Pain and trauma are prominently displayed in Black families like matching mid-century modern chairs with spindly legs upon which no one rests. The set are carried from house to house, woven into the fabric of the family. If company comes, make sure they don’t mess with those chairs. Friends and guests move to settle into the seat, but your glance dissuades them, and they remain standing. You smile, we just haven’t gotten around to repairing them, it’s been so long we’ve just learned to live with it.
I was about 12 when it happened the first time. Subtle changes in behavior, oddities that were benign at first, then metastasized overnight. One day we’re playing Endgame in the basement, and she’s concentrating on how to beat me, the next she’s sitting at the yellow Formica counter vomiting up roast beef, convinced it has been poisoned. My sister, 10 years my senior, the one who made pig faces when we drove to Canada, who popped the head off my dolly Julie until Mom threatened to toss Julie out the Dodge Charger window and into the water below; the one who wrote funny stories about gorillas and taught me sign language. Her mind unraveled like pull-apart cinnamon rolls, a swirl of confusion that wrapped around the five of us, spinning us into a new normal for which we were wholly unprepared. The manic episodes increased in severity, the mental instability requiring my parents to take action and try to hold the family together. One day she wasn’t home, not mentally. and later not physically. She was locked away behind a grey security door, heavy like a bank vault and accessible only via the black receiver.
We were weekend regulars at the hospital; Saturdays after choir rehearsal and usher board practice, Sunday’s after Pastor whooped and hollered and told us to thank Jesus for the blood. We parked on the 4th floor and crossed the skybridge connecting us to the mental ward. The staff buzzed us in, and Sister shuffled out in slippers and sweats, a Jekyll to the Hyde I remembered. The fresh relaxer that once tamed her thick brown tresses, framing her face with a fashionable bi-level cut akin to the Dark and Lovely model, was now a tangled mass. She emerged lethargic, agitated and my adolescent mind struggled to process this alien being. Where was my sister and when was she coming home?
Awkward and shy at first, I’d stare at her, mind filled with wonder and curiosity on what it was like in there. Was she ok? What did she do all week? Can we play Ping-Pong today? Sometimes she would grab a paddle and play and others when she was disinterested, I’d set the peeling red paddle on the green table and sit in the mid-century chair waiting for the visit to end.
Eventually she was released. Not cured or healed like Pastor taught us, but she was allowed to come home, back to her dresser organized by necklaces, earrings, and Liz Claiborne perfume, her white bedspread with pink and green flowers embroidered in the center were taut, awaiting her return. Longing for normalcy, I’d bring a blanket and a book into her room and settle myself on the heater beneath the window while she watched TV. I was always quiet, afraid that any sound would take her away again.
My adolescent brain was a strict stenographer. It recorded the adult behavior from the moment my sister left to the day she returned and the rules for dealing with trauma were etched in stone: keep quiet. Don’t express emotion. Maintain routine.
Secrecy and shame locked us into tight-lipped silence. We never spoke about what was happening to my sister, how we felt about it, or what this meant for our family. We were very much our family, our business, and these familial lessons I learned early on shaped my response to the coming attractions in my life for which I needed therapy, a voice, a lifeline.
My sister was in and out of the hospital with threats of suicide and a series of failed attempts through my adolescence and into my adulthood. It was frightening at first, each phone call created anxiety, was she successful this time? And each time they pumped her stomach, held her in captivity, then released her back to us and the cycle repeated. That may be what sparked my rage, a low flame was flickering inside me like a pilot light waiting to be it.
My patience exploded during a low point in my life. I was unemployed, searching for work and this time I got the call. I burst through the door of my parent’s house and told them their daughter was threatening to jump from a building. My mom hid herself in the bathroom, her refuge, while my dad wrote out bills in the dining room. My other sister was in her lair while I stood at the foot of the stairs, dumbfounded. No one moved.
I wanted to yell at all of them: do you see what happens when we ignore truth? When we sweep shit under the rug and keep moving as though we haven’t experienced a family trauma? Had we sought counseling as a family that could have made the difference in how I reacted to her behavior as it could have helped me understand my own. I left, drove back home, called a friend and he took me away for the weekend where I drowned my frustrations in wine and his embrace.
I was one of those critical people who simply could not understand why anyone would take their life. My mind could not make the leap of understanding, empathy, compassion. Until it was me. Until my mind was fraying at the ends and all I wanted to do was sleep. Until mountains of rejection from boyfriends, managers, companies, and family formed a mountain higher than the Rockies and I felt pressed on all sides. I had made it to my 40s, through the loss of my brother, a painful breakup, my sister’s tango with suicide, my parents’ divorce, unemployment, relocating alone to a new state. I was exhausted, ready to step off the roller coaster while it was moving. That was the moment I knew I needed to get help. But I waited. I tapped into the familial lesson: my life, my business. Just work through it, pray through it, smile through it. I performed, partied, and traveled but the pressure inside me was greater than the pressure outside and I felt I would explode.
I found a therapist in February 2019 but didn’t have the courage to make my first appointment until October. I allowed months to pass before I opened up to a licensed professional about what was happening in my mind, the impact of my job on my esteem, the loneliness, lack of companionship, fear of not finishing what I started. No amount of retail therapy, passport stamps, or glasses of wine could fill the void in my soul. I was tired. I had tried, done all I knew to do, and I was at my end. It’s been two years and I still haven’t told my therapist all of this. Perhaps out of shame, embarrassment, fear, or worry that she will prescribe meds and I’ll be like my sister.
I keep a photo on my bathroom mirror of myself at 22. The same age my sister was when it all started. In that photo I am slender, smiling brightly, I’ve got the world by the tail and I am unstoppable. I am a recent college grad who has no fear about anyone or anything. This is my before. And then I glance into the mirror and the after is staring at me. After has kicked my ass. After failed relationships. After my parents’ divorce. After moving to a new city and love wasn’t there either. After corporate America told me my experience, degrees, certifications, and accomplishments weren’t enough for the job, promotion, or assignment. I look into the eyes of my after self and I think of my sister. Her vacant eyes behind that heavy steel door, shuffling around, lethargic because her mind would not let her rest. And for the first time in my life, I feel compassion. I want to tell her, I understand! I know why you were ready to give up on so many occasions, why you just felt like going to sleep forever was the right thing, the best thing. I know! I feel it too. I’m tired, too. Of the waiting. Of the platitudes. Of catching a glimmer of hope in social media posts that tell me, “If you’re going through hell, don’t stop.” It’s fleeting. But now, with 5 decades looming on the horizon, I can understand my sister. My funny sister, the one who made pig faces on the way to Canada, who wrote stories about gorillas, who rode bikes and played basketball. Now I finally understand.
— Excerpt from a book in progress by the same title “Things we Carry.”