Friday, June 18, 2010

I have a secret

“Insane people are always sure that they are fine. It is only the sane people who are willing to admit that they are crazy.” ~Nora Ephron

Ever have a secret that was so big you felt you would be swallowed by the enormity of it? In 7th grade my family was desperate to hide our secret and still in many ways is. I remember all of the pressure and fear of being discovered, judged that I was unworthy of fitting in because we were broken and that made us dirty.

My sister has never been a true older sister. She never looked after me- I was put in charge. She believed in unicorns and that her stuffed animals talked when she was out of the room. She was content to be lost in her head, rather than be bothered by other people. My sister was my best friend when I was not getting on her last nerve. She was shy, awkward it was easier for me to make the friends and she would just befriend them, eventually. We were a packaged deal and it was okay with me.

The change was slow at first. I remember walking in and she was playing with her Barbies- but Ken was arranged in ways that made me uncomfortable.

Middle school hit, Mom thought it would be good for us to be on our own. We were separated. I missed the best friend I grew up with. Always having someone to hang out with, eat lunch with, and complain to. She no longer had someone to help her make friends, or protect her. She got into her first fight that year. After that Mom decided it would be better if we went to the same school. It did not help. Middle school was bigger. Kids don't tolerate different very well. She was picked on but I couldn't help her. I wasn't in the same classes. I was struggling too.

Then the sleeplessness started. There would be days where everyone could hear her up wondering around the house unable to fall asleep. She would try but she was antsy. She couldn't just lay there and let sleep take her. We tried pills, warm milk, bad movies, reading, hot baths, exercises...nothing made it better. I remember the frustration we all felt. You know how it is...when one member of the family starts to struggle with something everyone is impacted somehow.

 I would hear her up at night and pray she would just lie down and try to sleep. Felt like she wasn't even trying. Dad in desperation had an idea we would each take a turn sleeping with her (not in a oogy way) but so we could remind her to stay still so sleep could come. That idea lasted one night. Now if a member of your family was no longer able to do something that they use to be able to do quite well like walk wouldn't you take them to the doctor and get whatever it was fixed? It was sleeping...everyone can do that. It is a natural there was no reason to take her to the doctor at that time...everyone thought you just close your eyes and then you sleep. End of discussion.

The sleep left soon so did other things. She started getting the voices. We all were sure it was from the lack of sleep, or the stress from school. We were a normal family no crazy here! Apparently when the voices started it was a muffle. They told her she wasn't good enough. That others thought she was unworthy of friendship and love. We trudged on. When things fall apart we cling even more desperate to routine.

I remember being at school and kids I don't know coming to me and asking about what my sister had done in gym or during Math. I had no idea, I wasn't there. About the time for state testing she was out of it. What she did say didn't make sense to anyone but her. She was positive that girl in front of her did it. Kicking the silent girl's chair and yelling at her in the middle of the test as she sat in front of me put me into sweats. I silently willed her to stay quiet, to just get through the test. I prayed that she wouldn't bring any more attention to herself or me. She was removed. I sat there bright red from the embarrassment left to finish my test, left to sit with the eyes looking at me for another three hours.

We had end of the year award ceremony during school. Mom had said she would get off work to come. I was supposed to get a certificate. I don't remember the certificate but do remember the office lady bringing the note to my row. Everyone read it and passed it down to me. Mom was taking my sister to the doctor. My stomach clenched I knew for that to happen something big had to have taken place and I just had not heard about it yet. I could hear whispers around me filled with her name and the mention of gym. Hot tears fell; I looked straight ahead willing myself to not look at anyone.

The doctors all said that she had to be hospitalized. We all went to take her. It was not for us but her, to show we loved her and we wanted her healthy. In between choked tears and her comatose stare we got her up stairs to the ward. She had to be strip searched it was routine. She couldn't move. She just stood. My Mom is the strongest person I know. She alone was in there while my father and I cried in the hallway. My mother working with the nurse did what had to be done. Walking away from her that night was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Sitting the car, we all wept as we drove home.

This would have been a huge strain on a strong marriage, but my parents were already on the last inning of their union. Fights of blame were shouted. They withdrew so did I. School was still there the next day. I went because ‘we don't just go around missing school’ in my family. Students by this time were passing around rumors that my sister had killed my mother and that she was in jail. I was horrified but relieved. Murder was way more acceptable then crazy. I said nothing. At home I told Mom, she didn't like the idea of being dead so she told me to tell people my parents were getting divorced and my sister was living with my grandparents.

I use to pray she had a disease that was more acceptable. I wished she had a disease that we could all wear pink ribbons for and race for a cure, a disease that a community supported. Mental illness has never had that. A child with bipolar will grow into an adult with bipolar. No races or celebrity visits to the hospital. Instead of people running in hopes of making you better they run away from you fearful that your social stigma might stick to them like a bad smell. Crazy doesn't rub off.

This was not the first time my sister was hospitalized. She did not come home cured. She came home a stranger mistrustful of everyone and everything. Every time she has one of these breaks with reality she slips away from us more and the distrust grows. The childhood friend I grew up with is gone. I love her still, but she is much different.

We are all braver now. We know it is not anyone's fault she has bipolar. We know that just because she is flexing the bounds of normal does not mean the rest of us have lost touch with our mental stability. My parents are separated. I now teach middle school- hopeful to help that lost little girl whose world is crumbling around her. The secret is out. We celebrate her regardless of what she has or is.

* Back by popular demand, this is a reposting.


  1. You have always been and will always be my sister of the heart. That makes your sister just as equal. You have filled my heart and mind with so much love for you both that there's a hard knot in my throat and wet stuff leaking from my eyes. You are the most brave and heart-filled woman I know. Every life you touch is all the better for it and a ton better prepared to make this world a better place to live. You are loved without measure.

  2. I told you I could relate. I was just diagnosed but I have been fighting it since the age of 14!!! It takes a special person like you to write about it. to talk about it. it is such a hush, hush disease. Thank you for reposting and sharing yours and Tiffany's story with the world. If I was ever one of the meanies, I am soooo sorry! -Anne Rutkowski

  3. This is amazingly well told and a very brave sharing of a secret. I will never forget the days following my big sharing of my secret of domestic violence. It is hard. It is freeing. It is important that we survivors tell our stories for those around us.

  4. Thank you guys for your support. It is a sad and lonely place in the dark clinging to secrets, feels much better in the sun.

  5. Proud of you...hope it helps set you free to get on with your goals.

  6. I'm really glad you posted this, and I read it every day. I think everyone we went to middle school/high school with should read this post. Not that they don't know any better by now, but so certain ones can reflect on how they could have reacted more appropriately to those of us that marched to the beat of a different drum, so to speak. I was one of the ones that genuinely tried to reach out and befriend her, not understanding why she kept pushing me away, which I now know that she was afraid of getting too close to anyone for fear they would end up hurting her too. Speaking as someone who comes from a background with a lot of similar family "secrets", I applaud your courage to be able to post this and hope it helps people better understand that the struggles of mental illnesses are real. Much love to you and your family--Jamie Pearson (formerly Samuelson)

  7. Jamie,
    Thank you so much for the comment! The response has been so positive makes me wonder why we fought so hard to hide it. It is what it is. It does not reflect on any indivisual. It is illness.

    I could only do this because of inspirational stories that surround me everyday. Your's included. Much love to you and yours as well.

  8. Hey,

    I am just stumbling upon your blog now (via SeedBuzz)...I really really love the honesty in your writing. This post, especially, hit close to home for me. I was, for many years, "the sick sister" in my family. We had a very hard time dealing, coming to terms with what I was going through. Although the severity did not reach levels that it did for you and your family, I can relate and getting to read your perspective on your sister's illness and how your family handled it (who really knows what to do in those situations?)...was both heart-warming and heart-wrenching...

    I especially, especially loved this paragraph:
    "I use to pray she had a disease that was more acceptable. I wished she had a disease that we could all wear pink ribbons for and race for a cure, a disease that a community supported. Mental illness has never had that. A child with bipolar will grow into an adult with bipolar. No races or celebrity visits to the hospital. Instead of people running in hopes of making you better they run away from you fearful that your social stigma might stick to them like a bad smell. Crazy doesn't rub off."

    Great stuff :)


  9. Welcome to my blog Yali!

    Thank you for your kind comment.

    This was one of those pieces that had been nagging at me a long time. It was written with tears streaming down my face and fear of backlash from family. It till this day is one of my most proud pieces.

  10. As someone with mental illness, and with two sisters with bipolar disorder, and a brother lost in his own world of mental illness and self-deception, I cried when I read this. Thank you for having the courage to write. Especially reading this after reading your tribute to your sister you just posted...beautiful.

  11. Valerie, I have a dirty secret Dad is a bipolar. Growing up in the shadow of a mental illness is an experience that shapes you for life. My parents divorced too. I sometimes feel like a survivor. It must have been horrible for you. Well done for having been through this without losing yourself...

  12. Miss Valarie, stumbled upon your blog and I must say what a delight to read your words. Thank you for being brave enough to share what some would say, "a secret to hide"... BUT, it is those secrets that allow us to realize that we are only human. Sending God's trusted love and hugs to you and your sister for we shall never forget that although we can't race for a cure. We can speak for those who can't speak for themselves!!! ~The Poet

  13. Valerie, that was beautiful. Thank you.