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Many people who are dealing with major mental health challenges have a small galaxy of loved ones who are accompanying them on their journey (as much as anyone can). This week’s essay is for those of you who are familiar with the Milky Way galaxy. This condensed message also serves as a call to action for this year’s World Mental Health Day, which comes in the wake of a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the most vulnerable. Yours, Susanna
On Loving Someone Who Battles Inner Demons
Every family has its own code of slang, nicknames, and inside jokes. When my youngest sister, Rosemary, was younger, we used toddler language. At Mom’s house, there were clean bath talawals in the closet, and we’d put on our babysuits for the beach long after we’d grown up and lost Rosemary.
Her absence has shaped my siblings and me, just as her illness had affected us. She battled the most debilitating despair. It was a raptor that swooped down during puberty and never left. It finally took her at the age of 22.
When my children were younger, they questioned me about the girl in our family photos who had light eyes. They’d never met Rosemary, but there she was, 10 months old, dressed in a white knit frock with embroidered roses and her hair slicked into a spit curl at the top, framed on the shelf. Dad had given her a huge red apple to match her hot cheeks.
She stands with a peaceful smile in a blue checked shirt, holding the reins of a caramel-colored horse at 13, her features more sculpted. She’d drift nervously around the borders of holiday shots afterwards, evidently disliking her dressy attire. Then she disappeared from the albums.
Rosemary had been unwell, and the doctors had tried to heal what was wrong with her brain using drugs, but they didn’t work. I compared it to if she had a cancer that prevented her from seeing the sun and made everything painful. I believe that explaining it to them aided me in some way.
Then I told them about how, with a well-timed eye roll or a single deadpan statement about our enormous brother, she could make my other sister and I burst out laughing. She’d have enjoyed being an auntie, a witty, petite muse who understood everything there was to know about vehicles and horses.
When we went to see her during the worst times, I didn’t mention the sound of the door buzzers on a locked ward. I also didn’t tell them about our mother’s habit of leaning over the sink, smoking, while waiting for a phone call.
The mental health care system always felt like a game of chance to me: this therapy might work after eight weeks or ten weeks. It could happen, or it could not. Mental illness is a fickle beast that can go dormant and then resurface without notice. Then there are the difficult decisions that are compelled by budgetary restrictions.
We’d see the other club members in their waiting rooms. All the families that have devoted their lives to tending to the pilot light with love and persistence. It may be during a season of adolescence, or it may be for the rest of one’s life. When a big brother goes missing, the little brothers take over as the responsible ones. There are also parents and spouses who are constantly on the lookout for signs of distress in their children’s looks.
We are the families who cling to periods of peace with both hands, soaking up the normalcy. We don’t talk about the negative aspects of our lives or the guilt we feel when we can’t or haven’t done anything. Outside of our closest friends, we don’t talk about it because it’s not our narrative to tell, even if we’re all struggling with it. Nonetheless, it can be isolating.
These ailments are like a river that runs through your home. They are intertwined with all the wonderful, happy qualities in our architecture. Rosemary is still with my kids and me after all these years: her laugh, her great wit, and the fear I had for her all imprinted in my bones.
This club’s members are identified by their emotional radar. A quick aside, a confession, and a sigh of relief that we’re not completely alone. We do the only thing we can, bound by love and worry, and keep going, arm in arm, until science and those in charge of budgets provide relief for terrible ailments.
I have a measure of tranquility thanks to the gift of distance. And, as a beginner, I can tell you that it’s all too easy to consider the most painful moments as the most meaningful. That, however, is changing. I recall being approximately ten years old and attempting to lift Rosemary’s substantial toddler body with my skinny arms and a lot of authority in one photo. I changed her diapers and made her giggle by simply being in front of her and widening my eyes in amusement.
For a while, I was her favorite person. And now I see how crucial those early days were to both of us as much as anything else.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Anyone is welcome to use the service. All calls are kept private.