Sunday, March 9, 2014

My Sister, My Hero

I don't know if anyone saw the story about the pregnant mother of three that drove her SUV into the Atlantic Ocean and is being charged with attempted murder. The story actually says murder but I am quite sure they forgot to put the word "attempted" in there, or at least I hope so! I saw the story in a Facebook link and it quickly made me think that when someone commits such an act there is usually some type of mental health issue going on. Besides being a therapist and thinking "oh does she suffer from (this or that)" I was also reminded of a situation in my family that happened years ago and how sometimes people don't always recognize mental illness in others. It also reminded me of the reasons why my sister is truly my hero.

When I was 18 my dad passed away, he died on my mom's birthday in November of 1984. My sister had given birth to her second son about 6 weeks prior to his passing and I am sure her hormones and moods were quite in a fluctuation as it was and I can't imagine the difficulty with adding daddy passing away. None of us seemed to notice her decline and her mood changes until her behaviors were getting very odd.  One incident included her wanting to take her children to the river and baptize them, who knows what would have happened if she would have been allowed to do this. All of this started happening around May of 1985 and I wasn't privileged to what was going on with her until about her 3rd inpatient stay and this was WAY before I knew anything about mental illness.

Her children stayed out at the farm with me most of the time so their dad could work and be with my sister as much as possible. His love and devotion never wavered during this time, even though she accused him of doing some terrible things and later on she would recall "I really believed that crap, it all seemed so real". My other brother-in-law, who professes Christianity but I guess not loyalty and love to a spouse, even questioned her husband of why he stayed with her. I proudly share her husband's response, and being rather appalled at the question, was "why would I leave her? She is my wife and I love her". That still brings tears to my eyes this day when I think about it.

The doctors diagnosed my sister with Schizophrenia and put her on a bunch of medications that made her pretty much a zombie, she was just a shell of her former self. We were all glad the delusions and hallucinations seemed to stop but we missed the lively and bubbly person that she use to be. She worked a few different jobs over the next few years but always seemed to have difficulty with getting anxious when there was pressure on her. She stayed on the medications for about 9-10 years, often going in for blood work because some of the medications could cause organ damage, until one fateful day when she called me. I can still clearly remember the conversations that day I found out she had stopped taking her medications.

The conversation went something like this...
ME: Hey sister! *silence for a few seconds* HELLO?
SISTER: Heeyyyy! I'm so glad you called me!
ME: *looking at the phone* Uhhhh, you called me. *again pause of silence* Helloo? Cheryl?
SISTER: SHIRLEY! I'm glad you called me!
ME: *knowing something was wrong* Cheryl where is Steve?
SISTER: Uhh, I'm not sure *she hollers for her husband and I hear him in the background*. He's in the living room *she would have been able to see him from where she was on the phone in the kitchen*.
ME: Are you taking your medication?
SISTER: Oh noooo, I don't need those anymore.
ME: *trying to keep the panic from my voice* Does Steve know you aren't taking your medication?
SISTER: I'm not sure. I don't think I told him.

At this point I made small talk rather quickly and hurried her off the phone because I knew someone needed to get over there and get her to the doctor or hospital. I live over an hour away from my sister and my car was not running right and I didn't want to risk taking Shiane, who was still a toddler at the time, out on the highway. I immediately called my other sister, they only lived about a mile from each other, for help.

This conversation didn't go to well, at least in my opinion.
ME: Someone needs to go get Cheryl to the doctor or hospital immediately. She isn't taking her medications and she didn't even know if Steve was there and he was in the next room!
OTHER SISTER(OS): Well if Steve is there he can do it, he is her husband and he knows if something is wrong.
ME: He is too close to the situation, he probably can't tell the changes in her. *by this time I had started my master's work in counseling and was a little familiar with some of the issues*
OS: Well there is nothing I can do.
ME: You can go over there and let him know! You only live a mile away for Christ's Sake! I can't make it in my car.
OS: It's their problem. I have my own family to take care of.
ME: *wishing I could call through the phone line and slap the shit out of my uncaring sister, who I now refer to as my sister's sister* OMG! SHE IS YOUR SISTER! I'm telling mom! *slams down the phone*

At that point I immediately called my mother and told her of the situation and also told her of my other sister's uncaring comments. My mom immediately packed a bag, as she knew someone would need to be around to take care of the kids, and headed for the city. Once she got there she told my brother in law about the phone conversation and my sister not taking her meds. They took my sister to a different hospital than the one she had went to years before and during her stay the diagnosis was changed from Schizophrenia to Bipolar and this of course meant a total medication change.

Within a few months we started noticing my sister almost blossoming. She was no longer that zombie shell and she was so much more alive than we had seen in years. Her concentration and memory improved greatly and she was able to recall a lot of the events that had happened over the years.

Several years ago, and by this time I was a licensed therapist so I knew my shit a little better, she shared with me that she hated taking all the medications and wished she didn't have to take them. That conversation went something like this...

SISTER: I don't like taking all these medications.
ME: Yeah I bet you don't.
SISTER: I don't think I should have to take them. I might do okay without them.
ME: *sighing deeply and giving her an eye roll* You know you have to take them.
SISTER: But I don't like it.
ME: If you were diabetic would you take your medication?
ME: If you have high cholesterol or blood pressure would you take the medication?
ME: Okay then! Look, you can't control how your brain fires anymore than you can tell your pancreas to control your insulin or tell your body to regulate your cholesterol or blood pressure. Those are physical illness's and we accept we need medication to control those things. In your case the brain chemicals aren't working right and you need the medication for them to work right. We think we should be able to control mental illness because it is in the brain, but we can't without medication. The only difference between physical illness and mental illness is that we THINK we should be able to control how our brain works.
SISTER: *giving me a rather thoughtful look* Huh, I never thought of it like that.
ME: *shrugging* Well remember I did go to college for this kinda shit, and besides that, I'm the family genius.
We both cracked up laughing at that point.

All these years later I still ask my sister questions about what she remembers, not only because I find it fascinating but also because I know it helps her to accept and not be ashamed of having a mental illness. I am always in wonder and amazement of my sister and how she was able to come out of the darkness, how she never just gave in and let it overcome her and define who she is, how she has been able to carry on and lead a normal life with her husband and children and question if I would have had the same courage and strength. My sister is one of the bravest and strongest people I know and she will always be my hero!


  1. This just choked me up Shirley. You are such a good sister. Congrats to you both for what you have been through & what you have accomplished.

  2. I can hear how proud you are to be her sister. By the sounds of it I am sure she is glad to have a sister like you and that you had much to do with how she handles her illness. Thanks for sharing such a person story

  3. An amazing story Okie, you made me cry. :-)
    Not only are you a terrific person but an amazing sister.
    Thanks for sharing.

  4. I admire your strength and dedication to those you love. It is so sad that mental health. still, to this day is not taking seriously to the powers that be. It's a hard pill to swallow especially in the African American community. People are not willing to seek the help they so desperately need for fear of stereotype. I also have sister who would have given me the same responses as your OS. She refused to accept that my older brother was suffering from mental illness, until it was too late. She lives with guilt, I don't because I know I did everything I could to make him be okay including moving him in with me (he was homeless), taking him to Dr's apt, going with him to Psych appts, paying for him to go the therapy and etc...Wake up people, this could be you. There is a thin line between sanity and insansity and you know not what will cause you to break. Sorry Okie for the long post, but this hit close to home too.

  5. You are a good Sister Okie!!!!!
    I am glad that she had you and she knew to call you!!
    So many people only worry about their own situations these days.
    Sisters are very Special.
    I would give anything to have my oldest Sister back and well and not have cancer.
    She is the one that I told you that you reminded me of.
    We took care of her for four years with the last year of her life .
    The longest she was out of the hospital that year was about ten day. The rest of the time my two younger Sisters and I was at the hospital with her....and I would change it even if I had know 10 month later my husband would pass away also. I loved my big Sis and still do. As it is obvious that you love your's also.
    Love the love that shows through on you story. TFS
    Great first read this morning!!!

  6. Thank you for sharing this. I also have dealt with mental health issues in my families. my cousin is in hospital right now. My grandson committed suicide a year ago this month. He was bipolar.
    The good news is that we no longer hide this illness behind our closed doors.

  7. Thank God there are people like you and your sister in this world. You both set such wonderful examples and beckon us all to do the same.

  8. I see why you're proud of your sister. It sounds like you've got a great one!
    I bet she's proud of you, too!

  9. You know what Shirley ... I believe you ARE the family genius. What incredible insight you had to recognize that your sister had issues that needed to be handled immediately ... and how great that you didn't stop your efforts to do something until you were able to reach someone that could help. And how amazing that you were able to find just the right words that your sister would understand that would convenience her that her meds were necessary. Your sister is amazing too. She is living with an illness that others can only imagine, yet she is getting through each day and maintaining a family too. Yep, she is a hero .... But Shirley, take a look in the mirror, because you are a hero too. Oh, and BTW, so is your sweet brother-in-law too. Standing by his wife, regardless of what was happening, because he loved her, was beautiful. Thanx for sharing that story.

  10. It is ironic that the sister in the news story also tried to get help for her troubled sister. The cops who stopped her thought she was fine.

  11. Thank you for sharing your story! You are also the hero...had you not taken the actions you did, you may not have your sister today.

    My Dad had a similiar situation that went undiagnosed for years. When he was 22 and in the Navy they thought he was having a nervous breakdown. The treatment, 23 sessions of electro shock therapy, yeah, and in 1952! From what I was told, after that he was never the person he was before until 1978 when a doctor asked him to go into the hospital as he suspected Manic Depressive....of course that's what they called it then. I know what life is like and once on meds, he was this wonderful person we never knew ... all the time! So my heart goes out to you and your family, you have to stay involved! Hats off to you and your sister and her family!

  12. You are a great sister and your sister is awesome! Thank you for sharing your story. We need to become more open and educated about mental health issues.

  13. Thank you for sharing your story. There is so much ignorance about mental health in this country, and little understanding. If we could wake up and do something about it we would no longer have to read these horrific stories. Instead we bury our heads in the sand and cry about gun control and evil forces. Good grief!

  14. Wonderful story. Thank you so much for sharing. I'm happy for everyone these days, that medical science has discovered these medications. I was once married to a wonderful man who would still be alive and a thriving human being if such medicine had been around to help him. I admire those who can stand by anyone with such diseases. I could not. My children and I were very young at the time. It is very hard to see the forest for the trees.

  15. I had the same reaction when I saw that story. My sister is Bipolar also and we when throughout some of the same events you did with your sister. Because you are interested My sisters episodes begin with an inability to sleep. So she has a trigger and if she takes sleeping pills when that happen she doesn't have an episode. One time she called for a refill and they told her that her Dr. died and she had to come for an appointment. They could see her in two weeks. In 3 days she was in the hospital for 3 weeks. I too am very interested in just how amazing our brain is. I don't think they have come close to understanding how amazing it really is. I pray for that dear woman and her children and hope that she gets the help she needs not the punishment.

  16. Wonderful story. I am going to need those analogies for someone lose in a similar situation. God bless and have a well deserved vacation


  17. Shirley, Thank you so much for telling you sister's story.. It touched my heart in ways you will never know. You are a amazing person with a huge capacity to love others. It is reflected in your writing and and the things that you write about your clients. I feel privileged to call you my friend. God bless you. Have fun on your much deserved vacation. :) Smoochie

  18. I LOVE this post okie. My mum is a manic depressant and only 2 weeks ago had another nervous breakdown,its really hard and people don't realise that even though people take their tablets it can still be extremely hard for them. My little brother has Bipolar. It has taken 3 years to get his meds just right and even then they sometimes have to tweak it, its been a totally rough road for him and his wife and 3 children, sadly their marriage hasn't made it ( my brother has yet to tell me this but my mum told me a while ago) but my brother getting well enough to do things again has been awesome to see. huge hugs Lou xxxxx

  19. Your story was interesting. It's sure nice that you were understanding and there for your sister. My Grandma was Bipolar but went through a lot. They gave her too many shock treatments then had a hard time compensating her medicine because of it. My Grandpa is amazing to me to that he stuck with her through it all for over 40 years of her illness. The day she died he lost all recognition of anyone and died 3 weeks afterward. I still miss them both a lot.
    Anna N.

  20. Thank you for sharing your sister's story and for reminding many of us that mental illness does not have to be a "death sentence" so to speak... It can be managed with medication, therapy, and family support and the person who is affected can live a full and happy life.

  21. I am so glad that you were there to help and support your sister. I wish more people were as open to discussing mental illness as you are. My sister unfortunately just committed suicide this December. I wish I could have been there to help her. Unfortunately, I live about 5 hours away from her and when I realized something was wrong, it was too late for me to get there. So glad that you have a success story and that your sister is doing well.