My sister Michelle* was born three and a half years before me. She taught me to ride my bicycle without training wheels and less successfully tried to teach me how to inline skate. Throughout my childhood, I wanted to be just like my intelligent, artistic, athletic, and driven sister.
In September 2013, Michelle was hospitalized for the first time after a psychotic episode. It, however, was far from her first episode. We always knew that sometimes Michelle would get mad at one of us and refuse to speak for days or weeks at a time. We also knew she would become physically violent towards me.
In 2010, her and I were given permission to live in an inherited house rent-free conditionally as long as we were there together. Despite the physical attacks I endured from her in the past, I craved the independence. Sometimes we were as thick as thieves. But other times, something menial would trigger her, and I knew to keep my head down and mouth shut.
The last time it happened, she was upset about the dishes. I had just done the dishes when I turned to her and let her know that next time was her turn. She commanded with certainty that she had just finished doing them. I was confused, unaware delusions were part of the diagnosis she had not yet received, and I corrected her. She charged from her chair directly for me, yelling how I did nothing around the house, that I was a burden, and certainly not wanted. I knew what was happening and began to run for my bedroom, which could lock. She grabbed me and landed a firm kick on my thigh. I broke loose and made it into my room, but not before she wedged herself in the closing door. Her glasses were knocked into my room as I shoved her out and locked the door. Outside, I heard her become hysterical. She pounded her fists and kicked a hole into the door. When that failed to return her glasses, she made for the door to the side yard that ran next to my window. She knew my window wasn’t locked and pulled the glass pane open before I could stop her. My shutters were latched closed, so she shook the latch open as I ran to keep her out. She was climbing through the window when I shoved her back into the shrubbery. I shut and locked the window before crawling under my blanket where I decided this was the last time. And, currently, it still is the last time.
I lived in my locked room for the next couple weeks as my deeply bruised thigh healed. Her boyfriend, who was unaware of the severity of the incident at the time, decided he was going to move out. Luckily, she went with him. It was nearly a year before her and I spoke again. It wasn’t until the morning of September 11, 2013 that things changed.
That day I woke up at 5 AM for my typical routine when I checked my phone; Michelle’s boyfriend had texted me.
I asked him to call me when he woke up, assuming they had gone to bed soon after that text. He called me a couple hours later and let me know they had, in fact, not slept. Michelle hadn’t slept for a while. He didn’t explain what was happening with her, instead he handed her the phone. She sounded surprisingly happy, or really, unaware. I asked if I could see her when I got off work, and she agreed before suggesting we go to Disneyland, or DisneyWorld if that sounded better. I told her I would give her a call after work. When I did, there was no answer. I called her boyfriend who said she was in the hospital. She wasn’t violent or sad, she was just… lost.
While she was on a psychiatric hold, I didn’t visit her. My parents did everyday, and my dad would call me afterward in tears. He would tell me she was asking to see me. I didn’t know what to do. I had feared her for most of my life. My parents tried to assure me she loved me. It took until Sunday before I considered that she did. Maybe she hadn’t hated me all those years, she hated the mental illness she could not understand. Without knowing her struggle was internal, I was her antagonist. I resolved myself to see her after her release.
On the 16th, Michelle was released and we went on a walk. It felt different, almost surreal. She tried to tell me about the day she was admitted. The doctors initially thought she was high on heroin. She told me she believed aliens spoke through her to humans, that our mom was Hera (wife of Zeus), and that our dad was Father Time. She felt that she understood connections everywhere perfectly described by Masonic numerology. I realized then I didn’t know the person telling me this story. It sounded like a movie. Not like the sister who had taught me how to ride a bike.
I wish I had a conclusion to share, but there won’t be one. Four months has passed and the only progress made is my parents’ acknowledgement that Michelle has severe Bipolar Disorder. It took another break from reality in front of my father before he believed and took her to the E.R. for the second time in October. That time she was transferred to a women’s in-patient facility. I visited her three times during her two-week stay, even though the facility was an hour’s drive away. That time, I understood she needed us and I was no longer afraid.
Her struggle to learn how to cope has no end in sight, but it certainly won’t be one she has to face alone.
*This is just the name I’m calling her.