 (another story for another time), and she, despite having to make financial sacrifices to do so, has been out twice to see you.
When she held you this summer, she did so with the natural tenderness of a woman born to be a mother. She pulls her children aside over and over, explaining to them that she is not perfect, but that she loves them beyond their capacity to comprehend, and she is still trying, and she is still learning, and she is still growing everyday of her continuing life. I know this: If any one her children fall into an emotional pit, she will be there to listen with a depth of understanding far surpassing any sympathy that was once granted to her.
She is a self-made woman, with all the mistakes and grace it takes to become that way, and if, Lily, I could receive one wish for her, it would be that she loved herself more. I wish that she treated herself with the tenderness she showed you while she was here, with the encouragement she showed me in nudging me to get back into a swimsuit after almost twenty years (yes, that was her doing), with all the love she’s capable of expressing, which I have seen her give to her children with every bandaged scrape they have gotten and every single kissed-away tear.
- By Abhijit Kar Gupta from Kolkata, India – colours, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39963692