we have euphemisms for everything: he’s on that stuff, where, stuff is drugs, narcotics. by contrast, “he got that stuff” means he has AIDS or is HIV positive. he’s “different” or “like that” or “funny.” back then such phrases meant gay, today we don’t even speak the word and if we do, it’s said in derision. “she’s off” is most often followed with laughter. this one gets me the most. about 30 years ago, my sister whom i will call “the traveler,” was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. time passed and the psychiatrists and various other so-call mental health professionals downgraded her to bipolar. she’s been on meds for decades. i’ve watched her body change with the passage of time, from being the cover of a dark and lovely perm box (she never was but could’ve been), slim, sharply dressed, freshly scented with liz claiborne, to an obese, aged 50-something woman who looks 67 if she’s a day, with hair that looks like squirrels have been playing in it. this is what we refer to as “off.” but she’s in there somewhere, deep inside, her lucid self is fighting against the self we see. at least that’s what i choose to believe.
i remember going to a gospel concert one year in the mid-90s and somehow she made her way backstage and then on-stage during what was supposed to be the “faith healing” portion of the concert. the minute i heard her voice in the microphone, held by a well known gospel artist, i began to shrink into the burgundy velvet seat. my boyfriend at the time knew too, as did my mom who was somewhere in the audience. i suspect a good number of people knew who she was. i wanted to run out of the auditorium, or better yet, vanish into dust. some weeks later my boyfriend and i ran into his cousin at the mall and she recalled the incident. mocking the woman, my sister. and i stood there, immobile, embarrassed and ashamed for not defending her. in my mind i was screaming, you bitch! she’s mentally ill, do you know what that is? she wants to be in her right mind, she wants to be healed and whole and that’s why she had the fucking courage to get on that stage. but i stood there quietly, while she clowned my sister.
it’s been decades since that incident and still i remember it with astonishing clarity. what that says to me is we cannot allow our fear of what others will say about us, our family members or friends, to prevent us from calling a thing a thing (thank you iyanla). she is not “off” she is suffering from a mental illness, from a “dis-ease” of her brain that causes her to be lucid in one moment and violently angry and paranoid in another. her hair, eyes, even her joints are out of whack from what i suspect is the effect of a drug designed to manage the thoughts as it destroys and distorts the muscles that keeps your wrists straight and your ankles strong. she is no more off than your “crazy uncle joe” or your cousin sue who rocks in the corner and then asks you random questions like “do you know my friend jack?”
i’ve begun cataloging events with the traveler, places we went growing up, stories she wrote, fun times and those not so fun, when she fell ill and we were frightened for her, ourselves. i believe in the power of storytelling, of speaking and living your truth to free yourself and by extension, others. i challenge you to release the euphemisms, speak the truth to anyone who will listen, and never, ever allow someone else to silence you. i learned that the hard way and it changed me forever.