Last Thursday, Nancy and I hopped a flight to Atlanta, Cathy swung by the airport and the three of us set out on a 6-hour road trip to Milton, FL. Linda drove up from Orlando and the “Zipper Girls” converged on Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center for a long weekend of high adventure. The place, I’m sure, will never be the same.
Climbing out of our car for check-in at the Schoolhouse Inn, the first thing we noticed was everyone within eyesight was about half our age. Cathy quickly forbid the use of certain adjectives in association with our trip. These included old, elderly, senior, aged and geriatric. Instead, we chose to think of ourselves as advanced in life experience. Together we’ve racked up about 200 years of that.
I love these girls! We met through the pharmaceutical company where I work. Cathy escaped, uh, took a package a few years back and the rest of us are still carrying on, only now in different jobs where, sadly, we don’t get to work together. I haven’t even seen Cathy and Linda for, wow, 4 years or more. But the great thing about good friends is you can pick up where you left off no matter how long you’ve been on pause.
The weekend was Cathy’s brainchild. She forwarded a Groupon Getaway back in November. In addition to 3 nights at the Schoolhouse Inn, the trip included the Ultimate Zip Adventure (woohoo!) and an 11-mile river trip by kayak. The price was right and the timing couldn’t have been better. We all needed to detox from our usual routines and what’s more cleansing than an estrogen-infused weekend in the wilds?
The play and the laughter came easy. We modeled our zip harnesses and asked “does this make my butt look big?” Our zip line theme became “I’m sexy and I know it.” (Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, yeah!) On one flight, Nancy tried to takeout a tree with her hip. Then a tree tried to takeout Cathy on the river. You really have to watch out for those trees! We thought our kayak trip included a guide so when the driver deposited our kayaks at the 11-mile drop-off and walked away, Cathy hollered “Wait! You can’t just leave us out here! We don’t even know how to operate these things!” Gliding downstream, we listened for banjos as if in Deliverance country. Nancy kept an eye out for alligators and water mocs. Linda capsized and chased her zip-loc encased phone down the river. At night, we drank cheap Walmart wine and played round after round of Phase 10. And even though Cathy was beating the yoga pants off the rest of us, “Skip her” became my new moniker. We gossiped about office affairs and tried to figure out how exactly that conversation begins – the one that ends with you falling into bed with your coworker. We tried to figure out why none of our coworkers has ever hit on Cathy. We sang Red Solo Cup and brainstormed names for our girl group. We traded ideas for our next big adventure.
And we talked, Lord, how we talked. This was so GREAT. All of us are going through various stressors: dealing with ex-husbands, a newly diagnosed daughter with an auto-immune disease, semi-dissolution of a business partnership, Dilbert-ish work craziness.
Family was naturally one of my topics. I love Jerri but sometimes her illness brings out the worst in me. It’s hard to break away from the old family patterns and ways of thinking. I get frustrated when Jerri goes off her medicine and lose patience when she does the same things over and over again expecting different results. I’m emotionally exhausted from hauling around family baggage. Jerri reminds me of how damaged our family is, of childhood trauma, of my unmet emotional needs. At times, I see a glimmer of the sister I might have had and the person she might have been. I am sometimes consumed by an unrelenting rage at my parents for all the things they did and didn’t do.
Part of what I’m going through is the natural grieving process, the five stages of grief defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Originally the stages were associated with death and dying but they apply to all major losses like divorce, job termination, bankruptcy, disability, crime, etc. I’ve lost family relationships and have had to let go of long-held dreams of one day really mattering to my parents. The anger stage is not exactly prime real estate. I’m stuck there and don’t know how to move on.
When Jerri’s mental illness first came to live with us, I was about fourteen. For years, my mother obsessed over “fixing” her while my dad self-medicated. They were emotionally unavailable. I kept telling myself that eventually there would be time for me. My mother planted this notion in my head. “One day, after all of this is past us, you and I will have time together.”
Quality time. That is my love language. You can say you love me but if you don’t spend time with me, I don’t feel it.
For decades, I waited for my parents to give me time. Even after my parents had excluded Jerri from the family, they still didn’t have time for me. Jerri has 4 children and one by one, my parents took custody of them. My mom would say, “as soon as D gets a little older, then you and I will have time.” Then L was born and mom said, “as soon as L gets a little older then we’ll have time.” Then A was born. You get the picture. Five years ago, after a family vacation went south, I realized my parents were NEVER going to give me time. That despite all the responsibility they’d taken on with Jerri’s kids, they COULD have made time for me if they’d WANTED to. For whatever reason, not making time for me was a CHOICE. It was a tough pill to swallow and I choked on it.
And I’m still choking.
The girls listened. They didn’t judge. They let me rant and bare my anger. They asked questions. They commiserated. They shared their own mother stories and sympathized. They said all the right things. I read a letter I’d written but never mailed to my family. They explored why I’m reluctant to mail the letter. They gave constructive feedback and coached me. These awesome girlfriends who love me so much they gave me 4 days of their lives! And little by little, my anger began to dissipate. It’s not completely gone but there’s healing tissue where there was once a gaping wound. I want to move on to the last stage, acceptance. I NEED to move on. These girls have helped me.
I was flipping channels tonight and stumbled upon the premiere of Lifetime’s Of Two Minds, a movie about a woman, Billie, who takes responsibility for Baby, her sister with schizophrenia, after their mother dies. Billie is played by Kristin Davis who is best known as Charlotte on Sex and the City. It should come as no surprise that I sobbed uncontrollably throughout.
Despite my emotional reaction, I have to give Of Two Minds a mixed review:
Thumbs up for:
- Incorporating Billie’s estrangement from her Mom and the loss of parental attention, time, and interest which is commonly experienced by many siblings of people with mental illness. The movie only lightly touched on this. In the hospital, Billie has a chance to talk with her mom before she dies. Instead of using this time to express her love for Billie, her mom focuses on Baby and asks Billie to care for her. I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t grown up like this can fully understand how painful it is to feel like you don’t matter to your parents. I would have liked to have seen a greater emphasis how parental favoritism creates tension in even adult sibling relationships despite the fact it isn’t the sibling’s fault.
- Accurate portrayal of the emotional rollercoaster. The hope felt when the sibling is doing well and the anguish when the sibling relapses. You think for a moment, “This is it. This time she’s really going to get better!” But it doesn’t last. There is always a relapse. You learn to temper your hope so the relapses are less devastating. You learn to live in the good moments, the normal moments, because they are fleeting.
- Communicating a family member’s almost painful desire for the best life possible for the one with mental illness and the ongoing sadness that comes with knowing whatever that life turns out to be, it will never measure up to what you wished for them.
- The multidimensionality of Baby’s character. She is not presented as a freak but as a real person, someone scared, at times hopeful, grieving the losses inflicted by her illness, emotionally hungry yet distrustful. One scene that made me sob was Baby sitting on the porch at her Aunt’s ranch. She is doing well, really well. Billie asks if she’s going to call it a night and Baby says she wants to stay up just a little while longer and enjoy what its like to feel normal.
Can I just stop for a moment and say how much I HATE this devastating category of disease we call mental illness?
Thumbs down for:
- Inadequate portrayal of the often deplorable housing options available to people with mental illness particularly those who do not have financial support from family. Billie is able to pay for Baby to live at a nice facility with full-time professional care. Sadly, most of us are not able to do this for our siblings. And if we are, do these places even actually exist? In Durham? I’d like to know where. There is a scene in the movie where Billie visits a room and board option in a bad neighborhood but I can tell you, even that looks like middle class compared to the group home and boarding houses where Jerri spent time after first coming to Durham.
- Lack of depth in Billie’s character. You don’t walk away with a strong sense of her childhood pain or the raging conflict she feels about the situation thrust upon her. The movie tries to depict Billie’s desire to give her sister a good life without having to give up her own life but it falls short somehow. She comes across as insensitive and self-focused. You wind up feeling more compassion for Baby when you should have empathy for Billie.
- The seemingly magical resolution of what to do with Baby. Billie is told there is a three year waiting list for most assisted-living facilities yet when she and her family decide Baby can’t live with them, suddenly a spot opens up at a idyllic ranch-like property. Really? If only it worked like that in real life!
It’s been a tough week for us here. Jerri is going through an episode right now which made watching some of Baby’s episodes even more difficult. Jerri has had gastrointestinal issues and she stopped taking her antipsychotic, Latuda, because she said it made her nauseous. Whenever she goes off this med, the impact is physical, emotional, and mental. Physically, she clenches her jaw, her lips protrude, she moves awkwardly as if her brain is not communicating with her muscles. She talks fast and can’t stay on track in a conversation. She becomes almost incoherent. She gets wild-eyed and cries easily. She calls and gives orders like “You and Stan have to go to Walmart and get an antenna for my TV” or leaves half messages like “I’m done trying to be friends with Catherine, because . . . [click].”
I spoke to her Internist’s nurse and she fears Jerri is dehydrated. Jerri needs to go to the hospital but refuses. She said after they discovered she was bipolar the last time, the ER couldn’t get rid of her fast enough. I don’t doubt this at all and knowing they will treat her differently if I’m there, I promised to go with her. She still won’t go. Telecare can’t help in this situation since the health issue is physical, not mental. (Exasperating given “mental illness” is actually a chemical imbalance in the brain so yes, it too is physical!) All I can do is check in periodically to see if she is better or if she’s ready to try the hospital.
So while the closing credits have rolled on Lifetime’s Of Two Minds, the drama at my house continues.
When I was in ninth grade, Angela told me Jerri was using drugs. We were in the fellowship hall of King First Baptist Church either before or after youth group and completely out of the blue, as I remember it, she said,”your sister is doing drugs, you know.” She said it, not as a friend out of concern for another friend, but as an adversary who knows something that will hurt you and has picked the exact moment when you are most unsuspecting to slap you with it.
I can still physically feel the pain of that moment. The queasy sensation of my stomach bottoming out, the dull ache in my chest of hot wax being poured in and hardening, dizziness, my brain turning to cotton. My body went cold all over and then my face burned with, what? Shame? Anger? Fear? Something inside me knew Angela was not just being cruel. She knew something I didn’t.
“She is not!” I shouted. “My sister would NEVER do something like that.”
Angela smirked. “She is, too. I saw her. But you can believe what you want. I just thought you’d want to know.”
I didn’t want to know. I wasn’t ready to leave the imaginary land of happy, healthy family. I think there’s a voice inside all of us that whispers, “if you don’t acknowledge it, it’s not really real.” You know the one I’m talking about. It’s called Denial.
I tried to push the accusation aside and ignore it. I told myself all the things you usually do when people say things that hurt you. Angela is just jealous. Angela was just taking her bad day out on me. But in the end, I couldn’t let it go and I confronted Jerri.
“Are you doing drugs, Jerri? Because Angela said she saw you.”
“No! You know me better than that. I wouldn’t do that!” It was the smoothest lie that had ever been told. She looked me directly in the eye, her expression genuine, her tone of voice the perfect balance of sincerity and righteous indignation. Not a flex of a facial muscle to give her away.
Cut to the present.
Jerri’s birthday was Thursday. I gave her a low-end microwave from Walmart. She eats a lot of frozen dinners and uses her neighbor’s microwave frequently. This creates some tension in their relationship so we both thought a microwave was a good idea. I bought the microwave several weeks ago knowing my workload was about to get hectic.
A few days before her birthday, Jerri called. “You know I’ve changed my mind about my present. I’d rather have a PS2. It costs about the same as a microwave and it will give me something to do.”
“I think you need a microwave more than a PS2, Jerri. Besides, I already bought it.”
So Thursday night, I delivered the microwave to her apartment, unpacked it, plugged it in and then took her to dinner at her favorite restaurant. As we left her apartment, she locked the door from the inside then pulled it shut. She then pushed on it to verify it was locked. It pushed open. She slammed it and locked it with her key and checked it again. This time the door stayed locked. As we left the apartment building, I noted that someone had propped the outer door open with the mat.
“That’s really dangerous for everyone, Jerri, why don’t you pull the mat out so the door locks?”
“I wasn’t the one who put it there.”
“Yeah, but it’s your building too. It’s your security.” She shrugged and left the door propped open.
At dinner, she tried to convince me to drive her to her doctor’s office the next morning but just the thought of trying to juggle that was giving me high blood pressure so I said, “sorry, you’ll have to take the bus.” She grumbled about this saying it takes 3 hours round trip on the bus whereas if I’d take her, it would be more like an hour.
On Friday at 11:30 am, Jerri called me at work. “I just got back from the doctor and my microwave is gone.”
“What?!! How could that happen? Wasn’t your door locked?”
“Well, I thought so but I must not have checked it.”
“Was the door to the building propped open when you left?”
“Yes. Should I call the police and report it? They aren’t going to do anything about it anyway. It’s not like they are going to get it back for me.”
“I don’t know. Did you talk to Brian [property manager]?”
“No, he’s not here.”
“Was anything else taken? Your TV or your computer?”
“No, the TV is too heavy and the computer would be a hassle to take.”
“Well, the microwave was heavy too.” I’d been lugging the thing around, from the store to my car, my car to the garage, the garage to my car, the car to Jerri’s apartment. Given Jerri’s neighborhood, whoever took it was probably on foot and that’s all he could handle. It might even have been taken by a neighbor and still be in her building somewhere. Would the police be willing to search door to door? Probably not. Would Brian? What to do. What to do.
My brain raced around in circles and then came to a screeching halt. Everything Jerri said added up. Her door not catching and locking – I’d witnessed this myself numerous times. The building door propped open. Unsavory characters routinely cutting across the property. Jerri not home for several hours because of the bus and her doctor’s appointment. But something was bothering me. It seemed too predictable. Hadn’t another client told Telecare she saw Jerri talking to her dealer all the time? Was I being played here? And wait just a minute. Jerri wanted a PS2. Couldn’t she have brokered a trade?
“Jerri, I hate asking you this, but I have to. Did you sell the microwave to someone?”
“No! You know me better than that. I wouldn’t do that!”
Huh. Now let’s see. Where have I heard that before?
This particular ghost won’t stop haunting me. Am I crazy to keep applying something that happened over 30 years ago to present day situations? Is that part of your being which we refer to as character already intact by the time you reach your teens, and if so, is it fixed or can it change? Is it possible to ever trust someone again after they’ve lied to you so smoothly and so soundly about something that devastated the world as you knew it?
I called Brian to report the theft and confessed “there could be other explanations for the missing microwave but Jerri said it was stolen. Her story aligns with several key facts I’ve witnessed myself. So, at least for now, I’m choosing to believe her.”
“I think you have to,” Brian said, “until you have evidence to suggest otherwise.” And then he went on to describe the steps Housing for New Hope is taking to improve security by replacing all locks on apartments with good quality locks and installing video cameras. He also explained that the bigger problem was the community there doesn’t take care of each other. Every man is out for himself. Neighbors may appear to be friendly but it’s not real and they will stab you the minute your back is turned. He has worked in other housing communities where they were able to turn this around. He hopes to transform this community but knows it won’t happen over night.
“Propping the door mat open is a real problem and I’m aware of it. But here’s the thing. No one is going to pull the mat out if they didn’t position it in the first place. Given the current climate in the community, that would just set them up as a target. They are afraid of retribution.”
Hmmm. The fear Jerri deals with is on a whole other level from my own. So thinking about my particular ghost, I ask myself, “So what if Jerri is lying? What are you afraid of?” I realize my biggest fear is of looking stupid. Of standing up for Jerri while everyone else shakes their head and says “how pathetic.” My dad used to say, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” And that’s it in a nutshell. Jerri fooled me once. I’m finding it takes a lot of strength to put myself at risk to her doing it again.